Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Three: Tonight’s The Night?

July 29, 2011
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Not on BBC1, it wasn’t. Because this episode’s UK transmission was marked by what it failed to include. The Starz edit featured a sex sequence intercutting between Captain Jack and Barman Brad, and Rex and Vera, showing each couple rolling about in bed. But despite warnings about sexual content from the BBC Wales’ announcer, the UK version skipped this entire montage, as well as cutting away pretty sharpish from a preceding sequence where Jack pushed Brad’s head down below frame’s edge (you know what I’m saying). No sex please, we’re prudish. Both gay and het couplings were lessened, leaving classically coy post-coital scenes in place.

The Beeb have responded to complaints about this cut, stating that differing edits related to the show’s “different audiences”, and insisting that “in a later episode a sequence of gay sex is important to the story and therefore both the US and UK will show the same version.” So the likes of Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner weren’t able to gauge what would be suitable content for the episode ‘Dead of Night’? Really?

One problem is that Torchwood has to function as ‘TV III’ in the US (‘edgy’ niche TV reinforcing the ‘Starz Originals’ brand, and drawing in paying cable consumers), while simultaneously acting as ‘TV I’ in the UK (broadcast TV for a mass audience). My feeling was that Russell T. Davies and co. would square this circle by focusing on ‘edgy’ concepts rather than sex and gore – a celebrity paedophile as protagonist; a world without death. But the tension between two different paymasters – with radically different imagined audiences, and imagined agendas – has now fractured Torchwood into ‘TV III’ and ‘TV I’ incarnations. The differences aren’t national per se, but they’re about the differing industrial contexts of Starz/the BBC.

And that issue leads me to John Barrowman.

Currently UK TV audiences are enjoying early Saturday evening light entertainment, Tonight’s The Night, fronted by the bright-smiled prankster and granter of wishes. This BBC1 show draws on Barrowman’s star intertext, frequently being linked to music and the theatrical. It presents its presenter as genial, playful, and family-friendly: Barrowman-as-everyman. But such an image seemingly doesn’t match up well with depictions of Barrowman-as-Jack involved in gay sex (even safe sex). I can see no real reason for the BBC to have cut the Rex/Vera sex scene, but I can imagine a reason why BBC Execs would think twice about having a Saturday night family entertainment host appearing in a post-watershed sex scene. However, if they’d only cut Captain Jack’s sexy time then they’d immediately have looked guilty of homophobia. In fact, if the BBC are concerned about Barrowman – an out gay man – playing a bisexual or ‘omnisexual’ character who has sex, and if they are concerned that this may contradict the family entertainment values of Tonight’s The Night, then perhaps this remains nothing less than tacit, implicit homophobia. If only the BBC were braver – if they really wanted to stand by the fuller ideals of a ‘public service broadcaster’ – then they’d embrace Captain Jack as a character to be integrated with John Barrowman as a TV personality. Barrowman himself says in the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine: “about 75% of it is wonderful writing, and then may be 25% because of personality. I put a lot of my own personality into Jack” (in Cook 2011:19).

But apparently there can’t be too much Captain Jack in John Barrowman the 7pm BBC1 TV personality, and a clear semiotic divide has to be established between the two as far as BBC brand management goes. The DWM feature on Miracle Day may punningly equate it with Barrowman’s early TV presenting career (on Saturday morning kids’ show Live & Kicking) by using the banner title ‘Alive and Kicking!’. And tabloid TV journalists may blur John/Jack: “It’s not possible to watch him acting his pretty little socks off in Torchwood on Thursdays without seeing the presenter of Tonight’s the Night… on Saturdays” mutters Jim Shelley in the Daily Mirror. But the BBC is mightily keen not to lead viewers from Tonight’s The Night to Torchwood (though they’ll happily take the reverse trade: Tonight’s The Night was trailed after 11pm on BBC1 Wales last week, following immediately on from the Torchwood-focused one-off documentary, Wales and Hollywood).

The rationale that’s sometimes given is that Captain Jack might entice Doctor Who‘s child fans into watching inappropriate material – but Jack’s not been in Who for a couple of years; this may not be as active an issue as it once was. By contrast, Barrowman-the-personality-presenter is very much a live concern. It’s the transmission of Tonight’s The Night that’s currently running alongside Torchwood, not Who. And as James Bennett points out in Television Personalities, “the role of the schedule in television personality performance” (2011:122) is crucial. Primetime personalities perform ‘niceness’, while post-9pm or post-watershed UK TV personalities perform explicitness and irreverence. Bennett discusses Graham Norton’s mobilisation of sexuality in The Graham Norton Show versus his reduction to “fairy godmother” in How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria (ibid). And right now, in the UK TV context, John Barrowman finds himself Norton-ed, or split into two incarnations.

