Queer Themes and Neoliberalism in the BBC’s Torchwood
“Entertaining, engaging stories become popular. They become narratives that shape our cultures…embedded in our daily existence…they become our lived reality”
– Robin Wright 
– Robin Wright 
This essay is an exploration of the UK-based television series Torchwood and its unique productions of cultural knowledge. The central questions of that exploration are: first, how does this show queer science fiction television/the crime procedural, and second, what does that queering produce? In short, I argue that by utilizing familiar genre tropes (such as the “conflicted hero” and “good versus evil” story lines) Torchwood performs a televisual disidentificatory practice, deploying the familiar in unfamiliar ways and queering an otherwise normative masculine hero (Captain Jack Harkness). By comforting us with these familiar tropes Torchwood is able to infiltrate our minds with queer ideas about partnership, sex and, importantly the nature of the world around us. As a useful and productive juxtaposition to illuminate how these ideas work in practice, I demonstrate how Torchwood is effectively the anti-24 (24 being an immensely popular and in some ways thematically similar drama from the United States); using similar tropes and themes to dramatically different outcomes.
My methodology is one of bridging cultural studies and feminist, queer and critical race theory in an examination of one particular contemporary popular culture item so as to deconstruct and analyze the various messages and ideas propagated by it. Primarily, I utilize Jose Muñoz’ theory of disidentification as the foundation for my argument. While Muñoz conceptualized his theory with live performance art in mind, the idea of inhabiting as well as contesting an image thereby producing a different and new image or concept can, in my view, be applied easily to almost any visual medium. In addition, this theory is instructive and useful to my project because “disidentification is not an apolitical middle ground,” in fact, “its political agenda is clearly indebted to antiassimilationist thought,” although “it departs from antiassimilationist rhetoric for reasons that are both strategic and methodological”
(Muñoz 18). The distinctions Muñoz makes clear here are important to my own argument, which suggests that in embodying common tropes Torchwood is able to create new knowledges through a queer deployment of those tropes. Just as its plots deploy the uncanny to frighten or discomfort its viewership (Rawcliffe 102), so too its “queer moments” disturb the waters of the desired sexual dichotomy (Sullivan 191).
I choose this path of argument because it seems to me that it is in the uncomfortable borderlands of the cultural productions these disciplines study where knowledge is being produced in the television viewership every week. In undertaking this particular work, I take seriously Nikki Sullivan’s assertion that “queering popular culture…involves critically engaging with cultural artefacts in order to explore the ways in which meaning and identity is (inter)textually (re)produced” (190). I understand both the queer themes of Torchwood and my current explorations of themes, both explicitly queer and not, as operating within this ideological construction of “queering popular culture.” I choose to engage in this project, centered around a popular culture (and for much of its life, subcultural) text, because of a personal and observed belief in the power of stories in shaping the world we live in.
Indeed, the power of fictional stories in the development of people’s beliefs is shared by Robin Wright, documents in her work the ways in which adult education teachers have been able to use fiction to challenge hegemonic cultural perspectives, as well as the way the television we watch aids in perpetuating hegemonic political discourse
(Wright). This belief is also reinforced by scientific research, for example, one such study “concluded that the use of fiction…to introduce a socio-scientific issue in the classroom stimulates students to develop their opinion-forming skills” (Knippelsab, Severiensa and Klopa). Although this is hardly an exhaustive list in corroboration of my previously articulated assertion, these texts combined with the way in which we use stories and folk tales in the education of children and in everyday relations with each other suggest to a satisfactory extent the marked significance of stories. Thus, my stakes in this work is high, as like Wright, I see in the stories we tell the potential for authoring and disseminating “alternative scripts for human interactions the promote liberty, equality, intellectual growth and community” (Wright 50).
It is also important here, at the outset, to address my positionality in relation to the texts discussed and the project at large. While Torchwood is a UK-based television show, it also has a significant following based in the United States, which is where this author is also based. While in conceptualizing this project I had hoped to include a detailed portion addressing the “originary” cultural context Torchwood circulated in, such work was beyond the scope of this particular essay. In addition, while I believe such research would be both fruitful and interesting, the role of the Internet in the distribution of visual media such as Torchwood (both legally through such platforms as Hulu and Netflix, and illegally through organizations like The Pirate Bay) cannot be ignored. For better or for worse the Internet has facilitated a contemporary situation in which national borders are as meaningless as the work its citizens are willing to do to distribute the media they love (copyright be damned).
