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).