Torchwood and the Unknowable Universe

Torchwood‘s main characters: Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), Owner Harper (Burn Gorman), Tosh Sato (Naoko Mori)

When Torchwood star John Barrowman was recently asked about a possible return of the Doctor Who spinoff, his response seemed to suggest it was the last thing on the BBC’s mind. “We never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s not my decision… I know the BBC gets inundated by emails and requests to bring Torchwood or Captain Jack back. If I’m ever asked, I would do it at the drop of a hat.”

This is perhaps indicative of the show’s current level of popularity – a very dedicated following, but not one big enough to pressure the producers into a revival. But what makes Torchwood simultaneously loved and ignored, forgotten by most under the smothering success of the show that spawned it?

Producing an R-rated spin-off of Doctor Who is certainly one of the oddest decisions the BBC has ever made, and it says much about the enormous, universal popularity of Doctor Who that Torchwood was even considered. It probably attracted more attention from younger viewers than the producers intended, and at the time my younger self was a bit baffled by the decision to take the fun sci-fi world of The Doctor and put it in a show with lots of death, sex and swearing.

This might explain why a lot of people don’t have particularly fond memories of the show, but I’ve since learned to look past the deliberate over-edginess and appreciate Torchwood for what it truly is underneath – one of the best science fiction TV programmes of the last ten years.

Sci-fi Versus Science Fiction

Torchwood protagonists Captain Jack first appeared in Doctor Who
Captain Jack first appeared in Doctor Who. His spin-off was aimed at the show’s significant adult fanbase

And when I say ‘science fiction’, I don’t mean ‘sci-fi’. In the world of television, they have come to mean very different things. On screen ‘sci-fi’ has become so diluted as a concept it doesn’t really mean ‘science fiction’ anymore. Instead of referring to stories whose concepts explore the implications of plausible advances in science, it has become shorthand for anything set in space or the future, or featuring time travel or aliens.

Doctor Who is a ‘sci-fi’ program with a distinct lack of science. On the rare occasion that the weird phenomena of the show’s universe are explained in any detail, it usually boils down to ‘Aliens!’ or ‘Time travel!’. The rest of the episode then usually consists of finding a way to defeat a monster or solve a moral conundrum. Any greater implications of a universe filled with intelligent and dangerous life are usually ignored.

Torchwood, on the other hand, takes Doctor Who’s universe and explores what its implications would be for real people stuck on Earth who are baffled by the infinite wonders and horrors that The Doctor and his companions take in their stride. The ‘science’ is still just as vague, but in its examination of the consequences of a world where time travel and aliens are real, there are few shows that can match it.

This is what science fiction should be on TV, and what it has been in literature for some time. A look at the submission guidelines for any professional science fiction magazine proves this. They almost always want character-focused stories where the protagonists are dealing with elements of our universe that are outside normal human experience, but are still plausible – not stories that have nothing unusual about them except for a futuristic setting. As Asimov’s puts it: “A good overview would be to consider that all fiction is written to examine or illuminate some aspect of human existence, but that in science fiction the backdrop you work against is the size of the Universe”. This is what Torchwood excels at.

Fear of the Unknown

The Torchwood Institute was first introduced in Doctor Who season two as an antagonistic organisation that hunts down alien threats on Earth, often using stolen alien technology. In the Torchwood TV series, its Cardiff branch – sitting right on top of a fragile ‘rift’ in space and time – is headed by Captain Jack Harkness (Barrowman), the flirty, gung-ho former companion of The Doctor with a mysterious background and much greyer morals than our favourite time traveller. Jack aims to make Torchwood a bit more altruistic in how it deals with alien threats. He is helped by a rag-tag team who start off as nothing more than a bunch of ordinary people thrust into a confusing world where alien threats are real and omnipresent.

