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Film and TV Space

Fanning the Flames: how the ‘queer space’ of the internet and the writing of fan fiction enhances the fictional universe of Torchwood
Jodie Corney


Torchwood, Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who spin-off, debuted on British television in October 2006. Although Torchwood exists in the same universe as Doctor Who the series is radically different in tone, exploring ‘adult’ themes and containing copious amounts of "blood and snogging" (Deans, 2006). The series follows a team of investigators lead by Captain Jack Harkness who monitor a rift in space and time which exists in the centre of Cardiff. The team collect alien technology which falls through the rift, and also monitor other alien activity.

For reasons of brevity my focus in this essay is solely on Torchwood as a television programme, and fan fiction written about the series. I will explore:
the new cultural spaces that Torchwood opens
the ‘queer space’ of the internet
the production of fan fiction centred on the programme

and how the flames of fan production are ignited

Postmodernism in Torchwood; Welsh identity and omnisexuality
The concept of Torchwood has many postmodern elements within it. Torchwood takes a relatively minor and marginalised character (Captain Jack Harkness) from what is essentially a family show (Doctor Who) and places him in an ‘adult’ reworking. Themes which were relatively glossed over in Doctor Who, i.e. Jack’s sexuality, are more fully explored in Torchwood. The programme embraces the concept of examining new cultural spaces, exploring Welsh identity and omnisexuality. Again, this means Torchwood could be described as being ‘postmodern’ as postmodernism has been described as imagining "radically different forms of social and sexual relations" (Wolmark, 1994, p.15).

In British television Welsh characters are usually the objects of humour and have been the brunt of jokes in adverts and comedies for many years. Torchwood goes some way to redress the balance by situating slick and sexy science fiction in Cardiff. The Torchwood organisation is "outside the government and beyond the Police" (Day One) and is situated under the Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff city centre. When Torchwood London was destroyed it was not rebuilt leaving Cardiff as the centre of operations (Everything Changes). This subverts the expected centralisation of such an important organisation in London, the traditional centre of power in the UK. The series not only uses Cardiff city centre, it also uses the surrounding suburbs and countryside as a backdrop. In addition, two of the central characters, Gwen and Ianto, have Welsh names and speak with Welsh accents; even the team’s pterodactyl has been given a Welsh name and is known as Myfanwy. Torchwood breaks out of the normal expectations that a Welsh character can only be comical, and provides a myriad of different Welsh characters.

The series also explores another new cultural space – that of the concept of omnisexuality (also sometimes referred to as pansexuality). If we are to use a label to describe the sexuality featured in Torchwood then I would argue omnisexuality fits. Omnisexuality is described as a capacity to love a person romantically irrespective of gender and includes an attraction to those who do not fit into the gender binary of male/female implied by bisexual attraction ("Pansexuality/Omnisexuality"). John Barrowman, the actor who plays Jack in Torchwood, describes how "You’re gonna see boy/girl sex. You’re gonna see boy/boy sex. You’re gonna see girl/girl sex. And you’re gonna see alien/human sex" (O’Brien & Berriman, 2006, p.39). Torchwood explores human attraction to aliens and/or cyborgs as well as more conventional human/human couplings, and this fits into the concept of omnisexuality. In the episode Day One Gwen, who we know has a live in boyfriend, kisses another woman – but as this woman is possessed by an alien the action is omnisexual rather than bisexual. Until Torchwood aired only the binary oppositions of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ had really been explored on British television. Even the resident bisexual in Eastenders, the character Tony Hills (who appeared from 1995-1999), was portrayed as being ‘confused’ about his sexuality ("Eastenders Character Study: Tony Hills"). There seems to be a tacit acceptance of the binaries of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ which seems to imply that to be anything other means you must be ‘confused’ about your sexuality. Torchwood breaks through the binary oppositions of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, ‘male’ and ‘female’, instead celebrating omnisexuality. Jack is also seen to describe sexual labels as "quaint" (Day One), demonstrating that he feels the use of sexual labelling is not only constraining but extremely old fashioned. Torchwood acknowledges the existence of alternate sexualities, exploring and revelling in them.

