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Torchwood: A Newbie’s Guide

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So you’re new to Torchwood. Perhaps you’re like me, never really into the whole Doctor Who Universe (although I do admit to having watched an episode or two back in the day), but have gotten emotionally entangled into the Starz/BBC series Torchwood: Miracle Day.

You must be curious about the whole Torchwood thing, and perhaps, also like me, you’ve gone back and watched the entire opus of Torchwood in all its incarnations: Series 1, Series 2, and Torchwood: Children of the Earth. If not, you should, and add to those, particular story arcs from both the Christopher Eccleston (the ninth Doctor) and David Tenant (the tenth Doctor) Doctor Who series. But that’s a lot of TV gazing.

So, as a service to my fellow newbies (and now that I’ve watched each episode two or three times—yes, I’m a hopeless nerd), I want to give you a bit of a guide to the Torchwood universe and suggest several episodes with which you might consider starting—especially those that might enlighten you to the characters of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles).

“So, what the heck is Torchwood, anyway?” you might inquire. Torchwood was established by Queen Victoria to protect the earth from aliens. In the early days, when Jack was recruited, Torchwood agents were brutal towards them, preferring to shoot (to kill) first and ask questions later. Although Captain Jack found that distasteful (“Fragments,” Series 2), he went along because, frankly, he needed the money. The present-day Torchwood does not prefer to kill alien life forms unless they are particularly hostile, and Jack and the Torchwood team have saved their share of alien lives. In “Meat” (Series 2), having discovered a giant, benign alien tortured for its edible flesh, Jack is horrified at the treatment of this poor creature, comforting it as it dies (a mercy killing).

In the first two series of Torchwood, the team spends a lot of time hunting Weevils—humanoid creatures (but really ugly humanoid creatures with big deadly fang teeth) who slip through the time-space rift running through Cardiff, Wales. Oh. I forgot to mention the time-space rift thing. There is a rift in the time-space continuum that runs right through Cardiff.

If I’ve got this right, the rift is a tear in the fabric of time and space that allows beings and object from other times and places (and I don’t mean Chicago) to float through and appear in our time (and space). Beings from other galaxies, people from other times (past or future)—some hostile, some benevolent, some simply confused to be out of their own time and place—happen into the rift and find themselves in Cardiff. Torchwood tracks rift activity and addresses any problems caused, and in the bargain, has collected an array of alien technology that would make Fox Mulder swoon. The alien technology has come in very handy for the Torchwood team over the years, allowing them to escape from danger—and save the world a couple of times, at least.

Speaking of aliens, there is Captain Jack Harkness himself. Born in the 51st Century, he is from the Boeshane Peninsula—a place not of this earth. A “time agent” employed by the Time Agency, Jack’s special wristband enables him to travel through time and space at will on missions of a unspecified nature. 

From what I understand, Jack’s home town is an Earth colony on a distant planet. And from the bits and pieces I’ve seen of it on Torchwood (“Adam” and “Exit Wounds,” Series 2), it reminds me a bit of Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet. A desert-ish planet, it was attacked when Jack was a teenager. His father told him to run to safety with his brother Gray, but in the chaos, young Jack lost the grip on his brother’s hand, and by the time he’d realized that Gray had let go, the attack was underway. In the end, Jack’s father was killed and Gray had disappeared.

Jack had never stopped searching for his brother, whom he learns had been captured and tortured, leaving him bitter and with a hate for Jack that would last for eternity (“Exit Wounds”). When Gray suddenly appears at the end of Series 2, it is to torture Jack for the rest of his days.

Gray is the first of so many losses the immortal Jack carries with him through the centuries, each costing him emotionally, despite his usually stoic and often arrogant façade. It is this sense of loss and suffering that makes the character so compelling (at least to me). The loss is keener because Jack is immortal. He can’t die; something he discovers at the end of the 2005 series of Doctor Who (with the ninth Doctor, played by Chris Eccleston). After discovering his apparent immortality, The Doctor abandons Jack, who then transports himself to the end of the 19th Century, where he hopes to reunite with his Doctor. 

It is here that Jack first encounters Torchwood and is told that he will not again see The Doctor until “the century turns twice.” So Jack waits where he has landed, in Cardiff, to await The Doctor’s return. At the end of Torchwood Series 1, Jack finally reunites with The Doctor only to realize that he misses his mates back at the Torchwood Hub, and returns to them at the start of Series 2.