From the very beginning Torchwood is positioned as an unashamedly adult alternative to Doctor Who, and its first episodes suffer somewhat from overcompensation in an attempt to drive this point home. There’s sex, swearing, gory deaths and suicide everywhere, often just for the sake of it rather than fitting naturally into the plot. The second episode, ‘Day One’, even deals with an alien that kills by giving people orgasms, which is about as far away from a Doctor Who storyline as you could get.

'Cyberwoman' attempted a darker twist on Doctor Who's classic Cyberman villains
Cyberwoman‘ attempted a more humanised twist on Doctor Who’s classic Cyberman villains

In fact, Torchwood’s entire first season was very hit-and-miss. A ‘cyberwoman’ (who they defeat by covering in barbeque sauce and feeding to a pterodactyl – seriously) and a giant end-of-days demon that stomps over Cardiff are particularly odd episode concepts that would be fine in Doctor Who, but feel horribly cheesy in a show trying to set as grim a tone as Torchwood.

Instead, it is in its simpler episodes that Torchwood first shows its potential. ‘Out of Time’ sees the team helping a group of pilots who have travelled forward in time from 1953. One visits his son, now an old man with Alzheimer’s, and kills himself after realising he has nothing to live for in the modern world. Another uses her knowledge of fifties fashion to become a vintage fashion designer. The last pilot, yearning to fly again, attempts to replicate the conditions that led her through the rift in the first place, despite not knowing where it will take her. There’s no big alien to kill – it’s an entire episode dedicated to exploring the consequences of time travel for ordinary humans to a level that Doctor Who has never attempted.

Torchwood’s second season also had a few dodgy stories, including a useless love triangle between Gwen (Eve Myles), her boyfriend (Kai Owen) and Jack, and killing off Owen (Burn Gorman) twice. However, the quality improved considerably as the writers put less emphasis on the overtly ‘adult’ elements and storylines that could have appeared on Doctor Who,  instead focusing more on bolder science fiction concepts.

‘Sleeper’ sees the team investigating alien sleeper agents who are disguised as unknowing humans. One sleeper is devastated to learn her true identity after her programming causes her to kill her husband, while others are fully activated and go on a killing spree. At the end of the episode it is revealed that the alien threat the Sleepers were preparing for is already on Earth, but it is never revealed who or where they actually are.

The idea that anyone we know – including ourselves – could be a sleeper is more frightening than anything Doctor Who has mustered. This and the fact that the episode never reveals much about the alien threat goes against the usual, humanised portrayal of extraterrestrials on TV. Instead, it shows a much more plausible vision of what alien life most likely is – terrifyingly unknowable.

Gwen searches for links between missing people in the surprisingly pensive episode 'Adrift'
Gwen searches for links between missing people in the surprisingly pensive episode ‘Adrift’

A later episode, ‘Adrift’ sees Gwen investigating the case of a missing boy at the behest of his bereaved mother. She discovers that there are many similar cases around Cardiff due to activity from the rift transporting people away to other places in the galaxy. When she eventually finds the child, he’s a fully-grown adult, incarcerated in a remote facility in Cardiff after being driven insane by the horrors he witnessed when travelling through time and space. His mother, wishing that she had never found out the truth, asks Gwen to not reveal it to any of the other missing people’s relatives. It’s a dark and deliberately slow episode that again features no tangible threat, opting instead to show humanity’s inability to truly comprehend the universe.

Other notable episodes include ‘Adam’, which opens with the team all having completely different personalities and a new member without any initial explanation, and ‘Meat’, where the team investigates a company that is harvesting meat from a captured ‘space whale’. Rarely do they have a completely happy ending. Instead, Torchwood is comfortable with showing that the chaotic nature of its universe and the limited influence humankind has on it means that there are rarely any easy answers. This is in direct contrast to Doctor Who, where The Doctor is able to save the entire universe every episode. In a Lovecraftian way, Torchwood presents humans as always being on the brink of annihilation by a world that is simply too big and strange for us to ever hope to control.

