Themes in Torchwood

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Science fiction program Torchwood discusses many themes in its narratives, specifically dealing with LGBT themes associated with its homosexual and bisexual characters and their problems, with various characters portrayed as sexually fluid. Certain characters offer varying perspectives on orientation, although the nature of Jack, Ianto and Toshiko's sexual flexibility is not discussed explicitly.

In addition to this, there is some discussion of the value of human life, the corrupting nature of power and of existentialism through parallels drawn between characters with the repetition of thematically important lines in the course of series one, although series two saw a significant shift from the original theme of corruption to one of redemption.

Homosexuality and bisexuality[edit]

Torchwood deals with several LGBT themes, specifically bisexuality. Each of the main characters in Torchwood has same-sex encounters at some point in the first season.[1] Series creator Russell T. Davies has said that he hopes to defy audience expectations of monosexual characters:

Without making it political or dull, this is going to be a very bisexual programme. I want to knock down the barriers so we can't define which of the characters is gay. We need to start mixing things up, rather than thinking, 'This is a gay character and he'll only ever go off with men.'[1]

Harkness' actor, John Barrowman, has said of Jack:

He'll shag anything with a hole. Jack doesn't categorise people: if he fancies you, he'll do it with you.[2]

Similarly, Toshiko Sato describes Jack as someone who'll "shag anybody as long as they're gorgeous enough!". The essential Cult TV reader writes that because Jack, Owen, Ianto and Toshiko's homosexual dalliances occur "without any debate or angst", they form part of an attempt to "naturalize bisexuality", appearing to "deliberately refute and deny... gay, straight [and] bi": "a progressive challenge to contemporary ideologies of sexuality".[3]

In "Everything Changes", Ianto Jones jokingly refers to Jack's appreciation of his good looks in a suit as sexual harassment. In "Cyberwoman" the pair share a kiss, although it is essentially a kiss of life, it is not done in the normal way, and resembles a kiss of lust rather than of life.[citation needed] At the end of "They Keep Killing Suzie", Ianto subtly presents Jack with a sexual proposition, which the latter appears only to understand after a few seconds - he accepts by telling Ianto to meet him in his office in ten minutes, once the rest of the team have left the Hub. This is again alluded to in the Instant Messenger Transcript provided on the official website, which represents a conversation between the pair in the time remaining before their tryst.[4] Ianto and Jack's relationship is referred to by Owen in "Captain Jack Harkness" when he calls Ianto Jack's 'part-time shag'. Their relationship is displayed for the first time in "End of Days" in which Ianto and Jack kiss after finding Jack is alive. Also during this episode, Ianto is clearly distraught when finding out Jack is dead, and smells his coat, reminiscent of gay cowboy film, "Brokeback Mountain".[citation needed] This relationship develops further in Series 2 with Jack asking Ianto out on a date ("Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"), the pair sharing an intense kiss ("To the Last Man") and Gwen walking in on them during some kind of sexual activity ("Adrift"). The other characters also allude to their relationship; most specifically Owen ("A Day in the Death") and Gwen ("Something Borrowed") and ("From Out of the Rain").

While Ianto becomes comfortable hinting on things going on while in bed with Jack around the other team members, he is uncomfortable to do so out of the Hub as Children of Earth shows. In Series 3 he gets uncomfortable when strangers suggest that he and Jack are a couple, is offended when an elderly man under Torchwood protection refers to him as "the queer over there". At first he even tries to avoid the subject when talking to his sister, before confessing that while he is not attracted to men in general, he indeed has a relationship with Jack. However, as the end of the 4th episode of "Children of Earth" suggest, Ianto was only able to tell Jack that he loved him when Ianto knew he was dying.

Earlier in "They Keep Killing Suzie", Jack claims to have had a sexual relationship with twin brothers, both acrobats; however, it is unclear whether he is speaking sincerely or simply trying to distract Gwen from asking difficult questions. However, in series two, Jack remarks to Owen that when you have been alive as long as he has "you don't make any more up" while they are in police custody in the episode "Dead Man Walking", implying that the many past relationships he refers to are genuine.

In "Captain Jack Harkness", a subplot of the episode revolves around Jack's namesake's sexual orientation. His uneasy behaviour and his dismay at having convinced his girlfriend that they were in love combined with his flirtatious interaction with Jack suggested he was gay and trapped in an unwanted heterosexual relationship, unable to come out in his era. At the episode's climax, at a dance and knowing he was going to die the next day, the two Jacks danced and kissed, to the amazement of the 1940s guests all around them, before they had to part.