Therefore, avid viewers of BBC programs like Doctor Who and Torchwood outside of the UK can quite easily obtain viewing copies of such episodes shortly after they air, if they are so inclined. In a parallel to this reality, online fan communities are able (and do) interact with each other in something quite similar to real time, whether the cable company in their country of residence provides them access to these shows, or not. Thus, circulation of these texts has largely not been a “UK-first” situation, American, Australian and other English-speaking regions have participated in these transnational communities contemporaneously with their United Kingdom counterparts. It is amongst these non-UK but contemporary watchers in which I reside as well, both as fan and internet-public critic.
By way of introduction to the narrative of my central text I will point out that BBC Wales’ Torchwood is identified as a science fiction show. It contains paranormal entities, “alien tech,” aliens themselves, an Elaborate Underground Base
(TV Tropes) and a leading man who has been rendered immortal; all familiar tropes to the science fiction geek. The series is named for the organization around which the plot revolves: a sort of alien-hunting “special ops” team. It is also an anagram for “Doctor Who,” its parent show. In the pilot episode of the series viewers are introduced to the Torchwood Institute through the character of Gwen Cooper, a constable with the Cardiff police who runs across the Torchwood team and semi-clandestinely observes their work. On this particular day, that work constitutes using alien technology to bring a dead man back to life for two minutes as an experiment in the boundaries of usage of said tech.
Called out to by the team’s leader (always a surprise when one believes they were observing these actions in secret) and shocked and confused by what she has seen, Gwen runs from the scene to collect her thoughts. Yet the next day she is thrust back into Torchwood’s world when she runs into a Weevil (a somewhat humanoid but not at all human alien species) in a cordoned off hospital corridor. If she was curious about Torchwood before, she is now obsessed, and begins to systematically pursue any lead she can find to unearth this mysterious organization, with eventual success. Thus it is that the audience is able to piece together something about the people and activities of Torchwood; a team and institution we are to learn is “separate from the government, outside the police, beyond the United Nations,” “way beyond classified,” and seemingly answerable to no one (Davies and Gardner, “Everything Changes”).
While the mystique of the Torchwood team fades somewhat after this initial introduction into the familiar ensemble cast atmosphere of something between Star Trek, Law and Order and Castle, the team’s leader remains shrouded in mystery throughout season one and for the most part season two as well. Brash, witty, flirtatious, “omnisexual” and immortal; Captain Jack Harkness is clearly something unique, even in this unusual environment. This unique element to his character is made clear in two instances during the pilot. First, in a short monologue the audience (if not necessarily Gwen, that is unclear) is privy to: “Estrogen. Definitely Estrogen. You take the pill, flush it away, it enters the water cycle, feminizes the fish. Goes all the way up into the sky and then falls all the way back down onto me. Contraceptives in the rain. Love this planet! Still, at least I won’t get pregnant. Never doing that again” (Davies and Gardner, “Everything Changes”). Although Captain Jack plays a familiar heroic leader role throughout the episode, we are given hints here that he is definitely not-of-this-world, despite looking and sounding like an otherwise “normal” American man.
The second revelation about Jack’s non-normalness occurs near the end of the pilot, when he is shot in the forehead at close range and a minute later stands up, the bullet hole healing itself as we (as well as Gwen) watch. Although it is not explicitly laid out in the episode in this way, the introduction of Jack’s immortality is diegetically important, reflecting what is to be a central theme of the series: what does it mean that this man who cannot die leads an organization whose operatives generally do not survive longer than five years in the job (Davies and Gardner, “Day Three”)? These themes will be returned to in later discussions juxtaposing Captain Jack Harkness and Jack Bauer, however, I turn now to a much talked about element of Torchwood heretofore only hinted at: sexuality.
