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Sep. 1st, 2010

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

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

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

( 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.

S3 ended with the Master choosing death to spite the Doctor and his love for life; Voyage of the Damned once again throws Ten in the middle of a catastrophe, and it shows that his tolerance for seeing people die around him is wearing thin. Even though he should know better, he still promises to save everyone, only to be again forced to acknowledge that the circumstances are stronger than he. First there's Foon, whose suicide is mainly sheer despair after her husband's death even if she does take one of the Host with her, and then Astrid, just when he thought he'd found someone who’s in love with the idea of travelling maybe even more than he is. Foon's death already pushes his limits ('No more.') and his failure to resurrect Astrid from the teleport bracelet leaves him kicking furniture and yelling that he can do anything, only to discover that he can't, or at least not as long as he feels himself bound by the laws he'll finally chose to sweep aside in Waters of Mars. It’s Mr. Copper who has to convince him to let her go and accept his limitations ('But if you could choose, if you could decide, who lives and who dies, that would make you a monster.'), and who of course could have put it differently, like Margaret in Boom Town: 'Playing with so many people's lives you might as well be a god.' It’s the first time in Ten’s arc that the god theme that is also evoked in the parody of ascension iconography with the Host transporting the Doctor to the bridge, comes not just with an ambiguous, but an explicitly negative connotation. Sarah Jane’s reminder was gentler; this is already a rather distinct warning. Whether it's because of Mr. Coppers words or Donna's influence, in S4 the Doctor-as-(a)-god motif is much less prominent that it was in S3 and will only re-emerge in very similar circumstances with the Time Lord Victorious. Even if Ten and Donna do end up as the new household gods of the Caecilii, in Pompeii the circumstances almost entirely eliminated freedom from a choice that in the end came down to picking the lesser of two evils, which isn’t a god-like decision at all, but a very human one.

The concept of fixed events works most effectively on this symbolic level where they essentially serve to restrict the Doctor's power, showing him subject to something bigger than himself, a higher order of laws: 'Every waking second I can see what is, what was, what could be, what must not. It's the burden of a Time Lord, Donna. And I'm the only one left.' When Rose described the new awareness the Time Vortex had given her in The Parting of Ways, this didn't yet include the events that must not be, and the most difficult thing about it seemed to be the endless variations, implications and possibilities of innumerable events that are always in flux, not the moral dilemma of events that have to be borne and accepted even by a Time Lord, even if they are terrible tragedies. The Fires of Pompeii shows the Doctor bound by two forces: the laws of time he'll reject in Waters of Mars and with them the logic of consequences that makes this choice, no matter how terrible, the necessary one, and Donna who demands that he at least temper it with human compassion.

S3 confronted the Doctor with the darker side of his nature, the power a Time Lord has and the danger for abuse inherent in that; S4 stresses the burden and responsibility this power entails. Whereas the Master insisted on his right to change history in Last of the Time Lords, the Doctor fulfills history in The Fires of Pompeii, but the episode shows how precarious and painful this balance of power, knowledge, duty and compassion can be, how difficult it is to uphold, and how important the human element is in maintaining it, someone forcing him to not just see the big picture, but at the same time to acknowledge the people it is made up of. In The Sontaran Stratagem it’s obvious Ten understands only too well where Luke Rattigan is coming from ('Not easy, isn't it? Being clever?'), his sense of isolation, feeling superior to everyone because of his intellect, stuck on a planet too small for his vision, alone in the end, because there is no one he recognises as an equal. Because he is a nine hundred year old Time Lord and not an eighteen year old boy, and because even so he’d come much too close to making the same mistake only recently, Ten rejects this kind of arrogance, but when he tells Luke, 'It's been a long time since anyone's said no to you, isn't it?', this comes from the insight that he himself also at least occasionally needs someone to do that for him. It's not just Luke Rattigan who redeems himself and his egoistic joy in war and the destruction of Earth at the end of the episode, in some ways it's also the Doctor, who in S4 leaves behind the cold anger of the ‘one warning’ policy. When he says he has to give the Sontarans a choice in The Poison Sky it is at the cost of his own life and the scene has a quite different emotional quality; his hesitation even when they reject his offer is nothing like the quiet, relentless anger with which he punished the Family.

