Carrying the Torch
When Queer as Folk creator Russell Davies was tapped to reinvent the popular British sci-fi series Doctor Who, U.K. paper The Sun declared the show “Dr. Queer.” and pondered how Davies would likely gay up and ruin the beloved television institution. Then Davies made his take on Doctor Who the biggest show in the history of British television, scoring through-the-roof ratings and rave reviews while paving the way for a hugely popular spin-off, Torchwood, complete with a bisexual leading man (Capt. Jack Harkness, played by John Barrowman) who just happens to fight aliens.
Now Torchwood is coming to America. While the first three seasons aired stateside on BBC America, the series found a home on Starz, and it’s now set stateside too. However, Davies wants to be clear this is not a reboot. And for fans of the original who are worried Captain Jack’s same-sex tendencies will be toned down when the show premieres July 8 can exhale. If anything, Davies says, Captain Jack is gayer than ever — and for this series, he gets a full-on man-on-man sex scene. Davies tells The Advocate why he loathes the idea of post-gay anything, explains why everything is bigger in America, and shares that he wishes cable TV would stop throwing naked women at viewers.
The Advocate: So Torchwood has moved to the United States — the team is in the U.S now. What brings them here?
Russell Davies: I think it’s important to say it’s the same show. It’s not a reboot. Absolute same show. The story starts in Wales and then takes them to America. So it’s one great big long 10-part story. When we reinvented it last time with Children of Earth, we had a five-part story, so this is double the episodes. But there is an ending. It’s good for people to know we’re not saying this will all get resolved in five years’ time or something. So it’s a new show with new characters and a new impetus and feel, but it’s still absolutely Torchwood.
You’ve said everything is bigger this time around — the action, the drama, the story.
You tend to say things like that in interviews, to be honest. The basic rule of thumb is, you come out to America, you do get twice the budget, but everything costs twice as much. So that kind of balances out. Also, television will never be about size. Ever. What we have here is big in basis and lavish and beautiful sometimes, but it’s not what TV is about. You go to the cinema for that. You can spend those HBO-size budgets on anything you like, but you don’t care if the cast is wrong — if the people aren’t right. It’s character — I hope with everything I do. There’s plenty of big stuff but, I don’t think anyone ever watches television and goes, “Wow, that was impressive.” That’s why we have cinema.
Torchwood has gay characters, bi characters, as well as characters who aren’t quite sure who they’re into. How important is sexuality to you when creating a plot line?
I never sit and gauge how important it is to me — it just naturally is. I just think people’s sexuality and their sexual drive and identity is absolutely essential in shaping a character. We’re desperately striving toward that sort of post-gay statement now of saying that a gay character doesn’t have to be identified sexually because we’re so much more than that. That’s kind of trivializing something vast, something very, very important that occupies my head. It’s all very well to say, “It’s not about sex,” but there’s a bit of shame in that opinion as well.
I’d say Torchwood is the opposite of what's considered “post-gay.” Thankfully, it’s very gay. Do you feel this whole “post-gay” concept is a decidedly American thing?
No, because you hear it in Britain all the time. Here we are, I can presume between us, sort of media liberal left, and that allows a sort of freedom in our lives — and how lucky we are. Nonetheless, post? Women haven’t got equality yet. Men made women take their bras off in the ’60s. All that stuff about burning your bra in the ’60s was men getting women to be topless. They won. They literally fooled women. That’s the danger we have to be careful of ... that we aren’t fooled into that token equality that means we can be paraded and primped. The fact that women aren’t storming the barrricades still, demanding equal money, demanding equal rights, which they are nowhere near, simply shows us the vast miles we have to travel before we get to true equality. We’re a lot further than we were, but we still have so much further to go. We always get that: post-AIDS, post-gay. Nonsense. Try telling someone who’s living that life their life is in the past. Try telling a 15-year-old kid sitting in a classroom who’s scared to death or that 50-year-old lesbian who’s never kissed a woman in her life. Try telling them we’re “post” anything. It’s ridiculous.
Many of the characters on Torchwood are sexually fluid — they go both ways and sometimes more. We see a lot of that on American television with women. You don’t see it much with men. It’s very rare. Do you have any sense that Captain Jack is pioneering in this way?
I don’t worry about it too much. I think one of the things that’s kind of interesting in establishing him for a new audience, and one of the ways John Barrowman, bless him, can dominate the character himself is that actually, this season, I think Captain Jack comes across as very gay. I think there will be people who won’t realize that he’s bisexual. That’s a lot of deliberate choices on my part because it’s so laden with labels and judgments. If we have him falling in love with a woman in this series, you can see the barricades being mounted by those shrill voices saying how much we’ve sold out. Particularly at a time when I think people are waiting for Jack to have sold out. We’re moving to a new network, a new country, and therefore, the Internet voice is always ready for that calamity. So I think I swung it the other way, perhaps too much, to the point where you’re barely aware that he’s even bisexual. That’s not a great problem in my eyes. I’ve portrayed Jack’s wives before, the mother of Jack’s children. That’s a very long journey.
Do I look like I would have done that? On premier cable, it’s like, “Please, will you stop throwing naked people at me?” Literally. What is seen as adult television — I mean HBO, I mean Showtime, I mean all of them — the word adult has suddenly become naked. Predominantly female as well. There’s a very interesting shift going on which I don’t think is particularly impressive at all.
Well, then, let’s flip the question. Did you feel any pressure to amp it up?
No. I didn’t feel any pressure from anyone. That’s the truth. This conversation only happens in interviews. If you look at Captain Jack, if you look at John Barrowman, if you’re prepared to enter the room and talk to us, then you kind of know what you’re getting. Frankly, the fact that I created Queer as Folk, it’s got to be a sign that you’re not going to be able to come into the room and ask me to tone it down.
Which is interesting because, here you are, creator of Queer As Folk, and then suddenly, a few years back, you’re plucked to reinvent Doctor Who? Was there uproar?
Oh yes. The famously terrible newspaper The Sun ran a headline that said, “Dr. Queer.” So they tried that, and then all you do is sit there and turn Doctor Who into the biggest success that British television has ever seen. [Note: Russell is pounding his desk and smiling with pride here.] Which it literally is. The biggest, highest-rated show. And you just think, Fuck off.
The concept, the promo, and the plot for this new series of Torchwood are all so high-end, so grand, and so impressive. Is there a pressure to have the series live up to the hype?
Oh, thank you. You know, fingers crossed — it’s hard, because what you have to wrestle with is kind of an intangible concept. You have to generate story out of that. But I like hard work, and we have a great room of people working on that. By the time we hit episode 5 — and I implore you to watch episode 5 — the sort of point is revealed. Not just the agenda of the drama, but our agenda — why we’re here in America to tell the story. It’s a grand episode.
What do you watch on television?
I watch everything. Name a show, I’ve watched it.
Love it. Celebrity Apprentice. It was on when they killed Osama, I had to flip back and forth. I watch everything. I watch the HBO shows. Every night, I watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. It took me six months to figure out the rules of the wheel. It’s a lot more complicated than it looks. You try figuring out when they keep the money and when they don’t keep the money. It takes a long time.