“Torchwood” Finally Goes Where Sci-Fi Hasn’t Gone

For far too long, science fiction on television and at the movies has been a genre devoid of any gay or lesbian characters, especially ones that aren't villains (even then usually only coded as gay to heighten their evilness). For years, gay and lesbian fans of Star Trek have protested the fact that despite having aired five different series and eleven movies, the franchise, which has been the very epitome of diversity and tolerance, has yet to feature a gay character.

Well, get ready for something completely different and welcome on the science fiction frontlines. On September 8th, BBC America premieres Torchwood, a spin-off of Britain's long running and hugely popular Doctor Who. The dashing leading character on the series with the chiseled features and piercing eyes just happens to be openly bisexual and the actor portraying him just happens to be openly gay.

Must such a groundbreaking step come from outside the US mainstream? Stop and think for a moment about the boom in genre-based programs in American television over the last few years — Battlestar Galactica, The 4400, Lost — just to name a few. Almost none of them have featured openly gay or bisexual characters, especially leading ones.

Even a show such as Heroes on NBC, which seems to be the very model of diversity in it's multi-ethnic casting, has yet to put a gay or lesbian character in the storyline.

Fortunately, the sexuality of the characters on Torchwood is not a concern for BBC America. In a recent interview with AfterElton.com, Richard de Croce, Vice President of programming, said, “It's not an issue for us. We're only editing out really small bits to fit it into our clock, but we're not editing anything that would change the tone or the narrative in any way.”

Croce also considers Torchwood a great original program with nothing to compare it to on US television. He feels that British TV is always working to find the next new thing, whereas US television is somewhat stagnant in the way it creates new shows.

“What we do is reflect the fabric of UK culture and a European sensibility on top of it, while in America they won't take any kind of risks with subject matter,” he explains. “What the UK does that is great is to bring out the next show, and what the US does is try to replicate the success of last season.”

Many U.S. viewers are likely unfamiliar with either Torchwood or Doctor Who, the latter having been more of a cult hit stateside rather than a widely watched hit such as Star Trek. To help get those interested ready to watch, here is a bit of history about both the new series and its lead character, Captain Jack Harkness.

Captain Jack, as he is known, is played by Scottish-American actor John Barrowman and first came to the attention of science fiction fans in series one of the new Doctor Who created by Russell T. Davies. Davies is best known as the creator of the British Queer as Folk. This is the second series of Doctor Who; the first began in 1963 and ran until 1989.

It's not essential to have seen all of Doctor Who to understand Torchwood and vice versa, but it doesn't hurt to have a working knowledge of both series to enjoy them.

Doctor Who has been Britain's primary science fiction masterpiece for the last five decades, and tells the continuing adventures of a “Time Lord” known simply by the moniker “The Doctor” who travels through space and time setting certain historical events right, and saving the known universe again and again. There is a unique convention on the series that allows The Doctor his longevity, and this is his ability to regenerate. In other words, whenever The Doctor dies, he simply is transformed into a new man and gets a completely new lease on life (this is also the reason so many different men have portrayed the character over the years).

The Doctor is seldom seen alone and often acquires “companions” in his travels that help him thwart evil and save the day. Captain Jack, when we first meet him on Doctor Who (in an episode entitled “The Empty Child”), is a time traveler much like The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and his current companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). Though The Doctor is hardly ever romantically involved with his companions, it is commonplace for them to develop feelings for him.

But where The Doctor is mostly motivated by altruism, Captain Jack uses time travel solely for profit. He is a hustler and something of a charming rogue (think a bisexual Han Solo). In fact, in the first scene in which Jack is introduced, he comments on Rose having a “nice ass”, but then also slaps a male military friend of his on the derriere while making a comment about getting to him later.

Throughout the series, Captain Jack's sexuality on Doctor Who is shown in such a congenial way that it is more “matter of fact” than an issue that must be dealt with. When Rose does bring it up at one point, The Doctor explains that Jack comes from the 51 st century, which is a much more enlightened time and people are more open to all manner of experiences.

 

In the five episodes of Doctor Who's first season in which Jack appears, The Doctor, Rose and he have adventures and bond together and in the process basically make Jack The Doctor's first openly queer companion. In the first season's finale, however, Captain Jack meets his demise at the hands, or rather blasters, of the Daleks, an alien race bent on exterminating humanity.

Jack is revived by the mysterious time traveling energies of the Tardis (The Doctor's time traveling ship), and when next we see him, he is on his own series, Torchwood (which is itself an anagram for “Doctor Who”). The explanation for this gap in time and how Jack got involved with a British government agency policing aliens is not explained until the third season of Doctor Who. So for now, just enjoy the ride and know that answers do come further down the line.

Torchwood was created by Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner out of a great fan reaction to the popularity of the Captain Jack character, and places Jack in charge of his own team based out of Cardiff, Wales in the United Kingdom . Now in charge himself, Jack is somewhat less fun loving than he was on Doctor Who, but still manages to retain some of his more charming roguish qualities.

Says Barrowman in an interview with AfterElton.com about the transition between series, “The one thing that really struck people was his attitude, his carefree attitude let's say, when he was on series one of Doctor Who. Russell T. Davies had to establish in series one of Torchwood the dark side of Jack because he had a lot of issues he had to resolve and questions that he wanted answered.”

In real life, Barrowman is an out actor who recently married his long-time partner, British architect Scott Gill. Barrowman continues to break new ground not only as an actor who is out and still playing leading men, but also in portraying some of the most tender same-sex, on-screen relationships seen on television.

Captain Jack is a breakthrough character in several respects. In his role as the leader of Torchwood, he is a man in charge of a team that goes about saving the world on a day-to-day basis. He's an intensely passionate man who cares for his team while still trying to have something of a “normal” life. Through the course of the first season, Jack is shown in many different lights – heroic, aloof, brusque – even getting to be hopelessly romantic in an episode that depicts love at first sight between two men instead of a man and a woman.

Jack is also just a guy looking for love, and Barrowman hopes that sooner or later the writers will have Jack settle down. “Captain Jack might settle down with a nice man in series two,” explains the actor. “But which man that will be I can't tell you.”

Not only is Captain Jack Harkness an openly gay character on Torchwood, but his entire team is open to whatever kind of love and affection crosses their paths as well. All of the women have lesbian encounters in the first season, in some form or another, and the men have their share of same-sex flings as well. Homosexuality and bisexuality are never really an issue on the series; they are simply accepted facets of the people that make up the Torchwood crew.

What follows is a little taste of what you can expect from the first season of Torchwood, but be warned: spoilers follow, so be careful what you read from this point on.

Last seen in the far-flung future, Captain Jack now works with Torchwood policing alien activity on earth while also looking for answers to his own supposed immortality. Since Torchwood is the first and last line of defense against alien invasion and against subversive alien activities already taking place hidden within our culture, it affords Jack the opportunity to seek information.

You can expect to see Captain Jack be flirtatious with several women – including his leading lady Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), but he also flirts with the group's secretary/front man Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd). Indeed, he only seems to have relationships with men in this first season.

Gay fans will probably most enjoy the season finale “Captain Jack Harkness”, where Jack ends up back in time facing the man whose identity and name he took in World War II. The catch is that Jack took the real Captain Jack's identity after the man was shot down on a mission. Seeing him face-to-face, Jack falls in love with his namesake and has to deal with knowing that the next day the man is supposed to die. There is a very touching slow dance and when the episode ends, there will not be a dry eye in the house.

That it is a same-sex relationship at the heart of the episode only speaks to how groundbreaking Torchwood truly is.

Torchwood airs on BBC America Saturday, September 8, 9:00 PM ET