Posted inCultures

“Bloody Torchwood!”: Why I Can’t Stop Watching Doctor Who’s Wildest Spinoff

Illustration by Ruta Ashworth

Everyone has that show that they can’t stop coming back to rewatch. For me, it’s Torchwood. For the unfamiliar, Torchwood is the 2006 spinoff of Doctor Who aimed at adults. It follows Captain Jack Harkness and his team of extremely messy bisexuals, they investigate alien threats that fall through the rift in space and time that is helpfully located in the middle of Cardiff. The first two series follow a monster-of-the-week type structure, the third is a much more serious miniseries with a tightly woven story. We don’t talk about the fourth series (it was mostly made and set in the US, and it’s just not very Torchwood, or indeed very good). I didn’t watch it when it aired, on account of being an actual child, but when I first watched it aged fifteen or so, I was hooked. I often wonder what it is about this show, which is admittedly objectively kind of terrible at times, that draws me back after so many rewatches. So, I am going to attempt to itemise exactly why Torchwood has such an iron grip on my psyche after all this time. Spoilers within, but this show did end ten years ago!

  1. There’s something for everyone!

Torchwood contains multitudes. You like campy sci-fi? Plenty of that here. Really desperate to know what Doctor Who’s iconic enemy the Cybermen would look like if they were sexy? Torchwood has your back. Are you after commentary on classism and government corruption? Season 3 is for you! In the mood for a horror story about cannibals in the Welsh countryside? There’s a Torchwood episode for that. I could go on. It’s hard to place this show in a box. That’s what makes it so rewatchable – no matter what mood I’m in, I can guarantee there will be an episode that will provide the perfect entertainment. 

  1. The characters

The staff of Torchwood Three (there are multiple branches of the Torchwood Institute, and the show follows Torchwood Three) are a loveable bunch (yes, even Owen). Leading the team is the immortal Captain Jack Harkness, a familiar character to fans of Doctor Who. The mature themes of the show allow for a deeper exploration of the morally grey aspects of Jack’s character and allow him to go to darker places than Doctor Who has the scope for. 

Gwen Cooper is the new recruit, and for the first season the audience experiences Torchwood through her eyes as she grapples with balancing her normal life and relationship with long-suffering boyfriend, Rhys,  with the secrecy and danger of her new alien-hunting job. Gwen is a fantastic character, and it’s especially nice to see a woman in sci-fi given the depth she is afforded – she is heroic and flawed, and really the heart of the show. 

The aforementioned Dr Owen Harper is somewhat hard to like at first. The team’s resident medic is rude and narcissistic, and a notorious womaniser. But over the course of the show you start to realise why he is this way – ultimately he is a man trying to find some happiness in a life that for various reasons has been utterly tragic. He grows on you. 

Toshiko Sato is the tech expert – she’s basically a genius, but is also a hopeless romantic. She’s (mostly) unrequitedly in love with Owen, and also has relationships with a slightly evil alien masquerading as a human woman, and a WW1 soldier who spends most of the year in cryogenic stasis in the Torchwood Hub basement. The episodes that explore these relationships are some of the stand-outs of the series. 

Last, but by absolutely no means least, there’s Ianto Jones. He charms his way into a job as Torchwood’s glorified butler, a job that consists of making coffee, hiding bodies and some light comic relief. He develops into a really integral part of the team and his relationship with Jack is one of the highlights of the show (more on that later). His death in the third season caused such upset that more than ten years later there is still a well maintained ‘Ianto Shrine’ in Cardiff that is somewhat of a point of pilgrimage for die-hard fans (I am still planning my trip).

There’s also a very entertaining cast of side characters, including Gwen’s former police partner Andy Davidson, who occasionally shows up to help out and is desperate for a job at Torchwood, and Captain John Hart, Jack’s former partner in crime from his con-man days who features a few times in the second series and brings chaos wherever he goes. 

Arguably one of the few strengths of the widely hated fourth series is its characters, particularly no-nonsense FBI agent Rex Matheson and the delightfully bitchy PR rep Jilly Kitzinger. 

Despite being about aliens, Torchwood is a very human driven series at its heart, and without such compelling and complex characters, it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable. 

  1. Janto’ 

I can’t write an article about Torchwood without mentioning the romance between Jack and Ianto, affectionately known as Janto. What starts as a coworkers-with-benefits arrangement in the first series, that kind of feels like Ianto’s self-destructive rebound after his girlfriend’s death, turns into a sincere and tragic romance between two men who never quite expected to fall in love with each other. A highlight for me is the scene where Ianto comes out to his sister – it’s a little bit funny and extremely awkward, and ultimately feels real, unlike a lot of overly-dramatic coming out narratives that you see in movies and TV. It unfortunately ends tragically, with Ianto and Jack dying together, only for Jack to wake up and keep on living due to his immortal nature. Some argue this is an example of the ‘bury your gays’ trope, but I beg to differ. It isn’t like they killed off the only LGBTQ+ character – every member of the Torchwood team is bisexual, and Jack himself is an unburyable gay (quite literally: he survives two thousand years buried underneath Cardiff). 

  1. Mid-2000s BBC nostalgia

Torchwood belongs to that hallowed category of shows that ran on the BBC during the golden era of the mid-to-late 2000s, alongside Doctor Who itself and Merlin, among others. These shows differ wildly in subject and tone but all share that campy, so-bad-it’s-good vibe that makes them very easy to rewatch again and again. It’s also nostalgia for the 2000s itself – although I didn’t watch Torchwood when it aired, I grew up in the 2000s, and the music and fashion takes me back to primary school discos and burning mix CDs on my friend’s dad’s computer. It was a simpler time. 

  1. It isn’t really over

Torchwood the TV show may be long dead, but Torchwood is still going strong. Big Finish release monthly full-cast audio dramas that dip back into various time periods in the show’s history (mostly from when the lead characters are all still alive), explore in more depth some of the more obscure characters who showed up for an episode or two, and fill in the gaps between episodes in ways that make you look at the TV stories themselves in a new light. There’s also a small but thriving online fan community who make their own content. Torchwood often gets a nod in Doctor Who too, with Captain Jack even returning in the most recent series, and these mentions of Torchwood often make me think: hmmm, time for a rewatch?

So there, I did it, I broke Torchwood’s appeal down to its bare essentials! It’s at times overly edgy, or silly, or badly paced, and the fourth series was a let-down, but there is nothing quite like Torchwood. I’m going to go and watch it again now.