At first glance, BBC Three’s Torchwood looks like a queer viewer’s dream show: It stars an openly gay actor (John Barrowman), has four bisexual characters — one of them female — and is the creation of gay screenwriter Russell T. Davies, the mastermind behind the original Queer as Folk. But after Torchwood‘s first season, which recently concluded in the U.K., the show seems more like a boys’ club than a place for lesbians and bisexual women to be adequately represented.
Torchwood is a spinoff of the ferociously popular Doctor Who (which has been on the air in some form since 1963) and stars Barrowman as the leader of the mysterious Torchwood Institute, an intergalactic investigative agency. Torchwood, like its parent program, is science fiction, albeit with more of an emphasis on character interaction and drama than space travel and time warps. The show has also jokingly been called an "adult Doctor Who" due to its 9 p.m. time slot and focus on sexuality.
The writers of Torchwood wasted no time in delivering on their "sex and drama" promises. There is a constant undercurrent of sexual tension between many of the show’s characters, with little regard for gender. Captain Jack Harkness’ (Barrowman) attraction to male co-worker Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) is treated no differently than the heterosexual relationships on the show, lending credence to Davies’ claims that nearly all of the characters are bisexual. But when it comes to representing queer female sexuality, the results are a bit different.
Torchwood first introduced a lesbian-themed plotline in the second episode, "Day One," which aired Oct. 22, 2006. Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), who was busy investigating the Torchwood Institute in the first episode, decides to join their ranks as the team’s newest investigator. One of her first assignments is to deal with a young woman, Carys (Sara Lloyd Gregory), whose body has been taken over by a sex-starved alien.
The alien inside Carys is insatiable but also kills its sexual partners after climax, posing not only a problem for the population but also a clean-up issue for Torchwood. After witnessing one of these events, the Torchwood team quickly whisks Carys back to their base before she can do further damage.
The alien, in control of Carys, then explains to newbie Gwen that it feeds off orgasmic energy in order to survive. Gwen, feeling compassion for the young woman, is lured into the holding cell and is soon overcome by the cloud of pheromones surrounding the alien. Carys and Gwen begin to kiss frantically as the rest of the team watches via the security cameras, cheering and laughing rather than going to the aid of their co-worker. Eventually Gwen is rescued by the alien herself, who admits that she can only be fulfilled by a man.
The episode ends in carnage when Carys escapes and the alien exacts murderous revenge on Carys’ ex-boyfriend and several sperm donors at a fertility clinic. Eventually the alien leaves Carys’ body and the Torchwood team takes her home. Embarrassed, Gwen quickly blames her lesbian tryst on the alien pheromones and never speaks of it again.
It is surprising that an episode from such a seemingly gay-friendly writer and cast could be this awful, but "Day One" manages to feature nearly every negative lesbian stereotype imaginable.
First, it involves two ostensibly straight women in long-term relationships with men who, without provocation, begin kissing passionately, much to the enjoyment of their male onlookers. This entire scene is gratuitous at best, used more for laughs than as a significant plot device.
Second, the idea that the alien can only be satisfied by men is a sci-fi play on a traditional, sexist social construct. Lesbian sex, according to the episode, is simply not proper and therefore is meaningless even to an alien who requires sexual stimulation in order to survive.