Torchwood: Bi TV?

BCN 87 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 87, September 2007

So cool, so popular, that within three series it’s spawned one spin-off, Torchwood, and now another, The Sarah Jane Adventures – a major achievement. As we’ve seen with Joey, spin-off of the immensely popular Friends series, success, and indeed quality, is not guaranteed but Torchwood pulls it off. It may not capture the tremendous audience size of it’s daddy, managing viewing figures between one and five and a half million each episode (the season opener of Doctor Who pulled almost eleven million for Rose aired on 25th March 2005) but it is cultishly popular. For some reason it is extremely popular within our community.  Could it be the overtly queer nature of the show?  Is it the less than hetero writing team?  The (mainly) sex-positive message?  Or is it Gwen’s lovely accent and the chance that we might see some pretty boys snogging?

What follows is neither an academic text, nor the hopeless squawking of a devoted fangirl.  My intention is that it should find a place somewhere between the two.  It is a rudimentary guide to the series; a brief exploration of the show’s subject matter and themes. A warning: spoilers for season one lurk within.

The Firm and The Family
First, a brief history. Pay attention.
Founded by Queen Victoria in 1879, the Torchwood Institute is, ‘outside the government, beyond the police, tracking down alien life on earth and arming the human race against the future.’ While the Institute apparently flourished, little is known of its activities down the years.  While it’s certainly been part of public consciousness in the past, being mentioned in the Doctor Who episode The Idiots Lantern, and will be again in the near-future (canon suggests it is known widely at the time of the 2012 London Olympics), it is currently a secret function, operating from at least three sites. To those who do know of Torchwood, it is regarded as a ‘Special Ops’ unit, no questions asked. Torchwood Two is based in Glasgow; Torchwood Three – our concern here – beneath Roald Dahl Plas, Cardiff. Hints in the décor suggest Torchwood Two has existed for some time. Torchwood Four is currently location unknown, though it is still in existence. Torchwood also exists in on a parallel earth, and it is here that the tenth Doctor’s first companion, Rose, now works.

Situated at One Canada Square, Canary Warf, and employing around 823 staff the now defunct Torchwood One was its largest division, and the home of operations. After the events of Doomsday, the second Doctor Who series finale, which only twenty-seven employees survived, Torchwood One was closed. One of those employees was Ianto Jones, which is a rather nice segue into…

Ianto Jones
Played by Gareth David-Lloyd, our Ianto is a lovely chap. He’s at the bottom of the Torchwood hierarchy acting in a PA/Odd Job Man capacity for the rest of the team.  He’s a ardently loyal to the team and to Jack in particular, but he’s not without fault. It is his loyalty and willingness to see the good in all that gets him into trouble.  Ianto is quiet, so he’s often neglected by the rest of the team. It’s easy to forget his complexity.
Whispers suggest that little Ianto will have a larger part to play in season two.

Gwen Cooper
Eva Myles plays Gwen, new girl on the team joining after the premature demise of Suzie Costello. Gwen has heart. She’s the most human member of the Torchwood crew; being new to the team she’s not yet desensitised to the enormity of the Torchwood mission.
Gwen’s long-term, long suffering partner is Rhys. Her involvement with Torchwood puts their relationship under considerable strain.

Toshiko Sato
Toshiko, Tosh for short, is Torchwood’s resident computer specialist, though she still operates as a medical doctor occasionally too. She’s capable of making you disappear, but she’s quiet. Her personal life is personal and her secrets are closely guarded. Tosh is played by Naoko Mori; her first appearance in the Whoniverse was in 2005 Doctor Who episode Aliens Of London.

Owen Harper
I have, at times, accused Owen of being morally bankrupt. This might be a little harsh. He’s a psychologist and medic on the Torchwood team and he’s portrayed by Burn Gorman, who has a far more interesting name than the character he plays. Owen is a charming and arrogant narcissist. He has an unique moral code, which offsets Gwen’s humanity perfectly. Since the death of Suzie Costello, Owen has been promoted to second-in-command.

