Outside the Government: Torchwood: Children of Earth: Day Four

(13 comments)

[previously] Reproductive futurism invests itself in a future without content. It has to, because the future is defined as the place where we don’t live but where our children do. But Jack, as we said, does live in the future. He’s not just from the future, he is ageless and deathless such that he will, in practice, live to see the entirety of it, outliving the Earth itself. This is why he is a queer figure, in the end.

But in opposition to this is the idea of temporal attachments - that is, the longstanding themes of immortality in which the immortal figure must mourn how everyone they love grows old and dies. This is alluded to at the start of the story, with Jack’s declaration that he doesn’t like being a couple - “couples” being, after all, the basic unit of temporal attachments and reproductive futurism. Ianto’s death, then, consists of forcibly severing Jack’s ties to that rhetoric and allowing him to fully embrace the queer ideology he truly represents. It is worth looking at the specific context of Ianto’s death - coming as it does in the midst of a big, heroic scene in which Ianto and Jack attempt to heroically speak of humanity’s potential and how there’s nothing they won’t do to protect their children. That is, they speak in defense of reproductive futurism, which is spectacularly ineffectual. Ianto dies, thus forcing Jack to a new type of strategy - one that actually works, but that works precisely because it completely rejects reproductive futurism and instead involves murdering his own grandson.

It is worth noting that the particulars of Ianto’s death - a virus - hold specific symbolic weight. One of the things that has most often been important in understanding Davies’s work, particularly when same-sex relationships show up in it, is the difference between homosexuality as a sexual orientation and the specific institution of gay culture. This is what’s ultimately invoked in the memorable monologue way back in Bob and Rose in which Bob declares that “I was born gay, I'll die gay and I'll have a gay gravestone” - not, self-evidently, that he therefore was never going to be attracted to a woman, but that his self-identity and image came out of gay culture. (A fact implicit in the idea that a gravestone can be gay.) And Davies often writes about gay culture as much, if not more than he writes about same-sex relationships. Indeed, his inclination in much of his later work is specifically to avoid making same-sex relationships a topic - observe, for instance, how Ianto basically plays a reverse version of the Bob and Rose game, rejecting any identity implicit in his romance with Jack when asked by Rhiannon. Gay culture, to be clear, is in no way coextensive with homosexuality - it does not provide a description fitting all or even most gay men. Nevertheless, it still has significant cultural impact.

All of which is to say that the fact that Jack - an ostentatiously queer character who, especially in 2009 once John Barrowman had become a ubiquitous presence on television such that it was impossible to look at his character in Torchwood and not see in part the high-profile gay man playing him - loses his lover specifically to a deadly virus is impossible not to read in part as a quiet invocation of the role that HIV/AIDS played in gay culture and gay history. 

It is almost impossible to overstate the magnitude of that role. AIDS, as it first emerged, was originally defined as GRID - gay-related immunodeficiency - due to the fact that the initial outbreaks were centered on the gay male population. Between the higher risk of transmission from anal sex and the prevalence of polyamory within the gay community, gay men proved to be at particularly high risk - so much so that at the height of the AIDS crisis it was unfathomable that a gay man would not know multiple people who were HIV positive. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but if one is inclined to futz about with statistics involving the overall HIV infection rate and the size of the gay population one ends up with numbers that suggest that, at the worst of the AIDS crisis, something like 25% of the gay male population was infected (See footnote). In short, AIDS massacred the gay male community and was an event every bit as scarring as any other mass death within an oppressed population.

So when Jack loses his lover to a virus in particular, in a story that is very heavily about the tension between reproductive futurism and a queer alternative, it speaks volumes. It is hugely significant to any understanding of Children of Earth that the event that fully transforms Jack from attempting to embrace the ideology of reproductive futurism to killing off an innocent blonde-haired blue-eyed angel who was playing football not two scenes earlier is the fact that his lover died of a virus. Doubly so that this can be linked to failures of authority - another key aspect of the history of HIV/AIDS is, after all, the sense that it wasn’t until middle class heterosexual teenagers like Ryan White began getting sick that anyone took notice. The fact that the point when the US Congress finally passed any sort of useful AIDS legislation was the death of Ryan White, and that the bill was named after him instead of the legions of gay men who had died previously sticks in is a chilling example of horrific priorities and reproductive futurism: nobody cares until the good little children are threatened.

