Torchwood and the Unknowable Universe
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
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.
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.
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.
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.