Now that summer is upon us, aka the time for binge-watching, a random Torchwood GIFset popped up on my Tumblr dashboard and convinced me it was time for a rewatch! In case you didn’t know, Torchwood is the Doctor Who spin-off centering around the Torchwood Institute in Cardiff, headed by Captain Jack Harkness, working to protect the people of Earth from alien threats. (Note this rewatch did not include the 4th season “Miracle Day”, which if memory serves, I don’t really recommend….the show got picked up by Starz and it was weird.)
I had originally watched Torchwood in 2009 in the midst of my Doctor Who phase, when the “Children of Earth” miniseries was airing and adored it. I found myself more attached to it than the eventual direction Doctor Who decided to take itself in, but as an oh so young naive television watcher, I didn’t realize how good it actually was. It’s everything I crave in a television show. As a lover of sci-fi, a bisexual woman craving complex representation for both parts of that identity, and a filmmaker/writer who loves and needs well written characters, Torchwood ticks all the boxes!
I’m quite used to settling for one of the above, and it is so rare that they all come in a package. It’s why you see people so often cheering for any sort of queer representation, despite how one dimensional, stereotypical, or badly handled it frequently is. But on this rewatch, after really getting to know the difference between what makes good and bad television, I was not only surprised to see just how well written Torchwood is, but how far and above it still holds up to be beyond most shows currently airing.
Meet the Team
Jack is head of Torchwood Cardiff and most know him from his time on Doctor Who, where he became the man (or rather alien) who can’t die…until he eventually did after turning into a talking floating head called the Face of Boe.
As an official fixed point in space and time, Jack’s life is important. He has lived through thousands of years, starting to lose sight of what living means. But through his time with the Torchwood Institute (all of this post-Doctor adventure), he learns that there’s something more there. He finds a purpose and with the new Torchwood Cardiff he establishes, resolves to essentially be the Doctor on Earth. However in doing so, he also sees the microcosms of human life and through his team that truly are a team (he needs them just as much as they need him—we lose the impossible to get rid of superiority complex that comes with the actual Doctor) what being human is actually all about.
Gwen is first introduced to us as a Cardiff police officer who quickly gets caught up in it all when she sees the Torchwood team take over a crime scene and bring the victim back to life. Not long after due to some unforeseen circumstances, Gwen ends up on the team, becoming the heart of Torchwood. While a lot of her team members are often desensitized to the extraordinary situations they deal with and the people who are affected by it, as the new voice she is always there to remind them and stands up for what she believes in.
She’s the perfect foil for Jack, who is the epitome of what it means to be desensitized. She’s a bit hot-headed, frequently makes questionably decisions, isn’t always the best partner, and sometimes her sympathy and compassion get the best of her, but she’s always there for her team and for those she loves.
A bit reserved at first, Ianto Jones starts off as a coffee boy/secretary, having originally worked at Torchwood One with his girlfriend Lisa in London until its downfall during the Battle of Canary Warf (Doctor Who). He quickly works his way up the ranks and proves how valuable he is to the team. He goes through a lot (I won’t spoil it) till he finally accepts himself as part of the group.
His sweet, sarcastic, and selfless tendencies make him a fan favorite, as well as the other half of the most popular couple on the show! Ianto is the backbone of Torchwood and cares immensely about the people he loves, putting his life and position on the line frequently for it. From his characteristic suit to his offhand witty comments, Ianto balances out what could end up being quite an angsty emotional group perfectly as the member it’s impossible to hate.
Toshiko (or Tosh for short) is likely the team member you will relate to the most and adore. Before joining Torchwood she worked for the Ministry of Defense. She is incredibly smart (she single-handedly developed SONIC technology) and is the go-to one in the group for all things technology.
Don’t let her adorable persona fool you, she can also totally fight you if need be, as comes with the job. She’s quite a bit insecure, and is hopelessly in love with one of her team members, but her resilience and bravery never wavers. She’s one of the kindest hearts and toughest souls. She’s the brain of Torchwood and goodness knows the team could not survive without her. She’s devoted her life to them and her job, often having to deal with what that sacrifice of normalcy truly means, and is just the loveliest person imaginable!
Last but not least, we’ve got Owen Harper. Owen is the chief medical officer of Torchwood and is truthfully a bit of a dick sometimes.
When you first meet him, you’ll probably want to punch him in the face, and while he is certainly quite moody and touchy, one thing that never wavers is his love for his team. He’s gone through a lot in his life before joining Torchwood and at first seems like your typical womanizer. He’s not shy about saying whatever is on his mind and doesn’t really have a filter. All of it is one big massive wall to keep everyone out but considering his job, constantly being put in a life or death scenario, his heart quickly starts to show. Owen’s an interesting character because he does a lot of horrible and completely unforgivable things and the show doesn’t ask you to forget it, just to see that he’s not black and white. There’s good and there’s bad.
He’s definitely got one of the biggest and saddest arcs to watch on the show and has grown so much since the first episode (where he was pretty much irredeemable) , becoming one of the most selfless and vulnerable members of the team, the ending of which, looking back on it, was pretty just. Owen is not afraid to say what he thinks and stand up for what he believes in, but is sometimes blinded by his emotions.
