Torchwood: The Culling #1
John Barrowman & Carole Barrowman (script), Neil Edwards (art), Dijjo Lima (colours), Jimmy Betancourt (letterer)
18 October 2017
Torchwood was a television show aimed at an older audience than Doctor Who, but the tone and writing could be patchy. At its best it delivered emotionally devastating episodes, such as the Children of Earth season, whilst at other times “mature” just meant running around shooting aliens and swearing at the same time. A lot.
However Torchwood has survived, away from its original Creator/Executive Producer Russell T. Davies, as books and comics. Written by Carole and John Barrowman, The Culling continues on from their novel The Exodus Code, as well as comic series World Without End and Station Zero. An uneven tone haunts the previous comic collections as poor pacing and dumptrucks full of exposition litter the panels. However, #1 in The Culling brings a more promising start, with the introduction of a compelling new character.
A quick note: it is vital to read World Without End and Station Zero to make any sense of this issue. New readers to the comic will struggle to follow the overarching plot from just the “Previously…” and character bio sections. Imagine watching Blade Runner 2049 never having watched the original Blade Runner, and you’ll get the point.
Issue 1 opens from the perspective of a woman (who’s identity is hinted at, but not fully introduced at the end of Station Zero) emerging from an icy pit with something alien attached to her. How she finds her name is a bit of a spoiler, so she’ll have to remain “the woman” for the rest of this review. The Culling follows this new character across the icy tundra as she takes shelter and regroups in an abandoned building.
Edwards and Lima portray the action and setting well with vivid, clear panels and scenes that seem to nod towards sci-fi classics. Their depiction of the base’s interior evokes the cold, dark isolation of Alien’s USCSS Nostromo or The Thing’s research station. It’s a nice touch that sets the tone for an intriguing thriller as our wandering (and incredibly competent) protagonist starts to discover more about her purpose.
However, it’s telling that switching the narrative to Gwen Cooper and Captain Jack Harkness feels disappointing. They are dealing with the messy aftermath of Station Zero’s events in Scotland when Captain John Hart interrupts them to deliver a plot point. You see, a regular problem in World Without End and Station Zero was the way plot reveals were held back in an effort to create suspense. It’s a common enough tool in media, but the excessive and clunky use in the previous collections was comical, with Gwen actually pointing out several times that she (and the reader) was well overdue some kind of explanation.
Sadly, it happens again in #1 as the narrative cuts between Scotland and our mystery woman with a heavy handedness that screams “duh duh DAAAAAH” just before the perspective flips. This may be an attempt to echo a device used in television: switching back and forth between two different situations to build suspense, rationing information to the audience one morsel at a time. However, even on the screen this would have felt laboured, partly due to the different ways time flows in these separate perspectives. Whilst John, Jack and Gwen bicker over the course of a few minutes, the woman has geared up, conquered the elements, and kicked ass. The disparity between the passages of time is jarring. That might be intended, in order to set up a barrier between the events in each scene, but it comes at the cost of a cohesive narrative.
Edwards’s use of facial expressions and movement perfectly introduces us to the intelligent, capable, and occasionally playful woman of the tundra, but it’s still difficult to feel a connection to Jack and Gwen. The problem is that the reader knows these central characters and that they survive against the odds, which means the threat of jeopardy (and thus emotional investment) is removed. After all, it would seem strange for John Barrowman to seriously endanger the character he played, or his connection to Torchwood by doing so.
Instead, the remnants of the Torchwood team are predictable. There’s Jack with his trademark twinkling grin and double entendres, and Gwen with her no-nonsense attitude to act as his foil. They’re familiar and comfortable, but unsurprising. In contrast, the appearance of a new character, an unknown (but instantly likeable) quantity, is far more intriguing than watching Jack and Gwen argue with Captain John. Again.
However, #1 of The Culling does still offer a promising open to a new series; by the end of the issue, there is a revelation that could have serious emotional repercussions for Jack and Gwen’s partnership. It’s a theme that’s been covered many (many) times over in the TV show, but the comic series has the potential to add a new layer to Jack and Gwen’s “love story” (as The Barrowmans describe it in Station Zero’s foreword). Whether this will just be a wacky, superficial and temporary turn of events remains to be seen. It would be interesting for it to develop into having actual long-term consequences; Torchwood (the TV series) was at its most effective when evolving the relationships between characters, whilst giving actions an emotional weight.
Issue 1 of The Culling may be the start of something interesting. However, the greatest strength of this issue also highlights its biggest problem. The woman’s self-discovery is far more fascinating than seeing Jack and Gwen because she’s an interesting character to learn more about, compelling compared to Jack and Gwen’s same-old same-old. By introducing this woman into the larger narrative of Torchwood, it’s possible that her story and purpose will also breathe new life into Jack and Gwen’s characters. Here’s hoping, as currently their interactions feel more like the scenes of side characters than well-established and beloved protagonists.