Jack Harkness
Jack is an enigma. A shiny eyed enigma with lovely teeth.  He’s the boss at Torchwood Two. He first caught our attention in Doctor Who episode The Empty Child.  Jack is a former Time Agent and con-man turned good, hailing from the 51st century who, after dying and being resurrected in Doctor Who season finale, The Parting Of The Ways, has become immortal.  The name he uses once belonged to an America airman about to depart on his final, terminal mission. His true name is unknown.
He has, at some point, been pregnant.

Representations of Sexuality in Torchwood
In Torchwood, sex abounds. They’re all doing it. With each other. Shag shag shag. Occasionally, they solve mysteries. Quite often they are mysteries involving shagging (see episode guide), which impressionists show Dead Ringers takes advantage of, with Faux-Jack quipping ‘we only do sexy aliens one of us has shagged some time in the past’. In fact, the only pair who don’t seem to be at it all night are Gwen and Rhys, perhaps the only pair who legitimately should be.

Only once in Torchwood is anyone’s sexuality defined: a minor character is declared to be gay, though this outing is for comic effect. The sexuality of our leading cast members is not only unquestioned – it doesn’t matter. It is certainly refreshing to find a character outside the heterosexual norm who is not defined by their sexuality, and to have a whole cast treated in this way may be unique. Creator Russel T Davies says ” I think gay, lesbian and bisexual characters are massively underrepresented, especially in science fiction, and I’m just not prepared to put up with that. It’s a very macho, testosterone-driven genre on the whole […] Torchwood possibly has television’s first bisexual male hero, with a very fluid sexuality for the rest of the cast as well. We’re a beacon in the darkness”.

While Torchwood might lend an air of cool to a fluid sexuality, it also presents its characters sexual behaviour as immoral and sluttish. What about the sex-crazed alien of episode two who feeds on the orgasmic energy of her conquests? Or Mary, the ephemeral adversary of Greeks Bearing Gifts, who uses flattery and sex to entice Tosh into helping her home? Yes, we’re dealing with extra-terrestrial beings here, but numerous parallels can be drawn between these fantasies and our own human experiences. Sex here, as it is in the real world, is a bargaining tool; a commodity that has its value and its uses. It is given and shared as an act of love and intimacy, as with Owen and his brief lover Diane, but also as a weapon in battle, an instrument of manipulation and strategy. It’s not just the monsters-of-the-week, to snatch a phrase from countless Buffy fora, that are lowering the tone; there’s disorder among the ranks, too.

Owen is certainly a highly sexed young man. It is he that chases Gwen, telling her ‘we could be amazing’. He knows she is, as it were, off the market; she’s in a relationship with Rhys, her partner of a number of years. Owen is a good old fashioned lovable rogue, the epitome of the bad boy that so many of us find so easy to fall for, and that’s probably why Gwen, like Suzie before her, does. It is worth noting that much of the questionable sexual morality in Torchwood is his, indulging as he does in adulterous liaisons, office romances and what might be described as date-rape. While Ianto also stands accused of messing around with the monster-of-the-week, it is in his case an act of blind love. Ianto is not evil, he is simply foolish.

It’s not long after meeting Owen, Torchwood’s resident doctor, that we see him abusing his power – using an alien pheromone to entice a Hot Young Thing into his bed. But, wait, isn’t Owen one of the goodies? Our characters here are flawed and all the more human for it. Later on in the series, with the aid of quantum transducer, Owen may well get his just desserts when feels the fear and hurt of a young rape victim.
Captain Jack is openly attracted to, as one character puts it, ‘anyone, as long as they’re gorgeous enough’. His history is unknown to his colleagues, and his relationship with Ianto would not best be described as healthy.

Torchwood has been accused of alienating it’s lesbian and bisexual female audience. The reason most often cited is Gwen’s embarrassment at the girl-on-girl tryst she experiences at the hands of über-horny alien gas girl Carys in Day One. Also noted is Carys’s failure to gain sexual fulfillment at the hands of another woman. One blogger on the subject suggests that Tosh’s fling with Mary, the lesbian alien of Greeks Bearing Gifts, lessens her attraction to long-term crush Owen, adhering to the ‘bi now, gay later’ stereotype. That really is tosh.