As a result, Miracle Day faces not just the problematics of its own scheduling, and what’s suitable for the 9pm slot. It also faces the puzzle of whether its post-watershed Barrowman can be reconciled with the early Saturday evening Barrowman of Tonight’s The Night. And on the evidence of a missing sex scene, the BBC computer says “no”. It isn’t just death that’s mysteriously halted here; sex has gone AWOL too, sacrificed via latent homophobia in order to create a branding firewall between Captain Jack Harkness and family entertainment personality John Barrowman. Miracle Day has been divided into two versions (Starz/BBC) in order to protect and insulate these two versions of JB.



15 Responses to “ Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Three: Tonight’s The Night? ”

  1. Leanne on July 29, 2011 at 4:35 AM

    I was discussing the very same thing last night and totally agree with you. Just wanted to add that whilst the BBC have said the sex scene in episode 7 of Torchwood will be left in unedited because “it’s vital to the plot” it will also conveniently be shown after this series of “Tonight’s The Night” has finished.

    • Matt Hills on July 29, 2011 at 8:30 AM

      Thanks, Leanne. Yes, as soon as I read that BBC statement I checked how many episodes of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ were in the current series, as my thoughts followed exactly the line you’ve set out! I believe episode 6 of TW:MD is set for more BBC cuts, though.

  2. Belinda on July 29, 2011 at 8:31 AM

    You’ve forgotten Animals At Work – might be more of an issue than Tonight’s The Night?

    • Matt Hills on July 29, 2011 at 12:05 PM

      Very good point: JB’s presenting role in CBBC shows would also have to factor into the BBC’s decision-making, making it even more likely that they’d want to play safe. Though I suppose TTN would still be a greater concern in terms of the scale of primetime BBC1 audience it might threaten to carry over ‘inappropriately’ to TW.

  3. Kat on July 29, 2011 at 9:10 AM

    It’s a nice analysis, but I suspect the scheduling of TTN and Torchwood are entirely co-incidental, since the two departments are run independently. I rather believe the explanation given by Russell T Davies, that the BBC were aware that there might be children watching Torchwood with parents, and wanted to stop the parents reaching for the remote in embarrassment, is the simple truth. That kind of embarrassment can happen even when the children are older, in their teens!

    I’ve also been to Torchwood screenings at the BFI where there were quite young children in the audience – there was one little boy, can’t have been more than 8 years old, in an excellent Captain Jack costume at the Children of Earth screening. He’s probably 10 now.

    There’s nothing homophobic about erring on the side of caution when it comes to raunchy sex scenes, children, and parental discomfort.

  4. Michele Paule on July 29, 2011 at 9:12 AM

    As well as bridging the Types I & III, paleo/neo TV divides, might it not also be relevant that the BBC as a publicly funded organization is having to be hyper-cautious around the Coalition government’s conservative nature and commitment to reducing PSB funding? The Murdoch business has revealed how deep the commitment has been to reducing the BBC, and how ready the Right have been to invoke reactionary sentiment to this end

    • Matt Hills on July 29, 2011 at 11:49 AM

      The BBC1 edit certainly struck me as extremely cautious. So, yes, I wouldn’t want to rule out this level of strategic decision-making. It does seem as though the BBC are bending over backwards in order not to upset the Right. Compare this with how Captain Jack was represented in Doctor Who series one; the difference is pretty astonishing (and I always expected the Daily Mail to go ballistic then, and was always surprised that they stayed quiet). Series one of Who, and its boundary-pushing bravery, seems to hail from a different era already.

  5. Will on July 29, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    Matt, this is a very interesting post, and I think your reasoning about the cuts in terms of Barrowman’s persona may well be correct — but the edit still baffles me.

    I think the BBC cut is explicit enough to make the point that Jack sleeps with men, and to parallel the straight and gay scenes: there has already been ample heavy-handed dialogue about Jack’s supposed ‘gayness’, from Rex, and some innuendo about how he ‘impaled’ the barman.

    That is, there isn’t a lot of difference between the edits in terms of what they convey about character, and for what it’s worth, both edits seem to be encouraging us to compare the two sexual encounters and see them as roughly equivalent, rather than contrasting: both are lustful, of-the-moment pairings, rather than loving long-term intimacy, and the kissing/foreplay and coy aftermath scenes are similar enough even in the edited version to make that point.

    That is, to its credit, even the BBC version seems to be encouraging a blurring of any reactionary oppositions between straight and gay sexual encounters, and seeing both shags as, basically, consenting adult bodies having fun, prompted to an extent by crisis and uncertainty.

    In the BBC edit, we cut from Rex and Vera directly to a shot of Brad’s bum, which I think we are not meant to recognise immediately as male — as the camera pulls back and circles slightly to reveal the two men embracing.

    So the invitation to see straight and gay sex as basically equivalent, rather than romantic/sordid, acceptable/unpalatable, as would be the case in many mainstream representations — I hesitate to suggest that it deconstructs a binary, but maybe it’s along those lines — is still there, I think.

