Warning: this feature contains spoilers and several naughty words.
There is an infamous quote relating to the character of Owen Harper, Medical Officer of Torchwood, describing him as a “weasel-faced would-be rapist and self-described twat”.
Certainly, during Torchwood‘s first series, this was the overwhelming consensus amongst my friends and a large number of online commentators. But is it a fair assessment?
First of all, let’s address the ‘weasel-face’ aspect. This is Burn Gorman.
And this is a weasel.
Obviously, they’re not identical. That weasel is obviously cosplaying as ‘Fourteenth Doctor’ for starters.
Now that’s cleared up, let’s talk about the ‘would-be-rapist’ aspect. In Everything Changes, the pilot episode, Owen uses an alien scent to make him irresistible. After his advances are declined, he sprays himself and takes a woman home. Then when her partner intervenes, Owen sprays himself again and takes him home too. Technically there is consent, but it’s forced consent. It isn’t sex against someone’s will, but changing someone’s will.
Which, it could be argued, is worse, depending on what you change someone’s will in order to do. In the form of hypnotism, it’s regarded as light entertainment. In the form of romantic comedies, it’s regarded as somehow acceptable and not at all demeaning behaviour for a male lead. In this case, it’s because Owen enjoys nobbing things.
That’s Owen’s character in series one of Torchwood. He’s an angry lad who likes nobbing things, and things that facilitate his nobbing things. Yet when he’s confronted with actions similar to his (he witnesses rape and murder in Ghost Machine) his response is an almost-homicidal fury. An implication that this was a result of his own guilt would’ve been interesting, but no mention was made of this. Instead, we see Owen as an amoral hypocrite rather than conflicted sinner. A would-be rapist? No, but a could-be one.
The issue of his self-proclaimed twattiness is more clear cut. He is not speaking literally, though that wouldn’t be entirely surprising in Torchwood. Owen is merely using self-deprecation to get away with causing a huge security breach. Seeing as Torchwood has adopted a somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards secrecy, this is enough for the problem to be overlooked. Thus, by administering a self-prescribed description of ‘twat’ Owen is being a bigger twat than the twat he purports to be, which causes people to dislike him, which causes him to be defensive. He is engaged in what anthropologists call ‘Twat Recursion’.
His fling with Gwen is strange. Even she doesn’t really know why she keeps doing it. If the Owen we saw was the effective and efficient medical officer that surfaces halfway through Countrycide (after some legendarily twatty behaviour), then it would be more understandable for Gwen to seek solace in his arms. Instead, he pounces on her in situations of mortal peril when she’s not expecting it. It’s not so much surprise sex, more surprise foreplay. Does this make Owen noticably happier? Nah. He just spends most of his time being crueller to Tosh than usual.
Owen is a teenager in a man’s body with access to guns, sex and alien technology. Then he forms an emotional attachment to something other than ejaculation in the form of Dianne. When she heads off to her presumed death, Owen goes into full-blown nihilism mode, joins a fight club and shoots Captain Jack in the head. You’ve got to admire the coming together of the many plot threads in the series one finale, as Owen starts feeling guilt for rescuing Jack and Tosh and inadvertantly bringing about the end of the world. Being Owen, this guilt manifests itself in impotent rage. For an encore,he does what any immature man would do when they’ve gone too far: bursts into tears and issues snot and apologies.
I don’t know what was in that snot, but it’s clear that this other method of expelling mucus has a positive effect on Owen. When he returns in series two, he is now vaguely likeable. Either it’s a reaction or a risky character arc. It didn’t work for the Sixth Doctor (the BBC actually backed Torchwood), but it works better here.
It’s not that Owen isn’t a womanising twat in series two. He is. But not he has some redeeming features. He’s softer, more likeable and charismatic. He now has some sense of responsibility. He flirts with Martha, but he doesn’t force the issue. Crucially, he is still unlikeable at times because that’s more interesting, but he’s not so unpalatable as to put people off him entirely.
The fact that he shows some signs of vulnerability and is more evidently good at his job help with his rehabilitation. Finally, the clincher, he agrees to go on a date with Tosh. We like Tosh because she’s not as bewilderingly confident as the rest of the team. After a concentrated effort of writing and characterisation, Owen is no longer as hate inspiring as he was in the previous series.
And then he gets shot. By Jim from Neighbours.
Hands up who saw that coming?
Like most people, Owen’s personality is severely improved by his death. Unlike most people, Owen is still walking around and doing stuff. Death deprives Owen of nobbing things, which initially makes him angry, before giving him a fresh perspective on things. Does this mean that Doctor Harper has been relieved of his twathood?
No, don’t be silly. The whole point of Owen is that he’s there to rile people and cause conflict. He’s such a git that it takes death plus the slow and painful death of a work colleague to significantly alter him.
The downside of this is that it rather robs him of an elongated epitaph. We have to conclude that, based on the original accusations, any shrine for the character within a safe distance of Turnmill Nuclear Power Plant should simply and accurately read:
‘(Near) Here lies the body of Owen Harper: