(queerness and domesticity in Torchwood)
by Fergus Church
Warning: contains spoilers for BBC’s Torchwood (2006) and Doctor Who (2005).
[/open log1 <Close Encounters of the Queer Kind>]
I’ve got memories that go way past our atmosphere.
On the phone to my grandpa as he tells me about the Mars Rover landing he watched on TV last night. I was just a kid, too little to stay up and watch it myself; midday on Mars was 1am our time.
Him teaching me the constellations. How to tell the difference between Jupiter and Venus by the shades of their twinkling.
Watching The Day The Earth Stood Still with my dad. Watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind with my dad. Watching The Day The Earth Stood Still with my dad. Watching War of the Worlds with my dad (the old one where they invade the Victorians.) Running out of the living room, crying, terrified.
Getting a telescope for my birthday. My sisters help me set it up and we try to see things through it but can’t quite figure out how to get rid of the blur. We give up. One morning, the moon’s still up. Full and round in the daytime. I stare at it through my telescope and can finally make out the curves of its oceans, the dank of its craters.
A little book – less than A5 – found in a local bookshop bargain box. It’s black and neon green. I read it over and over until the cover ink rubs off on my fingers. It’s a kids’ handbook about aliens: how to spot them, what their ships look like, the Roswell Incident, the Lubbock Lights, the Hill Abductions. I ask my mum if we can take a holiday to Area 51.
Science fiction relies on queerness – in the true sense of the world. It trained me to love the odd. Embrace the strange. The wonders we could encounter out there if we dared to explore. And nothing meant this more to me as a kid than the 2005 BBC revival of Doctor Who. It was a weekly sci-fi fix. Something bizarre to watch with pizza on a Saturday evening. It normalised the queer.
The revival’s head writer, Russell T Davies – best known then for his LGBTQ+ drama Queer As Folk – moved the show in a notably more progressive direction. It took the unintentional camp of the classic series (rubbery monster masks, pepper pot death machines and robot dogs) and made it intentional. This was a universe where these things are just accepted. So no one bats an eyelid in S01E02 The End of the World when Lady Cassandra – the self-titled ‘Last Human’ – casually references when she was a “little boy”. These more inclusive moments might be painfully mid-Noughts at times in their wording, but piece by piece Davies invites us into a world where queerness is a fact of life. Where a trans woman is no more out of place than a giant head in a jar or living tree people.
Of course, here we run into a problem. Is a universe where a queer person is tolerated because they are just as alien as anyone else really one where they are truly accepted? Until the introduction of Bill Potts – the first openly gay companion in the show – in Series 10 of Doctor Who, none of the series regulars on the show are queer (Captain Jack and River Song perhaps being the closest example beforehand, though they are recurring guests, not regulars.) One could argue that the Doctor themself is queer (they’re an alien! They aren’t bound by silly human conventions like normative sexuality!) however they are only ever shown to engage in heterosexual relationships. So the queer characters are relegated to side characters (the Alonso Frames of the world) who appear in one or two episodes. Still ground-breaking representation for a sci-fi series, but we don’t get enough time to really engage with them.
That all changed with Torchwood, Davies’ spin-off focusing around the members of Torchwood 3: the Cardiff branch of The Torchwood Institute, an organisation established by Queen Victoria to protect the British Empire against alien threat. It’s also just been rereleased on iPlayer (… hence the reason I’m thinking about it a lot at the moment.) The series is much more adult in tone, with its second episode featuring a creature who feeds on orgasmic energy.
… Needless to say, I was not allowed to watch it. My parents watched the first two episodes and told us nah, not for us. But I’d secretly recorded the first episode – this was ages before iPlayer was even a twinkle in the BBC’s eye. I remember (actually weirdly vividly) sneaking down to watch it late one night, aiming to watch with the volume on the lowest it can go. I got all the way downstairs before I chickened out, resigning myself to miss out on this one. So instead, I discovered the series right when I think I probably needed it most.
Because every single lead character in Torchwood is queer.
Every. Single. One.
And this was an intentional effort on the part of Davies to remove audience expectations of heterosexuality in sci-fi. More specifically, Davies’ aim was to remove notions of monosexuality. The characters’ sexualities were fluid, unstatic. “Without making it political or dull,” he said, “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.” In the first series, we see all of the characters exhibit queer attraction at some point: ex-police officer Gwen kisses the (female) sex alien on her first day; team medic Owen uses an alien perfume to coerce a straight couple into coming home with him (in a very dodgy scene that in the light of #MeToo feels especially uncomfortable); tech expert Tosh (my fave!!) falls in love with shape-shifting alien Mary; while admin-wizard Ianto and the boss Jack’s relationship develops into a full on love affair (which we will get to later.)