    I also felt that the BBC edit still introduced enough of a queer element to question and challenge the other relationship dynamics, such as Gwen and Esther, Gwen and Jack, Rex and Jack.

    To pick up on a point I suggested above, it would be interesting to consider how Jack’s omnisexuality is being represented here, and in his other appearances on TW and DW. Rex continually refers to him as gay, and as having a gay effect on other guys (in fact, the programme backs him up, as it’s a running gag that he seems to bring out male characters’ flirtatious sides).

    It would be churlish to complain that Jack isn’t straight enough — we have enough straight heroes and it’s an important move that this is a charismatic, charming guy in a mainstream TV show who sleeps with men. However, to what extent is ‘omnisexual’ just being used as synonymous with ‘homosexual’, or ‘not-straight’, here?

  6. Will on July 29, 2011 at 9:59 AM

    Just as a thought-experiment, do you feel they would have included a sex scene with that kind of explicit level (bare bottoms) showing, say, Rose or Sarah Jane, if those characters crossed over from Doctor Who to Torchwood?

    Is it the fact that Harkness is firmly within Who canon for BBC audiences in particular — and as such, is still part of a family-oriented show — that makes the difference?

    I wouldn’t deny that Barrowman’s mainstream star persona is a factor, but I don’t know if we would see any regular, recurring character from DW naked in an in-continuity spin-off.

    • Matt Hills on July 29, 2011 at 11:43 AM

      You raise a lot of good points, Will. I agree that both edits work to equate and parallel the gay/straight sex, though I think this is much more strongly conveyed in the Starz cut. And although Jack is described as a “bisexual lead” by Russell T. Davies and John Barrowman in the current issue of Gay Times, the show does seem to have moved towards positioning the character as gay or “not straight”. There seems to be some textual difficulty in actually conveying either omnisexuality or bisexuality (something which TW Series One, tucked away on BBC3, was arguably much better at).

      As for the thought experiment — when Martha Jones featured in series two, the BBC were careful to screen edited, pre-watershed versions of TW. The fact that TW is a Who spin-off clearly remains significant in terms of what the BBC will approve. I guess what I’m suggesting here is that John Barrowman’s star persona adds another level of complexity, and that there’s more going on than just the Who issue.

  7. Will on July 29, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    There is an interesting parallel with the Marvel ‘Max’ imprint, which features full-on swearing and violence, plus more explicit sexual content than normal Marvel superhero continuity.

    My impression is that while officially, it all takes place in the same universe, the characters in Max tend to be either already-coded as ‘mature’ (Punisher), new and therefore effectively more separate from both Marvel history and mainstream continuity (Alias, relatively marginal and obscure (Luke Cage) or popular but peripheral, with the odd cameo (Daredevil, Marvel Girl).

    So, Spider-Man only appears very briefly in Alias (books 1-3, my experience of the title) and doesn’t do anything outside his normal mainstream behaviour, whereas Luke Cage, a less central figure in Marvel’s branding and lacking any kind of family blockbuster audience, is able to have one-night stands and curse, in the same title.

  8. Will on July 29, 2011 at 1:30 PM

    It’s a similar case with DC’s Vertigo, which ostensibly takes place in the same universe, but in practice, rarely crosses over significantly.

    So, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, with its LGBT cast, and Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, featuring transvestite real estate Danny-the-Street, could feature Batman, but mostly don’t.

  9. Will on July 29, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    Finally, the fact that TW is not just in the same universe as the family favourite DW, but the actual children’s telly show Sarah Jane Adventures, adds to the problem for the BBC. It’s the same big story, but it includes Elisabeth Sladen running around with kids at one end, and John Barrowman getting his arse out at the other.

    • Matt Hills on July 30, 2011 at 7:21 AM

      I wonder if the ending of the Sarah Jane Adventures — after Elisabeth Sladen’s sad and untimely passing — will alter the franchise dynamic at all, since there will no longer be a dedicated kids’ show in the mix. And interesting to hear about those Marvel/DC parallels where certain characters have to be protected.(‘Doom Patrol’ is on my to-read list; I’m working through Morrison’s Batman saga at present and greatly enjoying it. In fact, I can’t understand why there hasn’t been lots of ‘Zur En Arrh’ merchandise, but that probably belongs to a different discussion!)

      • Will on July 30, 2011 at 7:47 AM

        Morrison’s recent Batman is an interesting case because not only is it all within mainstream continuity, it brings back a lot of repressed, daft, camp, sci-fi 1950s and 1960s material back into continuity.

        A significant group of fans dislike it for that reason — because it’s undermining their purist conception of the ‘dark’, serious Batman who doesn’t have any silly stuff in his history.

        So that’s another illustration of the dynamic whereby if you introduce something in one title, it has repercussions for the whole narrative universe — unless that title is coded as outside official continuity (dream, imaginary story, different imprint, different alternate earth — something explored in DW — elseworlds etc).

        However, the upcoming DC relaunch could rewrite all of that in a flash.