Aliens That Are Alien

Torchwood’s third series, subtitled ‘Children of Earth’, took a different route, consisting of only one storyline that was originally broadcast in five episodes over the space of one week. It revolves around an international crisis caused when alien visitors to Earth demand that they be given ten per cent of humanity’s children, or they would wipe out life on the planet with a deadly virus.

The aliens are never fully seen, being obscured in a misty container designed to simulate the conditions of their homeworld. Their motivations are never fully explained – aside from the implication that the children act as some kind of recreational drug for them – and never even fully understood by the characters. Their ability to kills humans instantly with their virus makes them a seemingly insurmountable threat that simply can’t be reasoned with. They are, in a word, alien. Once again, Torchwood is tapping into the fear and wonder of the unknown and the unknowable that is at the core of the best science fiction, and indeed the best science. When even the pinnacle of our science fails to explain something, it exposes the true insignificance of humanity in the universe.

Love and Sexuality In an Endless Universe

Torchwood was a programme with the guts to regularly do the kind of stories many shows save for one experimental episode per season. This didn’t just extend to science fiction concepts either – Torchwood was also socially groundbreaking.

Ianto Jones
The character of Ianto Jones is central to Torchwood‘s exploration of human sexuality

How many science fiction programmes on TV today have gay or bisexual main characters? The answer is somewhere in the region of ‘none’, but this was an integral part of Torchwood from the very beginning. Captain Jack had already become Doctor Who’s first openly non-heterosexual character, and when Torchwood began it wasn’t swept under the rug. His main romantic interest in the programme is fellow male teammate Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), who explores his own sexuality throughout the series. Ianto’s death in Jack’s arms during Children of Earth sparked outcry from fans – who went as far as setting up dedicated websites in protest. This shows the extent to which their romantic relationship was not only accepted by the audience at large, but also became an emotional focal point of the show.

Torchwood’s creator, Russell T. Davies, said of the show’s approach to sexuality: “Without making it political or dull, this is going to be a very bisexual programme. I want to knock down the barriers so we can’t define which of the characters is gay. We need to start mixing things up, rather than thinking, ‘This is a gay character and he’ll only ever go off with men.’”.

In Torchwood, sexuality is not a thing that is bound by labels. This makes sense in a world where your romantic interest may not even be human, or where the universe is shown to be far too big for such trivial things to matter. In ‘Greeks Bearing Gifts’ team scientist Tosh (Naoko Mori) begins a relationship with an alien woman, who she is attracted to more because of her ability to impart mind-reading powers than because of her gender. In other words, the episode is more about Tosh’s fascination with the allure of the universe’s mysteries than her sexuality.

It’s another expression of Torchwood’s exploration of a universe that is complex and never simple. Not only does its liberal treatment of human sexuality still feel fresh eight years after the show started, it also makes it speak to far wider range of people than most sci-fi shows and will probably ensure that Torchwood is remembered as an early example of sexuality on TV done right.

The Right Kind of Spin-off

Torchwood returned to TV in 2011 with Torchwood: Miracle Day, another one-storyline series based around another intriguing science fiction concept – what if everyone in the world spontaneously became immortal? The series is perhaps a bit overlong, but once again worth watching for the exploration of this concept more than anything. The consequences involve overpopulation, death camps and worldwide recessions, all showing that Torchwood could still explore broader science fiction concepts rather than resorting to fight scenes with aliens to solve problems.

Whether Torchwood will or even should return is up for debate, but arguably there are still not enough people who have seen the original run. Science fiction fans have to give it a go. They need to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth, but there isn’t really anything else on TV like it today.

Torchwood is an example of how to do a spin-off right – exploring an unseen side of an existing universe (both in a physical and tonal sense) and in the process taking storytelling risks that the commercially-successful original series probably won’t dare touch. It never needed sex or violence to be ‘adult’. It was its cynical and complex look at the potential terrors of the universe and humanity’s relationship with it that really set it aside from the optimistic adventures of Doctor Who.

