Sexual Politics in Doctor Who and Torchwood

28 Jan

Before I start this I want to emphasize that I have not finished catching up with these series. I’m in season 6 of Doctor Who, and I have not seen the final American season of Torchwood. Please respect my spoiler line, thus demarked. Some minor spoilers below.

One of the charming ways that Doctor Who and Torchwood are outliers in the realm of mainstream television is that while there are love stories in both, they don’t suspend or abandon the world-building and off-beat reality for the sake of the romantic aspects. So instead of a typical boy-meets-girl story set with a weird-ass background, they are weird-ass love stories with perfectly fitting backgrounds. The most obvious bizarre love story is that between the Doctor and Riversong, but I’m not going to write about that just now, because I don’t know how it ends yet. I’d rather focus on the darker, more sexually-charged off shoot, Torchwood.

Besides the newest iteration of the Green Lantern, I cannot think of an action hero, other than Captain Jack Harkness, who has gay/bisexual tendencies. (Can you? ) I have seen a lot of chatter about how progressive DC has been by having one of its super heroes be actively gay, but I haven’t heard the same kind of back-patting aimed at Torchwood. One possibility is that Captain Jack is more of an omnisexual. Many references to Jack’s dallies with women, men, and non-humans of various sorts appear throughout both series. So, is Captain Jack’s “omnisexuality,” for lack of a better word, progressive in the cause for homosexual rights? Or is it hurtful?

It could be said that it’s harmful, because Jack is not on the “marriage path,” so to speak. Part of his character is his notorious promiscuity and long history of previous “escapades” (read: sexual partners, some of which may have required some adaption apparatus for consummation). This may come a bit too close to the very negative, right-wing conservative view of homo/bisexuality: that homo/bisexuals are promiscuous, indiscriminate, and if same-sex relationships are allowed, then human/non-human relationships are just one slippery slope away. Maybe that’s why the Green Lantern gets applauded for being the voice of gay men in the nerd-world, while Jack Harkness is a lesser-known (at least on this side of the Atlantic) gay paragon.

However, we do see many instances of long-term relationships with Jack. More than average, given his immortality. He had the typical nuclear family with a woman on earth in the late fifties, a horribly destructive relationship with a man in the 51st century, and a hesitant, but loving, relationship with a man during the main plot of the series. The show presents all these relationships with a high degree of integrity, each genuine but different from each other in the way all human relationships should be. Doctor’s affection for his companions, which feels a touch pet-like at times, seems less human than Jack’s relationships—even if they are impermanent.

On the other hand, jokes flippantly refer to bizarre forms of relationships that we do not see in the story and are dismissed as though unimportant, like the way we would talk about high school relationships. For instance, in the in the first episode of Torchwood, where Jack says (in response to tasting estrogen in the rain water) “At least I won’t get pregnant. I won’t do that again.” One could argue that this attitude may suggest that “traditional family” is devalued in the future, which the very fear that drives the movement against gay marriage in this country. It is the fear of something that is considered unnatural—contrary to how the world is supposed to work. And if this “unnaturalness” is allowed—it may break down what is familiar. This is, of course, an unfair and irrational fear, but it’s not uncommon. Even the Doctor struggles with it.

As Jack’s character evolves both in Doctor Who and in Torchwood, the Doctor’s attitude towards him evolves—from indulgence to outright suspicion and eventually acceptance. Eccleston’s Doctor accepts Jack’s attempted self-sacrifice as redemption and brings him aboard the Tardis. Eccleston is the only Doctor Jack flirts with—and the Doctor even flirts back a little. It changes radically when Jack comes out as immortal; Tennant’s Doctor is hostile towards Jack because “he is wrong”—something that shouldn’t  possibly be allowed. Jack’s right-on-target response (as he works to save the last remnants of humanity in a super-radioactive room) is “So what you’re saying is…you’re prejudiced?” This is an odd, but accurate, accusation for the Doctor, who normally is accepting and protective of all forms of life. He is hostile towards Jack for something that is not Jack’s fault, something now an inexorable part of his nature, but something the Doctor perceives as unnatural, and it goes against his understanding of how things are supposed to work, which scares him. This is precisely prejudice, and one of the times in the series where the Doctor has a deep, unexpected character flaw that he must overcome. He does, eventually, overcome his prejudice against Jack and welcomes him back into the Tardis inner circle (to save the world again. Sometimes all the world-saving overshadows the inner growth.) His final show of affection and acceptance for Jack is as telling as it is sweet: he sets him up with a guy.

Captain Jack’s future is depicted as one where humans mate with alien species, men get pregnant, and everyone is far more lax about everything in-between. Personally, this speaks of progress, but sometimes it is troublingly close to the horror stories that the conservatives predict about the loosening morals in the world. (What’s next, marrying aliens?) But when we look at Jack Harkness, big-picture wise, he’s clearly a moral character who treasures cognizance of any kind and abhors destruction. He has a stronger bias towards humans than the Doctor himself, because he is far more human(e) than the Doctor. Even though he has more future knowledge than anyone else on Earth in the 21st century, his personal motives are just as confused, selfish, inconsistent, and hopelessly hopeful as any regular ole (mortal) human being. When he loves, he loves with the positive uncertainty that we all love with—tinged with doubt and trying to overcome the knowledge that permanence is illusion. And though his sources of doubt are otherworldly and his knowledge of reality goes a bit further than average, we root for his relationships the way we root for our own. Or for any other slut on TV.


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