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Sep. 1st, 2010

[Hu. I still can't quite believe that I'm actually, finally, clicking 'post' on this entry.]


Author's note (sort of): Massively tl;dr, sneakily disguised by fake lj-cuts; don't say I didn't warn you. Looking at the deaths seemed like a good starting point since they're such a persistent theme and especially once the last three DW specials turned the entire story into a struggle with death and the acceptance of mortality, and it... kind of got out of hand from there. A little. A lot. It still feels like an awkward and unsatisfactory compromise in far too many ways, but it's the best I can do at the moment and after six months of turning this over and over in my mind I'm tired. Camus quote notwithstanding, no philosophers, living or dead, were harmed mangled quoted embarrassed in the making of this post, but I'd never even have found the courage to write this without the inspiration from Rüdiger Safranski's books, most of which I read while I wrote & watched & wrote & rewatched & rewrote & edited. I hope he doesn't self-google.

Final note: TW (abbreviated) refers to the show, Torchwood (written out) to the institute; DW only to the RTD era and 'The Doctor' only to Nine and Ten, because everything else, even if I'd watched more of the old series than I have so far, would be completely beyond the scope of this post.



You think knowing the answers would make you feel better?

Death, life, and what it means to be human in Russell T Davies's Doctor Who and Torchwood





There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.

~ Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus ~

For the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts.

~Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain ~

'Who said you're not important?'

~ The Ninth Doctor, 1.08 Father's Day ~




I. Doctor Who S1: Everything has its time and everything dies.



The world ends in the second episode and Rose thinks they're going to save it, but like everyone else they've only come to watch, because Earth's time, in the Doctor's words, is up. 'You think it'll last forever—people and cars and concrete. But it won't. One day it's all gone. Even the sky.' What is still in the Earth’s distant future and for Rose in the end will only ever be an abstract thought, easy to brush aside once she's home again and the end of the Earth an unimaginable five billion years away, for the Doctor is already history. History he made happen and that in turn left him homeless and travelling alone, trying to come to terms with his actions and their consequences, and little patience or compassion for someone like Lady Cassandra, who artificially draws out her life to the point where it becomes a travesty. The End of the World is the first memento mori of several that will follow, and establishes the theme that will run like a thread through the entire show: a constant awareness of the end of things in every sense, and an ongoing struggle to accept this.

Everything dies: planets, people, societies, ideas. There is no linear progress of history or humanity in DW, empires rise and fall, humanity evolves and devolves and eventually will return to the same basic shape it started out with; ethics change: 'It is different, yes, a different morality. Get used to it or go home.' Even time isn’t a straight line. Humanity, as the Doctor says, might spend all its time thinking about dying and never take time to imagine it might survive, but if there comes the time for a person to die, or a planet, the logical conclusion is that eventually it'll also be humanity's time to disappear, even if no one's saying it out loud yet and it will take the story almost three seasons to get there.

S1 especially operates, very generally speaking, on the assumption that there is a sort of natural balance between life and death that has to be accepted and shouldn't be upset or meddled with too much, and it's not just Lady Cassandra's fate that drives home this point, but even more emphatically and tragically Father's Day, where Rose's impulsive decision to save her father's life creates a wound in time that almost leads to the extinction of the human race. And there can be no guarantee of safety, this much is clear from the start and is asserted again and again, in Rose, The End of the World, The Unquiet Dead, World War Three, Dalek, or The Parting of Ways, where until the end the Doctor promises Lynda she’ll be safe, when Jack is much more realistic about how it'll all end, and even Rose rejects the Doctor's attempt to protect her. Life is never safe, but especially travelling with the Doctor, opening oneself up to all the possibilities of life and the whole universe, death is, in the words of Clive in Rose, a constant companion. 'Nothing is safe. Remember that. Nothing.'

In S1 things are still comparatively simple. Most of the deaths that are not just minor casualties, but bigger plot-points, are essentially self-sacrifices, set in a wider context where the ultimate goal is life; they either defy death, or restore the natural order of life and death, or both: Jabe, Pete Tyler, the Controller in Bad Wolf, Jack. Their motives are the same that lie behind Harriet Jones's decision to prevent World War Three even at the risk of her and Rose's lives. The exception to this rule, the one self-chosen death that doesn't defy death, but negates life, is the Dalek in Dalek, telling Rose to order it to die, because rather like Lady Cassandra it clings to an irrational and unrealistic ideal of purity and can't bear the changes that are not just part of life, but are life. The Dalek's sole and unchanging emotion is hate, its only and eternal purpose to kill everything that isn't a Dalek. Even while it is alive, it personifies the antithesis of everything that life is, and as a consequence the prospect of change, of having to accept the full complexity of existence, in the world outside and, worse, within itself, drives it to self-destruction: 'This is not life. This is sickness. I shall not be like you.'

In S1 the Doctor and Rose can still contemplate the eventual end of the Earth and the end of Gallifrey and then go and have chips and argue about who's paying, which is perhaps the only sensible reaction unless one wants to end up like Lucy Saxon; the mood is still lighter here than in any of the following seasons. But with the Time War that made Nine the last of his people the theme of loss has been built into the character's arc before the story itself even started. Rose may point out that he's not alone, that there's her, but the fact remains that both in DW as well as in TW as far as the protagonists are concerned every relationship will always be about loss, whether it's a real death, a metaphorical one like Rose or Donna's, or the kind of ending Sarah Jane will talk about. This is even more brutally and unambiguously true for Jack than the Doctor, who after all is only cheating death by choice, but he too knows he'll eventually lose Rose even while he'll promise not to leave her behind in School Reunion, just as certainly as he'll always know River died in the Library. For both of them it will always be life in the face of death and love in the face of the inevitable end, without even the comforting fictional illusion of a happily-ever-after.

Nine for the most part accepts the transitory nature of everything. His arc is very much tied up with the Time War; even if he regenerated once before he met Rose, it's all still very immediate, very raw. He tells Van Statten that if he survived, it wasn't by choice, which obviously is a bit of a hyperbole since S3 will establish that regeneration is a choice, but it shows his massive difficulty dealing with all the death he saw and especially the death he caused, and somehow having to justify not only the necessity of killing his people along with the Daleks, but his own survival. His story again and again returns to this point; how this affected him, how it changed him, and most importantly, how to avoid becoming what he fought: in his confrontation with the Dalek in Dalek, with Margaret in Boom Town, or the Dalek emperor in the finale. And unlike the Dalek emperor who believes he has become a god and refuses to even acknowledge that he can die, Nine in the end he is very ready to accept the fact that this person that caused so much death might be ready to die too, and judging from the instructions he gives Rose about the Tardis, he doesn’t just mean the death of his current incarnation, but a final, lasting death that may be especially welcome at a moment when he is once more confronted with the question of whether billions of lives are acceptable collateral damage in order to defeat the Daleks and realises he can't do it again, just like he could risk Rose’s death once, but not a second time in Dalek. 'Maybe it is time.'

DW being the family show it is, there's Rose, the—very literally—dea ex machina who dissolves the moral dilemma along with the Daleks, but despite this convenient solution the questions still linger, still unanswered, maybe unanswerable, much like the Tardis turning the Slytheen Margaret back into an egg solved the immediate moral dilemma, but didn't erase the ethical problems and questions raised in the arguments between her and the Doctor. Does Nine with his inability to bring about so much death a second time in fact betray Jack's death and the deaths of the handful of people who fought with him to give him enough time to complete the Delta Wave? Jack says, 'I was much better off as a coward', but it's clear that he doesn't mean it and that his willingness to trust the Doctor and once again sacrifice himself makes him a better person than the Jack we initially met in The Empty Child. Nine chooses to be a coward instead of a killer, a decision that at least implicitly would have made him a killer all over again, on a much bigger scale than activating the Delta Wave would have, had Rose not stepped in. Is it more important to save oneself, one's soul, or to save others at the risk of losing oneself? And what about the possible consequences of that? Because this is what it comes down to in the end; not the lives that would be lost either way, but the Doctor's nature, who he is and who he wants to be. It's a dilemma both the Doctor and Jack will be confronted with again towards the end of their journeys, Ten in Journey's End and The End of Time, and Jack in Children of Earth.


II. Doctor Who S2: We forget because we must.



Nine was willing to die rather than kill again when Rose saved him, Ten's starts out saving the Earth in a sword fight and killing the Sycorax leader with the help of a satsuma ('No second chances. I'm that sort of a man.'), and then doesn't give Harriet Jones even that much when she takes things into her own hands and gives the order to have the Sycorax ship shot down, a decision that may not be entirely unproblematic, but at the same time is also very understandable after she’d seen appeals to compassion and justice responded to with murder and had to face the decision whether she’d rather see a third of the Earth’s population die, or half of it sold into slavery, only to be told by the Doctor that she’d better get used to this kind of thing because Earth was getting itself noticed. There are two issues that Ten struggled with almost from the beginning, even if this is something that became fully apparent only after the conclusion of his arc: power and its limitations, and, as already the first few episodes establish, the acceptance of mortality and the balance between life and death that Nine had much less of a problem subjecting himself to. Perhaps the glimpse of power he got when he absorbed the Time Vortex back from Rose left traces in his memories even if he regenerated immediately afterwards, perhaps removing himself one step further from the Time War made him already more aware that he won it, even if that won't be a consciously acknowledged thought for a while yet, or maybe the circumstances of his regeneration made him determined to prevent from the start the development of another of these situations where every decision is equally impossible to live with, but at least during the second and third seasons Ten is much more uncompromising and from the start shows a greater arrogance, an unwillingness to accept limitations of any kind. Where Nine's anger was emotional, Ten is coldly rigorous: 'I'm so old now. I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning. That was it.' Not knowing when to stop won't cease to be a problem even after he does find out what kind of a man he is.

