Torchwood, Sexuality, and American Media

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I’m a little late to this party, but for the first time ever I’ve been watching Torchwood.  Just finished watching all three seasons, in fact.


If you are also a Torchwood virgin, spoilers follow, so don’t read on. Instead, do yourself a favor and check out the show here. This site gives free access to the streaming video after you fill out some sponsor offers (you don’t have to pay for anything) that unlocks the content.  Once you’ve seen what I’m talking about, come on back here and join the conversation.


I’ve been in an ignorance bubble about Torchwood since it first appeared: it’s name was on my radar, but only because I’d heard it was “good science fiction.”  I also don’t watch Dr. Who, so I was also ignorant that Torchwood features a popular DW character, Captain Jack Harkness.

In this case, ignorance is not a bad thing. There is something refreshing and magical about viewing something with completely new eyes and zero expectations. I took this show at face value. It truly had to stand on its own two feet for me. I found it captivating and a little mind-boggling at the same time.

Torchwood: the premise

From a science fiction perspective, the exciting thing is Torchwood’s premise of a rift in time and space, and a team that polices that rift, or better said, whatever might come through that rift in the fixed point in time/space that is contemporary Cardiff in Wales. Torchwood is a group of special agents with a mission that ordinary folk can’t begin to imagine.  The stories challenge the viewer with ethical dilemmas and intriguing ‘what if’ scenarios.   It is also novel to have this set in a place that receives so little film and television exposure: I feel like I’ve traveled someplace distinctively different, if not least of all for the reason of “those lovely Welsh vowels”, as Cpt. Jack remarks to policewoman Gwen Cooper in the premier episode.

The first two seasons are episodic stories with adult themes and intriguing character development that shows ever new and interesting glimpses into Torchwood. The third season  is a 5-hour-long miniseries (Children of Earth) that stays intensely focused on one story arc. It raises the disturbing question of how we would interact with an overt first contact with a species much more powerful than us, and how we would deal with them when they have us in an impossible position.  Great science fiction and exploration of ethics.

We also get hints of Dr. Who along the way. Even for someone ignorant of that series, Captain Jack’s affiliation becomes evident when he vanishes at the end of Season 1, and when he returns in Season 2, says, “I found my Doctor.” There’s only one blip-in, blip-out Doctor in the Brit-related sf universe, so it wasn’t a difficult thing to suss, but it was a delightful surprise since I was previously ignorant of any connection.  Apparently the Martha Jones character, who makes a three-episode appearance as a sympatico doctor figure, is also a regular on DW.  This background is irrelevant to the immediate story but is used as a foil for some insider references.  Once I learned of the broader connections, this contributed to Torchwood feeling like part of something large and well established in the fictional (as well as the real) world.

But here’s the thing that made my head really explode: open homosexuality and bisexuality treated in an unexceptional, matter-of-course way.

Matter-of-Fact Gayness

Of this, I had zero inkling before watching the show. The first intimation came in an early episode where the team’s doctor, Owen, is out cruising with the aid of a rift artifact: a pheromone spray that makes him irresistable to whoever smells it. He attracts a woman with it; when her boyfriend confronts him, he uses the spray on said angry boyfriend who then grabs him, plants a hot passionate kiss on him, and says, “I am so going to have you!”  At which point the three-some heads off into the night.

“We’d never manage this in America,”  I thought. “Our puritanical little brains would melt right down seeing this on prime-time tv.”

Happily, the same-sex themes do not stay in the context of pick-up cruising. It occurs with a lesbian seduction and affair that offers love to a lonely Torchwood agent.  That the seductress turns out to be an alien is a surprise in the story context, but less surprising than how the woman/woman affair is framed and played out in a true-to-life manner.  Jack’s gayness is developed in a poignant ships-passing-in-the-night encounter when he goes back in time and becomes close, briefly, to the original Jack Harkness (whose identity our Torchwood hero has assumed) on the eve of that man’s death in 1941.  It is viscerally established in the love/hate relationship between Jack and a former male lover from his time-patrol days. The physical passion between the two remains evident, but they also banter about years spent togther and who was the wife in the relationship.  In season two Ianto’s pining after Jack has turned into a sexual relationship, but it is not sex alone. Jack has a tender, care-taking attitude towards his younger lover that is evident in their interactions.