At the end of S1 Nine had to decide whether he was going to be—wanted to be—a coward or a killer, and the S4 finale will confront Ten with a similar situation, but this time the answer is a much more ambiguous one. Decisions are the most prominent leitmotif throughout S4. Of course everyone makes them all the time whether they're aware of it or not, and in Gridlock the Doctor recognised that when Novice Hame said that she had no choice but to stay with the Face of Boe, telling her that she did, but the theme was never as dominant as it is in S4, culminating in Donna’s decision in Turn Left. In The Doctor's Daughter, when Jenny says that they have no choice but to kill in order to save themselves, Ten replies, 'We always have a choice', but this freedom implies choices that can go either way: in Midnight he tells the people on the shuttle, ''Cause this is where you decide. You decide who you are. Could you actually murder her?' and the answer he gets isn't the one he expected. And this isn’t the only time his ideals fail and his hopes are disappointed. Sometimes biology wins, as with the Vespiform that is overwhelmed by the discovery of its true nature and in the end drowns following the Firestone. The cloned Sontaran warriors are not able or willing to overcome their biological and cultural conditioning even when their lives are at stake. On the other hand Jenny with the Doctor's help discovers her ability to choose despite her mental programming, but this choice also come with a price, and it kills her, like the Hath that sacrificed him/her/itself for Martha; even or especially the right choices don’t guarantee safety. Finally in Journey's End there's Dalek Caan who, although at the price of his sanity, saw the truth of the Daleks' deadly nature and that the possibility to change and evolve had been denied to them by their creator, and decided their death, overcoming even the Dalek imperative to survive.

The Doctor himself already in The Fires of Pompeii has to make the 'most terrible choice' of killing 20000 people to assure the survival of the human race, and this brings a new level of awareness to the subject also within his arc. Of course for him ending the Time War had been the quintessential lose-lose situation where the alternative was so horrible that he felt he didn't have a choice at all, but this is the first time he's being confronted with such a dilemma within an episode and has to make a decision, follow through on it and face the consequences. Pompeii, like he will tell Adelaide in Waters of Mars, is the kind of situation where everything he does, even if he does nothing, causes death, any choice is terrible, and here no one can take the decision out of his hands; Donna can only act with him, and then force him to at least symbolically make amends. In S1 and S2, ever since Clive called death the Doctor's 'one constant companion' in Rose, it was always easy to argue that it's not the storm in the Doctor's wake, but the Doctor in the storm's, even if he does tend to enjoy the storm a bit too much. After all he'd already saved Rose's life at the beginning of the episode and it was hardly his fault that the Nestene Consciousness had picked Earth as a new home. In World War Three Nine said to Jackie, 'Because this is my life [...], it's not fun, it's not smart, it's just standing up and making a decision because nobody else will', but in the end it wasn't he who made the decision, it was Rose and Harriet Jones; Mickey who launched the missile, and Jackie who didn't stop him, even if it meant risking her daughter's life, and in The Parting of Ways Rose once again took the decision out of his hands, or at least saved him from the consequences of his own choice.

In S3 this changed. When Joan Renfern asked Ten whether anyone would have died 'if the Doctor had never visited us, never chosen this place on a whim', running from himself and his own actions and decisions, it's impossible to deny this accusation, and he doesn't even try. And at least in some ways the same could be said for the events of the S3 finale: it was the downfall of Harriet Jones that made the Master's rise possible or at least facilitated it, the Doctor locking the time coordinates of the Tardis set the scene for this particular disaster scenario (Martha: 'The only place he can go is planet Earth. Great'), and, although this is a more morally ambiguous issue, he stopped Jack when he wanted to kill the Master, because saving him was more important than saving humanity. Of course in none of these instances the Doctor could have known the exact sequence of consequences, but neither could Jack have known that his harmless piece of space-junk that he even took care wouldn't fall on anyone would have the capacity to turn the whole of the Earth's population into gas-mask wearing kids asking for their mummy, and that didn't even for a moment stop the Doctor blaming him. It’s only logical that the Master's empire is the one disaster Earth is being spared in Donna’s alternative reality in Turn Left. Margaret accused Nine of always moving on because he daren't look back, and Davros uses almost the same words in Journey's End. Of course neither is the voice of morality or speaks without an agenda, but there is a core of truth in these accusations, and S4 really starts confronting the Doctor with the consequences of his actions, leading up to that moment on the Crucible where he can’t run from himself any longer.