“Pleasure and desire were called to account for themselves, to step forth and offer an explanation. Sexuality was no longer just the great secret but something that held great meaning, which Science and Reason could unlock” – Riki Wilchins 
An explanation for pleasure and desire is something that is never asked for in the world of Russel T. Davies’ Torchwood. Totally unlike its almost asexual parent show, Doctor Who, all of the characters on Torchwood are unapologetically, actively, sexual. But unlike so many other shows which feature sexuality as a key component of their makeup that active sexuality is never “called to account” – it is simply allowed to exist in its own right. This is significant because queer (here defined as sexually “non-normative” in some way) characters in other television shows commonly have to pay (physically or emotionally) for their culture norm transgressions at some point. For example, although often hailed as ground breaking and progressive, the relationship of Tara and Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer caused many to called foul when seemingly out of nowhere the one queer/lesbian couple on one hit show at the time was decimated by Tara’s on-screen murder (Roc, Diaz and Varkentine). Many fans saw Tara’s death as reiterating a cultural narrative of punishment for her queer status, despite Joss Whedon’s claims to “equal opportunity killing” of popular characters for dramatic effect or heart-rending storytelling (the so-called “Love Hurts” trope
As articulated by Kyra Roc, fans reacted this way to Tara’s death because “the show doesn't exist in a "vacuum" -- it exists in the context of a television landscape where lesbians always end up evil or dead, and in the context of a society where prejudice against lesbians is endemic” (Roc, Diaz and Varkentine). In contrast, Captain Jack and his cohort are never punished because of their sexual expressions, despite a cultural and television landscape within the UK that is openly hostile towards when not utterly dismissive of bisexual characters and bisexuality (Brewer, et. al) (_resuscitation). Although a potentially similar situation to the Tara incident arose during Torchwood: Children of Earth in the death of Ianto Jones (a popular partner of Jack’s), the narrative around Ianto’s death is clearly about targeting Jack’s recklessness (a behavioral pattern seemingly linked to his immortality). As I will discuss later on, this is one such moment where Jack’s tendency towards heroic individualistic actions actively harm those around him, thus enforcing a narrative of the importance of his team around him to constrain his actions (strikingly absent from Children of Earth, where the team had been reduced by untimely deaths in season two to only three members).
Just as the characters of Torchwood are not punished for their sexual identities and/or activities, neither are they defined by them. In fact, sexuality as identity is even playfully criticized by Captain Jack in the second episode of the series with the famous quote, “You people and your quaint little categories” (Davies and Gardner, “Day One”). This idea of the “category-less-ness” of the Torchwood universe is made explicit when, as his sister informs Ianto Jones that she has discovered his relationship with Jack Harkness, Ianto is able to tell her that “it’s not men, it’s just him…and I don’t even know what ‘it’ is really” – and this response makes perfect sense within the bounds of this universe. Similar sexual ambiguity occurs throughout the show, seemingly “straight” characters are seen “snogging” members of the same or similar gender, and the seemingly predominantly gay Jack is discovered to have partnered and even married women in the past. These repeated occurrences of sexual fluidity make our “quaint little categories” of sexual identity utterly meaningless within these bounds. Thus it is in part through sexuality that Torchwood queers not only science fiction television by deploying sex alongside the familiar tropes of an often sexless genre, but also queers the immensely popular (and totally heteronormative) crime procedural format by deploying moments of queer sexuality alongside familiar tropes of that genre as well.
Now that these ideas are established with some confidence it is time to turn to the role of neoliberalism in these deployment of tropes in creation of disidentificatory narratives. Roderick Ferguson points out that “the will to institutionality is founded on divisions between legitimacy and illegitimacy. For example, capital and the academy have to work through and with difference in the global moment if they can claim any integrity at all” (167). While Ferguson is discussing the will to institutionality in the context of the neoliberal academy, his ideas of legitimacy, illegitimacy and working through and with difference can be applied to the cultural institution of television as well. In the case of television, one would expect the role of the “omnisexual,” pansexual, or bisexual character to be that of difference as contained as possible.
Indeed, Brewer et al. addresses this in their work by discussing the way in which bisexual characters are belittled in their roles, or presented as non-serious or specifically flawed in some way when they are represented at all, which is rare in of itself. Like Kyra Roc’s observation of a heavy representation of “killer lesbians” as a common portrayal, Brewer observes that “if explicitly bisexual characters are represented in fiction, then they tend to be promiscuous, wicked people…it is not safe to be a bisexual or to be in the company of people who are" (Brewer et al. 146). Yet this sort of portrayal is not what Torchwood is comprised of at all, despite the hostile atmosphere from which is emerges. Thus we see a picture developing of how this disidentificatory televisual practice is undermining neoliberal homonormativity.
