(Re)Discovering Empathy With Torchwood

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been re-watching Torchwood. (By “re-watching” I mean going on hours-long Torchwood binges.) Because of my bitterness about the death of practically everyone (Ianto in particular, first time around) and how the end of Children of Earth made me dislike Jack, I vowed to kick the Torchwood habit forever. Miracle Day and its whole being-on-Starz-and-set-in-America thing made me even less interested. (Call me old fashioned, but it’s just not Torchwood to me if I can’t hear those Welsh vowels from someone other than Gwen and Rhys.) I was so upset and disinterested in the show that I didn’t even want to watch the old episodes.

That changed after I watched an episode of Doctor Who with Captain Jack in it. Suddenly I was overcome with nostalgia for Handsome Jack and his crew. So, I decided to shelve my years-old grief and enjoy the show like I did before, knowing all the while what heartbreak lurked in the future.

One thing I noticed this time around is how brilliantly most of the characters are drawn. Torchwood is a haven for blurry morals (my kinda place), with Captain Jack serving as the ultimate anti-hero. Jack does what he needs to do; he’s chaotic good incarnate. (Say what you’d like about Jack, but he’s always looking out for somebody.) He’s mean and kind and brutal and thoughtful all at once. (You know, like a real person.) He also seems to know exactly what he’s doing all the time, but as the show progresses, we see Jack as helpless and clueless as everyone else more and more often.

Gwen is also one of the most successful characters. There are times I want to punch Gwen in the face, but there are other times when I find her sympathetic. Again, sort of like a real person. When she confesses to Rhys about sleeping with Owen, but then drugs him so he’ll forget, I want to shake her, but I understand that sort of impulse, even though I’ve never cheated on my boyfriend with a co-worker and then given him an amnesia pill. The only time I couldn’t fathom her actions was during “Adrift,” where she lies to and manipulates Andy for reasons I just don’t get.  But, you don’t always have to like a character for her to be well-drawn.

Even Tosh and Owen, who each seem a little like a stock character, have their characters fleshed out. Owen, like Gwen, I want alternately to punch in the face and to hug. This time around, Tosh was my favorite character, which probably has something to do with the fact that I never wanted to punch her in the face. She and Owen are so wonderfully human, which makes their deaths that much more heartbreaking.

And then there’s Ianto.

The first time I watched Torchwood, Ianto was my favorite, because he was adorable, efficient, angst-ridden, and secretly hilarious, and because I was in high school. As much as I love Ianto still, I think what prevented him from being my favorite character this time around is that they did very little to humanize him (cyberwoman girlfriend incident aside). Jack was practically always associated or a motivation. I was disappointed that in the episode where we learn of how everyone got recruited by Torchwood, Ianto’s story was how he stalked/obsessed over Jack until he got to prove himself in the warehouse with the pterodactyl. I wanted a glimpse into Ianto’s soul, and all I got was more Ianto x Jack fodder. (There’s nothing wrong with Ianto x Jack, but Tosh and Owen’s stories were really devastating and interesting, but Ianto’s was sort of pathetic and silly.)

Overall, though, the characterization is excellent, which is why I wish Russell T. could run all shows. All the characters were human, even the women. Russell T. and Joss Whedon are probably my dream team of TV/movie writers, because they understand both how to make characters human and that woman are people. (However, if they did work on a show together, someone would have to stop them from slaughtering all beloved characters.)

Another major component of why Torchwood is great is its sexuality. Ianto himself is bisexual, Jack is bi/pan/omnisexual, and Tosh is seduced by a woman without it being performative. All of these sexualities (including heterosexuality) are shown as normal and nothing shameful, which is really refreshing. For some, Torchwood may be overly frank in its relationship to sex, but at least people of non-hetero inclinations can see people like themselves on TV and like them. On TV, if not in real life, they can see total acceptance of their sexuality. And even though I just labeled a few of the characters, from what I remember, there is very little talk in the show about who has what sexual preference. No one agonizes over what preference Ianto is, if he had a girlfriend but also shags Jack, or if Tosh, having been seduced by a woman, is now less heterosexual. It doesn’t matter in Torchwood. All that matters is that you’re having sex with someone you enjoy being with.

Part of me wants to try the Starz season, but part of me is scared that the parts of Torchwood I love will be done all wrong, thanks to this puritanical country. (That, and I really do mean what I say about those Welsh vowels.) Even on a channel like Starz, I fear that the nonchalant acceptance of all sexualities will disappear. I’m scared that someone in the Starz world will force Russell T. to create less human characters, especially less human women characters. But I think I will try it, because if it is awful, I can just pretend it’s a different show called Torchwood, unaffiliated with the one I love. (I did this when watching the recent-ish movie version of Brideshead Revisited, and it worked.)

Regardless of whether I try the newest season or not, I will always have the original two seasons that, despite all the grief they caused me, also gave me reasons to celebrate and find it possible to empathize with people in situations I never thought I would. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

-Joanna

Also, this is the cutest darn Captain Jack I’ve ever seen:

http://niccals.deviantart.com/art/Captain-Jack-Harkness-Plushie-170851245

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