But what is it he really running from? Davros's accusation that he fashions ordinary people into weapons is highly problematic, because it completely negates free will and human agency after a season that vehemently insisted on the importance of both. In Midnight the Doctor wasn’t even able to save himself, much less convince anyone of his philosophy, in Planet of the Ood he couldn't get Solana to help him and in The Doctor’s Daughter he was able to convince Jenny, but couldn't stop General Cobb from shooting her, so the claim that he is able to manipulate people whenever it suits his needs is blatantly untrue. Harriet Jones dies still standing by her actions in The Christmas Invasion, unlike Novice Hame in New Earth never apologising for them, and she isn’t sacrificing herself for her ‘beloved Doctor’ as Davros puts it, but to save the planet: 'But my life doesn’t matter. Not if it saves the Earth.' In The Parting of Ways Rose made a powerful plea for the Doctor having shown her a better way of living her life, of not accepting things, but trying to change the world, and while there is ambiguity in almost everything in DW, this was a rather straightforward statement, and Rose at least still believes that when she tries to convince Donna that she is indeed special and brilliant: 'It just took the Doctor to show you that, simply by being with him. He did the same to me, to everyone he touches.'

From all the people in the flashback, River Song died for her future that she wanted to keep, Jenny for the world of choices and possibilities that had just opened up before her, and the deaths of the LINDA people were essentially a case of life being terribly unfair. Everyone else—Jabe, the Controller, Lynda, Sir Robert, Mrs. Moore, The Face of Boe, Chanto, Astrid, Luke Rattigan, the hostess, and one could add Captain McDonnell, Mr. Jefferson, Bannakaffalatta, Pete Tyler and of course Jack—died for a greater cause, so that someone else, often quite a lot of people, could live. What Rose said then is still true, although of course they might have done the same even without the Doctor. Whatever dark sides the Doctor may or does have, it's Davros whose vision of an ultimate victory is the destruction of reality itself, of every other life form, and that not only makes his complete lack of moral standing in this debate rather glaringly obvious, but also distorts his perception. The companions are not just tools, not just weapons fashioned by the Doctor. They are not mindless children, but of course Davros, who isn't quite willing to face the fact that he's been locked up by his own Dalek ‘children’ and completely unaware that his own destruction has already been set in motion by one of them who saw the truth of what they’d been—not even metaphorically, but literally—made to be, wouldn't be aware of that. It's Davros and the Daleks that Dalek Caan saw, judged and found wanting beyond the possibility of redemption, not the Doctor.

In Voyage of the Damned when the Doctor tried to convince Foon to save herself, asking her what her husband would have wanted her to do, her reply was a devastated, outraged, 'He don’t want nothing, he’s dead', and this touches the heart of the Doctor’s struggle. Death isn’t the problem of the dead; it’s the burden of the survivors. Even if he could have prevented only a few of the deaths shown in the flashback, even if many of them would have died whether he'd been there or not, Davros's words reopen a wound that never fully closed after the end of the Time War: they died, and he lives. People who only have this one life are willing to give it up, while he regenerates. In Dead Man Walking Jack felt guilty about sending people into danger knowing the stakes aren't the same for him, but he can't die; the Doctor chooses not to and this makes the issue even more complicated for him. Forced to finally look back, he sees one death after another and what they died for doesn't make a difference any longer; it’s the sheer numbers, that all these people died around him, with him, because of him, or even for him, without him being able to prevent it, while he always is the one who's still alive in the end: this is what he’s running from, and it’s not just his enemies who accuse him of that. School Reunion and Sarah Jane’s fate also showed just how reluctant he is to stop and look back for fear of what he might find there. Focusing only on the present he can deal with one death at a time when it happens, grieve and move on, which is still painful, but in the end bearable. Once he turns around he sees not single deaths, but a long, long string of them, a pattern coalescing around him, and logic dictates that the future will be no different; he's forced to acknowledge just how much death there is, was, and always will be in life, especially in his life, and it’s hard to face this with the philosophical equanimity of ‘everything has its time and everything dies’. It may not be his fault, Elton even said as much in Love and Monsters, but it still happens and it is a necessary consequence of the life he leads, of all the other lives he saved, and it was also Elton who helplessly protested against the fundamental injustice of the universe throwing something like the Abzorbaloff into his life, destroying his brief moment of happiness: 'That’s not fair!' And it isn’t, as the Doctor also acknowledges when Donna is appalled by unfairness of the situation in Pompeii, but even he can’t change that on a fundamental level—unless he risks becoming something even more dangerous to life, something even more profoundly unfair.