Although he cannot die, when he is shot, stabbed or otherwise injured, Jack still hurts…and when he “dies,” he has said, the process of returning to life is like being “dragged over broken glass.” In the years we’ve known him as the leader of Torchwood Cardiff, we have seen Jack lose several people under his command, including Susie (in the very first episode of Series 1), medical officer Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), computer genius Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori, “Exit Wounds”—the Series 2 finale), and his lover (and also Torchwood agent) Ianto Jones (“Children of the Earth”). Of his original team, only Gwen Cooper remains, although Torchwood itself never really survives the end of the epic Torchwood: Children of the Earth, as Jack vanishes for planets and times unknown. But no loss has shaken him more than the tragic sacrifice of his grandson at the end of Children of the Earth.

In that five-part miniseries (Series 3), Jack is faced with a terrible choice: sacrifice his grandson or condemn millions of other children to torture and destruction by the alien beings known as the “456.” The only way to save them is to watch his grandson die, ripped apart by horrific vibrations that lead to the death of the alien form. Condemning his grandson to death, he sacrifices the one for the many, a philosophy that Jack carries with him throughout the series.

He not only loses his grandson, but also his daughter, with whom he’d only had a tenuous relationship in the first place. He has also seen another lover—someone with whom he’d vowed decades earlier to be together until their deaths die, an elderly woman, destroyed by malevolent fairies (yes, you heard me!). All these deaths weigh very heavily on Captain Jack, as he blames himself. The burden of these deaths render him a tragic figure—condemned to live in eternity alone and lonely, longing for death in some ways, yet embracing it where he can.

And Captain Jack does embrace life; indeed he does. Coming from a more sexually “flexible” time in the distant future, Jack is known as “omnisexual.” In other words, he’ll shag just about anything or anyone—humanoid or not—if he (or she) strikes his fancy. He’s had lovers of both the male and female (human) persuasion. He’s been married and as noted earlier, even has offspring. Part of Jack’s tragedy is that he outlives them all, knowing that he, himself, cannot die.

Although he and Gwen have never (at least in the series canon) been lovers, there is plenty of evidence that there is a very strong mutual attraction between them—and that they deeply care for (and probably love) each other.  But since the series start, Gwen has always had Rhys (Kai Owen) at her side. He is loyal and committed to her and loves her.

Gwen also loves Rhys, who is always there for her and is as open a book as Jack is enigmatic. Jack has never said outright to Gwen that he’s in love with her, but several episodes suggest his feelings, and despite the deep affection and love he has for his male lover Ianto, there is an occasional longing in Jack’s expression when watching Gwen from afar (particularly in “Something Borrowed,” when Gwen marries long-time boyfriend Rhys).

Gwen Cooper joins Torchwood in the very first episode. A Cardiff policewoman, she stumbles into a case and her curiosity about Torchwood—and its dashing leader—is immediately piqued. A “normal” person, someone with a life outside the chase for aliens, she adds a dimension of humanity to the science and more cynical world views of her companions.

Jack makes her promise hold onto her normalcy “for him”—and she does, sort of. But, it’s a more difficult promise to keep than it seems as she can’t even seem to marry under normal circumstances. Her wedding (“Something Borrowed,” Series 2) to Rhys is disrupted in a particularly nasty way, and her post Children of the Earth existence in Swansea with Rhys and her baby is interrupted by the events of Miracle Day.

So that’s the (very) short story. If you really want to know the Torchwood team, you must go watch the three previous series and several Doctor Who episodes. Don’t want to watch them all? Here are my favorites, in chronological order. Go have a peek, and see if you don’t end up watching them all anyway. Why these? I’ve selected those episodes that either give us special insight into Captain Jack or were otherwise emotionally resonant.

Series 1:

“Everything Changes”

“Day One”

“Small Worlds”

“Out of Time”

“Captain Jack Harkness”

“End of Days”

Series 2

“Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang”

“To the Last Man”



“Something Borrowed”



“Exit Wounds”

Torchwood: Children of the Earth:

All five episodes must be seen.

Torchwood: Miracle Day airs on Starz Friday nights at 10:00 p.m. ET.