That’s all well and good. We’ve got our proper representation… check! But that doesn’t answer our other concern: if queerness is equivalent to ‘the alien’ in the show, what does that mean? In a series where we follow a crack-team who hunt down these aliens and often resort to killing them, how can we marry these two ideas?
[/close log1 <Close Encounters of the Queer Kind>]
[/open log2 <Eliminate The Alien Threat>]
In the first episode of Torchwood, we follow Gwen Cooper, a bored police officer who stumbles upon Torchwood while on shift during a murder case. She is recruited by the team at the end of the episode and acts as somewhat of a surrogate for the audience; this is a similar role to that played by the companions in Doctor Who. As such, she leads the most ‘normal’ life out of all of those in the team. She has a slightly messy, lived-in flat while all the others live in cold and bare swanky apartments; Jack even lives in the Torchwood Hub itself. She is much more empathetic and ‘human’ than the rest of the team, which is precisely the reason she ends up getting hired. And – most crucially for us – she has a stable relationship with Rhys, her boyfriend and later husband.
In the second episode, when Gwen is properly introduced to the rest of the team, she has the following exchange with Tosh (who I cannot reiterate enough is my fave) and Owen, after she mentions Rhys for the first time:
TOSH: You’ve got a boyfriend?
GWEN: Yeah! Do you?
TOSH: Don’t have time with this job.
GWEN: [To Owen.] What about you? Seeing anyone?
OWEN: You gotta be joking. Get all the grief I need here.
GWEN: None of you have partners?
OWEN: Just you, newbie.
Throughout the first few episodes, we are reminded again and again how strange it is that Gwen is able to keep a stable relationship with Rhys while working for Torchwood. A great deal of Tosh’s storyline is spent on her unrequited love for Owen, stating a number of times that it would be nice to be with somebody who truly understands what they do; the group are sworn to secrecy by the government.
Gwen’s secure, heterosexual relationship is disturbed from her first day on the job when she kisses the possessed sex alien Carys while under her spell. Her relationship is immediately threatened by Torchwood and its work. A few episodes later in Countrycide (an episode that I would highly recommend to anybody, even if they have never seen Torchwood), Gwen embarks on an affair with Owen, placing further pressure on the stability of her standard, heterosexual lifestyle. The episode even begins with a montage of Gwen and Rhys going on the most ordinary date imaginable: bowling, then the cinema, then dinner, exacerbating the ‘normalcy’ of her life outside of her job. Torchwood therefore becomes a sinister, queer presence in Gwen’s life, disrupting her relationships and threatening her domesticity. The alien becomes a threat.
In the season 2 episode Something Borrowed, Gwen and Rhys get married… although the day is ruined slightly by a parasitic alien planting its egg inside Gwen’s womb, making her appear 9 months pregnant. Here, again, it is the alien hijacking heterosexual institution – wrecking the wedding and mimicking pregnancy. By this point in the series, however, Gwen knows the score, refusing to postpone the wedding as she wants so badly to get married to Rhys. This heterosexual pushback to the alien ultimately wins out, with the egg being destroyed before the proper ceremony takes place. All the guests are later slipped an amnesia pill, making them forget all the strange events of the day.
When Rhys is killed in one episode by time traveller Bilis Manger (notably a very queer- coded character), Gwen fights Jack to open the rift to save him, to take them all back in time to when everything was normal again. When Jack initially refuses, Gwen rejects becoming like the others. She rejects a life without domesticity and stability, telling him:
GWEN: This is what happens here. We all end up alone. But not me. No way. You bring him back.
Gwen pursues these ideals to the end of releasing a demon – the son of the Devil apparently? – that kills half of Cardiff. But she gets Rhys back. And the next episode (after a bit of a time jump) they’re engaged.
In the third season, where the Earth’s children are possessed by hostile aliens, Gwen learns that she is pregnant. Initially, she is terrified of bringing a new-born into this world, threatening to Rhys that she will get rid of it, but eventually she relents on this, remaining steadfast in her pursuit of domesticity and heterosexualised ideals.
RHYS: You didn’t mean it, did you? About getting rid of it?
GWEN: No, of course I didn’t.
GWEN: I would never. Never. I wouldn’t do that to you, sweetheart. No, I wouldn’t, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry. All right, darling?