The cult of Captain Jack – Torchwood and the phenomenon of fan fiction
The main character in Torchwood is Captain Jack Harkness who first burst on to British television screens on 21 May 2005 in the Doctor Who episode The Empty Child. During the episode it soon transpires that Captain Jack is pretty flexible when it comes to his choice of sexual partners – he not only woos the doctor’s companion Rose but also Algy, a fellow officer in the RAF. Barely a week after Jack was first introduced in Doctor Who an on-line community devoted to him (named ‘galactic_conman’) appeared on the LiveJournal site. The first post to the community was made on the 28 May 2005, and linked to a piece of fan fiction by taraljc entitled Odd Man Out which features The Doctor, Rose and Jack. At that point Jack had only featured in two episodes of Doctor Who yet almost overnight he had achieved cult status to the point in which fans ‘borrowed’ his character to write their own pieces of fiction about him. Russell T Davies left Jack out of the 2006 series of Doctor Who so that the new Doctor, played by David Tennant, could settle in. Davies felt that the character of Jack was strong enough to sustain his own series, an idea which eventually became Torchwood (Wylie, 2006).

The first on-line community devoted to Torchwood was set up very quickly after the making of the series was announced. The first piece of fan fiction to explore what Torchwood might be like was posted to the Livejournal ‘torch_wood’ community on 16 November 2005 – almost a full year before the show had even aired. The writer saganamidreams incorporates information that was around at the time about Torchwood, producing a story called The Strongest Shape which includes The Doctor, Rose and Jack. It has been argued that normally the phenomenon of fan fiction occurs because the reader wants to continue telling a story which has ended, and that by becoming writers they can reopen a fictional universe (Pugh, 2006, p.224). In the case of the Torchwood fandom the cult of Captain Jack ensured that fans were speculating over the content of Torchwood and writing fan fiction as soon as the show was first announced as being commissioned by the BBC. Fans ‘opened’ the fictional universe before the show had even aired, fans piecing together through magazine interviews and other means what the Torchwood universe might be like, using this information in their fan fiction.

The Internet as a ‘queer space’
Lackner/Lucas/Reid in their essay Cunning Linguists propose that the Internet serves as "a queer time and space" (2006, p.196). I believe that fan fiction, and especially ‘slash’ fiction (stories featuring same sex partnerships), has created a ‘queer space’ on the Internet in which fans can explore gender/sexuality and twist the status quo. Sexual fluidity is expressed in the ‘queer space’ of the Internet via participation in fan fiction culture. Lackner/Lucas/Reid argue that: "[…] even ‘straight’ women are doing something that can arguably be seen as pretty ‘queer’ […]" as much of fan fiction, especially slash fan fiction, is "designed to give sexual pleasure to other women" regardless of their sexual identity (2006, p.201).

Slash fan fiction can see as being a form of erotica written by women for women – this turns traditional ideas about pornography on its head. By writing such fiction women are in control of, rather than the objects of, pornography. Women are seizing control of pornography and reclaiming it as a female space. The fact that women of all sexualities are producing such fiction to titillate others further blurs the boundaries between established binaries of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. Just as in Torchwood, on-line and in fan communities it is often accepted that human sexuality is fluid. Fan fiction and fan communities provide a way for many women to explore their sexuality in a realm that discards the tethers of the everyday – husbands, children, homes and work. This is important as "[…] many women acknowledge that their queerness often is restricted to the virtual realm as they live their ‘heteronormative’ lives" (Busse, 2006, p.209). The popularity of Torchwood can be partly attributed to the fact that it transfers the ‘queer space’ of the internet to the more tangible world of television, providing another means of escape from ‘heteronormative’ lives.

