Russell T Davies talks Torchwood
The third series of Torchwood, Children Of Earth, starts airing on Monday on BBC One. In this exclusive Q&A, writer/creator Russell T Davies discusses how the shift to BBC One has changed the series, how the loss of two members has affected the Torchwood team, and talks about Jack’s relationship with his daughter…
So Torchwood is returning for a third season that’s only five episodes long – why’s that? When we first heard the news we wondered if John Barrowman was too busy to commit to more.
Oh no, it’s not that – that’s tail wagging dog, that is. If we’d wanted 13 episodes we’d have booked him up for 13 episodes and he would have done 13 episodes. It’s just the shift onto BBC One. I don’t think it was ever likely to get a run of 13 hours on BBC One, I don’t think BBC One could actually afford that any more, Seriously, is there anything that’s 13 hours long? Hmm, Spooks has eight… this isn’t because of cutbacks, that just doesn’t exist on BBC One, apart from the Saturday night shows… does it? Does anything run for 13? Not in the week. And the thought of doing something we’ve never done, which is a five parter, was very exciting.
So you never even started thinking about doing a 13-part season?
No, there were no plans that we then discarded, not at all – there was nothing written, nothing commissioned. It was commissioned at the stage where we would have started thinking of a normal third series, so nothing had to be junked – although there were a couple of scripts in development in series two that were still in development, so we had to politely park those writers. And y’know, who knows, anything could happen in the future: it could go back, the money could appear for BBC One for a longer run, it could go onto BBC Two, it could be back onto BBC Three – we literally don’t know.
Torchwood is so targeted, it’s like an Exocet missile: get the digital audience in, then get the BBC Two audience in, now try BBC One… it’s television for the modern age! (laughs) But that’s where we’re very effective. For “Planet Of The Dead” we had the highest-rated BBC HD figures ever, Torchwood is still BBC Three’s highest ever figure, Sarah Jane Adventures is the number one children’s show. These shows are designed to hit specific markets, and you have to shape them to hit those markets, you have to really design them to fit. That’s why Doctor Who is what it is, because it goes out at seven o’clock on a Saturday. If it was going on BBC Three at nine o’clock on a Monday it’d be a very, very different show. So they’re all highly designed shows for their timeslot.
How has shifting to BBC One changed the show – have you had to reinvent it to some extent?
Well, it’s not like a reboot; it doesn’t start from scratch at the beginning. At the beginning, Gwen walks into The Hub and there it is, there’s the water tower and all the computers, and there’s not a great long explanation saying, ‘Hello, we are people who live underneath the pavement in Cardiff!’ There is a new character to whom some new things can be explained: Rupesh, played by Rik Makarem. He comes in as a new character, so things would be explained to him anyway, but it’s not done from scratch. It’s not like Gwen sits down at the beginning and says, ‘Hello, I’m Gwen Cooper and three years ago I met these extraordinary people, blah blah blah’. Because Torchwood’s been in Doctor Who as well, and John’s very well known as Captain Jack, way beyond the programme – it’s referenced in his stage shows and his variety shows and things like that. So there’s an assumption that you know what’s going on, and if you don’t, catch up! We just got on with telling a good story really.
But it’s not just a story about Cardiff anymore. There are moments that are about the difference between England and Wales, which we’d never had a chance to express before. They actually go to London in this, which is… I’m not saying that’s exciting for Welsh people, but Welsh people are always quite aware of it. There’s a very funny moment when Gwen crosses the Severn Bridge, saying she’s off into England. I hesitate to say it’s a little bit more real because that’s something people say in science fiction contexts as though they’re criticising the science fiction, and I don’t mean that at all. What’s important is that there are government characters like Mr Frobisher [a civil servant] in it, and it’s very much their story as well. They’re not subplots in it: it’s the story of what the government is doing, and what the Prime Minister’s up to as well.
And as Mr Frobisher you’ve got Peter Capaldi of course, who was in Doctor Who recently.
Yes, Peter Capaldi, who as you can imagine is related to a man from Pompeii 2000 years ago… no, not really! (laughs). Actually when you’ve seen episode five I will run past my theory: it’ll probably be on a podcast commentary or something – I have a theory that there’s something at work there, but that’s just in my spare time. No, we just wanted him on board because he’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He’s a middle man, that’s what I love about him, and he finds himself more and more out of his depth… except he rises to it as well. I think that’s the lovely thing about him, that he’s never completely out of his depth, and he’s cleverer than he realised, though more compromised than you might realise at first as well. So it’s a lovely part. And Susan Brown, she plays his loyal secretary. She doesn’t do much through the first three episodes but just keep an eye on her… she’s been working for him faithfully for 30 years and will do anything to defend him. She quietly ticks away at his side and there’s great stuff at the end with her when she comes centre stage. Marvellous!