If anything, S4 should have shown him how inseparable a part of life death is. In S1 death was the unavoidable ending, in S2 mortality defined what it means to be human, in S3 struggling against mortality. In S4 life and death are so closely linked that it’s almost impossible to separate them any longer, two sides of the same coin. The Adipose are born from dead people, but in the words of the Doctor, 'They're just children. They can't help where they came from', so they are allowed to live. Pompeii has to die so that humanity can continue to exist. Mr. Halpen dies as a man and is reborn as an Ood, and neither Donna nor the Doctor can say with any certainty whether that's right or wrong. The Sontarans are cloned for a life of war and a death they don't even fear, and the people on Messaline are reproduced in so rapidly repeating cycles that a week seems like several lifetimes, killing and dying for a mythical source of life, and the Doctor's daughter is born in the middle of all this. The price for a little girl’s virtual half-life are the Vashta Nerada in the Library. When River Song at the end of Forest of the Dead says, 'Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark, if he ever, for one moment accepts it', this outright contradicts the conclusion of Ten's arc, where it will be his near-downfall that he can't accept death, and his salvation that in the end he can, but it’s signifcant that these apparently are the windmills he'll never completely stop fighting. At the same time the ending of Forest of the Dead isn’t quite the 'Everybody lives!' fromThe Doctor Dances; it’s at best a compromise, almost a parody, and that he sees it as an acceptable solution says a lot about the direction of Ten’s journey that will soon lead him to Waters of Mars, where in a very similar situation he'll finally break all the rules and claim a power even a Time Lord shouldn't have.

Davros's, 'How many more? Just think, how many have died in your name?', once again forces him to acknowledge this reverse side of life that he choses to overlook much of the time. Now the Doctor’s nature has always been ambiguous; the narrative never glossed over the danger that accompanied him and his way of living, even while it also described him as wonderful and at times almost set him up as some sort of saviour god. Ever since S1 the question has always been, is it worth it? Is the intensity of life you get with the Doctor worth the cost, and not just the cost to yourself, but also to the people you care about? Rose with her teenage enthusiasm answered yes every time and so did Donna once she overcame her fear, but Martha, who saw the dark side of life when she opened the sphere and realised who was responsible for the state of the Earth even more than the Master, whose family got hurt so badly, decided that this world and this century were enough for her and chose her own path away from the Doctor. Those left behind worrying and waiting, those who lost people, always saw it, as well as those whose lives were only briefly touched by the Doctor: Jackie, Mickey, Francine, Sylvia, Clive, Queen Victoria, Elton. Even the Doctor himself sometimes dreams of a quiet life lived day after day and in Journey's End needs the reassurance that it's been worth it: 'It’s been good, though, hasn’t it? All of us, all of it. Everything we did.'

The crucial question at the end of S4 is how finally being forced to acknowledge death, and not just death, but so much of it, as part of his life will affect the Doctor. Can he go on loving life, even its dangerous, terrible aspects, as much as he does? Is life still so wonderful? Worse still, does he have the right to enjoy the life he leads when this is the price? The accusation that the Doctor has too much fun 'while there’s disaster all around him', and over his excitement about a brand new life form tends to forget that people died, has been at least as persistent as the reminder of the danger he attractes. If he allowed death greater importance, gave it more weight, would this lead him too close to TW's existentialist crisis and make something like his off-hand, easy, 'Oh, there’s always something worth living for, Martha', harder, if not impossible? And at least for a while the moment of awareness in Journey's End will have this effect, because in The Other Doctor Ten will no longer have an answer when Jackson Lake asks him if he doesn't have anything to live for. Is it only his deliberate, selective blindness towards death in every aspect that separates the Doctor's world and world-view from Jack’s much bleaker one?

In many ways Journey's End is maybe the most realistic of the finales, stolen planets notwithstanding. In The Parting of Ways Nine chose life, but Rose saved him from the consequences of his choice; this time Ten finds himself helpless and powerless in the middle of wholesale annihilation only waiting to happen, without even the possibility to prevent it, because words aren’t an adequate weapon against the Daleks, and even while unlike in Midnight he still is in possession of his voice, it is entirely useless. In The Doctor’s Daughter he described himself as ‘the man who never would’, but the man who never would what? Kill? He'd done that that as recently as in The Fires of Pompeii. Kill out of anger and revenge? Maybe. At best, the man who never wants to kill again, who decides again and again to never kill again, because he’s afraid of what it might do to him, even if it’s for as necessary cause. When Martha threatens to blow up the planet, he yells at her, 'This is never an option', which is a bit ironic coming from the man who destroyed his own planet. He may not like what Martha, Jack and Sarah Jane are doing, but what does he want them to do? Talking doesn’t even get him out of his holding cell, much less anywhere else, and if he could have ended the Time War by talking he would have done so, but as The End of Time will show, the Time Lords weren’t any more ready to listen to reason or appeals to compassion than the Daleks themselves. He’s miserably clinging to ideals he's increasingly aware he can’t uphold, but daren’t give up either, because he’s afraid of what he might become without them, and this time Rose cannot help him, because she's as helpless as he is; with him, but trapped with him.