It’s true that Torchwood failed as much as it succeeded, but both its best and worst episodes were consequences of the same important element – ambition.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Honestly I like Torchwood more that the source material it comes from. I really hope this comes back.

  2. Lavinia

    Never really dug or got into Doctor Who – though the few I watched were pretty good. But Torchwood is awesome.

  3. I love this show, almost as much as Doctor Who… I never got round to buying any of the seasons though.

  4. I just got up to the point in my first Doctor Who watch ever where I begin Torchwood. (I’m watching the episodes based on when they originally aired).

    Let me tell you, I have NEVER watched any other show before that made me feel like I was watching my favorite series of all time: Buffy. Now that I have Torchwood it’s like watching Buffy/Angel ALL OVER AGAIN for the first time.

    They’re very, very, very close in quality…but Joss Whedon is just so much better at dialogue and milking to the shocking moments much better than RTD.

    • The structure of Buffy (tv series) did inspire NuWho!

    • Tim Klein

      I’m rewatching Torchwood now, and I’m in the middle of Doctor Who. Finished Angel last year and Buffy last month. (About to revisit Buffy first few seasons.) They are my favourites too (in addition to Stargate SG-1, not finished yet). I agree that Buffy/Angel dialogue is paramount. (Buffy more so with the quip talk.) And yeah, the moment milking. (I like your expression.) But I find many moments in Doctor Who and Torchwood very touching too. Horror, action, sci-fi, or whatever, I think those producers get the human ingredients exactly right.

  5. I didn’t like the first season too much, season 2 improved, and the short season 3 was phenomenal, Season 4 was the worst of the bunch.

  6. Miracle Day season is like a whole new show. With all new characters, new story line, new country.. Kinda sucks.. I’m on episode 5, hopefully it’ll get better.. I missed the old crew and stories.. Even Captain Jack isn’t in it that much..

    • I suspect that you’ll enjoy episode seven, which is very much the Captain Jack Show, and a bit old school. But yes, I would have to agree. Jack doesn’t even seem like Jack most of the time. Understandable given the situation, perhaps, but it still didn’t quite ring true. What’s with the claim to be American? (And the scene when he makes that claim made me wince. His line about wanting Coke in order to contribute to “our global hegemony” was not only out of character, but quite appalling writing). Which isn’t quite addressing your points, granted, but still! It didn’t seem like the same Jack, and it didn’t feel like the same show.

      There are good bits. By no means was it all bad. It just felt like a completely different programme.

  7. Awesome! Reminds me of Fringe, another awesome Sci-Fi! Love Jack!

    • It’s a bit like Fringe. It also reminds me a bit of Warehouse 13.

  8. Christina Cady

    I hope Torchwood does get picked up again, if not just because Miracle Day would be a terrible way for it to end off.
    I do like that this show, as you pointed out, has the freedom to go high concept. The fact that this extension of the universe can go so dark balances well with the other facets of the franchise (Sarah Jane Adventures, DW, Torchwood, not to mention the books and comics) and really allows fans to grow up with this universe. Thanks for the article!

    • Sarah Jane Adventures is awesome! I was a bit too old for it by the time it first started airing, but what I saw of it was brilliant. It’s the perfect companion to Torchwood actually – without the need to appeal to an adult audience it can have much more fun with the lighter side of Doctor Who universe than the main show usually does. Where Torchwood often did complex science fiction better than Doctor Who, SJA often did adventure sci-fi better than it.

  9. Jemarc Axinto

    I had a lot of trouble watching Torchwood mainly because everyone was so, HORRIBLE. It truly was the antithesis to Doctor Who in the sense that it was literally the opposite, but I found it difficult to fall in love with any of the characters (save Captain Jack) because they were always terrible people in some way or another.

    That being said, based on your article maybe I will give it another shot. I never thought of looking at it from the repercussions angle and maybe I should =].