In "Everything Changes", Owen Harper seduces a woman and then her boyfriend using alien technology. Gwen Cooper has a boyfriend, but she reciprocates the advances of a sex-driven alien in a woman's body in "Day One", albeit under the influences of alien-enhanced pheromones. Later in that episode, when the possessed woman attempts to absorb the orgasmic energy of various men at a sperm bank, one of them briefly protests that he's gay. Toshiko also exhibits bisexual behaviour: she has an interest in her teammate, Owen, but in "Greeks Bearing Gifts" she has a sexual relationship with "Mary".



Torchwood contains numerous existentialist themes including the meaning of life and the possibility of an afterlife. Suzie Costello tells Gwen in "They Keep Killing Suzie" that there is no meaning to life and that "we're just animals howling in the night." The nihilistic Mark Lynch describes his fellow regulars at the Weevil "fight club" as "ordinary blokes trying to find meaning in a world that doesn't have any" - hence their hobby of cage-fighting tortured captive Weevils. Mark Lynch tells Owen that the latter are not aliens but what "we" (i.e. humans, or perhaps only men) will be in a thousand years, "when we have nothing left but our rage." Toshiko also compares humans to Weevils when the pendant Mary gives her allows her to read minds causing her to fall into deep depression and utter disappointment with existence.

The issue of mortality is also a common existentialist theme in Torchwood, raised through repeated discussion of and reference to the possibility or impossibility of an afterlife. For example, episode one features Jack questioning a recently deceased, though temporarily resurrected, man on the afterlife, who is shocked to discover he can remember nothing. Episode three, "Ghost Machine" presented the scientific view that ghostly phenomena were due to imprints of strong emotions on time. In "They Keep Killing Suzie", Suzie Costello, a recurring villain, states she can remember nothing having been resurrected. She says that "there's something moving in the dark" and it is after Jack. During episode eleven, "Combat", Mark Lynch also tells Owen about something coming "in the darkness." In episode ten, "Out of Time", Jack warns a suicidal man that on the other side there is absolutely nothing: "It just goes black." In episode 9 "Random Shoes", Eugene Jones dies but remains on earth as a ghost until he has saved the life of and subsequently kissed Gwen Cooper, with whom he was in love: this done, he is able to "move on", ascending - the final frame is black; it is left unclear what this symbolises. In "Dead Man Walking", having been resurrected, Owen remembers nothing but blackness during his time dead, but he also speculates that the living "aren't supposed to remember", explicitly suggesting for the first time that there might be more to the afterlife than the characters remember and they simply never recall it because their minds can't fully process it (Similar to how Spock told McCoy in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home that it would be impossible to discuss what he experienced while he was dead "without a common frame of reference").

In the season finale, "End of Days", Jack expresses existentialist sentiments regarding the religious referring to the apocalypse. Continuing the ghost theme carried in several episodes of Torchwood, what appear to be the spirits of Lisa and Toshiko's mother appear, as well as Diane who may be dead or trapped in another time. Toshiko's mother warned of something "coming in the darkness", as Suzie Costello had done before. It is left unclear whether these were spirits or the machinations of the villain, Bilis Manger, as they urged Torchwood staff to do as he desired. In the episode's climax, biblical demon Abaddon is released from his prison beneath the Rift only to be defeated by Jack.

This is contrasting with optimistic themes presented in parent series Doctor Who, where frequently the idea of life being "beautiful", and individual existence being significant is touched upon. Also contrasting in Doctor Who are the explicit examples of destiny and theism in the narrative, presented by the characters of the Black Guardian and White Guardian (both of whom are apparently representatives of an even higher power) and the Beast, who claims to have been imprisoned by a group called the 'Disciples of the Light,' a name that echoes traditional Christian and Zoroastrian theology.

