[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]
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.