    • It’s interesting that you single out Jack as one of the characters you didn’t think was horrible. A lot of reviewers didn’t like the fact that his character went from being a Han Solo-style ‘rogue with a heart of gold’ in Doctor Who to being a much darker character in Torchwood.

      The characters do get a bit more sympathetic as it goes on, particularly when they start introducing some genuinely good romances to the show. Still, I think the point of Torchwood is to show that sometimes being nice means you won’t survive long in a universe as dangerous as Doctor Who’s

      • Jemarc Axinto

        Really? I think I just felt really sympathetic towards Jack because he could not die and that’s a very tragic fate to live by. (I don’t count his death as the Face of Boe because while he is the same person he is technically a different character at that point).

        Maybe I’ll give the show another chance. I made it to a small part of season 2 (when Jack’s former time-cop partner was there…or whatever that guy was)

        • You make a good point. His immortality is played brilliantly, especially in series 2 and 3. It should take away all the tension from the show but instead they go to great lengths to show how much it tortures him – another example of how Torchwood really likes to explore its concepts in depth, I guess!

          That sounds like episode 1 of series 2 to me, which is just before it gets much, much better!

  10. Helen Parshall

    Bloody love Torchwood, and your article was an excellent read that reinforced that fact. Have you ever seen photos of the memorial wall that fans set up to Ianto in the outcry after his death in season 3? I went to Cardiff in Spring 2013 and it was still just as active as I imagine it was in 2009 (I believe) when Ianto was killed off. It really drives home how important a show Torchwood was and is to so many people. Loved your piece!

    • Yes I have seen photos of that wall! It’s crazy how popular he became when he starts off as the shiest, most unobtrusive character. I guess that appeals more to the average viewer than the kick-ass agents and genius scientists. His relationship with Jack also makes him almost unique among sci-fi characters, which probably helps a lot.

  11. Jessica Koroll

    I’m so happy to see such a well written article covering this show. Torchwood was one of the first science fiction series that I watched and its definitely one that’s stuck with me. It has its cheesy storylines and hilariously bad CGI but you’re right to point out its skillful exploration of the unknown and willingness to dive into some pretty unnerving concepts. I remember the first time I watched “Adrift” and the slow realization of what was actually happening began to dawn on me. The writers’ ability to move slowly and twist familiar storylines into something unexpected made for a lot of memorable moments. I also like that you distinguish hard “science fiction” from soft “sci-fi.” I never thought of Torchwood in connection to these terms but they’re definitely useful for illustrating how Torchwood diverges from the tone and storytelling techniques of Doctor Who.

    • ‘Adrift’ is probably my favourite episode. I remember hating it the first time I watched it because it disturbed me so much and it was too slow for what I wanted from a Doctor Who spin off. Now I’m a bit older though I can see how ballsy doing an episode like that was. It makes me wish Doctor Who spent more time on slower, darker and more complex episodes.

  12. I am a 64 year old GRANDMOTHER, and LOVE “Torchwood”. Saw John, Paul, George, and Ringo at the Indianapolis State Fair in 1964 for $3.50 (7 hours of baby sitting). The Stones, Cream, etc….HOWEVER, I am probably one of the original Geeks, EVER. Saw the original “Star Trek”, I think September, 1966. Hated, HATED, HATED the follow-up TV show! Saw the original “Star Wars” premiere, while pregnant with our first child, looked at my husband and said “This changes everything”. And it did! OMG LOVED the first three movies. George’s prequels were stinking to high heaven boring garbage. A pre-pubescent, jerking off! THEY WERE ABSOLUTELY, DISGUSTINGLY HORRIBLE MOVIES! Actually watched the original Dr. Who with my BIL and nephew. All these decades later, it is lovely to have a 51st century time traveler. BTW, if any of you are freaked out by the intimacy in Season 4, GET OVER IT! Captain Jack RULES! And, I have quite a girl crush on Gwen! Darn, I love the BRITS!

