You may be surprised to learn what a latecomer I am to Torchwood. I just started watching the show a few days ago – and I don’t mean just started getting caught up on the latest season, but I just watched the first two episodes from season 1 a few days ago. As a Doctor Who fan, I knew I would have to get around to it sooner or later, but I didn’t find (or make) the time until now.
I was told (by my college dean!) that the show is darker than Doctor Who, and I knew that already. In the first two episodes I’d say that it is still not as dark as the rebooted Battlestar Galactica – at least, not yet.
As I reflected on what sorts of reflections one might offer on the show’s earliest episodes from the perspective of religious studies, I was struck by the relation of its view of human-alien interaction to certain sorts of religious mythologies.
On Doctor Who, the earth is a place that the Doctor keeps coming back to. There are some glorious views and interesting spots to visit out there. But earth is the sort of place that, with all its flaws, this time lord keeps returning to. This is a great compliment to the earth, and reflects how at least many humans would like to view ourselves and our place in the universe. By way of comparison, Olympus or the heavens may be spectacular, but humans are interesting and attractive enough that the inhabitants of celestial realms of unspeakable beauty are regularly moved to descend here.
On Torchwood, Earth is like the bad neighborhood, where anything high tech has probably been stolen from somewhere else, where you might well encounter a rat, and where people go looking for drugs. As Suzie Costello puts it in “Everything Changes,” there are bound to be really beautiful places out there, but Earth instead gets weevils and other monsters. In ancient religious storytelling, this is the demon-haunted world of apocalyptic, of Gnosis and of magic. There is a beautiful realm, but to see it you would have to find a way of escaping here.
These two viewpoints differ in their assessment of the value of Earth and of humanity in its present form, but they both agree over against stories which are (perhaps unsettlingly) closer to real life, in which humans do not seem to be visited at all either by aliens or angels. Such a world, whether conceived in religious terms Deistically, atheistically, pantheistically or in some other way, many of us find it harder to inhabit. And so one can argue that Torchwood, even while taking a more negative view of life on Earth, views humanity in a manner that is more hopeful, and grants us more significance, than other views might.
A universe in which we are stuck on Tatooine as moisture farmers, with a city that can outdo all others in the galaxy when it comes to its status as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy,” is preferable to the one we live in, in which even intergalactic lowlifes have yet to show any real interest in us. Torchwood expresses the fact that we’d rather live in a bad neighborhood with problems than be alone. Religion and science fiction are both ways that people have found to comfort themselves when we encounter evidence of our relative insignificance on a cosmic scale.