Which gets at a fundamental truth about the anger and cynicism of Children of Earth. It is worth noting that in a normal structure “Day Four” should be where Children of Earth ends. Four episodes of fighting against Frobisher leads them to finally get the drop on him via Lois. Everyone gets big hero moments, and Jack and Ianto make it to confront the villain where they give the standard sort of “you cannot triumph over human determination” speech that ends stories like this. By rights, in any sort of normal Doctor Who-type story, this should be the end, and not the flooring bleakness of “Day Five.” But Children of Earth steadfastly refuses to go that route. Reproductive futurism is wholly useless to Children of Earth. It accomplishes nothing whatsoever. Its embrace leads to social collapse and moral atrocities such as the forcible execution of the 10% of children in the lowest-performing schools, which, in practice, just means using the military to cull poor people. 

Instead the only hope comes from Jack Harkness fully embracing his queerness and separating himself from the normal social order entirely. In order to save humanity, Jack must completely depart its social structures, eventually fleeing the planet entirely and in effect becoming an alien instead of a human being at all. This, then, necessitates some consideration of Jack as a character. Initially, of course, he is fairly straightforward - a variation on the Doctor in many ways. As we’ve noted previously, one can readily imagine a version of Doctor Who in which the premise of the Pertwee era was retained but the concept of regeneration was not discarded, and thus where the series could still retain its longevity. In which case it is not at all difficult to imagine a Tenth Doctor who is more or less exactly Jack Harkness. He follows thoroughly from Pertwee’s drag action hero performance: a camp James Bond figure. 


Unlike Pertwee’s Doctor, however, Jack is explicitly queer. Unabashedly libidinous, pansexual, and embracing the underlying aesthetic and ethic of hedonism that exists in Davies’s work more than anyone else, Jack was a landmark character for the show, and indeed for television. But in Torchwood he has steadily become a figure of non-trivial menace. He’s dangerous precisely because of his distance from humanity - of the fact that he will behave with a ruthlessness that puts all of the other characters to shame. Indeed, he even has a preexisting history of handing children off to otherworldly threats. All of this results in an odd tension where Jack, within Torchwood, is an unsettling figure due to the similarity he has to the Doctor. And this is all deeply relevant to Children of Earth’s resolution, since it is by embracing the unsettling aspects of his character that he is able to save the day. (In fact, his end solution is functionally no different from his actions in 1965: sacrifice a small number of children to save more people.) [continued]


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Footnote: The numbers really aren’t great, but here’s my math. Around the height of the AIDS crisis, the rate of new infections in the US was around 750k. 43% of that was gay men as of 1996. (In 1983 it was 71%, but that was a lower total infection rate.) This means about 356k new infections a year, meaning that at any given point in this period there were going to be at least one million gay men with HIV/AIDS. Using 2010 census data, the estimated gay population in the US is nine million, of which presumably roughly half are men, resulting in 25% as a very, very ballpark estimate of how many gay men were HIV positive.

Comments

Spacewarp 3 years, 3 months ago

"In fact, his end solution is functionally no different from his actions in 1965: sacrifice a small number of children to save more people."

Which is fundamentally the solution the UK Government comes up with. The only difference being that they use different criteria to choose the children and unlike Jack refuse to offer their own relatives.

Which makes one question exactly how evil the Government were in this. Yes their methods were questionable, and they didn't agonise about it as much, but if everyone had refused to comply with the 456 now and in 1965, there probably would be no human race left.

Jack is seen as the hero who made the decision we couldn't bring ourselves to, but then fundamentally it would be no different to him offering Steven up as one of the 10% this time round.

The difference is that Jack actually had a solution that (hopefully) would see the 456 go away for ever. Whereas the Governments of the world didn't have that way out and could only give in to the ransom.

In hindsight the public ruination of the PM's career is a bit unfair, since without Jack's final solution what he and his Cabinet were doing was ensuring the human race stayed alive.

The idea that the 456 were given intense pain rather than destroyed grated with me at the time, and still does. What clues we were given to the 456's character (petty, selfish, materialistic) didn't leave me with the feeling that they would simply nobly depart the Earth licking their wounds and saluting a worthy foe. Far more likely that they would wait till we were looking the other way, then nuke the planet out of spite.

