Was Gwen Cooper really the Heart of Torchwood?

By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues

All Torchwood photos copyright BBC

I was in hospital recently and had my DVD player with me to cope with the boredom. One of the boxsets I brought with me was the entire Torchwood series right up to Children of Earth and something struck me.

From the start Gwen Cooper, played by Eve Myles, was brought in by Captain Jack to remind them what it is Torchwood is fighting for; people living normal lives without the nightmare of aliens. She was to be the conscience of Torchwood given how its hubris had brought about the near destruction of Earth when the Cybermen and Daleks invaded Canary Wharf in the classic Doctor Who two parter Army of Ghosts and Doomsday. Up to that point Torchwood had no problem covering up the murder of a law abiding person. Gwen witnesses first hand two cases in her two premiere adventures Everything Changes and Day One. Gwen is horrified to learn Captain Jack and co have no issues destroying a deceased person’s reputation by labelling their death a suicide. They don’t see the pain and suffering that leaves a family; Gwen does and is very vocal about it all. And this is what secures her place on the team.

When we first meet her Gwen is a normal policewoman living a happy life with her boyfriend Rhys played by Kai Owens. They have their ups and downs like everyone else but nothing that can’t be sorted. No one in the Torchwood team has that, something Gwen points out to them in a telling scene where she asks them directly. Tosh, Owen, Ianto and Jack are all surviving on casual relationships. There is no emotion, no ties but they are all basically empty shells whose lives are filled with Torchwood and Torchwood alone. This isn’t Gwen but it soon becomes apparent that she too is being consumed by the life of Torchwood.

In emotionally charged scenes, Rhys becomes increasingly frustrated by the missed meals and time spent away from home. On a romantic night out, she runs off in the middle of a date because Torchwood needs her and she openly defies him in public which Jack berates her for. He knows she is losing the normality connection he asked her to being to Torchwood but despite her best efforts she becomes lost in this new exciting life. In Cyberwoman, the first signs that she is losing herself completely is when she and Owen are trapped together by the fore mentioned monster, in reality Ianto’s girlfriend from the battle of Canary Wharf and the sexual tension begins. But in Countrycide, where they are almost eaten by cannibals in the Welsh countryside, she ends up in bed with Owen leaving poor Rhys to fend for himself. She has met monsters and aliens but the horror that sends her over the edge is when she asks the head cannibal why they eat people and he answers because they like it. This is too much for her and she cannot talk to Rhys about any of it. It’s a natural progression of her spiralling out of control and not coping well by falling for the team’s sexual predator, Owen Harper played by Burn Gorman.

However she enjoys it too much and falls her him. In Combat she discovers that Owen had fallen in love with a female pilot that had become trapped in the present day to the point where he has become so grief stricken by her departure that he puts himself in a cage with a Weevil so he can die. Gwen’s jealousy is real and she realizes what a fool she has been.

In an act of cowardice, she tells Rhys about her affair but immediately gives him a retcon pill which gives the recipient immediate amnesia. For her story arc this works well especially when Rhys is murdered in the season finale End of Days.

Eve Myles gives the performance of a life time as she spews her grief at Jack and Owen, as furious at them as well as herself. The Torchwood team turn on Jack and open the Rift accidentally releasing the demon Abbadon which only Jack can destroy.

Now, here’s the problem.

Gwen’s journey in season one is one of self redemption. She is sucked in by the Torchwood life and nearly loses what is important to her; Rhys. That is good writing but then the writers of torchwood screw the whole thing up in season two.

Gwen now has a sexual tension with Jack. When Jacke returns in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang at the start of season 2 (he had helped defeat the Master along Doctor 10 and Martha in Utopia-Last of the Time Lords), Jack is disturbed to see she has an engagement ring and she seems embarrassed saying “He asked me.”

In the episode Adam, where an alien infiltrates Torchwood, altering their memories so they think he has been a member of the team for three years. When the truth is discovered, Jack must give them all retcon so Adam can be erased from existence once and for all. Previously in the story, Gwen has no idea who Rhys is and together Jack and Rhys help her regain those lost memories. They all sit round a table in the Hub, taking the amnesia pill one by one to bring them all back to normality.

And this is where Gwen is destroyed as the supposed heart of the series. She admits to Jack she loves Rhys but not in the way that she loves the former time agent. Now one of the writers for this show went on a television type critic show back in the eighties to slate the Sylvester McCoy first season to the face of two of the writers, Pip and Jane Baker. Maybe he regrets that now he’s in the same position. Cyberwoman anyone? Not the show’s finest hour. What were they thinking? After everything that they put Gwen through they come up with this tripe? And they are destroying Jack’s character as well. The man may be omnisexual but the previously heterosexual Ianto suddenly took a shine to man love and he and Jack are fierce lovers. To make Gwen suddenly fall in love with Jack is poor writing, very poor. It makes no sense in terms of characterisation and immediately wipes out her wonderful story arc from the first season. Rhys is something she is just settling even on her wedding day. Even when she tells him she loves him and is getting married to him despite being nine months pregnant with an alien baby, it just falls flat. As a viewer you know she is just waiting for Jack to tell her he loves her and can’t be without her which he never does. Not quite, close.

In the episode Something Borrowed, the sexual tension between Jack and Gwen is literally spilling off the screen even when the alien shape shifter in the story impersonates Jack. The character is fractured completely as the viewer knows that Rhys really is second best. There was no need for this story thread. After the events of season one she and Rhys should have been rock solid especially when he learns the truth about Torchwood and his fiancée’s job. So for me, it’s not real. She’s settling because we as the viewer know she is full of it.

Fortunately this trend stopped in Children of Earth and Miracle Day when they were just colleagues looking out for each other especially when Ianto is killed by the virus unleashed by the 456. She and Rhys are expecting a baby and this time when she tells him she wants him to stay rather than run off to space to deal with the grief of losing his lover and grandson all in one go, you believe it’s to keep Torchwood alive, not because she wants to shag him.

So in retrospect, Gwen became a powerful figure in television land, shooting at a helicopter while cradling her baby in the other. But poor judgement on the writer’s behalf almost wrecked her character as the heart of the series and really one of the most important aspects of the show. Without the heart, science fiction really doesn’t work and for Torchwood their heart will forever be slightly flawed. Love Gwen, Love Eve but hate the stupidity of the Torchwood writing team.

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