When Margaret called the Tardis 'technology of the gods', Nine said, 'Don't worship me, I'd make a very bad god.' The Dalek emperor’s pretensions at godhead and the Daleks screaming about worship and blasphemy clearly repulsed him on an instinctive level and to him were a sign of their insanity, and Rose, when she didn’t stop at killing the Daleks, but resurrected Jack, not just bringing death, but reversing it, frightened him. Power like this, which Nine called wrong and would turn a Time Lord into a vengeful god, Ten already in School Reunion is very tempted to accept, and he neither protests against the epithet 'lonely god' in New Earth, nor in S3 when the Master says he must have been 'like God' ending the Time War and destroying two civilisations. 'I’ve been alone ever since', doesn’t deny this; it only addresses the consequences. Nine said 'Come on. Give me a day like this. Give me this one', bargaining with fate or the universe, and then, 'Everybody lives [...]! Just this once, everybody lives!', acknowledging the wonder of such a near impossible outcome, especially considering that the episode is set in the middle of a war that killed more than 60 million people. He may be involved in the events, maybe contributed to their resolution, but he doesn't claim to control them, and he certainly can't stop the deaths of all the people dying all around them of other causes. Ten says, already in New Earth when he's barely finished regenerating, barely even knowing who he is yet, 'I'm the Doctor and I cured them', and there is a lot more ego in this statement, a greater will and determination to shape the world around him.

In the same episode he calls himself the highest authority bar none when it comes to a certain kind of moral decision and while in this case the circumstances justify his actions, the potential for danger in this presumptuous arrogance is obvious, and the fact that it was compassion and the desire to help that drove the sisterhood to their experiments should have served him as a warning even then. For Ten the connection between the temptation of power and the unwillingness to accept the reality of death is established already in School Reunion. It's the chance to save everyone, to prevent or reverse all the deaths he was forced to witness or caused himself, that almost makes him accept the power the Krillitane offers, and it's only Sarah Jane who can stop him, rejecting the bribe of eternal youth and resigning herself to her own mortality and its consequences, reminding him that this is the way the universe is supposed to work; that it has to move forward and that pain and loss are part of being human just much as happiness or love, quoting his own words, or at least his prior incarnation's, back at him: 'Everything has its time. Everything ends.' But until the end Ten's temptation will always be life, and it's perhaps through the Time War with all its death that his love for it seems to have become an almost absolute principle, a psychological, even moral necessity, to the point where it sometimes takes on a slightly manic determination, because to preserve this, after all, is what he killed for. It's not an unreflected or entirely unambiguous emotion, rather a denial of life's terrible aspects whose existence he is very much aware of. Like the Plasmavore will say in Smith and Jones: 'Laughing on purpose at the darkness.'

The definition of life Sarah Jane gave—change, endings, and all the emotions resulting from that—the Doctor himself echoes in The Age of Steel. Ten might struggle to accept death, but face to face with someone who tries to reject it entirely, who while human was self-important enough to attempt to preserve his brain indefinitely at any cost, although in the end even he himself was a bit reluctant to pay the price, he defines mortality as a necessary part of being human, at the very least because otherwise life would come to a standstill and essentially stop being life as it's being defined in DW. The approach here is a slightly different from S1 where death and life simply coexisted as hard facts, because the Doctor’s speech at least tentatively starts to address how profoundly the awareness of mortality shapes and defines human experience and consciousness, a theme that will become important in S3. As Ten sees it, death, even if it's through the attempt to avoid it, is something that drives life forward; a belief that is as typical for him as it's problematic, because the inherent problem is obvious. As he himself will find out in the end, especially when there is personal interest at stake it can quickly become difficult not to overstep the line between what is still 'brilliant' and 'so human', and what is hubristic and dangerous. Ten understands Mr. Lumic too well even then, and not just him. When Rose begged Nine to help Lady Cassandra, he delivered his verdict and watched as she exploded. Ten, even though he also tells her that she's lived long enough, when she says that she doesn't want to die, replies, 'No one does', already showing much more empathy with her situation.

But the death at the end of S2 isn't a physical death; it's a metaphorical, emotional one. Whereas Nine struggled mainly with his actions in the Time War and the moral dilemmas involved, Ten's theme for the second and third season is its consequences, the loss and loneliness, and this makes S2 especially much more emotion-driven than S1. The glimpse into his mind that Reinette got suggests that the feeling of loneliness that haunts him is a fundamental character trait, something he's lived with since childhood, but the Time War and the end of the Time Lords only made it worse and in his own mind sealed his fate, confirming his solitude forever: 'Lonely then, lonelier now.' But even after School Reunion and The Girl in the Fireplace, two episodes that stress the painful fleetingness of relationships with humans for someone who has a method of cheating death, in The Age of Steel Ten defines humanity through emotions almost entirely, and includes himself in this definition: His feelings are something he's proud of, and Mr. Lumic might as well kill him, if he removed them, even the painful ones like grief, rage and pain. Conversely, the Cybermen can only function with an emotional inhibitor, cutting off 'the one thing that makes them human', because otherwise they cannot bear what they've been turned into and what has been taken from them.