Why You Should Watch It
Sexuality Is Truly A Spectrum
When I say that every member of the core team cannot be called completely straight and that is canon, I am not exaggerating. We all know that Jack Harkness is into everything and everyone, but the rest of the team allows the show to explore sexuality without ever second guessing it or questioning it. It is what it is. (I should mention Russel T. Davies was the showrunner, so the show’s appreciation for the spectrum isn’t surprising).
From the first episode, we have a very problematic and gross use of alien technology outside protocol by Owen (not cool…and definitely rape), but we immediately get to see that despite his horrific exploitation of people through alien technology that forces people to consent, he takes both a guy and a girl home. It’s not a good moment, and isn’t a fist pumping plotline for the LGBT+ community, but is important to note. It’s mostly to get the girl, as the guy he coerces is her boyfriend and was about to make trouble, and Owen is by far and large the “straightest” of the team, never engaging in another moment like this in the rest of his time on the show, but he’s definitely on the spectrum, even if it leans towards the straight end of it. I’m not mentioning this because it was a positive moment, and I wish the show dealt more with the repercussions of this specific action, not just a general fallout of all of Owen’s general bad behavior that characterized his arc, but it shouldn’t go without mention. There’s both good and bad people on the spectrum, as there are in the general population.
On to the positive though!
Tosh is a beautiful bisexual (woohoo!) and has a few love interests over the course of the series. Of course there’s her unwavering love for Owen that she tries to hide, there’s a WWI soldier who was frozen in 1918 and is woken up every year for a day by Torchwood for a date with Tosh, and there’s a shapeshifting telepathic alien called Mary that she falls head over heels for. Tosh isn’t all that lucky in love, but you so desperately want her to be because if any of the team deserve a happy ending, it’s her.
Gwen has had a few dalliances over the course of the series despite being in a committed relationship with her longtime boyfriend Rhys, including a few moments with fellow team member Owen Harper as well as a infamous make out session with an alien that has come to earth to feed off orgasmic energy. (Yeah that’s a real plotline.) Gwen’s moment mostly just shows us that she too is somewhere along the spectrum, but isn’t exactly a shining moment of light, but rather triggers her to understand what the alien is doing to Carys, the girl whose body the alien is using as a host.
Then of course we have everyone’s favorite couple, Ianto and Jack. Ianto had originally been in a long term relationship with fellow Torchwood One member, Lisa, but he ultimately lost her to the Cybermen attack. After grieving, he starts engaging in a casual relationship with Jack that eventually turns into something more serious.
It’s by far and large one of the most loved couples on the internet, but not just because of the usual fetishization of a gay couple. They are allowed to be sweet, intimate, passionate, and great partners both in and outside of work. Their relationship is a complex one, especially given the impending circumstances of Jack’s immortality. He will live to see Ianto die. The show explores both how this relationship effects them and allows them to also grow as individuals outside of said relationship.
It’s also beautiful to not see bisexuals and pansexuals stereotyped as the hyper-sexualized trope we constantly see. Especially given that it is in Jack’s personality to be a habitual flirter and sexual being, yet the show still insists on never falling into that trap. Despite flirting and despite openly enjoying sex, he’s still shown to be in committed and passionate relationships, one being a focus of the show. He’s allowed to fall in love and it’s never questioned or second guessed.
Basically everyone on this show is bi, pan, or on the spectrum and it’s beautiful!
Beautifully Strong and Diverse Female Characters
One of the most talked about things when it comes to breaking down shows today is how their female characters are written, and justifiably so considering how few and far between well written female characters are. Torchwood has two females leading the team (and an abundance of guest star characters as well), and they are two incredibly different but both beautifully complex women.
Neither one of these women are presented as perfect and they also aren’t demonized as a stereotype. Despite Tosh’s unrequited love for Owen, the show doesn’t reduce her to that or make it part of who she is. She’s a woman with agency, intelligence, and weaknesses. Her love for Owen (and really her love for everyone) is perhaps one of her greatest weaknesses, as it makes her vulnerable, but her vulnerability is also her strength. Tosh is also the brains of the team, but that doesn’t mean she’s a desensitized robot or forced to be a logic crazed Vulcan. She thinks with both her heart and her brain.
Gwen is just as multidimensional but so different. She’s also allowed to be something that women are so often denied being sometimes: unlikable. She’s one of our main characters, so at the end of the day we are always on her side, but she does mess up…a lot. And that’s what makes her so wonderfully human. When she is at fault for cheating on her boyfriend, the show doesn’t simply villainize her, nor does it make anything her boyfriend says or does from that point out infallible. From her relationship issues with Rhys where she is allowed to both be at fault but also in love, to her admittance of putting her heart above her head, sometimes to her dismay, she’s so imperfectly perfect.
Not to mention the two don’t end up in a catty brawl over Owen either, despite Gwen’s relations with him and Tosh’s love.