It sounds like by the end you’ll know a lot more about who Torchwood are, what their responsibilities are, and how they fit into the big picture.
Yes, though I think you know that by the end of episode one, actually! It’s not a long process of doing that – that’s made absolutely clear in episode one, because the most important thing is to get on with the story. You and I could talk about Torchwood and their role, and who are they and how they relate to all these official bodies at great length, but actually we’ve got a story to tell – all of that is probably clear 20 minutes into episode one. Twenty minutes in you get meetings between the government where they’re discussing Torchwood and you get contact between the government and Torchwood, which is very clearly, quickly laid out and defined, and then it can move onwards, then it all starts changing. So it’s not too complicated because the most important thing is the story.
There are two less regulars since the death of Owen and Tosh in season two. Does that change the dynamic? Do the surviving team members become different types of characters with different responsibilities?
Not madly, to be honest. I mean, in the first episode you see the team in need of a doctor and that’s where Dr Rupesh Patanjali, played by Rik Makarem comes in. He’s sort of on their list to recruit because they feel they need someone with knowledge of biology. But y’know, you’ve got Ianto to cover the computer side of things that Tosh used to do, you see Gwen quite happily using the computers too… I’m not saying they’re not missed – there’s a fleeting reference to them. But it’s time to move on. If it had gone out very soon after season two you’d have done a lot more mourning, and there was a Radio Four play that took on the burden of expressing some of the grief. And actually, even if this had been a normal season three starter you don’t spend that long looking back. So no, to be blunt, they work very well as a team of three.
That’s part of the story as well – I’m not saying they’re walking around going, ‘We’re very happy with three’, I was talking about that from a writer’s point of view. They’re keen to expand and they very rapidly start to find themselves out of their depth. They find a story that’s simply beyond them, that’s worldwide and you have to question then who they are, and what authority do they have, and they quickly discover they have none – except they’ve got more answers than anyone else has. So that’s part of their battle, to be heard and seen and to be trusted.
Two other writers collaborated with you on this five-parter – James Moran, who wrote for season two, and John Fay, who’s a newcomer to Torchwood. Did that help to bring different flavours to the story?
It does, and that’s nice actually. Episode two is written by John, who wrote a series called Mobile for TV. We’ve been trying to get to write for Doctor Who and Torchwood for ages because I love him. He used to write the best episodes of Coronation Street ever – I can hear the science fiction meltdown as soon as I say that – the Richard Hillman episodes and things like that, he’s a properly good writer. Mobile was a borderline fantasy show, where evil assassins were being activated via mobile phones, a really powerful piece of work. Dawn Airey, who was head of ITV, stood up at the time and said, ‘John Fay is the future of ITV drama’. It’s a really odd piece, a thriller, about an ordinary family who find themselves suddenly thrown into a world of hitmen and police and assassins, but with some really eccentric stuff, and I used to sit and watch that and think, ‘That man should be writing Doctor Who, because he’s got a lunacy about him and a boldness’. It’s not a bog-standard thriller: chase chase, shoot shoot. He’s quite wild and he keeps the whole thing on a domestic level at the same time, that they’re ordinary people with wives and husbands and loss and laughter and things like that – lovely writing.
John’s from Liverpool, and there’s a Scouse guard in episode two who only has five lines, and every single one of those lines is hilarious, brilliant, it’s a magical thing, and I sit there thinking, ‘I could never write that, go make every one of those five lines so brilliant’. So he’s very vivid and very much his own man, has his own style, but gets Torchwood as well.
So yes, there’s a story to be told but within that you hand it over to people and go, ‘Off you go, boys’. There was a lot of liaison between us and it wasn’t helped because John delivered episode two and James delivered episode three before I’d written episode one, because I was too busy! So that was odd. But we had constant meetings all the time. We all met, first of all, in St David’s Hotel in Cardiff before a word was written and thrashed out the whole thing. It was very unusual, because we had Pete the producer there and Euros the director. I’ve never done that before on any show, to have the producer and director there at the very beginning of the concept, before a single line of plot is written, and that was fantastic, that’s how television should work. And they were chipping in with the plot as well – there were no boundaries. That was lovely, and I think that’s why it’s been so well made, because they felt part of its creation. Normally the director comes in and picks up the first script, and that’s when their job starts, but to have them there right at the start was gorgeous, I loved that, and the more we can do that the better. So it was just constant liaison between us all, and we had script editors and were emailing each other, all that stuff. A lot of television is written that way – that’s how you work on soaps, basically – so it’s not like we reinvented the wheel. But it’s easier with soaps, you just follow a storyline, whereas a thriller’s much more elliptical and punchy and you’ve got to hit the right beats and get the characters in the right place, so that was interesting.