Love and loss, the fragility of human relationships and their importance in spite of this, these themes are constant throughout S2, sometimes more prominent, sometimes in the background: the experiment subjects in New Earth, desperate to reach out because locked into their pods all their lives they've never been touched; Queen Victoria, grieving for her husband, who saves her from beyond the gave; the Doctor and Sarah Jane; the Doctor and Reinette. Rose's family in the parallel world, and Mickey deciding to stay there, attempting to fill the place left empty by his alter ego's death. The loyalties and betrayal in the family relationships in The Idiot's Lantern; Fear Her, with the Isolus separated from its family yet another metaphor for the Doctor's loneliness, and Love and Monsters, where the brief happiness of the LINDA people is piece by piece destroyed by the monster that doesn't 'like to be touched literally or metaphorically', and cannot touch without devouring.

All this culminates in Doomsday: Both the S1 and the S2 finales deal with the threat of the Daleks, but while in S1 the theme was the morality of killing and the acceptability of collateral damage, in S2 the emotional focus is entirely on the Doctor and Rose's separation. The Doctor and the Daleks don't debate killing any longer, but emotional isolation: 'Sealed inside your casing, not feeling anything, ever. From birth to death, locked inside a cold metal cage, completely alone. That explains your voice. No wonder you scream.' The Daleks and Cybermen, both emotionless or nearly emotionless brains in their metal armour, fight their battle almost as a backdrop for the human drama that plays out in front; Rose's parents from different universes finding each other again and the Doctor and Rose losing each other forever. In The Parting of Ways Rose decided to return to the Doctor because he’d shown her a better way of living her life; now it’s so that he won’t have to save the world on his own all the time. In the end they can see each other long enough to say good-bye, but they too cannot touch any longer, and the Doctor is once again confronted with his own words and whether he meant them; if he really wants all these emotions, and whether for him, like for Sarah Jane, some things are worth getting your heart broken over.

Another motif running through S2 is the story of Torchwood, and it's more than just details of Torchwood's history and future, or the consequences of Torchwood's hubris of building their headquarters around a crack in the fabric of time in order to explore it further. With the introduction of Torchwood an element of darkness, a breath of the bleak existentialism that will be the trademark of the show's first season especially, also touches DW, most noticeable in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and Love and Monsters. When one strips the somewhat reluctant metaphysics from The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, what is left is a metaphor for the precariousness of existence with the threat of physical extinction in a universe indifferent to human life on one side, a space-station on a planet orbiting around a black hole in defiance of the laws of physics while whole solar systems are being ripped apart and swallowed, a sight that can drive people insane, and the threat of the darkness lurking underneath or more precisely within us, the capacity for evil, the self-destructive 'urge to fall', on the other side: 'We should be dead.' — 'And yet... here we are.'

'You little things, that live in the light, clinging to your feeble suns which die, in the end... Only the darkness remains.' Like in TW, where this kind of dark/light symbolism is more frequent, this isn't just about the literal, physical threats to existence, but also about a spiritual darkness, the hidden fears and despair the 'devil' tries to evoke, and the overwhelming uncertainty of living in an universe where the only rules are the ones we make ourselves, and as such far from absolute or safe from being challenged, just like in this situation even the Doctor is pushed to the limits of his own knowledge and convictions and beyond, confronted with something that doesn't fit his rules and beliefs; the possibility of a vastness so incomprehensible that it scares even a Time Lord: 'All these things I don't believe in, are they real?'

Since this is DW there's of course a happy ending, the Doctor speaking up on behalf of the 'brilliant humans', picking his version of the truth and deliberately choosing the light over the darkness, hope over hopelessness, and believing in Rose beats this mystery he can't solve, but Love and Monsters is in many ways very similar, even if it deals with the microcosm of human relationships and their fragility, rather than devils and black holes. The episode first shows the tentative development of the relationships within the group, and then how they are systematically, brutally and senselessly torn apart again after a brief moment of connection and happiness; by death, or in the case of Jackie and Elton by betrayal, and without any kind of philosophic comfort that these deaths are in the natural order of things, until Elton is willing to let himself be absorbed because he lost everyone he cared about, and life no longer holds any meaning for him, the closest DW comes to kind of suicide out of desperation in the first three seasons. Here the Doctor can prevent it, but the ending of the episode is still highly ambiguous. Is the glimpse, the knowledge of the miraculous worth the destruction? Unlike Queen Victoria, who only saw a monster and a man who had too much fun while people were dying, and who decided to preserve ‘her’ world and defend it both against the wonder and the danger that accompanies it, Elton in the end agrees that it is, but it’s a hesitant endorsement, born in pain and loss, when he says that he now knows how salvation and damnation can be the same thing. With Elton wondering how long until Rose and Jackie will also pay the price since this is what happens if you touch the Doctor, the final statement that the world isn't just a darker and madder place, but also a better one, rings just a bit hollow, because this is one of the episodes where one feels the brilliant things don't necessarily outweigh the terrible ones, just like Mr. Jefferson’s poetry didn’t quite succeed in making twenty year old Sccotie Manista's death heroic or meaningful instead of just terribly random.