“We are never simply consumers of popular cultural texts, but in and through our very ‘reading’ of them we actively (re)create them.” – Nikki Sullivan 
I turn now to my constructive juxtaposition to look more deeply into the neoliberal themes addressed previously, as well as those which have only been hinted at thus far. On the surface Torchwood and 24 look like very similar shows: both revolve around white, masculine, good-looking American men (named Jack) who are troubled by the cost of the leadership position they occupy and who work from their own moral system for what they see as the greater good. Although they sound quite similar so far, in fact their most fundamental differences can be found in their supposed similarities. Jack Bauer and his universe are strikingly heteronormative and intolerant of difference. His is a masculinity cultivated out of hardness and inflexibility, like his unwavering belief that no matter how difficult and painful, he is always working for what is right (saving people’s lives and conveniently propping up the nation). In contrast, while Jack Harkness can hardly be categorized as feminine, his is a masculinity explicitly founded on flexibility, adaptability, and humor, as well as a frankness about sex that would be unimaginable in Jack Bauer’s universe.
Similarly, although Harkness often works with a brash certainty that the path he is on is correct, this is also tempered by a self-knowledge of his own weaknesses. It is this self-knowledge that draws him to Gwen, a person he sees as grounding him, challenging him to remember the importance of compassion in dealing with the people (and aliens) they run across in their work (Wright 57). Notably, Jack Bauer refuses the development of such reliance on another person in his work, keeping even his own daughter at arm’s length for fear of harm coming to her through him. Unlike Jack Harkness, Bauer never considers that by keeping those who might ground him in the mundane that his perspective becomes so skewed as to cause harm to them (and others) anyway.
In looking at the different universes Jack Bauer and Captain Jack Harkness act within Robin Wright observes that “the extradiegetic story for Torchwood is one that directly contrasts that of 24” (Wright 57). In other words, amidst the contrasts and similarities discussed above, the messages these shows produce are radically different ones. 24’s message is one of “the age-old battle between good and evil, with the United States as good and terrorists as evil. It is a narrowly ethnocentric, even bigoted fable that posits anyone opposed to an uncritically represented U.S. as evil” (Wright 54), whereas in Torchwood “right and wrong are contextualized and critically examined [and] the lines between them are often blurred” (Wright 57). Within these different messages one can find narratives of the neoliberal nation, specifically, causing tension.
The character of Jack Bauer works directly for the United States government in a fictional entity called “CTU” (Counter Terrorist Unit) which serves as an in-story proxy for a direct-action sort of Homeland Security office. In addition, although Bauer regularly defies orders and works outside “proper channels” his vocalized motives are always those of the patriot working in service to his nation. As mentioned earlier, Jack Harkness’ purview is specifically designated as “outside the government.” But, more than that, Harkness has at significant times been seen to work against the government and supposed “national interest.” To be clear, while Bauer may work against some government employees or indeed be insubordinate, his “greater good” is always conceptualized as that of serving the nation through patriotic duty, while Harkness sees the greater good as working for the good of humanity as a whole. What look like very similar actions on the part of both characters thus produce a subtle, but markedly different, message to the viewing audience.
In addition, I return to the idea of “the team.” The import of the role of the team in these universes is not only that Bauer keeps everyone as arm’s length (or that Harkness does the same at times) but what these narratives tells us in a larger sense about “teams.” As with the other elements of diegetic character and extradiegetic plot previously discussed, teams and teamwork can look quite similar in both shows, and yet are quite different. The similarities lie in the way both Jack’s pursue their own interests, running away from their teams to do so. In this, both characters display a penchant for the “heroic individualism” so coveted by audiences of action movies and Westerns. This is, quite markedly, the Liberal/Enlightenment subject, whole and capable of action, not dependent on their community for realization. Similarly, this is “a straightforwardly Imperial Gothic paradigm…whereby a sense of a strong and integrated national identity is counterpoised to the horrific excesses of the alien other” (Blake). The role of the alien other is played by actual aliens (and corrupt human beings in position of government) in Torchwood and terrorists in 24. So far, so similar.
The difference in this similarity lies in what happens when each character chooses to pursue this individualistic path. In this, each universe doles out quite different results. In the world of 24, Jack Bauer is by far most successful when he works on his own. Although the members of the CTU team are often useful, working with them also tends to involve vital plans being leaked by moles, and Bauer being undermined by subordinates or repressed from above. The exception to this construction is the powerful people whose lives Bauer has saved and who thus trust him completely, sometimes providing access to otherwise inaccessible places or people, or getting him out of trouble. Thus, the team is often useful, but is also something to be used and discarded; the 24-hour case the show is named for is only solved when Bauer is allowed to act freely and alone as a fully integrated patriotic subject.