In the end the deus ex machina resolution is very, very transparent, because as the human Doctor insists, he is the same: 'I look like him, I think like him. Same memories, same thoughts, same everything.' Ten may believe himself changed and removed from all that, but already Waters of Mars will show that he isn’t any less dangerous to be left on his own than his alter ego. He may be horrified at the destruction of the Daleks, but it's a luxury he can afford only because the other Doctor did press the button. The Fires of Pompeii drastically pointed out the consequences of not acting at all, and the Daleks at least are not innocents like the people who died there. It's not an ideal solution, it's nothing to be celebrated, and it's probably not a decision the same person should make more than once because of how it might change their perception of the value of life. On the other hand it was something that needed to be done, and without the slightest doubt saved countless lives. As Jack said in Adrift, some things can't be fixed, or at least they can't be fixed perfectly in an imperfect universe. Principles aren't worth much when no one is left to praise them, and someone who’d rather die than be saved only to score a couple of final points in an effort to maintain some sort of questionable moral high—or at least equal—ground after his plans of eradicating life from the universe failed, is probably beyond help. There are shades of grey, which is something the Doctor sometimes fails to recognise, or maybe deliberately ignores because he’s afraid of losing himself in them, and killing the Daleks doesn't put him—either version of him—on the same level as Davros, just as the Tardis doesn’t equal the Reality Bomb. In The Doctor's Daughter Jenny realised this in the end, after she'd initially thought the Doctor and General Cobb were much the same, only to discover over the course of the episode that there were differences after all, even if there also were similarities.

What Journey’s End reveals isn’t so much the darkness of the Doctor’s soul, but his struggle with the dilemmas the universe presents him with; his unhappiness in the face of a universe where something like the Daleks can be created, where they continue to exist, and again and again almost win, because their only goal is their own survival, impossible to reason with and unhampered by empathy or morals. A universe that is cosmically indifferent to the existence of evil as well as the struggle against it that is never over, much as the Doctor might have wished for that when he ended the Time War; a struggle that can at any time confront him and everyone else who engages in it with the decision to risk their lives, maybe even to kill, in order for life to continue and perhaps become a little better. A universe that is full of death and doesn’t work according to the Doctor’s ideals and wishes, but that he still has to live in as best as he can. To know and accept all this, and to still be able to love life and see it as something that is not just painful, but also wonderful—and this is something that Davros made very difficult for the him.

More than that, when he forced the Doctor to once again acknowledge the fragility of human life as opposed to a Time Lord's ability to regenerate, this widened a fundamental rift that had always existed in the relationship between the Doctor and his human companions. School Reunion was the first episode that addressed this, but the gulf became increasingly visible especially in S3 with Human Nature/The Family of Blood and in the finale, where the Doctor's primary emotional focus immediately became the person with whom he had little in common except his ability to cheat death. And even while Ten is maybe at his most human with Donna, it's there once again in Journey’s End already with the Doctor's insistence to leave Rose in the parallel world with his mortal alter ego, and will eventually lead to his decision to go on travelling alone. Rose, although not without some hesitation, in the end choses the mortal Doctor, and Donna has to become entirely human again; as for the rest, Martha, Jack, Sarah Jane, Mickey and Jackie, they all have someone to go back to, somewhere to go.

For the most part the children have grown up and are living their own lives, something that had become increasingly obvious throughout S4. It is certainly the most human-centric season so far, even though it also retains a lot of S3’s scepticism towards humanity already with Donna’s comment about the Second Bountiful Human Empire spreading out across the galaxies: 'But look at us. We're everywhere. Is that good or bad, though? I mean, are we like explorers, or more like a virus?' and the Doctor’s uncharacteristically pessimistic reply 'Sometimes I wonder.' The subsequent revelation that all this is based on slavery made possible by routine mutilation does nothing to dispel this fundamental pessimism, and neither does The Doctor's Daughter, Midnight or the alternative future in Turn Left, but at the same time after the escalating egoism of the third season, S4 shows the Doctor working within a wider human framework: his companions, Torchwood, even UNIT, who are still morally ambiguous, but through whom humanity as a whole has a bit more agency this time, even if the Doctor still claims he's earned the authority to speak on behalf of the Earth. Humans aren’t any longer something of a mixture between children to be taught and beloved pets, the people whose best quality and salvation is their ability to believe in the Doctor. In S4 humanity speaks up. Donna is loud, and she needs to be, to be heard by someone who loves to hear himself talk as much as the Doctor does. She challenges his decisions and forces him to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with getting himself involved in human affairs and his ties to humanity, making him save the Caecilii, or recognise his obligation towards his accidentally created daughter. The Doctor may complain about UNIT's military hierarchy, saluting and weapons, but Martha, who is working for them, is a bit more realistic about people being the enemy on principle just because they're carrying guns, and UNIT stands beside the Doctor in The Poison Sky, playing their part, making their own mistakes and sacrifices, and not always listening to him.