Moral Ambiguity and Alien Technology
Torchwood offers a number of devices (Tosh’s telepathy granting amulet, for example) which, while extraterrestrial in origin, are useful to any band of alien hunting would-be super heroes. In the very first episode of Torchwood we see the whole team (save Jack and Ianto) using alien technology for their own benefit. While Jack may think that nothing of that nature ever leaves the hub, this is clearly not so. Suzie is at home merrily reanimating dead insects, Tosh is speed-reading with the help of a nifty little alien tool, and Owen is off on a pheromone-fueled pulling spree.

So, it’s not just the aliens, monsters and ne’r do wells that exploit the technology available to them – from the first time Gwen sets foot inside the Torchwood hub, her relationship with Rhys changes. Suddenly she has secrets. Gwen lies to her boyfriend repeatedly, and, when the guilt finally becomes too much, gives him a dose of the amnesia pill Retcon, so she can tell all with no repercussions. Her actions would be, were he aware of them, entirely unforgivable. Still, Rhys has a near angelic patience for Gwen. He knows little of her work and greets her frequent date cancellations, late night phone calls and mysterious house guests with more than a little complaint, but not nearly as much as the situation warrants.

It’s not all technological, either. What of the tendency of over-paid, over-worked high flyers to take out their frustrations on a Weevil, Torchwood’s alien in residence, in Combat? This metaphor for animal cruelty initially upsets Owen, but everyone needs their punch-bag and he too eventually enters the ring with a Weevil himself. That he is hoping that the Weevil will kill him is not under debate.

From Owen getting some extra-curricular action with Gwen in an autopsy cabinet (thankfully SFX magazine used the ‘feeling a little stiff’ line, so I don’t have to) to the same using an alien pheromone to pull the lay-dees Torchwood isn’t afraid of exploring ambiguous morality.

Torchwood Online – Hype and Slash in Cyberspace
www.visittorrchwood.co.uk – A pretty, if not entirely necessary site. Gives little backstory, but does well to pad out the Whoniverse. Required for some areas of the site is password ‘Victoria’.
www.torchwood.org.uk – The Torchwood Hub Interface. Available in an irritating hi-tech version, and a much easier to navigate lo-tech version. The disclaimer is a nice touch. A very entertaining site.
www.bbc.co.uk/torchwood – Good old Auntie presents interviews with cast and crew, a selection of ‘private messages’ sent between the staff and personnel profiles, amongst other things.

www.harpersjelliedeels.com – regrettably does not exist.
community.livejournal.com/torchwoodslash and community.livejournal.com/torch_wood are both homes to huge amounts of slash, some good, some appalling. The latter also operates as a general Torchwood discussion forum.
www.fanfiction.net/tv/Torchwood/ – For reams of Torchwood fanfic, and fanfic in general, fanfiction.net is always a good place to start.

Torchwood has a huge internet presence: alongside the official BBC sites, numerous wikipedia articles and imdb entries myriad fansites, LiveJournal Communities and other homes in the blogosphere. A significant portion of this presence is slash, that is, the genre of fan-fiction concerned with sexual (or romantic) relationships between male characters.

You can find just about any pairing online, but Jack/Ianto is almost certainly the most popular. Crossover slash is common too, especially with Joss Whedon’s creations: Mal, from Firefly (and damn hot it is too): and Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Spike. Audiences will see a glimpse of the latter when James Marsters shows up in a season two episode of Torchwood, to be shown on BBC2 early next year.

BBC America aired the first episode of Torchwood on 8th September 2007 following an intense internet and television marketing campaign. Logging on to bbcamerica.com in the weeks prior to the premier would result in a bombardment of trailers, teasers, and a vast array of ‘look how much money we’ve got – it must be good’ graphics. At the time of writing, it’s too early to gauge Torchwood’s reception by a US audience – the hype factor is high, but the series is yet to be aired. Chris Chibnall, head writer, has this to say on the subject: “I think the single story of the week and then the stories of the week going on to make a larger story and connecting throughout the season of thirteen episodes, that’s what we would consider a very American style of storytelling.  We’ve used that.  But filtering all through a British sensibility and a British kind of cheekiness and naughtiness and irreverence and sense of fun, really.” So, then, it’s an American style in British context. It’s been seen before, though rarely.

And so we reach the end of the season. Never fear though; Torchwood will return to our screens in early 2008, promising a host of guest stars, aliens and antics.  The twenty-first century is when everything changes, and you’ve gotta be ready.”  But what for?

Libby

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