III. Torchwood S1: It's just bearable. It has to be.



Regardless, DW on the whole is still about the miracle of life, its possibilities and potential. There are plenty of monsters, there is death, the future isn’t idealised and not ideal even where the Doctor expects it to be, but there’s also an enormous joy in the infinite variability of the universe, a permanent sense of wonder personified by the Doctor, and in the end it prevails over the danger and terror. In TW things are never that simple. Suzie, even though she has to make way for the more optimistic Gwen already in the first episode, maybe best describes the underlying mood of S1: 'We're just animals, howling in the night, 'cause it's better than silence. […] Moths around a flame. Creatures clinging together in the cold.' It’s against this background that life has to assert itself.

When Gwen first meets Jack and his team, they aren't actually catching aliens or making an effort to arm the human race for the future, they're busy resurrecting people, and while the glove became Suzie's obsession, it clearly wasn't her private project, meaning that Jack, who had no problem putting his foot down when Gwen investigated something she wasn't supposed to in S2, must have authorised it, and it's he who asks the recently deceased John Tucker what it was like when he died, what he saw, silent desperation in his eyes; after all this time still looking for a bit of a 'contact with the great beyond' that spits him back out every time, an explanation for what happened to him, what had gone wrong. Maybe not so very different from what he tells his team two episodes later: 'Controlled experiment. We replicate the original events as far as possible. Observe and analyse the results.' Jack may believe he's reforming Torchwood, but much like Torchwood One with their ghost shifts he's still meddling with something that (as S2 will show even more forcibly) is best left alone.

And here the dead don't stay silent, but their message is an ambiguous consolation. Nothing. No heaven or hell, no great beyond at all. Now Suzie's statement about things moving in the dark and to an extent also the ending of Eugene's story make TW's non-metaphysics a bit fuzzier, but for the most part the message is that this life is all we get, and we'd better not rely on the 'point of it all' being something beyond. Even Eugene's parting words are a reminder to live in the here and now and appreciate it, entirely focused on the life and world he is about to leave behind, rather than where he's going, if he's going anywhere at all. A life that is random and not chosen, into which we're thrown as much as Jack was by Rose channelling the Time Vortex; a life without absolute purpose, and no meaning except that which we ourselves see and create. A cup of tea on a cold morning, a cigarette or one’s friends, 'banana milkshakes, loft insulation and random shoes', the 'near misses and absolute hits', even saving the world: it’s we who have to decide whether this is enough, and in TW at least sometimes it isn’t.

Whereas in DW the focus is primarily on life, TW is a lot bleaker. Torchwood heightens the awareness of death for everyone working there, simply because it’s so omnipresent. Suzie is so obsessed with the prospect of her mortality that once given the means, she plans her return from death. Toshiko has her message recorded. Ianto, who apart from Jack will have seen the most death in his life, from Countycide and To the Last Man to The Dead Line is very aware of the fact that Torchwood employees rarely live long, and that his relationship with Jack is a constant race against time and death. Owen despite his outward cynicism is a doctor through and through, on a mission to prevent further deaths and hating the thought that however many people he might save, whatever he does, it's never enough; in S2 very literally defeating death, even while he learns to live with it. Gwen defiantly blends out thoughts about death as much as she can—her determined 'So not listening', when the 'dead' are calling her in Dead Souls maybe best characterises her attitude—and she is the complete opposite of Jack, because for her, unlike even Owen, death is never an option or temptation, not even, except for a brief moment of despair, in CoE. And there’s Jack, who experiences the passage of time and mortality only indirectly through those he loved and had to watch die in over a hundred years, who lives next to a morgue full of people he’s worked with, been friends with, in love with, slept with. Jack, whose thoughts are probably more overshadowed and dominated by death than anyone else’s because of his immortality; the death he sees all the time and the death he longs for, that at once taunts and eludes him.

There is no moralising about the necessity of death in TW where people die too young too often and deaths are too raw, too brutal and too painful for this kind of philosophy, the big character deaths (Ianto grieving over Lisa, Jack over Estelle, Gwen over Rhys) as well as the minor ones: Jasmine's mother's grief as her whole life falls apart, and Eugene's mother's. Death doesn't have even this much meaning, this much comfort. It happens. It's random, it's cruel, it's absurd and completely indiscriminate, like the rift picks off people. But at the same time the underlying principle is the same as in DW; not accepting the reality of death leads to disaster, the mere will to live without defining the 'how' isn't enough. TW starts with Suzie's obsession with immortality that leads her not just to murder and suicide, but also made her plan her return from death at the cost of someone else’s, anyone else’s, life because 'life is all' and she'll do absolutely anything to stay. The alien in Carys kills people in order to 'feel alive', much as Mary killed over the centuries to survive. On a less purely egoistic level there is Ianto, doing literally everything to keep Lisa alive, not realising he'd already lost her, risking to unleash something terrible on the world, even if in the end it 'only' costs two lives; Owen opening the rift because he can't stand to lose Diane and Gwen helping him in the end, because she wants Rhys back. Jack, who can prevent the catastrophic consequences here, will make the same mistake in S2.

In DW from The Unquiet Dead to The End of Time it's almost always the desperate will to live no matter the cost that causes the problem; in TW the balance is much more precarious and people are equally likely to stumble if they stray too far to the other side where there's the danger of failing to find any kind of positive meaning in life, resulting in suicides that are simply turning away from an existence that has become either too painful or too meaningless: John in Out of Time, his life taken from him, his son older than he and not recognising him any longer, and Mark in Combat, courting death because in his life there's no meaning left except the anger that drives him towards self-destruction, whom Jack doesn't even try to save. Owen, who doesn't want saving either, but whom Jack does rescue because he's his employee, someone he feels responsible for and isn't willing to let go, and of course Jack himself, who holds John’s hand while he asphyxiates and sits for hours beside the dead body, staring at nothing. Suzie killed herself to avoid the consequences of her actions much like Edwin Morgan two episodes later, but what brought her to that place was a more fundamental problem; the inability to see even the least beauty in the life she was so fiercely clinging to. Toshiko shows a much more balanced view of both the world and her work in Greeks Bearing Gifts, recognising both the good and bad similarities between human and alien life, and Gwen, although has to adjust her worldview drastically especially in S1, in the end will find her life became bigger. For Suzie the ugliness eclipsed everything until she saw nothing but a planet so dirty that only the worst of alien life wound up there. Toshiko believes humanity is worth saving and her job worth doing, in Countycide, and despite her experience with the amulet later in To the Last Man; Suzie may have wanted resurrection for everyone, but when she comes back from death it is only for revenge.

Life is never as simple in TW as in DW, or its meaning as unquestioned; Fragments will show that it’s not just Ianto who has, in his own words, gone through shit, but also Owen and Toshiko. Even Gwen, who at the beginning of the story doesn't bear any scars yet and for whom Torchwood at first is about the amazement of broadening horizons and widening perspectives, is confronted with death, pain, and the worst sides of humanity almost immediately. DW over the course of four seasons has many heroic, self-sacrificing deaths, and with the exception of Foon's in Voyage of the Damned they are never founded on despair. In the first season of TW despite the constant danger this kind of death is entirely absent, and the most difficult achievement is not to offer up one’s life in one grand gesture, but to bear it with all its pain and ugliness and lack of meaning without falling into despair and giving up. CoE especially will show how terribly hard this can be, and that living with this and the consequences of one’s actions is perhaps also a sort of heroism, although a darker, complicated and broken kind.

Jack’s burden is the suspicion—and after S1 the near-certainty—that for him this struggle will never end, and it'll certainly be long enough before he can reclaim the decision he thought had been taken from him forever. Jack isn't tempted to cling to life, at least not his own, because life already clings to him whether he wants it or not; the danger for him is the drop into despair and nihilism. His dilemma is outlined most clearly in Out of Time and Captain Jack Harkness: Both episodes are about dislocation in time, and both are about a connection with men Jack in the end opens up to about his fears and loneliness more than to any of his team, even Gwen. Both are, in a way, confrontations with himself and with what has been taken from him: John, who lost his life and family to time, experiencing something that Jack already is more than familiar with and will have to live through again and again, is driven to suicide, echoing Jack's own latent death wish that became apparent if not before, then certainly in They Keep Killing Suzie, where he flat-out told Gwen, when she asked him about the possibility of Suzie also living forever, 'I wouldn't wish that on her. I'd sooner kill her right now.' John's suicide once again brings him face to face with the death that for him isn't a choice any longer. After the low point of Out of Time the original Captain Harkness brings out the side of Jack's character and personality the Doctor first inspired, and their brief meeting is framed in rather similar romantic terms, even down to the dance theme; he confronts Jack with his responsibility for his people, his duty towards humanity and the burden of being a leader that for Jack is even heavier because the risk isn’t the same for him. He stands for the heroism Jack aspired to in The Parting of Ways, but is now barred to him as much as the death John chose, even if in End of Days he once more makes an effort to accomplish both in an attempt at a final sacrifice. The episode also introduces the third character who is lost in time, able to see the whole of history, but not belonging anywhere, Bilis Manger, who, like Mark, can only find meaning in death and destruction and is determined to elevate his despair to a metaphysical level and inflict it on the whole world, orchestrating his own personal apocalypse.