Christian imagery[edit]

Although Torchwood has an existentialist view of life, there are several pointed moments with Christian symbolism. In one episode Captain Jack offers himself as a sacrifice to a satan figure to save the world, and his loyal followers wait faithfully for his resurrection. In the episode that explores how memory defines us, Jack's team sits around a large table in a tableau that recalls the Last Supper. One by one, Jack gives each the sacrament of a short term amnesia pill which will save them from the "death" of being filled with false memories that are threatening to forever alter their real selves. Of course, while Jesus said of his sacrament, "do this in memory of me", Jack's instructions are more along the lines of "take this and remember who you are." But it is clear that Jack's sacrifices, his deeply professed love of his entire team, and his ability to forgive them for their trespasses against him— even Owen who has actually shot and killed him— are Christ-like attributes. This idea was further reflected in Torchwood: Miracle Day where Jack was briefly returned to mortality while the rest of the human race were trapped in a state of immortality where they continued to age, get sick and sustain injuries without actually dying; in order to save the human race from this state of potential perpetual agony and the rule of the mysterious 'Three Families' who had triggered this immortality, Jack allowed Gwen to shoot him in the heart in the final episode, triggering the reversal of humanity's forced immortality without Jack knowing if his actions would also restore his immortality in the process.

Discussing similar themes in Doctor Who, Russel T Davies stated:

"The series lends itself to religious iconography because the Doctor is a proper saviour. He saves the world through the power of his mind and his passion."[5]

Value of human life[edit]

In several episodes, particularly revolving around the character of Jack Harkness, the value of human life is touched upon with Jack depicted as willing to sacrifice, murder and assist in suicide in several episodes. Episode four, "Cyberwoman", has him kill Ianto's girlfriend Lisa, with full certainty she was no longer human. In "Countrycide", he tells one of the cannibal villagers that he used to be a professional torturer, though of course this may simply be a lie calculated to intimidate the man. In "They Keep Killing Suzie", Jack riddles Suzie Costello with bullets, claiming responsibility for her death - "Death by Torchwood".

In the second season, continuing the idea of redemption in the series, Jack's newfound appreciation for life following his reunion with the Doctor is shown when he attempts to rescue the space whale from the group who have imprisoned it and are cutting up its flesh for meat, as well as his anger at Owen when Owen is forced to kill the creature out of mercy when it is further injured. In "Dead Man Walking", following his resurrection, Owen encourages a young boy dying of leukaemia not to give up on life no matter how scary the treatment might seem by telling him that sometimes death can be defeated. In the subsequent episode, "A Day in the Death", Owen convinces a woman not to commit suicide due to her grief over her dead husband by telling her that, if she can see even one faint glimmer of hope, life can't be as bad as she thinks. Although the team fails to prevent the Night Travellers from disposing of the last breaths of their victims in "From Out of the Rain", Jack nevertheless regards the mission as a success as they manage to save the life of a young boy, enthusiastically hugging the child after he awakens. Jack's compassion is further highlighted when he is shown to take care of those who have been sucked through the Rift in "Adrift", despite the fact that many of them have been horrifically physically and mentally damaged by what they have seen, preferring to help them enjoy the times when they are well rather than euthanise them. Despite his brother having become possibly hopelessly insane in "Exit Wounds", killing Tosh and (indirectly) Owen, Jack refuses to kill him after he has been defeated, instead putting him in cryopreservation in the hope of someday being able to help him, stating that there had been enough death that day.

In Children of Earth, the government concede to the 456's demands for ten percent of Earth's children as the alternative is to be completely destroyed, arguing that such a sacrifice is preferable to the alternative. The government previously sacrificed 12 children to the aliens in the 1960s in an effort to appease them, a project in which they had Jack's assistance. In the present day however, Jack refuses to give in to the 456's demands, constantly seeking an alternative solution as he claims "An injury to one is an injury to all. After the death of Ianto and the realisation that he is in no position to bargain with the 456, Jack agrees to sacrifice his own grandson Steven in order to kill the 456, also destroying his relationship with his daughter in the process.

During Miracle Day, when humanity becomes immortal, convicted murderer Oswald Danes is revealed to have a death wish himself- noting that he wants to go to Hell where 'all the bad girls are'- but nevertheless escapes when he learns that his current employers are planning to have him 'executed' by burning him alive, showing that his death wish has its limits and he does not want to die in agony. Despite knowing that ending the Miracle will end the lives of those they care about, such as Gwen's father Geriant Cooper and new team member Esther Drummond, Jack, Gwen and Rex all act to end the Miracle as they recognize that giving the Three Families who created the Miracle the power of life and death over all mankind is wrong, putting mankind's freedom above individual human lives.