The season finale is almost entirely of human agency, even more so than in S3 where the Doctor was still a necessary focus for humanity's faith, with Martha something of an apostle, spreading the word about him. Rose and UNIT are working to bring Donna back in time to make the necessary, the crucial, the completely ordinary, insignificant-but-not choice that even the Doctor is subject to. And Donna, ordinary Donna, who hadn't met the Doctor yet, once again makes the decision that she'd made entirely obliviously and accidentally the first time, only now much more aware of what it might gain and cost her. At the moment of despair when in The Stolen Earth even the Doctor doesn’t know what to do any longer and gives up, it’s Harriet Jones who brings them all together with the Subwave Network she developed for this purpose because she knew the Doctor wouldn’t always be there. Martha is threatening to destroy the Earth to thwart the Daleks' plan, and while the Osterhagen Key isn't an acceptable option for either the Doctor or Harriet Jones, Martha, who travelled the ravaged and enslaved Earth during the year that never was, recognises it as a weapon against the Daleks and would have been willing to use it. Sarah Jane, even though she disagrees with Torchwood's methods, is prepared to blow up the Crucible when she saw what the Reality Bomb did, and Jack supports her decision. The Doctor may not be happy with that, but his helpless protest doesn’t change Martha or Jack’s mind. Finally it's Donna who triggers the Human-Time Lord metacrisis, causing the birth of the second Doctor and in the end saving them all, and the new, part-human Doctor destroys the Daleks, while Ten himself for much of the episode is locked up in his holding cell, with little to do but contemplate his complicated relationship with humanity and death; a witness, not a player. In Evolution of the Daleks it was the Doctor's Time Lord DNA that gave the Dalek humans the necessary freedom, now it's 'that little bit of human, that gut instinct that goes hand-in-hand with planet Earth' that gives Donna ideas that someone who is 'just' a Time Lord would never have thought of.

At the end of S4 the Doctor and humanity part ways. Even those who would have wanted to go on travelling with him, Rose and Donna, still have to stay behind. As for Rose, the Doctor is very determined to leave her and his mortal other self in the parallel world, and Donna's human brain can't bear what the metacrisis turned her into; she has to either become fully human again without even a memory of the Doctor, or die, and it's obvious that immediately after being blamed for so many deaths this isn't an option for him. But these last attempts to fix Rose and Donna's lives aside, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, where much of the time the events are out of the Doctor’s control as much as they are out of Davros’s, show that the children have indeed grown up and are starting to make their own decisions. The Doctor may still be part of their plan, but his relationship with humanity has changed a lot since The Christmas Invasion where Ten fought the Sycorax leader medieval-style in single combat, with the fate of Earth and humanity hanging in the balance. Harriet Jones stood by the decision she made then despite the Doctor’s disapproval, Jack makes decisions he can be certain the Doctor wouldn't be happy with in Torchwood all the time and he's stopped apologising for it. UNIT will be an unquestioned part of the story in Planet of the Dead, even though in the end their priority will be the safety of the Earth, not the Doctor's. The S4 finale creates a world where the Doctor has to recognise that he isn't any longer the highest moral authority and where humanity has started to take responsibility for its fate and future instead of waiting for someone to save them, although of course that means they'll also have to take responsibility for their mistakes and the consequences of their actions.

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

The dilemma at the centre of CoE is whether delivering twelve children to an unknown fate can be acceptable if it saves the lives of millions, or if it's the prospect of these deaths that should have been accepted instead, and with 25 million lives in the balance there is still room for ambiguity. Does 'If they live because of this, then life is worthless', (New Earth) apply here? Do numbers make a difference? In The Fires of Pompeii the Doctor did weigh numbers, but the survival of the entire human race was at stake there. In Reset Jack had an in hindsight slightly ironic—or, on the other hand, rather revealing—fit of moral outrage ('slavery, exploitation, a war crime'), not even so much on behalf of the human victims, but the alien test subjects, and vehemently distanced himself when he was being told that what he did wasn't so very different and that the 'greatest discovery in history' that probably would have saved more lives than Jack did in 1965, had 'to be worth a few sacrifices'. Even in the realm of TW's hard decisions what happened in 1965, depriving these children of a choice, of their individuality, picked because they wouldn't be missed, no names because it was easier, lied to and abandoned to a fate no one dared ask about, is not acceptable, and the narrative emphasises this, because there would have been ways to at least make Jack look better in the flashback sequence, rather than someone who doesn't care or even think of saying no, and whom no one expected to. Even if it kills him in the end, it's Ianto, who in this story even more directly than Gwen is channelling the Doctor, insisting that Jack should have stood up to them, or as Rose put it: 'You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say no.'

