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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Save the Last Dance for Torchwood

(Top) Captain Jack Harkness makes out with Captain Jack Harkness (Its complicated). (Bottom) Torchwood crew member Toshiko makes out with a hot female alien in a coffee shop.
(Top) Captain Jack Harkness makes out with Captain Jack Harkness (It’s complicated). (Bottom) Torchwood crew member Toshiko makes out with a hot female alien in a coffee shop.

The scene is World War II. American soldiers are having a night out at the local dance hall in Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom. They face air drills the next morning.

Impossible as it seems, a man in a US Air Force Captain uniform walks across the dance floor, pulls another man out on the dance floor and begins a slow dance. The music continues, but the conversation and the dancing stop. “What is he doing?” asks one of his servicemen perplexedly.

The two men are heedless of everything but the dance, everything but one another; they are very obviously in love.

A bright light flashes in the doorway. It’s a rift in time opening up, and one of the men has to leave through it to return to his own time. Not before, however, planting a lingering, passionate, mouth-to-mouth, on-screen kiss on his dancing partner. He knows that tomorrow his almost-lover will die in battle.

After the kiss, the officer salutes and the time rift closes. The whole episode views as a romantic interlude in support of gays in the military-something that the United Kingdom allows.

This would never happen on American primetime.

But such same-sex busses are not uncommon on “Torchwood,” the BBC’s highly successful spin-off of its long-running cult science-fiction show, “Doctor Who.” “Torchwood” follows a secret agency outside the British government that studies alien artifacts and phenomena, defends planet Earth against alien threats and manages the strange anomalies that occur around a rift in time that has somehow sprung up in the city of Cardiff, Wales. The team is headed by an omnisexual man from the 51st century, Capt. Jack Harkness, played by Scotsman John Barrowman with wit, class and a level of sexual licentiousness not seen on screen since the days of Sir Roger Moore’s James Bond.

The action isn’t reserved for Capt. Jack; Torchwood’s first season has seen three onscreen lesbian kisses and four male same-sex kisses between various characters, some of which turn out to be aliens.

While even the first season of “Doctor Who” featured a mouth-to-mouth lip-lock between the Doctor and Capt. Jack, most of Doctor Who’s romantic storyline consists of what doesn’t happen between the Doctor, an alien with godlike powers known as a Time Lord, and his various human companions, all notably women. The hapless Doctor can’t even manage to say the words “I love you,” despite the obvious and mutual feelings on the table between him and Rose Tyler.

“Torchwood,” by contrast, is very sexually frank, while not being particularly graphic. There is a butt shot in the last episode of season one, but that’s as much as it gets. Also, the show features plus-size characters and actors who don’t conform to “Hollywood” standards of beauty.

None of this is apparently a big deal in Britain, a far cry from the state of American television, where a single lesbian kiss still sets off legions of protesters as well as late-night fan-boys and fan-girls. In Britain, the show earns praise from members of Parliament and regularly beats “Lost” in terms of total viewers.

The series is aimed at an adult audience, airing after 9 p.m. Series creator Russell T. Davies “ensured there was some swearing early in the first episode to make it clear the show was not meant for children, though he expected some would watch.” He said: “I did that very deliberately so that you cannot get confused about what you are watching.” Before signing on to recreate “Doctor Who,” Davies skyrocketed to international fame by creating the edgy queer drama “Queer As Folk.”

In an interview with the BBC, Barrowman, who recently married his longtime partner Scott Gill, said: “There’s sexuality in the show. It’s people showing their sexuality as people do in everyday life.”

Does its same-sex content make the show too risky for American audiences? So far, the answer is yes. Slightly more than half of the US have acted to prevent same-sex partners from marrying, although in 2006 seven Senate Republicans were wary of wading into the politically risky issue and voted against bringing the proposed federal marriage amendment to a final vote. California recently upheld its state ban on same-sex marriage, saying that the fundamental right to marry applied only to traditional opposite-sex unions. “That such a right is irrelevant to a lesbian or gay person does not mean the definition of the fundamental right can be expanded by the judicial branch beyond its traditional moorings,” Presiding Justice William McGuiness said.

Images of healthy same-sex sexuality are an extreme rarity on American television, relegated to cable network programming or re-runs of “Will and Grace.” “Torchwood” represents what the Science Fiction genre can do at its best: re-envision society without traditional or technological constraints. Author Ursula K. LeGuin led a small sexual revolution when she wrote about gender-swapping people in her Nebula and World Fantasy Award-winning “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

Because of the relative liberalism of British media, “Torchwood” can ask fundamental questions about our existence, both on this planet and as part of a larger system of stars and planets. The question is when, if ever, America will ever catch up.