Torchwood: The Fangirls' Delight

This is a guest column by Katherine F.

When the Ninth Doctor and his companion Rose Tyler ran into a charming bisexual conman by the name of Captain Jack Harkness, a squeal so high-pitched as to be audible only to dogs resounded throughout the Doctor Who-watching lands: the squeal of a million fangirls whose prayers had been answered. Jack was good-looking, he was witty, he was cool, he was charming, he kicked ass and took names; and, as if that wasn't enough, he was also flirtatious and openly bisexual.

Since he was a traveller through time and space with some experience of undercover work, this meant that he could feasibly be paired in fanfiction with just about any character from any source whatsoever (and indeed, a fanfiction challenge was begun some time ago with the theme "Captain Jack Harkness Sexes Up Everyone In Every Universe Ever"). It's not surprising that he became very popular very quickly.

Then came "The Parting of the Ways", in which Jack died and was brought back to life -- only to be left behind by Rose and the Doctor on Satellite Five with a bunch of corpses for company. Of course, this happened just after he kissed them both goodbye, which produced another squeal-audible-only-to-dogs and no doubt contributed yet more to Jack's popularity, but the fangirls were faced with a problem: what the hell was going to happen next? Was Jack stuck? How would he get off Satellite Five? Would he ever meet the Doctor and Rose again? And if so, what would he have to say to them, or they to him?

In between "The Parting of the Ways" and "The Christmas Invasion", it was announced that Jack would be back on our screens in a spinoff designed around him, to be entitled Torchwood. Again came the squeal-audible-only-to-dogs, to which I contributed. He was coming back, and he was going to get his very own show! How awesome was that?!

I can speak only for myself when I say that the second series of New Who was a bit of a disappointment, and that the total lack of Jack was a large part of that disappointment. He'd only been in five episodes, but he'd won my heart, and without him the Tardis lacked a certain sparkle. The series was not without interest, for the word "Torchwood" kept occurring, and in various episodes we got glimpses of what Torchwood might be like: in "Tooth and Claw", we saw that the Torchwood Institute was founded by Queen Victoria to fight aliens -- and bore the hallmarks of having been founded at the height of the British Empire: not only were Torchwood to fight aliens, they were to grab any alien technology they could and use it for the benefit of the Empire. In later episodes we got to see Torchwood in action -- not the Torchwood we'd see in Torchwood itself, but the institute's head office, big, gleaming, well-staffed, well-funded, highly competent, not to say capable of great ruthlessness.

And all of this was fascinating, but it felt frustrating to me. I wanted to see Torchwood, not just Torchwood. I wanted Jack back, damn it!

One of the oldest maxims of show business is "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait." Russell T. Davies seemed to have learned that lesson only too well. Once Torchwood hit BBC3, it had a ready-made audience: fans of Doctor Who, and people who weren't precisely Who fans but had still fallen in love with Jack Harkness. The Livejournal community torch_wood was created a year before the show was set to debut and had hundreds of members before a single episode had aired. (Its current membership stands at 1,585. Not bad for a show that hasn't aired outside the UK yet.) And then the show actually did air, and despite Jack's relative lack of carefree banter and a darkening of tone in his character as compared with how he had been on Doctor Who, which had many previously enthusiastic fans expressing reservations, the show seemed positively designed to make the fangirls squeal. In the very first episode, we have Jack making a reference to having been pregnant once (male pregnancy is an inexplicably common occurrence in fanfiction), Owen using some sort of alien pheremone spray to get people to have sex with him (again, the use of aphrodisiacs, or "sex pollen", as they tend to be called, is a favourite device, especially when a writer wants to get two characters to have sex and can't be bothered to come up with a plot), male/male kissing (delighting the slash lovers), and the casual use of the word "retcon" (this is the first time I've ever heard this word used outside a fannish context). In the second episode we have more sex pollen, female/female kissing, and Jack giving somebody a healing kiss and making a crack about how "the rest" would be even better (ah, the healing power of sex: where would fanfic be without it?).

At that stage, the show settled down a bit. Having established its utter cracktasticness, it was able to do a fairly straightforward story like "Ghost Machine", then to delve into its characters' moral and emotional depths with "Cyberwoman", while still treating its viewers to such delights as the image of a cyberwoman fighting a pterodactyl -- and really, what more could you possibly ask for?

There are many things wrong with Torchwood. The dialogue is often clichéd, the plots are frequently full of holes, there are inconsistencies and gaps in the explanations we're provided with, the crew of Torchwood Three appear to be far too incompetent to still be employed, and John Barrowman's acting is rather less impressive than we'd hoped on the basis of his appearances in Doctor Who. But none of that matters. Torchwood has enough straightforward quality that its cracks and imperfections only serve to make it more beloved of the fangirls, for fangirls love shows not just for their good qualities but for the opportunities they provide to engage creatively with what's on the screen. It isn't just the bisexuality and the use of tropes most often seen in fanfiction that makes Torchwood the drug of choice for the discerning fangirl: it's the creators' willingness to leave the stories and the world open-ended, with room for the viewers to speculate, to enlarge, to expand, to fill in the details in the background.

Torchwood is the fangirls' delight because it gives us so much fodder for our imaginations, and leaves so much room for them to run riot.

Posted by Drew Shiel at November 29, 2006 2:39 PM

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YAY! I love Torchwood.

...But that Doctor Who ep was called "Tooth and CLAW".

Posted by: yes, a fangirl. at December 1, 2006 7:49 AM

...I knew that! Honest, I did!

Erm. Drew, can you fix that so I look like less of a moron? :)

Posted by: Katherine F. at December 3, 2006 12:07 AM

Did any of you cry at the near end of Captian Jack Harkness. Because I' did. The dance between Jack and his namesake was heartbreaking and beautiful.

Posted by: Rawana at January 15, 2007 4:52 PM

I choke up when jack and jack 1.0 were dancing. I wish he could have a recurring love interest. My Mom was totally shock that they showed a real man on man kiss.

Posted by: Andrea at November 28, 2007 7:53 AM