Torchwood and Nostalgia
I was streaming a lot of the 2005 Doctor Who (BBC) series in 2011 (because that’s what doctoral candidates who are trying to write their dissertations do?). Aside from the Doctor, I would most like to marry Martha Jones, though Rose Tyler is an awesome Doctor companion. In the second series (in the UK, seasons are series–get this, in the UK they expect a show to have a narrative arc and therefore each season is a series!), the Doctor and Rose Tyler meet Captain Jack Harness. He’s cheeky, bombastic, good looking, ridiculous: American (though the actor who plays him, John Barrowman, was born in the UK but was raised in the U.S.). Jack Harness is stereotypically debonaire and reminds of me an Elizabethan braggadocio character – a lot of hot air, good looks, but more an impediment to the resolution of the plot than anything else. And that Jack Harness is: he is not quite an impediment to plot resolutions but, unfortunately and interestingly, he is often at the root of the problem; his past actions set in motion events that he will later have to clean up and/or redeem, though he can’t often do so. We learn that Jack Harness is polysexual (I say that because it seems that he’ll sleep with any gender of any species, so there you have it), and he seems to develop a crush on the Doctor. Steeped in sci fi, I was surprised to see bisexuality represented on a sci fi show–and so nicely matter of fact. Whatever the appeal (the actor is very handsome, almost to the point of looking artificial), the character and actor are so charismatic that the show Torchwood was developed with Jack as the leader of the Torchwood team, a team based in Cardiff whose mission is to protect the Earth (UK) against alien threats. The team has its own cast of pretty interesting characters: Gwen Cooper, Owen, Toshiko, and Ianto Jones.
What strikes me both about Doctor Who and Torchwood is that while the plots are interesting and action packed, the shows are very geared toward relationships and exploring the nuance of relationships. These shows are particularly good at tying the plot/problem they have to solve with the characters that have to solve them. They also expect a smart audience. In Torchwood, as the team solves the problem, characters will voice some of the conclusions the viewer might come up with herself and push beyond. The point is that you’re trying to solve the puzzle, just like them, and they really know their stuff. But it’s in the romantic entanglements that both characters and viewers delight and get stumped. I’ve already noted that Jack is bisexual (Torchwood is really set on Earth, and though we can argue about how many genders there are, the show really only has men and women as love objects), but all characters except Owen engage in same-sex action. What the show does with sexuality, then, is to make it so movable and fluid as to make it a given, not something to be solved.
Within that matter-of-fact fluidity, though, we are activated by gay love, or at least same-sex love, through the relationship of Captain Jack and Ianto Jones. Ianto Jones is adorable, by the way. Their relationship spans the first three seasons of the show, and at least in the last two seasons, it is a constant. However, because Jack is secretive and Ianto is professional (in his nicely tailored “smart” suits), their relationship is not center stage. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to be because it is not exceptional the way a gay plot might be in another show (I shudder at the ridiculous lesbian plot in The O.C.–bleargh!). We are treated to passionate kisses in aside moments, one character barging during a pre-sexy sexy scene (pants on), and other moments both sexual and romantic.
Weirdly, then, what makes this character pairing nostalgic for me is that the peripheral representation of same-sex love in this show reminds me of the kind we used to see in the 90s, where a movie would be “gay” if someone’s best friend’s sister or brother on tv was gay. At that time, and at that age (teens), I was hunting for any representation of gay love I could find but couldn’t find a thing, or at least not very much. My favorite movie at the time was the film version of E. M. Forster’s Maurice and that because it was so (unrealistically) romantic…but it lacked in passion (in a way that Edwardian period pieces do not these days). So Torchwood makes me hunt for these peripheral moments, and when I get them, I get passionate kisses and slow dances: I get passion and love. In a sci fi series. On tv. Completely flabbergasted by that. Of course, it is British tv, so that makes it less surprising. At any rate, the nostalgia is for a remembered sensation of a pleasure that came from finding something but fleetingly because it was so taboo. The pleasure now comes from the fleeting moment that is normal, that can be fully real in the same way the other relationships in the show are portrayed. Captain Jack is a man plucked from the 51st century and has been on Earth since the nineteenth century waiting for the Doctor to return. He is, as the Doctor says, a fixed point in time and space. Because of his longevity and the tasks before him, everything is fleeting: he outlives most of his partners while on Earth. The thematic unity between the Jack-Ianto plot is at the heart of the Torchwood/Doctor Who theme of being both a traveler through time and space but also, because of it, being out of sync of both. The Doctor and Jack’s permanent state is one of loss and nostalgia, even though they focus, of course, on the present and fleeting. In this way, those of us who are “out of sync” notice the powerful same-sex relationship, but the show of course speaks to everyone as this theme is reworked through other characters and many of their adventures.
I realize blog posts should not be this long, and I apologize. But I think the fragmentariness and fleeting quality of this love plot in Torchwood produce and reflect nostalgia, a nostalgia organic to the show but also organic to what it is to be human in the 21st century. I can’t tell you how the love affair ends—it’s a doozy, but this show doesn’t have good writing for a sci fi show. It just has good writing.
Originally published on 21 Mar 2011