In contrast, Jack Harkness is at his best when he is working as a part of his team, and is never really consumed by the Imperial Gothic paradigm, despite the Torchwood Institute’s power deriving from the classic Imperial period. This is not to suggest that Harkness never pursues activities on his own (he often does) or that he is not individually heroic (he often is), but like Jack Bauer, Jack Harkness has a tendency to let his job consume him in a way that undermines his humanity and renders him capable of, at-best, morally gray actions. Where Jack Bauer thrives and triumphs in this environment (though certainly with personal emotional and physical costs) it is made clear repeatedly throughout Torchwood that for Jack Harkness these “Cowboy Cop”
(TV Tropes) moments are reckless and incredibly dangerous to those around him. Thus while “going it alone” on 24 produces a clear narrative of “the ends justify the means” as correct and heroic, similar actions on Torchwood are presented critically and the value of a team with people coming from different perspectives challenging each other and working together is held up as heroic instead.
Nowhere is this more explicit than in the episode “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” wherein Harkness’ past comes back to haunt him in the form of Captain John Hart. This is Jack Harkness’ doppelganger, “he’s Captain Jack all over again but darker, twisted”
(Frankel 61). Everything about Hart is Harkness to a sinister extreme, described as “the way Jack could have gone [and] made a very conscious decision to move away from” by the episode’s writer (Wilkes). In this episode, Hart tries to con the Torchwood team, kills Harkness and almost murders Gwen, all in pursuit of a money-making scheme. In the end it takes the entire team working together to defeat Hart, with the reliable “Big Damn Heroes” trope (TV Tropes) thrown in for tension and some additional meta-fun (John Hart comments beforehand “What's the point of being on a team if you don't get a last minute rescue?”) (Davies and Gardner, “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”). Put bluntly, Jack Bauer would never have survived this interaction with John Hart, because every tactic that works for Bauer would have backfired here.
Continually haunting these portrayals and narratives is the ghost of neoliberalism. Aspects of this haunting can be found in Jack Bauer’s “ends justify the means” attitude towards his work and Jack Harkness’ flexibility in sexuality, as just two examples. Also, both CTU and the Torchwood Institute are presented as a place of expertise, “expertise…presented as separate from politics and culture”
(Duggan XIV), a hallmark of neoliberal thinking. Drawing from the previous discussion of Jack Harkness’ doppelganger John Hart, it is Jack’s flexibility, his ability to adapt to the requirements of each unique scenario (to “improvise” as colleague Owen Harper puts it), which allows him to save his team (he of course survives as he always will, because he is immortal). While Jack Bauer displays cunning and resilience in the face of the threats he faces on 24, there is no such flexibility displayed by his character. Faced with an enemy, Bauer does not consider multiple options or attempt to adapt the way Harkness does, he simply tortures someone (not always the “bad guy”) until he gets the information he needs. To anyone who has not viewed the show this characterization may seem hyperbolic, however, given that 24 “[shows] a torture scene every 1.8 episodes” (Wright 55) it seems little more than factual. This is another moment where Torchwood acts within the “borderlands” of Disidentification, embodying traits and narratives lauded by political neoliberal thought and turning them against the hegemony 24 replicates.
In summary, in this project I have examined how Torchwood queers the genres from which is draws its tropes and what the queering of those genres produces. In contrasting Torchwood with 24 I have shown how similar tropes can be deployed in very different ways, and have discussed the role of neoliberalism in those deployments. Yet, Torchwood is a complicated, multi-layered show, and its newest season comes across the pond in a joint effort between BBC and Starz. In a country where 24 reigned as highly popular for almost a decade, will this queer show be forced to bend to the will to institutionality? Or is it possible that the disidentificatory televisual practice the series developed over three seasons in the UK might queer US television in a way we have yet to imagine? I’m sure I have just scratched the surface in this essay; there will be much left to talk about when Torchwood hits our screens once more.
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 A word seemingly invented by Doctor Who/Torchwood creator Russel T. Davies, “omnisexual” has been used as interchangeable with “bisexual” by some although “pansexual” would be a more appropriate corollary. In short, “omnisexual” indicates that Captain Jack is attracted to human beings and aliens of all genders. During the introduction of the character on Doctor Who (from which Torchwood is a spin-off) The Doctor explains Jack this way: “He's a fifty-first century guy. He's just a bit more flexible when it comes to 'dancing'...by his time, you lot are spread out across half the galaxy…so many species, so little time” (Davies, Gardner, and Young, “The Doctor Dances”).