Was there a point in those early discussions where you said, “We’re getting a bit carried away here, we need to pull it back a bit?”
No, not really because the point is you start with that in episode one but by the point of episode five we’d decided to push it absolutely as far as you can go. I also think Torchwood still inherits a sort of lunacy from Doctor Who, by being connected to that world.
It always happens, with all science fiction shows, they get so wrapped in their science fiction world and we all get into it so much that by the time you’re two or three seasons in you watch it thinking, ‘Where did we start here?’ I was watching an original Welsh drama on TV recently that was conceived to be about the lives and loves of Welsh people. It was its last episode after 10 years, and it ended up in a hotel with Polish strip club gangster millionaires, and I sat watching thinking, ‘Go back 10 years and wasn’t this supposed to be about ordinary families? How has it wandered into this?’ And the same thing happens with science fiction. You can look at Rose Tyler: you start with the story of an ordinary shop girl and you just can’t help it, by the time you’re four years into it she’s walking around with a great big gun fighting Daleks, and that’s the normal progression of science fiction. But you’ve got to watch that you don’t go too far away.
So coming back to Torchwood – and this is what I would have done even if this was a normal series three – the thing is to bring it back and say, ‘Who are they? Where are they from?’, to give Ianto a sister, and Captain Jack’s got a daughter. Once the programme’s gone off into the realms of James Marsters as Captain John, that’s fantastic, but you mustn’t take that as your starting point. That’s as far as it can go and once it’s gone that far you’ve got to say, ‘Right, back to the beginning, back to where we started, which was an ordinary policewoman delivering pizza and finding all sorts of extraordinary things going on under her nose’. It’s the first time for me to write Torchwood in three years, so coming back to it that’s where the heartland is, I think, that’s when the fantastical things work, when you’ve got all that around it.
Can you tell us a bit more about Jack’s daughter?
Lucy Cohu – she’s a big name, an Emmy winner, she was in a drama about Princess Margaret. She’s amazing, and she’s Captain Jack’s daughter, Alice Carter. You discover that he’s always known she was there. She has her reasons for having nothing to do with him. Nonetheless, he pays her, he subsidises the family – because she’s got a son as well – so he’s been a very good father in that sense. And they just have a very different relationship. What I love about it is Lucy is roughly the same age as John, so you get father and daughter and they’re both the same age. And she’s gonna get older than him, so no wonder you distance yourself from that, because it does your head in!
We gather it’s been a more director-led project than Torchwood normally is. What has Euros Lyn brought to it, does it have a very different look?
Not particularly, it’s just a good, handsome look. Again, we’re not reinventing the wheel. He’s specifically a good director in terms of actors, because directors isn’t all pictures, it’s working with that cast and he’s absolutely beautiful at working with the cast, and he’d never done Torchwood before. Frankly, he is absolutely brilliant and partly we conceived the role of a director on this just to keep him at Upper Boat because he’s a very talented man who’s in a lot of demand. Most long-running shows like this would be directed by two directors – every other six parter I’ve done has been divided into two blocks of three, so it’s very unusual. The only one that I can think of off the top of my head that’s a six-parter that was directed by one man was State Of Play actually, which was done by David Yates who now does the Harry Potter films. I think it’s better if you can have one director all the way through, so we designed the entire thing – like inviting Euros to all the meetings – to keep him on board, to keep him at Upper Boat, frankly, and then with the promise of saying, ‘After that you can do the last two hours of David Tennant’. It’s good policy to keep a very good man on board because he would be offered Dickens on BBC One or the latest ITV thriller – with people like that you have to work hard to keep them. So that was part of the plan as well.
Visually it’s not a radically different look, it’s just well shot. I personally don’t like radically different looks to drama because frankly I just want to see what’s going on. We’re never, say, gonna go completely handheld or any of that stuff because it doesn’t need that level of invention, it needs an honesty; it doesn’t need flashiness, it just needs great work with great actors. And Euros is absolutely brilliant to work with and the crew love him, and that really is part of it. Five hours is tough for television and if you have a director that the crew love – and he’s Welsh and he speaks Welsh, and a lot of the crew are Welsh – you’re just ahead of the game, frankly. It’s just a nicer set to work on, and that runs better. Never believe those people who say it’s better on a tough set because it’s not true – y’know, those people from the James Cameron school of shouting and screaming. Fair enough, if you want to do it that way… I’d rather not. Blimey, no thanks!
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