Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Pansexual adventures of Captain Jack

Bi & sci-fi: Torchwood has it all

MATEY. Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and John Hart (James Marsters) make both men and women swoon in Torchwood. Credit: Courtesy of Space

CBC cancelled Torchwood, a politically-charged sci-fi thriller populated by queer characters, but Canadians will still be able to find it. They just have to look a little harder.

The award-winning show follows the young and attractive cast as they have plenty of same-sex action and investigate alien and supernatural phenomena in Cardiff, Wales. It also draws political and social allegories, commenting on animal testing, terrorism, Mad Cow Disease and big brother filming public life.

When asked if CBC dropped Torchwood from the fall line-up because of queer content or political commentary, their spokesperson was defensive.

“There are a number of different factors that go into making programming decisions,” says Chris Ball, a CBC spokesperson. “Ratings is obviously one of them, but any of those rumours — about the sexual context being the reason why — is completely false. We would not be making program decisions based on that kind of stuff.”

At a time when Heartland (think Dawson’s-Creek-meets-Lonesome-Dove), Wheel of Fortune and reality shows dominate a corporate-driven CBC, Torchwood’s demise is disheartening for viewers wanting both sci-fi and queer content.

Torchwood’s hero is the bisexual Captain Jack Harkness, played by John Barrowman, with his flirtatious one-liners and comebacks. The team also consists of ex-policewoman Gwen Cooper, Dr. Owen Harper, genius Toshiko Sato and administrator Ianto Jones.

The good news, however, is that the Space Channel snapped up Torchwood in January 2008. They began airing season two (for a second time) on Nov 2. Rachel Goldstein-Couto is the program manager for the station.

“We’re thrilled to have the show and feel quite lucky to have been able to scoop it,” says Goldstein-Couto.

“We bought it based it based on season one. And the first episode of season two has that fantastic scene with James Marsters,” she says.

In the scene, Captain Jack reunites with his old lover, Captain John Hart (played by Marsters). They have a knock-down, drag-out brawl, followed by lip-locking.
 
“I did have that moment — which I think is left over from being at CTV a little too long — of ‘Hopefully it hasn’t gone too far, which might alienate some of our viewers,'” says Goldstein-Couto. “But you know what? It is so hot — hot guys making out, hot girls making out. It’s just sexy.”
 
It is extremely difficult to find Torchwood DVDs in Ottawa video rental chains. Barry Frost is the owner/operator of Phoenix Video, an independent video rental store in Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood.

Frost says that many hardcore fans pick it up at Phoenix. The series pays for itself but not much more because many people don’t seems to know about it.

“I can understand why CBC didn’t pick it up,” says Frost. “A few sloppy wet kisses between Captain and everybody in sight.”

Frost, an aficionado of Doctor Who and sci-fi lore, speculates that Captain Jack may be the first openly bisexual hero on a sci-fi show.

“I’m not sure if I know of any other sci-fi shows that went that way, except Buffy The Vampire Slayer with the Willow story line,” says Frost.

“Torchwood really does have it all — there’s a great sci-fi/fantasy element, a wonderful sense of humour in it,” says Goldstein-Couto, of Space. “And there’s hot action, lots of hot same-sex making out.”

In one episode, Owen, for example, sprays an alien perfume on a woman in order to seduce her. Her boyfriend protests. Owen sprays him too. “I’m so having you!” the boyfriend exclaims. “I’m having him first” the girlfriend replies. “Taxi!” Owen retorts, and takes them both home.

In another episode, Toshiko has a dalliance with a sultry woman who is actually an alien shape-shifter.

In yet another episode, Captain Jack gets into a yelling match with Gwen’s boyfriend. “If you can’t handle that, big boy, you can stuff it!” the boyfriend yells. Nose-to-nose with him, Captain Jack retorts, “This is quite homoerotic!”

Because of a rift in the space-time continuum in Cardiff, otherworldly aliens are continually slipping through, keeping Torchwood busy. But underneath this standard sci-fi veneer, Torchwood mines social and political allegories.

In the episode “Reset”, doctors experiment on giant mosquitoes to reap the medical breakthroughs. Scientists are torturing aliens to justify prolonging human lives. In “Sleeper”, Torchwood uncovers alien sleeper agents lying dormant in human hosts. When activated, these gun-toting agents attempt to nuke London, then the world.

Goldstein-Couto thinks that viewers will grasp this commentary. In the episode “Meat”, for instance, Torchwood finds that suppliers are getting meat from a mysterious alien source, a clear comparison to a country ravaged by Mad-Cow Disease.
 
“The one about meat, it wasn’t an animal we have, but clearly an animal suffering needlessly, and had the characters reacting to it,” says Goldstein-Couto. “Even Owen, who doesn’t care about anything. It’s the same way with the take on sexuality — it’s very fresh.”
 
But apparently, the show’s cleverness didn’t translate into ratings for the CBC.

Torchwood’s CBC ratings averaged 355,000 viewers over the 2007/2008 season. Its parent show, Doctor Who, drew 512,000, a strong showing for 2006/2007. In comparison, 810,000 viewers. watched CBC’s leading property, Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Russell T Davies, who created the British Queer As Folk series and revamped the Doctor Who franchise, also made Torchwood. Not surprisingly, Davies has told media that almost all of Torchwood’s characters are bisexual. Captain Jack, in fact, originally appeared as a con man on Doctor Who, flirting with the Doctor and his female assistant. His popularity earned the Captain his own show.

In 2006, Torchwood set ratings records on BBC, attracting 2.4 million viewers for the first episode and 2.3 million for the second. In April 2007, Torchwood outdid Doctor Who, which is also made in Wales, to win the Best Drama Series category at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Cymru Awards.