Compare this, now, to American tv. This is lightyears beyond the always hopeful yet always sex-free gayness of Will and Grace. It is leaps beyond Brothers and Sisters, where Kevin and Scotty’s singular monogamous relationship, mainstreamed as it is, is nevertheless the only gay relationship on the horizon, and lesbians are, as usual, completely invisible. And Torchwood is an evolved state of being compared to the neurotic, flamboyant stereotypes introduced in ABC’s most recent foray into dysfunctional-families-as-entertainment, Modern Family.

What is remarkable about sexuality in Torchwood from the American point of view is that these alternative ways of being are treated so matter of factly. The encounters and scenes are not “about” gayness.  The gayness, or some degree of bisexuality, is just part of who these people are; it is the dramatic tension in their situations and interactions that drives the story, not their sexuality. At the same time, the sexuality is not invisible or underplayed to “spare viewers’ sensibilities” as it almost always is in American productions.

Why can’t we do this in American media?  Torchwood captures a certain tone that is very true to life and in keeping with my own experience of same-sex relations and broader social interactions. (I’ve certainly known a woman or two whose lover I thought was an alien, or at least from another planet. :p)   It is a trite observation to make, but one worth repeating:  America’s Puritan roots show in our contemporary attitudes towards sex, sexuality, and homosexuality, and any variation thereof.   We collectively have a general unease with these topics that colors how we represent such themes in art and media.  I found Torchwood to be an open-minded and realistic slice of life that is especially refreshing in its portrayal of personal relationships and sexuality.

Barrowman on Torchwood

Belatedly using my Google-fu, I learned after the fact that this show is especially renowned precisely for this reason.  Captain Jack, it turns out, is a well-known and popular bisexual swashbuckling hero, though it is his gay leanings and man-on-man intimacies that are attention grabbing simply because they are so in the minority in televised media.

Media has called Torchwood “Dr. Who for adults.”  John Barrowman, who plays Jack Harkness, calls it an adult drama and one that dares to be more edgy about sexuality and other themes than American tv does. (Be sure to see this excellent interview with Barrowman, in which he has some interesting observations to share about the fearful state of America in 2007, and the chilling effect this has on subjects explored in drama.)

If this is “adult tv” Brit-style, American media could learn much by taking a few pages from this book. And I really wish they would.

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Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I’m a nearly lifelong fan of DW and have been in on TW from the beginning, but it’s really refreshing to read it from the POV of someone who came into it new, and with no heavy DW attachment. It’s rare to hear whether or not the nods to DW and recent events in the shared universe really allow TW to stand on its own, and it’s nice to see that it does. I wasn’t sure if my 65 yo mother was just being nice to me when she said how much she loved (and got) the recent “Children of Earth” mini. :mrgreen:

I must admit that I find the show’s treatment of sex (in general) to have been a bit adolescent at times, especially in the first series. But it is completely refreshing to see a show treat sexuality itself in such a matter-of-fact way.

As for the USA, two bits of good news: one, TW has been the highest rated and most popular show on BBC America, so it can’t be ignored, and; two, its creator (and recently departed DW showrunner) Russell T Davies moved to Hollywood this summer to take a shot at making shows here in the States. Between DW, TW, the original Queer As Folk, Casanova and so much more, it’s inevitable that he will continue to be an important voice in television production, and now he can do it here.

Davies hadn’t been on my radar before, but after this megadose of Torchwood I’m definitely keeping an eye out for him. I read mention elsewhere that TW was picked up in Feb 09 for a 4th season. Davies said he’d like to do another miniseries, but would be open to an episodic series as well: no decisions had been made at the time of that announcement as to format or content. I haven’t heard an update since; maybe someone reading these comments knows more about the state of TW season 4?

Also, Robert, if you or someone else would care to comment, I’d like to know why people like Doctor Who so much. I’ve seen about 1 and half episodes of it. It struck me as somewhat juvenile, without a high “believability” factor, and an overall shoulder-shrugging kind of “meh” feeling. Maybe what I caught was a-typical. Maybe you have to watch many and it grows on you? I don’t know. What is so captivating about it?

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