In DW Jack was confronted with the question of what kind of a man he was with two years of his life missing that made him perhaps not without some justification suspect himself, and what kind of man he would choose to be; in TW his problem is an even more profound one—what is he, and this is a question that even after more than a hundred years he still has no answer to when Mary asks it. If humanity is defined by mortality as it is in DW, he’s not human any longer, at least not strictly speaking, and Jack has lived long enough, died often enough, and seen enough people die, to feel the distance. But at the same time he was born human and has spent more time on Earth than anywhere else, unlike the Doctor well and truly stuck on the slow path for 137 years, forced to live day after day after day through more than a century of human history, and in the end has to try to be human, at least as much as is still possible for him, however hard and painful and sometimes near-impossible that might be, because what is the alternative?

When Gwen accuses Jack of having lost what it means to be human, he at first reacts with the detachment of an observer who isn't really part of it all, the cynical scepticism and relativism of a man who came from the 51st century, grew up there with the constant threat of a war he lost his father, brother and best friend to, used to travel through time, stranded in the late 19th century and had to live through the whole of the 20th, carrying the weight of history with him in the shape of his WWII coat, and with no illusions left about humanity and human nature; someone whose defence it has always been to withdraw into detachment and an emotional indifference that had immediately earned him the Doctor's disapproval. Gwen’s reproach is at first directed at all the whole group, not just Jack, but Jack quickly makes it a personal issue: 'So remind us', and then, switching from 'we' to 'I', because it’s he who has not just seen too many changes in ethics and morals and too much darkness and human cruelty in every age, but has also done too many questionable things throughout his too long life to accept a definition of being human that is only positive, something that for Gwen at this point is still self-understood and still unquestioned: 'Tell me what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.'

For Jack the reality of human existence is a lot more complicated and a lot darker than it is for Gwen, and this, together with the gulf his immortality inevitably creates, makes him keep a weary distance much of the time. In Everything Changes Jack believes he’s already helping the world, preparing it for the future, but it's helping in a very abstract, detached sense. He dismisses Gwen’s demand that he also should care about the death of one man with the argument that their work and testing the glove are more important than helping the police to find the killer, only to recognise the advantages of Gwen's worldview and the need for someone like her in his team when he is forced to realise that Suzie, who also wanted to help humanity, but lost perspective so completely that she thought murder was an acceptable means to this end, was responsible for all the conveniently fresh dead bodies. In Day One Gwen again tries to convince Jack of the importance of a single human being who shouldn’t be reduced to a problem to be solved. Her response to Jack’s challenge to tell him what it means to be human in the 21st century isn’t abstract philosophy, but doing something that isn’t even very relevant from a strictly logical, utilitarian point of view, and if Gwen believes it will help Carys to hold on to her identity this probably says more about Gwen than Carys's situation: to acknowledge Carys as a human being with school reports, swimming badges and celebrity crushes. Gwen isn't always taken very serious with this, at first not even by Jack himself, but in a setting where the very premise is the cultural relativism and fundamental change of perspective resulting from the confrontation with the existence of alien life, a world full of grey shades and without perfect solutions or definite truths, this is perhaps the closest thing to an absolute value the show has, and a necessary counterweight to Jack's tendency to think in longer time spans and greater perspectives.

Especially at the beginning of her story Gwen is a lot like Rose in her compassion, but she also shares the Doctor’s belief that every single person is important, and this is why she is the one who is so desperate for an explanation in Countycide, where not only the cannibals’ victims are reduced to meat without the least recognition of their individuality or humanity, but, on a more metaphorical level, even humanity in general: 'I'm afraid we're all just meat.' Jack, who has seen this happen on an immeasurably larger scale in at least two wars, already knows that whatever answer she might get would only damage the worldview he so desperately wants to preserve—for his own sake as much as for hers. He only reluctantly agrees to the conversation and tries to break it off once more before the end, and of course the answer Gwen finally gets shocks her so much on such a profound level that she needs someone with whom she can share her despair, but Jack isn’t that person. Jack has no answer or consolation for her, just as he has no answer when Toshiko comes to him with the same question a few episodes later—how to live with the knowledge of human ugliness, the loss of belief in the essential goodness of people. When five billion years in the future Novice Hame tells the Doctor that the hospital’s test subjects are 'Not real people. [...] They have no proper existence. [...] That's all they are. Flesh', it drives him into a rage, but he can fix the immediate problem and prove her wrong, and because it's DW the episode ends on an lighter note; in TW Gwen has to live as best as she can with the glimpse into the darkness of human nature that she got and how this changes the way she sees the world.

For a show that ostensibly is about a group of people catching aliens, it’s remarkable how rarely at least in S1 aliens actually make an appearance. There are the ever-present Weevils, but they in the end are little more than a symbol for the terrifying meaninglessness and incomprehensibility of the universe, teeth and screaming rage, without language, unable to understand or make themselves understood, although they’re apparently able to feel at least one emotion: pain. Other aliens make a plot-relevant appearance only twice, in Day One and Greeks Bearing Gifts, and in both cases they have little more function than the more common alien artefacts that as often as not are locked away or destroyed at the end of the episode because they're too dangerous. Never even weapons either, but catalysts for some realisation about humanity and human nature: the 'ghost machine' and Mary's amulet, revealing the dark secrets people hide, the glove and the temptation of immortality, or Eugene's alien eye that gave him a chance to look back on his life and re-evaluate it. As Jack says in Out of Time, a spaceship full of aliens might be an easier problem to solve than the human tragedies they are confronted with.