The ‘queer space’ of the Internet isn’t just about exploring different sexualities – it is also about subverting dominant socio-economic values. Fans write fiction out of love, and do not receive any financial remuneration for their work. In the fan community a whole different values system is at play and this system is not reliant on monetary value or social status. In his book Textual Poachers Henry Jenkins describes how it is possible for "Women who have low prestige jobs or who are homemakers" to gain "national and even international recognition as fan writers and artists" and how "fan publishing constitutes an alternative source of status, unacknowledged by the dominant social and economic systems but personally rewarding nonetheless" (1992, p.159). Fan fiction is a way for women to gain the prestige they may lack in their ‘real lives’, and as it is outside the dominant socio-economic systems it is its own system in its self – once more subverting and queering the status quo.

Fanning the Flames: the courting of Torchwood fans via the Internet
The ‘official’ Torchwood website at torchwood.org.uk is just as important in creating the Torchwood universe as the series itself. After each episode new information is added to the ‘Torchwood Archive’ which includes photos, transcripts of Instant Messaging conversations, blog entries, and extracts from files. These are all presented as being produced by the characters featured in that episode. Fan production is validated by the site as it mimics the types of output fans would produce themselves when creating fiction or artwork. The website adds to the experience of the television programme through acting as a conduit for extra ‘background’ information which hasn’t been shown on screen. Fans avidly devour this extra information in a bid to find out more about the characters they are ‘borrowing’ when producing fan fiction.

One such example of where the official website has added to the original ‘product’, so fanning the flames of fan production, is the Instant Message presented on the site after They Keep Killing Suzie (TKKS) aired. The Instant Message is set after the ‘stopwatch’ scene in TKKS – a scene laden with sexual innuendo. Earlier in the episode the stopwatch is seen to be almost sexualised, with Owen quipping "Give Ianto a stopwatch, and he’s happy"; Ianto replying snippily "It’s the button on the top" (beccaelizabeth, 2006). Owen seems to be implying that Ianto gets some kind of sexual thrill out of using the stopwatch, and Ianto does nothing to dissuade Owen of this fact. Ianto adds further fuel by talking about the button (knob?) at the top of the watch which is hinted at possessing or representing some kind of sexual power. The theme of the sexualised stopwatch continues as in one of the final scenes Jack and Ianto are seen to flirt with one another using the stopwatch as a metaphor. Jack says "I’ll send the others home early. See you in my office in ten." (beccaelizabeth, 2006) implying that whatever is planned they do not want the other members of the Torchwood team to interrupt.

Many fan writers created the next scene in Jack’s office themselves, in a bid to explore Ianto’s sudden flirting and solicitation of contact with Jack. The flirting didn’t sit well with the awkwardness that had existed between the two characters after the death of Ianto’s girlfriend Lisa in the episode Cyberwoman. The Instant Message which appears on the ‘official’ Torchwood website contains further flirting and an attempt to explain that Ianto has ‘let go’ of Lisa and is ready for a new relationship ("Instant Messenger Transcript"). A number of fans read the ‘stopwatch’ scene as being sexual, which seemed to be backed up by the Jack/Ianto Instant Messanger conversation. A flurry of stories exploring the ‘stopwatch’ scene appeared on-line soon after the episode TKKS was aired on 03 December 2006. One of these is Clarity’s 12 Stopwatch Scenarios. Clarity explores some innocent and not so innocent explanations for what happened after the ‘stopwatch’ scene:
‘There. I did it. Sudoku in…’ Jack took a look at the face of the stopwatch in Ianto’s hand, ‘under four minutes. Told you I could do it.’
‘Very impressive. Especially factoring in the fact that two minutes of that were you texting Tosh for some of the answers.’
(12 Stopwatch Scenarios, scenario 4)

The story is very tongue-in-cheek in tone, parodying not only the programme itself, but also fan expectations of what might have happened in the ‘missing scene’. The set up of the twelve different scenarios lurches from the sublime to the ridiculous to the overtly sexual. Clarity’s story is a good example of how fans can read many different meanings into a single scene in a television programme, and how fans attempt to ‘fill in the gaps’ left open by the writers of an episode.