But when the rest of the team pursue these same ideals, it is through the lens of their work at Torchwood, namely a more alien, more queer lens:
Tosh’s aforementioned love for Owen is implied to be doomed due to them both carrying emotional trauma from their strange day job. Tosh’s other heterosexual relationship is with Tommy – a cryogenically frozen soldier from the First World War, whom she only gets to spend one day with a year before he is put on ice again: a similarly queer relationship that can never achieve the domestic ideal.
Owen similarly forms a relationship with Diane, an Amelia Earhart-type from the 50s whose plane falls through a rift in time. Diane feels unsatisfied in this new world, so while her and Owen do profess their love for each other, she decides to leave anyway, flying into the rift in time and space for unknown territory. When Gwen seeks to reopen the rift to save Rhys, he’s the first to support her: he wants to go to the same extreme ends to re-establish his relationship to Diane, refusing to accept that she willingly left him, rejected an offer of domesticity in return for the alien.
Jack’s past dalliances with women have led to him eventually having to cut them off; he is unable to age or die, so can never grow old with anybody he loves. In Small Worlds we are introduced to Estelle, an elderly woman with whom we learn Jack was once in a relationship. He has recently reunited with her, pretending to be the son of her lover; again, this queers their relationship.
Ianto – who used to work for Torchwood 1 in London – perhaps had the most successful heterosexual relationship with Lisa, a serious girlfriend who also worked at the Institute. During the Cyberman invasion in Doctor Who’s Doomsday, Lisa was partially converted into a Cyber but ended up surviving; Ianto has hidden her in the basement of the Torchwood hub ever since, caring for her and trying to reverse the conversion process. Ianto’s plight in particular seems the most hopeless: when working for Torchwood, the alien will infect the happiest of relationships, queering it to the point where it can no longer survive in the standard and domestic sphere.
One could argue, then, that perhaps their same-sex relationships are more successful. But this is even less the case. We see very few actual queer relationships played out in the series, with most of the explicitly queer moments relegated to one-off moments, but the ones we do see are often doomed or an alien trick:
Tosh’s love affair with Mary – who is actually a shape-shifting alien from a telepathic race – turns out to have all been a lie, part of a scheme to get into Torchwood and eventually eat Tosh’s heart.
Jack’s relationship with Angelo in Miracle Day (the title for the show’s final series) is initially steeped in romance, with Jack calling him his ‘companion’ in homage to The Doctor. Given that their relationship was in the 1920s, however, they both know their relationship is doomed from the start, with Angelo going on to marry a woman.
The love between Jack and Ianto eventually supersedes Rhys and Gwen’s, becoming the core relationship in the show. Ianto’s queerness is unpacked more explicitly than anyone else’s in the series with the introduction of his family in the third season, Children of Earth. His sister Rhiannon tells Ianto that her mate saw him on a date with Jack in town and outright asks him if he’s gay. While Ianto is initially cagey, he eventually relents, telling Rhiannon “it’s weird, it’s just different. It’s not men, it’s just him. It’s only him.” His queerness is left undefined, but confirmed. We do get a sense from its blossoming, however, that the relationship is doomed like all of Jack’s; we know Ianto will eventually die and Jack will have to keep living… which is eventually what happens. In his final moments, Ianto expresses this anxiety:
IANTO: Hey. It was good yeah?
IANTO: Don’t forget me.
JACK: Never could.
IANTO: Thousand years’ time. You won’t remember me.
JACK: Yes, I will. I promise. I will.
Perhaps here with his promise, Jack breaks the cycle of these doomed queer relationships: Ianto has had a profound effect on the rest of his life, for the better. The alien, the queer, becomes the reason to keep going, rather than the thing holding the characters back.
After Tosh’s death (I may have cried for a few hours afterwards the first time I watched it. Again, cannot stress enough how much of my fave she is…), the grieving team go to delete her account on the computer, at which point a video pops up – a final goodbye from Tosh to her friends. In it, she says “Jack, you saved me. You showed me all the wonders of the universe. All those possibilities. And I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Thank you.” In Greeks Bearing Gifts, where Tosh has her affair with Mary, Tosh first opens up about her concerns around the alien, how most of the things they find are weapons or used for warfare. “It makes you feel so hopeless,” she says. But then she tells Mary about how she won’t spent months translating some alien writing to eventually figure out it was a letter home to his family. The beauty in the alien is what keeps her going. The emotional toll, the constant danger, is worth it for the small moments where you realise that love and wonder are also constants. After Mary’s death, Tosh is left grieving. Although she is reassured by Gwen to not “let this put you off. The last couple of days you’ve had this look about you. Love suited you.” The series here seems to be arguing that even within queer relationships, one should pursue stability: seek out same-sex relationships that mirror heterosexual ones.