  13. It’s a trashy and forgettable show, with pompous writing that wants to make us think it’s smart, except – looking beyond the presentation – it’s remarkably simplistic and shallow, with characters being stupid and convenient…

  14. First, I like your distinction between science fiction and sci-fi. I’m not sure if this is a distinction you made yourself or one which actually exists, but either way, I like the way you distinguish it.

    Personally, I like Torchwood as a show; however, I find it is much harder to get into than other shows. At least in the first two seasons, I never really felt that need to see the next episode as I do with other shows. This being said, I love the latest two series. I really like how they continue one storyline throughout an entire series, and I think this is where the show found its real niche.

    • It’s more something I’ve noticed when looking at how people talk about science fiction differently for different mediums. Literary science fiction is usually not referred to as ‘sci-fi’ at all, while like I said in the article TV ‘science fiction’ is almost always called ‘sci-fi’. The fact that the two of them are often on opposite ends of the hard/soft sci-fi continuum therefore seems to have given the terms different meanings, for all intents and purposes.

      Russell T Davies has actually said that if Torchwood returns it will always use the one storyline per season format. I think I’d probably miss the monster of the week format though. The long storylines let the writers explore an idea in much more depth, but it was nice having so much variety in the first 2 seasons. When you’ve got such a rich universe to work with, it seems a shame to only explore one part of it every year.

  15. Caitlin

    Nice article! I think this is a perfect explanation of Torchwood and its place in sci-fi. After years of nagging from friends to jump on the Torchwood bandwagon I finally decided to give it a go. After episode 1, I was compelled to watch all four seasons but decided upon completion that I didn’t like it. Like you argued, I felt that episodes varied greatly in quality and the shocking elements felt far from natural and often seemed melodramatic. I agree, however, that Torchwood is unlike anything on TV probably deserves more recognition for its more progressive elements.

  16. Monique

    Great article, and I’ve already used your sci-fi/science fiction distinction in two different conversations. (I gave you credit. 🙂 )

    Torchwood is incredibly uneven in quality, element to element, episode to episode. RTD’s work often ignores the consequences of events in an almost sit-com’y way that I find very frustrating. But what it does well, it does very well. I think the show deserves a lot more attention, and I hope we see the model refined more successfully in the future.

  17. Mette Marie Kowalski

    When I saw this post my heart jumped a beat – other people care about Torchwood?! Of course I know that it has a fan following but it seems so small compared to Doctor Who. I still love DW more, but I think Torchwood is a great spin-off and one that would’ve deserved more recognition. I suppose it is uneven but that never bothered me because I liked the characters immediately.
    Great article, I hope someone from the BBC reads this.

  18. Torchwood definitely did have its ups and downs, its unbelievably cheesy moments and its unbelievably fantastic moments. What made Torchwood so fantastic for me was not only how it explored humanity’s reaction to the vast and sometimes horrifying universe, but how it explored its own characters in so much depth.

    Jack is a great character for this reason, and many others, and is perhaps one of the most fleshed-out sci-fi characters I can think of. Far from being an altruistic do-gooder like the Doctor, Jack always does what he thinks is right, even when those decisions make him a horrible person. The end of Children of Earth, for example. Jack’s decision to sacrifice one child, his grandson, in order to save the others. Was it horrible? Yes. Did it make me hate him? Yes. But did I still love him? Absolutely.

    The other Jack-moment that resonates with me the most is from Miracle Day. The flashback scene where Jack’s lover betrays him to a crowd, and is then repeatedly killed and revived. It speaks so much to Jack being the way he is – distrusting, self-reliant, cynical. Yet Jack isn’t only those things. And he’s so very different with different people – Gwen, for example. It would have been easy to make him into a one-sided, cookie-cutter character, one who was either perfectly good or perfectly evil. Jack isn’t an enigma for not being just one thing – he is just very, very human.

    Thanks for your article! Cheers.

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