Gwen is too optimistic, Jack wasn't hoping for the best when he handed over the children; he never allowed himself to indulge in the hope or illusion that they might actually be taken to some sort of paradise, like Ellen Hunt did, or tried to do. Jack was always convinced he'd led them to their deaths, but this was something he thought he could live with, because after all this time death had become something at once omnipresent and in many ways almost meaningless for him. When at the end of Day Five Jack says, 'The whole world is like a graveyard', this reflects not just the events of CoE, but a deeper reality of Jack's life, the 'One day, we're going to run out of space', from They Keep Killing Suzie, the tragedy of seeing other people die for a longer time than anyone should have to, of having seen over the last century and before that so much death that at some point people did become numbers, and ‘just twelve’ might indeed have sounded like a good deal. By 1965 Jack had been working, even if it was at least partly by his own choice, for more than seventy years for people who to all appearances were relentlessly exploiting his ability to come back from death regardless of what it cost him both mentally and in physical pain ('What, in case the aliens are hostile? You need someone who can't die?'), until he became used to matter-of-factly throwing away his own life on a regular basis; it’s hardly surprising that he lost view of the value of life so completely.

In S2, where Jack still believed he could erase his past and live only in the present, his immortality wasn't much of a theme, or only implicitly in Owen's resurrection arc; CoE once again shows how profoundly this determines Jack's life on just about every level, and how much more of a curse than a blessing it is. Jack's relationship with Alice reflects John's situation in Out of Time; or in Jack's case a lover who ran from him into witness protection, taking their child with her, and died hating him for staying the same while she grew old, a daughter who also wants him to stay away, and a grandson who mustn't know who Jack really is. Between this and Small Worlds it becomes painfully apparent how problematic relationships have become for Jack. If he doesn't tell his partners, he eventually has to leave them behind, maybe to return decades later pretending to be his own son and see them die; if they know from the beginning there's still a very good chance they cannot deal with it. It's against this background that the relationship between Jack and Ianto develops, and it explains why it’s so fraught with issues on both sides; Ianto's fears of not even being remembered that hauntes him to the last and his uncertainty in a relationship where gender and sexual orientation are the least of his problems, and Jack's less explicit, but at least strongly implied apprehension that this will end just like his relationship with Alice's mother once Ianto wakes up to the reality that he's in love with someone for whom only one thing will ever be forever, because if there's something that Jack has learned since the 1940ies, it’s not to make empty promises. But in the end it's Ianto, who saw the body parts taken from the ruins of the Hub and heard Jack scream and scream as he was being slowly suffocated, who, more than Alice ('You make us feel old.'), Gwen ('You get to shoot first, and ask questions later. How good is that?'), and, understandably, Clem ('The man who sent me and my friends to die can't die himself.') comes closest to understanding that Jack's immortality is also a terrible burden for him, not just something to be envied.

Alice says, 'A man who can't die has got nothing to fear', and this is probably also one of the dangers the Doctor saw in Jack after his resurrection, even still in Last of the Time Lords when he effectively marooned him on early 21st century Earth, although his own issues with death, immortality, and power make him blind to the fact that this might be his temptation, but at least so far has never been Jack's, who wants nothing more than to be rid of his immortality again. But the crucial thing that at least Alice might have realised, because it's a thought that occurred immediately and naturally to Frobisher when he decided to have her and Steven kidnapped, is that as long as there are people Jack cares about of course he has something to fear, however careless he might be with his own life. Of course there are consequences for him, even if it's in a roundabout way. As Jack said in Cyberwoman, 'There's always something left to lose.'

Actions and consequences, even the unforeseeable and often disproportionate consequences of minor actions, have been Jack's theme since the beginning, and these stories are never just about the factual technicalities of guilt and responsibility; there's almost always also the recognition of a deeper emotional empathy and connection. In The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances the Doctor not just forced Jack to acknowledge that he caused all that even if he hadn't intended to, but also to stop treating the whole situation as a bit of a joke and the great disasters of Earth's history as a convenient stage for his self-cleaning cons. In Day One it was Gwen who accepted her responsibility for what happened to Carys and the people who died as a result, even after Jack directly told her that this sort of thinking would get her nowhere, effectively shocking him out of the breezy indifference of the first two episodes and forcing him to finally take her seriously when she was willing to risk her own life to save at least Carys. Captain Jack Harkness took Jack back to the beginning of his story, bringing him face to face with the man whose name Jack had assumed because he happened to be conveniently dead, and whom he then had to meet in person, even fall in love with a bit; whose impending death he had to regret and take inspiration from. In S2 Gray’s fate confronted Jack with the dreadful consequences of a small mistake made a long time ago ('actions, ramifications, ripples in a pond'), and in CoE it’s once more the past that Jack had hoped would stay buried and forgotten that’s coming back to haunt him.