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Sean Case 3 years, 3 months ago

The ultimate solution is very like that of Quatermass, the last of the Quatermass serials.

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David Anderson 3 years, 3 months ago

The public ruination of the PM's career isn't meant to be fair; his successor is just as culpable.
The culpability of the politicians isn't so much a matter of the decisions they make as of how they make them. There are two questions here - one is a rejection of consequentialism as such, and then there are two further moral errors that even a consequentialist should reject. A consequentialist believes that in any situation there is a best option or at least a least worst option. And ultimately consequentialism is unable to acknowledge that there's a difference between a best option and a least worst option. So taking that option is always the most moral thing to do. In other words, you need feel no more guilt for sending half a million children to their effective deaths than for buying your mother an ideal birthday present. (At least some) non-consequentialists might acknowledge that sending the children to their deaths is the least worst thing to do, but thinks you should still incur guilt. For example, if you have to make such a decision you should resign afterwards. (Or leave the planet.)
The two further moral errors are, showing more concern for the opinion polls than for the lives of the children killed - to the point of ordering Frobisher's children killed. (Not that Frobisher's children are any more deserving to be spared than anyone else; but that their deaths are superfluous.) And then assuming that school league tables are indicators of the worth of the children attending them.

Mind you, if Davies were writing under the present government he might well present the politicians as thinking they could be quite open about their decision.

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 3 months ago

In hindsight the public ruination of the PM's career is a bit unfair, since without Jack's final solution what he and his Cabinet were doing was ensuring the human race stayed alive.

That's politics for you. No PM could expect to stay in office after such a calamity, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the issue.

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David Ainsworth 3 years, 3 months ago

I can guess where this is headed, but Gwen's pregnancy seems like a major complication to claims that the whole series is mirroring Jack's personal rejection of reproductive futurity. If Jack kills his grandson to save Gwen's child, that's a very distinct action from simply separating himself from reproductive futurity. Especially as his daughter could still reproduce (not that she will) and Jack himself can still reproduce (and will, if that piece of gossip about the Face of Boe's pregnancy was accurate).

I also think the focus on rejecting reproductive futurity weakens the associations between gay marginalization (especially during the AIDS crisis) and genuine class warfare. Not the rich's "class warfare means war on us" version, but actual and genuine neglect and disenfranchisement of the poor. Jack's rejection of one kind of family also constitutes an embrace of another kind of family, and it's that family he cannot face and flees from afterwards.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 3 months ago

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Spacewarp 3 years, 3 months ago

Jack's an oddly played character in Torchwood, especially in comparison to his far more "kid-friendly" Doctor Who incarnation. I wonder how Barrowman likes playing him in TW? He often goes on about how much he loves playing Captain Jack, and the positive feedback he gets from children, but although the Torchwood version is meant to be the same loveable rogue with a wisecrack for every occasion, the way he has to play him (and obviously the storylines he has to play within) go heavily against this grain. He can't walk around joshing and flirting the way he does in Doctor Who because it would be out of kilter with the plots and the way the other characters are behaving. When the Doctor accuses Jack of not taking things seriously, it's funny (especially when it's the po-faced Tenth). But when Gwen does the same it's because people are likely to end up dead.

I kind of imagine it like this. If Jack flirts with you in Doctor Who it's flattering, he thinks you're cute, and you know he kind of only half means it,. If Jack flirts with you in Torchwood you'll have a tough time avoiding ending up in bed with him and being penetrated in at least one orifice or another.

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John 3 years, 3 months ago

Yeah, there's definitely a sense in which both John Barrowman as an actor, and the character of Jack Harkness as introduced on Doctor Who, are totally unsuited to Torchwood and to the role that Jack is slotted into there.

It's like, they knew they wanted to have a spin-off with Captain Jack, and they apparently knew they wanted to create this dark and depressing and "sexy" Torchwood thing, and figured they could combine them easily. But it really doesn't fit together very well.

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Alan 3 years, 3 months ago

Two points. (1) The possibility of Llanto's death being a metaphor for the AIDS crisis was lost on me because (a) Llanto steadfastly insisted that he wasn't a homosexual, just as "Jacksexual," and (b) I honestly missed the plot exposition saying that it was a virus and just assumed it was poison gas.