Creating the ‘ideal’ version of Torchwood – the case of Jack/Ianto
So far I have shown how fans will write fiction to explain away, or fill in ‘missing scenes’ to further develop characterisation that may have been absent in the actual televised episodes of Torchwood. Such ‘gaps’ in the writing may be interpreted by non-fans as bad writing but fans relish these as the ‘gaps’ are fodder for the fan writer. It has been previously argued that what may be perceived by critics as ‘flaws’, ‘gaps’ or ‘holes’ in a television programme in fact create opportunity for viewers to intervene and reshape the narrative (Jenkins, 1992, p.74). The more ‘holes’ there are in an episode or plot, the more encouraged fans feel to produce fan fiction which fills those ‘holes’. Fan production is often realised out of love for a particular television programme or character, and a need to create an ‘ideal’ version of that fictional universe.

Many fans see the ‘ideal’ version of Torchwood as containing a Jack/Ianto explicit sexual and/or romantic relationship rather than the implicit one which exists in the canonical version of Torchwood. The piece of fan fiction Gathering Wood by louie_x rewrites the episode Countrycide. In that episode a pivotal scene is played out which sees Gwen and Owen affirm their sexual attraction to one another whilst a voyeur looks on. Gathering Wood sees louie_x re-writing the scene to involve Jack and Ianto instead:
"Jack..." it was a soft exhalation meant to throw this stranger off, a private sound but loud enough to be heard even from there. Then his voice dropped, barely above a soft whisper as his fingers flexed in Jack's hair and the thick gray coat under his other palm, "Someone is watching... in the trees, fifty yards, your... your six o'clock."
(louie_x, 2006)

Gathering Wood allows a sexual closeness between Jack and Ianto which is absent from the canonical version of the episode and satisfies fans need to see such a scene. When a programme does not go the way the fan expects then they can ‘put things right’. Episodes which may be ‘bad’ because favourite characters are neglected provide as much fodder for the purposes of producing fan fiction as the ‘good’ ones. Episodes are normally judged on the basis of whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ according to the fan’s ideal version of a television programme. It has been argued that fans may view episodes negatively if they contradict information assumed to be true about the series world or if they develop the program in directions frustrating fans own sense of ‘potentials’ (Jenkins, 1992, p.103). The process described can be seen in the fan fiction produced in the Torchwood universe. An episode which, for example, neglected the Jack/Ianto relationship may be viewed negatively by fans that enjoy seeing Jack/Ianto interaction on-screen. After the Jack/Ianto interaction in the episode TKKS fannish expectations of further Jack/Ianto relationship development were foiled by the next episode Random Shoes. The whole episode focussed on Eugene, the victim of a hit and run accident, and his obsession with alien artefacts, Torchwood and Gwen. Many fans felt ‘cheated’ so much so that cs_whitewolf decided to encourage fans to Write Your Own Episode: "Let loose those bunnies and give us viewers something we'd have been proud to watch!". Many of the commentators wanted their own version of Random Shoes to focus overtly on the Jack/Ianto relationship and develop where it might have otherwise gone after the final scene in TKKS. One such comment was left by wee_britain who suggested that Jack and Ianto might exchange ‘sexual favours’.

Although for many fans Random Shoes was disappointing they know they can always shape the destiny of the characters themselves through creating fan fiction. The power of fan fiction means that fans do not have to tolerate episodes which don’t fit into their concept of what the Torchwood universe is like. Fans can bring characters back from the dead and rewrite episodes all in the name of creating their own unique Torchwood universe. The fan is not just a consumer of media they are also a producer, sharing their stories with online networks of other fans, ‘queering’ the canon of Torchwood, and shaping it through their fan fiction into their own personalised ‘ideal’ version of Torchwood.
Jodie Corney Jan 2007
jodie.corney at ntlworld.com

Jodie is studying for her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth


References removed to prevent plagiarism - get your own!
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