Monday, July 27, 2009

Shades of Grey

I'm trying to figure out how I feel about "Torchwood: Children of Earth."

I'm still reeling from the finale, from the death of a major character, from the despicable (or vital?) choice that Capt. Jack made.

There's my gut reaction which thrives on emotion and latched on immediately to ideas of tone, character, and moral dilemmas (More on that later).

Then there's my critical brain, asking (unnecessary but lingering) questions about other missing members of the Whoniverse: Gwen talked about why the Doctor may have stayed away; a brief mention was made to Martha Jones being on her honeymoon and thus not being disturbed (I'm sorry, but 10% of the child population is being threatened by aliens and I think she'd show up!); but what about Sarah Jane, Luke and friends, who would have been majorly affected by the turn of events, being, you know, children? (Though, really, I guess they're more preteens/teens, so the hormone thing would keep them out of harm's way.)

There's also the writer in me, which reacts with a mixture of the gut reaction and the critical brain to defend against both sides. Why leave SJ&L etc. out? Because this is Capt. Jack Harkness's story. Because this story belongs to him and Ianto and Gwen; it's about their emotional and moral journeys, and extra characters would have added unnecessary distraction.

People are pissed off about Ianto's death, but Davies' defense of it is understandable. It's the same reason JK Rowling killed off Lupin and Tonks. To show that war is real; that it has casualties. If this were truly happening it would be highly unrealistic to assume that everyone would make it out okay in the end. It sucks. I hate it. I hate the suddenness of it, the futility of it. But as hard as it is, I understand it.

Probably the most unsettling part about watching this miniseries has been adapting to the shades of grey. Torchwood sprang from a show whose fictional universe is slightly unrealistic--and I don't mean because of the aliens. Now, before my fellow Doctor Who fans get up in arms and try to hand me over to the Daleks, let me explain. I'm not throwing that word "unrealistic" around in a negative sense, I just--well, I mean, look at it: the good versus evil scale is always tipped toward the good; there may be appallingly bleak circumstances, but we never have any doubt that the Doctor is going to make it okay in the end. The Doctor comes across as a superior moral being (merciful, a champion of diversity... even his anger is a righteous anger!), but if you look at his track record you'll see that this is most likely because he's rarely faced a moral dilemma of the staggering nature that Capt. Jack faced in "Children of Earth." If the finale of COE had been a Doctor Who episode, I imagine it would have went like this: "One child gets fried and the world's children are safe, or save your grandson and let millions of kids get taken by creatures who would turn them into a drug? Hmmm. Let's see... how about NEITHER! Because if the Doctor does this with the frequency signal and tweaks that with his sonic screwdriver and uses the TARDIS to transport that whosamawatsit into the heart of the 4-5-6's earthly abode, you won't NEED a child anymore, and everything will still be okay in the end!"

That's fine for the kind of show Doctor Who is supposed to be. That fits the tone and the characters and the universe as it's been set up from the beginning. The Sarah Jane Adventures also fall very much into this pattern, where the good guy is able to take the moral high road every time, saving the day while not sacrificing the values he or she subscribes to. It's sooo much fun to watch these kinds of shows, and you can learn a lot from them, but.... BUT... that's not the sort of show Torchwood is.

It's a bit confusing, because Torchwood started out similar in tone, though over the seasons it's grown much darker. It was billed as the "adult" spinoff of Doctor Who.... not adult in the XXX meaning of the word, but adult as in "grown-up." And as Peter Pan would tell you, a grown-up version of something - even if we're talking about the same Whoniverse - is a very different animal from a childlike view of the same world.

From the beginning of this miniseries it was apparent that whatever resemblance Torchwood's universe might have had to Doctor Who's was gone. The Prime Minister of England is no longer the feisty and fearless Harriet Jones, but a loathsome smug-faced politician who's only out to save his own skin. There are very few of the witty asides you might once have heard exchanged among characters. The atmosphere is one of grim foreboding; hope barely ever dares to show itself, and the few times it does it is overshadowed by the festering cloud of guilt, grief, and shame that have come about as a result of the actions that made hope even possible to begin with.

Let's talk about that choice. Honestly. Do you think you would have done anything different? When there are no options, when it's one life or millions of lives, which will you choose? Either way, you'll be haunted for the rest of your life. But if you save the millions, you'll be sparing even more, parents and grandparents who would have mourned the loss. Would saving your grandson have been the selfish choice, then? Or was it selfish to deny him any choice in the matter, to take away his right to life in a sacrifice that wasn't really yours to make? And does it bother us more because it's a child we're talking about. Surely, if any person would do, Jack would have volunteered in a heartbeat. Even if it meant a real and final death, not the Lazarus-death he's become accustomed to. I know he would have given up everything to save them all. But he couldn't. Is it because it was a child, or because it was a person, and we feel that no hero would be so willing to barter with a human life? Does this make Jack no better than people who owned slaves, who thought people could be treated like things? Does this make Jack no better than the leaders of state huddled around the conference table deciding which 10% most deserved to be taken?

This is why I think that "Torchwood: Children of Earth" is BRILLIANT. That's right, I've come to a conclusion. It's amazing and wonderful and compelling. I hate it and I love it. It is full of contradiction. It is full of meaningful, HARD questions: Was Frobisher a spineless coward to the end, or was he, as was said, a "good man"? Can a meek office assistant really help overturn corrupt politicians and save millions of lives? Did Gwen and Jack ever really know Ianto, despite having worked with him and loved him, each in their own way, over the years? Can you really say what was right and what was wrong? Can you live with having chosen the lesser of two evils?

Wow. Wow wow wow wow wow. It wasn't perfect, but it was TRUE. and HARD. TERRIBLE, but BEAUTIFUL. BRUTAL. but it spoke so much to the REAL HUMAN CONDITION.


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