Owen and Gwen’s reasons for working for Torchwood seem to be slightly different – with even Tosh herself stating that they don’t “see things the way [she does]”. Despite their affair breaking them out of the standard domestic mould (although interestingly, it is instigated in Countrycide – the only episode in the entire series where the villains are revealed to be humans, earthly, non-alien and therefore, using this analysis, non-queer), their main reason for working for Torchwood is to safeguard the ordinary, domestic lives of others, ultimately upholding those ideals. When Rhys pesters Gwen to have a conversation about kids, Gwen angrily tells him she can’t with her job, to which Rhys responds that she does it so that other people can pursue domestic ideals:
RHYS: You know, sometimes I fucking hate you. I mean, look at you, caught up in your little group like nothing else matters. Like being a hero is an end in itself. Well, it’s not. You save this city. Well done. You save the world, whatever. What for?
GWEN: Because if I don’t-
RHYS: Shut up. I’m talking now, right? You do it so people can live their lives. And there’s nothing more important than that. Falling in love, getting married, buying flats, having kids or not. But real life. That’s what you’re protecting. And if you’re starting to think that your shit is more important than real life, then we’re not gonna last very long here, love.
Owen – despite being a very heterosexist character and his queerness only being displayed once, very briefly – rejects domesticity completely. He fulfils the “ladies’ man” role of the group, never wanting to be tied down by anybody, which he expresses to Diane in Out Of Time. Eventually, however, the series seems to argue that Owen would be ‘improved’ by seeking this out. In the episode Adam, where the team’s personalities are altered by a consciousness who can change memories, Owen and Tosh switch romantic personas: Toshiko becomes flirtatious, openly sexual and confident, while Owen becomes a bit of a nerd and wimp, pining after Tosh. It is noted by the villain that, because of this switch, Owen is “a different man now. Selfless, happier.” Simply because now he is pursuing these ideals. Love suited him too. But in all these cases, it is a specific kind of love that suits.
Even Jack and Ianto, despite representing a successful queer relationship, still fall into this heterosexual mould. Jack is the ‘masculine’ energy. Strong, in charge, detached. While Ianto is much more ‘feminine’. He is gentle and kind, almost portrayed initially as Jack’s secretary in a sexy office affair.
[/close log2 <Eliminate The Alien Threat>]
[/open log3 <Queer Love Suited You>]
The main thematic conflicts throughout Torchwood all ultimately come down to the same thing: the queer vs the non-queer. Alien vs earthly. Natural vs unnatural. Irreligion vs religion. The unknown vs the known. And in setting up such a conflict, where the good guys are aligned with the ‘earthly’, the queer aspects aligned with the alien are bound to eventually be defeated. However, this is ultimately shown to be a difficult, or even impossible, task. Gwen and Rhys, at the start of series 4, have moved to a desolate beach, miles away from anybody, just to get away from Torchwood and start a family. Gwen knows that if she is even a little bit tempted to return, she will, risking her family’s lives. The call of the alien is just too powerful for her to resist. The same goes for the other members of Torchwood: their memories are wiped if they ever leave for precisely this reason.
Perhaps then, the show is less about the victory of domesticity, but actually the eventual victory of queerness. It is something too beautiful to be escaped. Impossible to defy. Maybe Torchwood is really about the fluidity inside of everyone – the fluidity that Davies wanted to give the characters in the first place. This pushing and pulling of two opposing ideals that we all have inside us. Real life queer relationships do resemble heterosexist, domestic ones. My relationship does in some ways, and it doesn’t in other ways. I’m not sure if I want kids. I don’t know if marriage is for me. But many non-queer people feel the same.
And for someone who hasn’t spent over 3000 words analysing all of this stuff – someone like 15-year-old me who finally decided he’s old enough to watch this grown-up Doctor Who that rocked his fucking world – just seeing these people on screen is enough. Their queerness, actually, really isn’t all that important. The show doesn’t care about it. And neither do we. It’s queer people fighting aliens instead of bigotry. Their relationships aren’t controversial or titillating, they are real and emotional. Just as human as any other relationship, just as earthly.
But a little bit alien too.
[/close log3 <Queer Love Suited You>]