(2) In many ways, I see Jack almost as the antithesis of the Doctor. The latter is immortal by virtue of his ability to endlessly reinvent himself via regeneration, a characteristic which has allowed the show to survive for 50 years. Jack, OTOH, was defined in the very first TW episode as being immortal and unchanging (Face of Boe silliness notwithstanding). Thus, from its beginnings, TW had a fixed endpoint -- the point at which John Barrowman either decided to leave the show or else had aged to the point where his "immortality" was no longer plausible. Torchwood was always vulnerable to the caprices of its main character in a way that DW wasn't.

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Corpus Christi Music Scene 3 years, 3 months ago

The 456 refers to it as a virus. It must not be a contagious one though, as it would unlikely that Gwen would be allowed to interact with her friends corpses as she does in the last scene without wearing some sort of hazmat gear.

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heroesandrivals 3 years, 3 months ago

I marathoned Torchword Series 1 and Series 2 the resulting time-lapse was INCREDIBLY revealing.
Torchwood worked when it had stories it wanted to tell with the Torchwood setting and cast. Torchwood did not work when it had to take the Torrchwood setting and cast and tell a story with them. As a 'starting point' for the creative process Torchwood is a shallow swamp. The writer had to bring ideas to that swamp and build them there because the swamp wasn't going to produce any good ideas on its own.
It's not just that the characters were all miserable people imprisoned by this job and cut off from ever having a life outside of it because it -- or the time-traveling space hedonist who was absolutely devastated by the massacre of the Torchwood Three on the day the Seventh Doctor died (but never mentioned any of them by name ever again) -- it's the damn PTERODACTYL! The great big screeching SYMBOL of the awesome weirdness of everything that Torchwood was supposed to embody!
But that's not what Torchwood -- the version we actually saw onscreen -- did with animals like that. They put them down. The pteradactyl isn't a refugee from another time, it's from an alternate version of "Torchwood" where the world was 'weird and wonderful' and the team would do something like keep a pterodactyl as a pet! That was the Torchwood we dreamed of; the one we were promised in the premiere. But our Torchwood is set in a world that is 'weird and awful' instead. A series of 4 worlds; the crapsack Forever Pit that was the-series-as-it-aired, the boisterous-and-wonderful pterodactyl of the-series-we-were-promised, an immortal swatshbuckling space-time roguish conman of the series which spawned it (now a morose, fake-smiling self-loathing servant of the status-quo) and Gwen's World. Phil talks about Donna Noble as a character that (outside of her voyages with the Doctor) represents the anxiety of a middle-class family seeing their child fall down into the working class. Gwen is a working-class character trying not to fall down into the Forever Pit -- the yawning emotional black hole which most people don't know exists but which has engulfed Torchwood 3 and all of the characters inside it. When Coronation Street soap opera intrudes into Doctor Who it's about clashing narrative rules. But when it intrudes on Torchwood it's about anxiety. Gwen steps between the narratives and tries to keep Reece and the baby inside their own -- because she knows that the Torchwood narrative has Coronation Street surrounded. "Don't wander off the sets Reece. It's not safe out there."
Torchwood 3... ah ha! AH HA! I KNOW WHAT I'M TRYING TO SAY.
Torchwood 3, as a setting and cast, cannot undergo a narrative collapse because Torchwood 3 came pre-collapsed. The 'threat' to Torchwood as a series is the invasion of external narratives that try to build something on their swamp.

In a real sense, Miracle Day is an artifact of the original Torchwood; the one the pterodactyl came from. The weird and scary-but-still-wonderful world RTF wanted the series to be before it nosedived into despair. This was what Torchwood was //supposed// to look like... a world where the unexplained is a source of danger but the real 'point' of the story isn't the monster/planet-vagina, it's about how humans cope with (and fail to cope with) things they have no context for dealing with.

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heroesandrivals 3 years, 3 months ago

Tsh! You can't get AIDS just from touching someone!

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Spacewarp 3 years, 3 months ago

Depends what part of them you touch...and which part of yourself does the touching.

Sorry, couldn't resist. I'm a bad man, I know.

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