The 21st century might be where it all changes, but in S1 especially the danger comes from humans at least as much as from aliens, which Countrycide shows as much as DW's Midnight will, or Combat, where people like Mark torture Weevils and court death to make up for the lack of meaning in their lives that they don’t even suffer from any longer, but almost welcome, taking a perverse pleasure in the thought of eventually devolving into something like the Weevils, reduced to wordless rage and giving up humanity entirely. They don’t make an effort any longer, or try to find a meaning and purpose for themselves when society and religion fail to offer them the certainties they crave; their solution is to ‘reduce [themselves] to the basics’, to explore the ‘darkest recesses of the soul’ and deliberately become less than human. Cybermen are 'us, upgraded', humans with their emotions removed, a human invention. The faeries in Small Worlds were children once, 'part of us', fleeing from a world that is 'more full of weeping than you can understand'. Bilis Manger, the agent of destruction and death, is also human, or at least no less so than Jack, but like Jack had been given a gift that turned out to be a curse, and is determined to destroy the world he cannot bear to live in.

In the end Jack, who scoffs at Ianto's bible quotes, but also believes that whoever brought him back from death is keeping him for some unknown purpose, isn't as resigned to the randomness of existence as he likes to pretend; he's still searching for the meaning he lost more than a century ago, and the story that started with Jack enquiring into the nature of death ends with Jack rushing into the self-sacrifice that is not just supposed to defeat death in the shape of Abadon, but also to give his dislocated, out-of-time life meaning and direction again at long last—before he'll leave everything behind, running after the person from whom he finally expects to get the answers he's been waiting for all this time.


( IV. Doctor Who S3: Rage, rage against the dying of the light. )


( V. Torchwood S2: That's what I come back for. )


( VI. Doctor Who S4: We always have a choice. )


( VII. Torchwood Children of Earth: So, tell me, what should I have done? )


( VIII. Doctor Who 2009/10 specials: Lived too long. )

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
elisi
Sep. 2nd, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
Am slowly working my way through this. Am afraid I've not got anything to say, really, except that this is all excellent.

Actually, that's not quite true. I think that for the Tenth Doctor it comes down to control - Nine's final sacrifice was about relinquishing control (to the Daleks, to giving his life for Rose), and Ten seems to react against this, trying to control situations and people by setting up parameters (no second chances). Also, on a deeper level, if he can *control* things then maybe he can *fix* them, stop them going wrong (stop losing people) - this of course not blossoming completely until WoM.

And having just finished 'The Writer's Tale', I found it very interesting to discover that originally all the 'test subjects' in 'New Earth' were supposed to have died, but RTD changed his mind since he thought it too bleak for the first episode with a new Doctor. But the thought is there underneath, and - as you point out - much more fully realised in TW.
solitary_summer
Sep. 2nd, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
First of all, thanks for reccing! :) (I'd have commented on your entry, but comments are disabled.)


What you're saying about control is interesting; I never really thought about it like that (mostly because I was looking at everything through the 'death' lense), although it does come up a bit in the parts about S4, the specials, and CoE. OTOH, the power issues are also very much control issues...

For me maybe the most interesting thing was to see how the themes develop across DW and TW, because that wasn't something I even considered before I started writing. I kept the shows more or less apart in my mind until I was surprised that TEoT actually worked as closure for both the Doctor and Jack, because after CoE I had no idea how Jack was ever supposed to appear in DW again. But if you put the seasons of both shows in a chronological order, it's definitely visible...
jrsz
Sep. 4th, 2010 07:05 am (UTC)
[here from elisi's link]

I'm reading through slowly to try and absorb everything, because this is really quite, and by quite I mean really really really, amazing. I love how you've identified the main theme for each series within the theme of life, death and humanity for each season and then compared them to each other.

I would quote some of the things I liked best, but I'd end up just copying and pasting the whole thing :) It's really a fascinating read, and I you've pieced things together in ways that I've never considered but make so much sense, and it's certainly changed the way I'll see a lot of things in those series.
solitary_summer
Sep. 4th, 2010 06:01 pm (UTC)
Thank you! :) I hope you enjoy the rest, too. I was really unsure about how this would come across, so every time someone comments saying that they like it and are actually getting something out of it, it makes me ridiculously happy.
caz963
Dec. 22nd, 2010 01:21 pm (UTC)
I know I'm a bit late to the party - but elisi linked me to this in a comment, and I just had to comment to say that this is fascinating. I'm working my way through all of it gradually and find myself nodding furiously at some points and slapping my forehead - yes, of course! - at others.

Incredibly well thought out and argued - thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.
solitary_summer
Dec. 22nd, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
Thank you for commenting! *beams*
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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