[previously] On the other hand, the idea that the Doctor would deliberately murder a child to save the day is unthinkable. In fact, the degree to which it is unthinkable is central to Moffat’s soft retcon of the Time War to give the Doctor an out in Day of the Doctor. The way that Moffat renders the Doctor’s double genocide unthinkable is by declaring that Gallifrey was full of children – a thought that is unimaginable in the context of Davies’s vision of the Time War as an event in which the dead are simply brought back from an earlier point in time to fight again and again and the Time Lords became monsters as unthinkable as the Daleks. Moffat alters this by saying that the Time Lords weren’t all monsters, and he does this through unabashed reproductive futurism. Jack, on the other hand, has at this point functionally killed fourteen kids, putting him six shy of Adam Lanza.
And yet for all of that, he is unambiguously framed as the hero. When he is absent from the narrative for the entirety of “Day Two” it is consciously a disruption to the narrative’s function, and when he’s restored in “Day Three” he gets a cheeky and thoroughly gratuitous sequence where his hero coat is restored to him. There’s no way of reading Children of Earth as anything other than a story about Jack Harkness, the hero who saves the day.
It’s tempting to read this as the frankly overly common trope of the tortured and morally ambiguous antihero – this is, after all, released almost exactly a year after The Dark Knight, when the love of taking heroes to “dark” places was at its highest. But Davies has never shown a particular attachment to the tortured antihero, and much as he pushes Jack into grim territory, he does ultimately end by putting Jack in a position to return to his galavanting, space-faring roots. For all that Jack’s actions and ending are grim, we should think about the next place we see him: a raucous bar full of all manner of colourful CGI characters. “The hero Cardiff deserves” this ain’t.
Which is to say that we are forced to take Jack’s actions as morally serious. This is, to be fair, not actually difficult. At the end of the day, it’s just another trolley problem, and the solution Children of Earth settles on is a perfectly mainstream answer to it. Killing twelve people to save twenty-five million is, if not straightforwardly ethical, at least reasonable and defensible. Killing one to save even more is likewise. The only things that make Jack’s actions especially horrific are aesthetic issues: the fact that the person he’s killing is a kid, and, more than that, his grandson. (Strangely, the fact that he’s also saving children has relatively little impact in practice.)
And so by embracing this queer ideology in all its awful splendor, Jack liberates himself from the entire world. It’s interesting to note that his final scene is not actually necessarily a scene about how awful he found it to have to kill his own grandson. “I began to like it,” he says, “and look what I became.” But what did he become? The person who saved the world? Or the person who failed to? There’s no particular indication in the dialogue what the trauma actually is. Within the context of the story, it’s actually just as plausible that the trauma that leads him to want to become somebody new is the fact that his big scheme to storm Thames House and confront the 456 led to a bunch of people needlessly dying. That his failure to heed his own advice from “Day One” about not liking the word “couple” made him ineffective and stopped him from productively stepping in sooner, before the horrors of the government’s plan became manifest. That it made him embrace reproductive futurism, and made him lose the things he wrongly valued in the first place.
It is, after all, worth noting that there is a significant if minority viewpoint within the gay community that is at best ambivalent and at worst actively hostile to gay marriage for precisely the reason Jack articulates when he suggests a suspicion of “couples.” That viewpoint suggests, in effect, that gay marriage serves little purpose but to make gay relationships like straight ones – that it dismantles the historical establishment of gay culture in an attempt to create not equality but equivalence, and that the relationships they had and have weren’t marriages, having come out of a world and system where the concept of gay marriage was unthinkable.
It’s a minority viewpoint, to be sure, but a fascinating one that speaks volumes about the extent to which queerness can be taken as an ideological position. It is, in the end, a sort of ultimate hedonism – one that respects life because of the possibilities it offers. In this regard, Davies’s comments in response to the Ianto death furor are telling: “That’s the point actually. Both in fiction and in life. When someone dies you lose all that potential. You grieve over everything they could have been. Everything you hoped for them. Everything they might have achieved with their lives, everyone they could have loved. Every job they could have had. Every joy they could have had. It’s gone.” The issue is not, in other words, some metaphysical point about the sanctity of human life, but about the possibility of human experience – about the things that people can do. And, of course, we have looked at Davies as a writer invested in hedonism as a moral position before, and looked at the way that this position extends out of his previous work, most notably the work that focused most overtly on gay culture: Queer as Folk.
All of this makes interesting and even more disturbing the precise reason why the 456 want the children: to get high off of them. Recreational drug use is, after all, a fundamentally hedonist act, and one Davies has in the past taken an interesting view of, given his own history and the near-fatal overdose that ultimately inspired Queer as Folk. The fact that the 456 want the children to get high makes them considerably more disturbing as threats, but ultimately the most upsetting moment of the revelation is the Prime Minister’s shocked reaction that “we’re trading in drugs,” because apparently that’s where his moral line is. It’s not like the reason why the aliens want to kidnap ten percent of the world’s children and hook them up to grotesque machines is going to compound the moral depravity involved. Had they answered “because it’s fun” a la the Toclafarne or had they needed the children to survive, ultimately, they would still be just as monstrous. That the Prime Minister fails to realize this is, in the end, the true horror – fitting with his most appallingly venal characteristic: the fact that in the midst of a crisis like this his primary concern is domestic politics and saving face.
The monsters in this story, in other words – both human and alien – are defined by their selfishness. The human monsters share Jack’s utilitarian ethics – after all, killing 10% of the world’s children to save the rest of the planet is the same moral calculation that Jack runs – just as the alien ones share his hedonism. But both are fundamentally selfish in their approaches, whereas Jack is actively selfless, to the point of killing not just any child but his own grandchild.
But this selfless hedonism is ultimately unable to exist in the world of reproductive futurism and human politics. Jack, by the end of Children of Earth, has become the single most queer figure in all of Doctor Who, not in terms of sexuality but in terms of ideology. He takes the approach of hedonism to its absolute maximum, refusing to make any connections beyond the momentary. The Doctor doesn’t go this far, in more ways than one.
It also, of course, very much feels like Davies saying goodbye. He does go as far as it’s possible to go with this ideology and vision. This is in many ways the definitive and uncut version of his Doctor Who – the one that shows clearly how Planet of the Dead and Damaged Goods are part of the same creator’s mind and vision. It’s the one where he lays down his moral and aesthetic vision in all its awful beauty. And he does it with such meticulous idiosyncrasy that there becomes little more to do. One can accept it as a take on Doctor Who or reject it. Either way, the project is in effect finished from an aesthetic standpoint. There is nothing more to do but tell the story of its ending. Certainly, by all appearances, it is the wrap-up of this particular spin-off – it does not seem as though Torchwood can say anything more at this point. Why would it need to? It has Children of Earth, a landmark piece of television that says, completely and succinctly, what this particular moment of Doctor Who (as a television franchise, if not as a series) is about. If the Davies era ended somewhere around The Next Doctor, here we have its epitaph.