‘Torchwood,’ ‘Doctor Who,’ and Fictional Depictions of Fans

I’m on a bit of a sprint to watch at least the core of Torchood so I can properly analyze Torchwood: Miracle Day when it premieres in July. Two things that are striking me about the show so far, other than the whole pansexual space pirate thing, which is the most obvious vector for analysis. First, both the Doctor Who and Torchwood universes do really nice work when they tell stories about fans. And second, Torchwood feels, at least in the early going, a little institutionally unmoored.

I’m not entirely caught up with the rebooted Doctor Who yet, but one of the episodes I’ve watched that touched me most was “Love & Monsters,” which is essentially about a fan-and-mild-conspiracies club of people who believe the Doctor exists, and what happens first when that belief becomes secondary to the members’ friendships, and then when they actually, desperately need him to be real. There is a monster, to be sure, but he’s not really the point. The episode’s a fairly tender story about how wonderful it is to discover you’re not alone in your interests and your passions, and how those interests can be a critically important icebreaker, particularly if you’re not great at the work of conventional socializing. In the first season of Torchwood, “Random Shoes” does takes a different approach to a similar theme. A young man who’s seen his early promise slip away, and who clings to an interest in and belief in aliens as the last thing that makes him special, finds that after his death, that love makes it possible for him to undertake one last heroic act. Obviously it makes sense for shows like these to write Valentines to their fans, but they’re a nice acknowledgement of the fact that it’s increasingly easy to have fandom as an organizing principal for your life, and as a result, it’s (at least anecdotally) increasingly common and increasingly important way to arrange your social life.

On a less positive note, though, one of the things I like least about Torchwood so far is the extent to which the organization is isolated. Obviously, Torchwood Three has some kind of relationship with the Cardiff police, which gets vexed with their supernatural counterparts. And there were multiple branches of Torchwood. But we don’t get a sense of any institutional tension between Torchwood and more conventional law enforcement: the team tends to be able to just waltz into crime scenes, and to turn human offenders like the murders in “Countrycide” over to the cops without any real need to conceal their existence. The relationship’s an irritant than a real constraint on Torchwood’s operations.

Similarly, the fact that Torchwood Three appears to be the only functional branch of the institute isn’t actually a good thing for the show. We don’t get a training montage that really introduced Gwen to Torchwood’s practices and traditions, which would be both a fun thing to do, a great way to introduce viewers to the world the creators are building, and a good way to establish the constraints Torchwood agents work under. Without constraints, it’s hard to know what it means to be a Torchwood agent. As is, they’re basically private dicks who know that aliens are out there. My understanding is that we get more context later for why Torchwood Three is what’s left. But even if, and especially if, they’re what remains of a tradition, that should be an interesting burden to carry out, a legacy to carry on, something that should be part of Gwen’s experience and ours.