Continuing the theme of the value of human life, Jack's immortality is presented as a blessing and a curse. While he has often used it to save lives, such as entering dangerous environments or allowing others to kill him so that he can take action later, it is often implied that Jack would like to die, such as when he noted that he had never felt more alive when he was unsure if Lisa Hallet would be able to kill him ("Cyberwoman"). He also seems sympathetic when others wish to end their own lives: in "Out of Time" he holds the hand of a man who wants (but is afraid) to die, and in "Combat" he turns his back to allow Mark Lynch to surrender himself into the claws of a Weevil. Jack confirms his desire to die in "Utopia" when talking to the Tenth Doctor, but also states that seeing the Utopians as they fight to survive against all the odds has reminded him of what it means to be truly human. Despite this, Jack's immortality still troubles him at times, such as when faced with his daughter, Alice, who nevertheless looks older than he is and will die of old age while he remains the same (Torchwood: Children of Earth), and he notes that the process of resurrection is like being dragged over nails and broken glass.

When the whole world becomes immortal and Jack becomes mortal (Torchwood: Miracle Day), society quickly begins to fall apart as hospitals cannot cope with the new injuries. Unlike Jack's immortality, people are simply incapable of dying while their ability to heal, age and/or become ill remains normal, resulting in people walking around with broken necks or new ally Rex Matheson suffering degrees of pain when he got a rebar through his chest on the day of the Miracle as he is forced to keep pushing himself physically; one woman is shown remaining conscious even after being crushed in a car compactor. The only means of killing anyone in this new world appears to be complete incineration, which is soon allocated for patients suffering from incurable conditions, such as Gwen's father who suffers a serious stroke after a series of heart attacks, or convicted criminals. In one episode, Jack discovers that an old lover of his, Angelo, had acquired a null field that allowed him to die despite the world's new state of immortality, but he disabled the field as he was concerned that giving anyone control of the field would be giving them control of life and death. Faced with the prospect of actually dying himself, Jack states his resolve to hang on to his life with everything he has ("Immortal Sins"), but willingly puts himself at risk to restore mortality to the world once the cause of this transformation is found, uncertain if his immortality will be restored at the same time ("The Blood Line").


Starting in episode one, with the character of Suzie Costello and continuing primarily with neophyte employee Gwen Cooper, the theme of corruption is present in the narrative, frequently drawing parallels between Suzie and Gwen. In the aforementioned pilot, Suzie comments on how you cannot go back from working for Torchwood, suggesting it has changed her, after she commits a series of murders and an eventual suicide. Later in the series, Gwen finds herself unable to tell her boyfriend Rhys about her double life, and finds herself drawn into a sexual relationship with teammate Owen in "Countrycide" - as had Suzie before her, revealed in "They Keep Killing Suzie". Gwen laments that as Suzie had said, Torchwood had changed her, and in "Greeks Bearing Gifts", she explained to Toshiko that she knew what she and Owen were doing was wrong, but that she had no intention of stopping.

In "They Keep Killing Suzie", the team is shocked to learn that Gwen is the only person other than Suzie who possesses a sufficient degree of empathy to operate the resurrection gauntlet. A resurrected Suzie explains she would drug people with amnesia pills to tell them about her life - in Combat, Gwen drugs Rhys as she confesses her affair with Owen so she can receive his forgiveness but not have to live with what she's done, echoing Suzie's actions. In the finale, "End of Days", after Rhys is murdered, Gwen fights Jack for the rift manipulator so that she may resurrect him, going as far as to hit Jack and even allow Owen to shoot him. In the episode's conclusion, with the rest of the team, she receives Jack's forgiveness as he understands she had been manipulated by villain, Bilis Manger.

Characters other than Gwen have had their morality tested. "Ghost Machine" depicts Owen filled with rage after experiencing a young woman's rape, capable of murdering her rapist. In Combat, having lost his lover Diane, Owen succumbs to a nihilistic underground belly in which he attempts suicide-by-Weevil. In "Greeks Bearing Gifts" Toshiko, consumed with the loneliness of her job and feeling isolated amongst her peers, accepts a gift from an alien which allows her to read her co-workers' thoughts. Ianto, unable to let his dying girlfriend go, risks the life of his entire team in "Cyberwoman", even threatening to one day betray his future lover, Jack. In "End of Days", Jack berates his entire team for their destructive personal lives, at which point Owen shoots him, answering questions as to whether or not Owen is actually capable of murder.