We also have an array of beautifully characterized one off characters. Martha Jones comes back from Doctor Who to join the team for a few episodes, and from the 1950s female pilot and her young friend with dreams of living in the city who fall through the rift in time and space, to the incomparably brave and smart Lois Habiba who agrees to help Torchwood at the risk of her job on her first week of work as a PA in Home Office, the show is not at a loss for great female characters.
Complexity You Say?
What’s that? Characters that are all complex and morally gray? No one is perfect on Torchwood…no one. They all make mistakes and they all learn to deal with those mistakes, taking it in as character growth. Owen disregards people, is often mean spirited, and cruel to those dearest to him, but at the end of the day he would take a bullet for all of them. Both Ianto and Toshiko have let their love blind them, endangering the team.
Jack, despite being this other-worldly being who is incapable of dying, is never presented as perfect or godlike. He has more flaws than the rest of them combined and we start the series realizing just how much of his team’s personal lives he lets slip through the cracks. He is loving, but sometimes cruel. He has this massive mission in his heart to defend all and protect, but sometimes his head gets the better of him and he forgets his humanity. He often falls prey to the greater good mentality, and while sometimes it is necessary, it is also damaging.
Gwen cheats on her partner several times, lies to him frequently, and belittles him, but ultimately the two are committed to one another. She does all of this and still is the moral compass of the show. She’s the heart of the team, but is far from perfect. She makes the same mistakes that so many other humans do, and she learns to live with them. Her heart, while always in the best interest, isn’t always the right thing to act upon, as sometimes the “right” and “just” answer isn’t always the better one.
Our Aliens Are Better Than Yours
So despite loving Davies’ run as showrunner on Doctor Who, he’s got a better record on Torchwood for interesting and well thought out aliens/creatures.
Of course there’s that orgasm hungry alien I mentioned above, but from their absolute horrific take on fairies that will haunt me forever to an alien that alters people’s memory to insert himself in otherwise he would fade from existence to death itself, Torchwood doesn’t lack for some really fun and creative aliens.
There’s sleeper agent aliens hidden among our own, a traveling circus that comes to life from a piece of film and lives off of trapped souls, Weevils (the staple alien on the show that infesting the streets of Cardiff) the Torchwood writers were always inventive and their aliens always meant something to the arc of the episode. They weren’t there for background scene decoration to classify the show as sci-fi or appeal to the Who demographic.
However, some of my favorite episodes didn’t even contain an alien, but rather an alien artifact or piece of technology or some sort of damage effect from the rift in time and space that runs through Cardiff. The show knows how to be creative with its genre and it’s why every episode feels refreshing, new, and meaningful. The aliens revolved around the show rather than the other way around.
What’s that you say? Themes?
Oh yes, my favorite, themes! (And guess what? They aren’t just for eighth grade book reports!) Torchwood explores a lot of great and interesting themes across its seasons, usually contained to one episode in a serialized manner. From bigger and grander themes of our place in the universe when confronted with alien life as is one of the main themes present on its parent show, Doctor Who, to smaller and more intimate thoughts on life in general, Torchwood’s grander soliloquy about humanity is what makes it so special.
For example, one of my favorite episodes of Torchwood is probably the least sci-fi episode of the show. It’s entitled “Countrycide” and starts out as a fun episode where the team are forced to go out into the country (much to Owen’s dismay) and camp to find the cause of recent disappearances they think might have been caused by rift activity. They find brutal bodies ripped of their flesh down to the bone and villages deserted. Horrified of what creature could have possibly done this, the team are pushed to their breaking point. What they didn’t know was that the answer at the end of the nightmare would be distinctly human- they came upon a village of cannibals. Written by Chris Chibnall of Doctor Who and Broadchurch fame, the episode beautifully challenges both viewer and character expectation as we all assume the culprit behind these brutal killings will be alien in nature—how could it not be? It’s so horrific, it must be an alien! Chibnall beautifully reminds us that sometimes the most incomprehensible evil and violence can come from our own and that is more scary than any monster.
The third (and what I like to consider final…because as I mentioned “Miracle Day” was weird to say the least) season of Torchwood was a miniseries of five episodes entitled “Children of Earth” and is a beautiful lesson in screenwriting. When met with an alien race labeled the 456 for the first time in 1965, the British government gave over 12 children to these beings in return for the cure to a deadly flu that was predicted to wipe out millions of the population. Now with the 456 returning and asking for more children (10 percent of the world’s population) or else face mass extinction, the government and Torchwood are forced to bring ideas and topics to the table that would normally be taboo. When faced with an impossible choice, how do you choose? Is there a right answer?
From the discussion of the possibility of complying with these terms and if so which children to sacrifice (do we do a random draw or pick kids who are less likely to succeed and thus “be of service” to us later on), as well as the repercussions and guilt that comes along with their decision to give innocent children away “for the greater good” to these unknown creatures, “Children of Earth” doesn’t play around. What follows is a series of events that ultimately break down Jack and all the hope he had built up for Torchwood and humanity, reminiscent of some of the best moments of Who.
So, if you’re looking for something to binge-watch this summer and haven’t yet seen Torchwood, I highly recommend it!