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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • hwo40: it does air on Starz, which is a premium channel. Wonder if it will play eventually on BBC America, however.

  • hwo40

    Hi Barbara, just wondering if you need to have a premium channel to watch this series. I have basic cable and so far can’t find it. Of course, I still drive an old stick shift pick up.

  • Thanks for the comments. There is no denying the impact of Ianto’s death on Jack. Ianto felt always that he was Jack’s convenient shag, but that’s not true. I chose to focus on Gwen and Jack only because they are in Miracle Day. Ianto is not.

    I love my heroes tortured and haunted, brilliant and wounded, but stoically hiding it all. Drew me right in with Captain Jack.

    I also agree that her involvement with TW has made Gwen much harder and more cynical. And that Jack does indeed die, and each time revives–sometimes with great difficulty (series one finale and then in COE).

  • nan00se

    I agree with WHIT re the impact of Ianto’s relationship otherwise as a review that focuses onthe roles Gwen and CJ it is adequate.As i seasoned viewer i was more intrigued by Tosh,Owen and Ianto and the interaction between the team members.Some episodes were Gwen centric but overall there was a balance of episodes focusing on each team member.It is hard to just look at CJ and Gwen in isolation as much of what happens in relation to the other charactors informs their developement.For instance Gwens experiences lead to her affair with Owen and her consequent lies to Rhys.We see again how easily she lies to Rhys in MD and this is very much a part of her charactor as is her confused feelings for CJ.Although Gwen was concieved as the newbie and it was intended that she provide a softer focus in TW it always seem to me that it was the combined experiences of the team that impacted on CJ and the team and enabled them to become more ehtical and caring.But equally TW had the reverse effect on Gwen and we see her become more assertive and hard.
    Equally we see in the first 3 seasons of TW the developement of his realtionship with Ianto whch gives us insight into CJ capacity to sustain a realtionship dispite the knowledge that he will allways out live his lovers.
    I also agree with Whit that CJ dies but does not stay dead.CJ starts as an unhappy heroe but it is the consewquent deaths of the team members and ultimately Stephen that leads to the tortured charactor in MM

  • Whit

    I’m NOT new to Torchwood–I was actively awaiting it during the second series of the new Doctor Who and have been a huge fan all along. But I have friends whose first introduction (other than my non-stop references over the last five years) has been Miracle Day, so I figured I’d check out your comments.

    Overall, I think this is a very good summary, except that I think you both underestimate the Jack-Ianto connection and overestimate Jack’s attraction to Gwen. (And her commitment, at least initially, to Rhys. Never forget the Gwen-Owen affair, or all of the nasty comments she used to make about Rhys to Jack et al.)

    I base this assessment not just on how much I’M missing Gareth Lloyd (yeah, the hyphenation of his middle and last name happened because there was already an actor Gareth Lloyd, but that’s his real name) but on two things, but primarily on an extended conversation I was lucky enough to have with Russell Davies the week that COE aired in the US. What he told me was that the only way that letting Steven die could be the ultimate sacrifice for Jack was if he didn’t have anything else left that he really cared about. He COULDN’T have Ianto to go home to. Losing Gwen would not have served that function. Losing Ianto devastates him. And then the heartbreaking House of the Dead reinforces the importance of the role Ianto plays in Jack’s life.

    Oh, and my interpretation, although it’s described different ways at different times, is that Jack does die every time, he just doesn’t stay dead. Which in some ways just seems far more awful. You know, in many ways Jack is actually more haunted, wounded and perhaps even more ethical than The Doctor–he just deals with it in a different way.

    Anyhow, nice background summary. Thanks for taking the time to do it!

  • Thank you so much, Carol!

    It’s funny. I think I’d tuned in to one random Torchwood episode, maybe even the first one. I saw Jack as too self-assured and arrogant to fit my tastes (I like my heroes reluctant, filled with doubt and remorse, but hiding it well–and I like them rather brooding) and switched it off after only a couple of minutes. Had I only kept watching, I’d have found exactly that hero.

    Glad I found the show now, and only hope that however Miracle Day ends, the show will return next season.

  • Carol

    Great overview! I’ve been a fan since I saw a random episode on BBC America and I had to go back and watch the entire thing as well.

    I’ll be pointing my new converts on facebook to your blog for the backstory. 🙂