By contrast to the first season, the second season focused significantly on the theme of redemption, as characters grew beyond past mistakes to become better than they were. The most obvious example of this is Gwen's relationship with Rhys, as she now willingly admits to him what she does for a living and subsequently refuses to slip him an amnesia pill, thus increasing his involvement in her life. Owen also shows himself to be capable of rising above his cynicism in the first season, realising after his death and resurrection that life can be a wonderful thing after he discovers a message from another civilisation who detected Earth's old attempts to contact extraterrestrial life and sent a response. Ianto is redeemed within season one's story arc, his deception with Lisa slowly fading away as he proves himself dedicated and loyal to the rest of the team. Jack in particular finally learns how to forgive himself for a past sin- when he accidentally lost his younger brother Gray during an alien attack- when he is reunited with his brother. Driven mad by his long imprisonment, Gray buries Jack alive for over eighteen hundred years before Jack is rescued by Torchwood and put into cryopreservation in order to ensure that the timeline proceeds unchanged. Despite having spent hundreds of years buried alive, Jack's first actions upon awakening in the present and seeing Gray are to forgive Gray for what he has done to him. Even when Gray states that he will never forgive Jack for losing him, Jack, refusing to give up hope on his brother, simply chloroforms him rather than killing him, leaving him in cryopreservation in the hope of someday being able to help him.

Even characters outside the main cast demonstrate the ability to redeem themselves; the earliest example is Tommy Brockless, a WW1 soldier suffering from shell shock and destined to be executed for cowardice, who sacrifices his life in his present to willingly spend nearly a century in cryosleep to await the day when he will save the world in the future, overcoming his fear at the last minute, thanks to his love for Toshiko. Beth Halloran, a young woman whose fiance is apparently killed in an alien attack, is revealed to be a member of Cell 114, a group of alien sleeper agents who program themselves with the identities of the races they invade to learn their secrets, but Beth nevertheless overcomes her programming in order to help the team defeat her 'comrades' in the invasion, subsequently forcing the team to shoot her to prevent her possibly endangering them in the future.

However, the most prominent character to redeem himself is Jack's former colleague in the Time Agency, Captain John Hart, who originally appears as a merciless killer in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", throwing Jack off a building and forcing the team to help him by threatening to blow up Gwen. However, in his return in "Fragments" and "Exit Wounds", his new attack on the team is revealed to be because he is being blackmailed by Gray to set off bombs throughout Cardiff and capture Jack due to Gray having molecularly bonded a bomb to his skin. With the bomb having been removed, John risks his life to help the team rescue Jack and defeat Gray, subsequently deciding to remain on Earth in the present and learn what Jack finds so fascinating about this time period.

Children of Earth forces Jack to confront an old sin from his past, when he was involved in a trade effort that gave twelve orphaned children to a race known only as the '456', with the 456 having returned to Earth and now seeking larger numbers of children. Although Jack is able to save the world, he is forced to sacrifice his lover Ianto and his grandson Steven to do so, prompting him to leave Earth as he is unable to cope with his grief.

The Doctor Who episode "The Sound of Drums" revealed that the Torchwood institute itself has been 'redeemed' by Jack, with Jack having rebuilt the organisation in the Doctor's honour after the Battle of Canary Wharf and the Dalek/Cybermen war to be a more benevolent organisation that actively seeks to help humans and aliens in peril rather than regarding all aliens as enemies regardless of their motives for being on Earth.

In the spin-off novel "The Twilight Streets", the character of Bilis Manger also goes on to redeem himself, revealing that his intention in awakening the demon Abaddon was to provide Abaddon with the strength to defeat the beings known as 'The Dark', subsequently enlisting the aid of the Torchwood team to stop the Dark in Abaddon's absence. As with all spin-off media, the canonicity of these events is unclear.


  1. ^ a b Martin, Daniel (October 2006). "Jack of Hearts". Gay Times (337).
  2. ^ Williams, Andrew (2006-11-02, hard copy 2006-11-03). "60 Second Interview : John Barrowman". Metro. Retrieved 2006-11-03. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. ^ Hills, Matt (2010). "Torchwood". The Essential Cult TV Reader. KY: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 275–281. ISBN 0-8131-2568-5.
  4. ^ Torchwood External Hub Interface - Jack and Ianto instant messenger transcript Archived 28 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Sherwin, Adam (21 December 2007). "Christians protest as Doctor Who is portrayed as messiah". The Times. London. Retrieved 25 May 2010.