Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Gay-lien threat to the nation

Torchwood's promise of sex-positivity doesn't pan out

ET-PHOBIC STUD MUFFIN. Despite a gay lead actor (John Barrowman, centre) and a professed belief in transgressive sexuality, Torchwood can't seem to figure out which team it's on. Credit: Bender/Helper Impact

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” my friend scoffs, staring up at the giant Tinseltown screen where two women are locking lips.

It’s early October and we’re sitting in the theatre awaiting the newest installment of the Resident Evil series.

The requisite 20 minutes of trailers entertain us in the meantime. The trailer with the same-sex kiss that has inspired my companion to such heights of disbelief is for Pathology, a thriller scheduled for release in 2008. It’s about a pack of deranged autopsy doctors who commit murders and compete to determine cause of death. Lauren Lee Smith stars as one of the lip lockers.

In a past life, Smith played Lara, the adorable redhead on the The L Word. So if there’s a Pro-Gay Team and an Anti-Gay Team, Smith’s gotta be on our side.

Right?

Her kiss in the Pathology trailer makes me wonder. It occurs at the height of tension, as a ring of homicidal pathologists surround a fresh corpse on the operating table. Smith is one of the doctors in question, as is her partner in tonsil tag.

Their kiss is a visual signifier: these characters are degenerate in every possible way. Even their sex is depraved.

Like my friend, I’m alarmed: I thought mainstream entertainment had gotten over explicitly collapsing gay with evil. I also thought Smith was on our side.

Like Lauren Lee Smith, the BBC series Torchwood — airing on CBC television at 9 pm on Friday nights — can’t seem to figure out which team it’s on.

Despite a gay lead actor and a professed belief in transgressive sexuality, Torchwood vacillates between liberated and oppressive portrayals of non-hetero desire. While its characters pay lip service to sexual diversity, actual on-screen portrayals of same-sex relations are overshadowed by themes of date rape, trickery or subservience to heterosexual norms.

The first actual positive portrayal of homosexuality doesn’t occur until the finale. By then, the damage has been done. Like the Pathology trailer, Torchwood has me scoffing in disbelief.

Torchwood is a spin-off of the BBC’s highly successful science fiction series, Doctor Who. In the vein of The X-Files, it focuses on a team of special ops investigators who track down alien life and technology on earth.

Based out of Cardiff in Wales, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and his elite posse of xenophobes chase after and eliminate extraterrestrial life wherever they encounter it. With few exceptions, their actions are concerned with extermination not exploration.

The character of Harkness, easily the most nationalistic and dogmatic of the bunch, is offset by naïve and tolerant rookie, Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles). Cooper brings an enduring curiosity to the mix which occasionally makes up for Harkness’ cynicism. She even calls him on his shit periodically.

Unfortunately, none of this prevents his itchy trigger finger from keeping globe and nation safe from outside visitors.

About the only redeeming factor to Captain Jack Harkness is his liberal view of sexuality. Pansexual in nature, he is the stud boss who chews out his team for having too narrow a view of sexuality. “You people and your quaint little categories,” he sneers, after scientist Toshiko Sato expresses alarm at seeing an allegedly heterosexual coworker enjoy a homosexual snog.

Unfortunately, Harkness’ sexual tolerance doesn’t translate to the show.

Torchwood’s episode one is quick to establish itself as sexy and controversial: it features a lead character, Owen Harper, seducing a heterosexual couple for a threesome. Sounds good on paper, but in reality it’s not.

Instead of old-fashioned methods of seduction — oh, say charm and wit — Harper uses a chemical spray manufactured by aliens. The woman initially wants nothing to do with him, while the man wants to punch him out. A squirt of ET’s date rape drug, however, has Harper whisking them away to threeway heaven.

As an introduction to Torchwood’s professed sexual freedom, this scene is suspect. What’s free about chemically induced rape?

Torchwood’s questionable portrayals of gay sex don’t end there. In episode two they get worse, as a malevolent alien takes over a young woman’s body and goes on a carnal killing spree. Feeding off orgasmic energy, she literally sucks men dry.

When our heroes capture her, she sets her sights on Gwen Cooper. Once again, some irresistible alien pheromones are involved (is this date rape again?) and Cooper makes out with the horniest alien alive.

Midway through the scene, however, the alien-in-woman’s-body thrusts Cooper away. “It’s no good,” she complains. “It’s got to be a man.” In other words, only a heterosexual act will do.

Which, admittedly, isn’t so bad when we’re talking about death by orgasm. I can think of worse ways to go, but I’d still rather be part of team subpar in this case. There’s no chance of a second or third round if you’re dead, after all.

The third instance of gay sex occurs a little later in the season. It, too, involves an alien disguised as a woman. In this case, the alien seduces Toshiko Sato with a steamy combination of telepathy and good looks. The seduction is trickery, however: all the alien really wants is to infiltrate Torchwood. So, while the sex isn’t chemically induced for once, it still isn’t exactly positive.

And let’s not forget that all these instances of homosexual sex are initiated by aliens or alien technology. Considering the xenophobic nature of Torchwood, the BBC’s sci-fi CSI, the message is clear: homosexuality is a threat to the nation.

To be fair, Torchwood’s entire first season isn’t all in this vein. Eventually positive portrayals of gay desire do pop up. The two-part season finale shows our ET-phobic stud muffin, Cap’n Harkness, slipping a little tongue to a couple of good-looking guys.

But first impressions are damning: Torchwood’s earliest and most visible examples of homosexuality are an insult — date rape, xenophobia and all.

Still, there is a certain entertainment value to gay aliens. Even if they are convenient devices for underhanded messages of sexual negativity.