Captain Jack Harkness also showed how reluctant Jack usually is to give up the truth about his past, how effectively and throroughly he hides behind the persona he chose and projects; only at the end of the episode Toshiko finally found out the truth hidden behind layers of silence, evasions and lies. In CoE this choice is out of Jack’s hands almost from the beginning. Starting with the explosion in Day One that tears Jack's body apart and takes out the Hub, erasing much of his past on Earth and destroying the only home he'd known in more than a century, the masks start coming off one after another. In Day Three Gwen and Ianto, more than Jack himself, make an attempt to put back together again what they lost at least on a makeshift material level. Ianto gives Jack back the trappings and armour of his persona, and that at least for a moment restores Jack's confidence and sense of self ('I'm back.'), but it doesn't erase the trauma of the last couple of days that is still visible in the stark honesty of his conversation with Ianto in the warehouse, and that Jack never fully recovers from before the next blow hits with the realisation that the events of 1965 are at the bottom of all this, and a different kind of explosion slowly and inexorably takes his life apart from the inside out, throwing him into a turmoil of events he never manages to gain control over. Jack’s remorse when he comes face to face with Clem whose entire life had been stolen, leaving him in every way that matters stuck in 1965 more than Jack, who remained the same only physically, is genuine, without even an attempt at justifications or evasions, and after Clem shot him, Jack probably for the first time over the course of the show actively reaches out for support and comfort, first clinging to Ianto when he wakes up, and then walking over to him while Gwen is going after Clem, even at the risk of the uncomfortable questions he can reasonably expect. There are absolutely no defences when Ianto throws, 'That's not what I meant', back at him, just shock and hurt; it’s only in the next scene with Gwen, buttoning up a fresh shirt, erasing the last traces of his death that already are no longer visible on his body, that the defences slide back in place again: 'We had no choice.'

But the full horror of it hits Jack, and hits him visibly harder than any of the others, only when he sees the images; his incredulous, shocked, 'It's still just a child', because this—not death, but being condemned to live under such terrible circumstances without the possibility to end it—is what Jack can most viscerally empathise with. And this is where Ianto, who unlike Gwen isn’t for a moment willing to accept Jack’s claim about not having had a choice, probably without even knowing what buttons he is pushing, so easily and without the least hesitation resolving a dilemma that Jack faced years before Ianto was even born, makes Jack want to be a hero again, never mind common sense. This is where almost accidentally Jack and Ianto between them create this ill-timed 'What Would the Doctor Do?' moment, and what already didn't work in Journey's End goes horribly wrong in TW, where there are no deus ex machina solutions. And this isn't the end yet of this chain of cause and effect from which there is no escape for Jack, not even the one Frobisher takes; there is no one to save him from either having to do something terrible or live with the guilt of having done nothing. The brutal logic of CoE is that Jack, who was picked to deliver the children in 1965 because they wanted someone who didn't care, now, rather like Frobisher, who said no for the first time when it came to his own daughters, who weren't 'units' after all, but 'just girls', cares desperately; that Jack, who sometimes has a rather too casual relationship with death now is forced to face just what killing another person means, what death means, when you're not weighing numbers and don't have the luxury of not knowing the names. And Jack, who gladly would have died instead of Steven, can't. So far Jack's immortality, unwanted as it was, has helped him dodge consequences to an extent, certainly in the S1 finale, but also in Exit Wounds; this time his death, set at the beginning of the story rather than its end, doesn't solve anything, it doesn’t save anyone or atone for anything. In Day Four and Day Five the masks come off pretty thoroughly, showing not just both Ianto and Gwen that there is a lot more to Jack than they were aware of or wanted to see, but also confronting Jack himself with who he was, who he is and what he is capable of. When Jack says good bye to Gwen in the end, he's still wearing the coat Ianto bought him, but he leaves in search of a new life and his old self doesn't really fit any longer.

The question Jack faces at the end of CoE is similar to the one the Doctor was confronted with in Journey's End—Steven, Ianto, Owen, Toshiko, Suzie... is it really his fault, and, if yes, how much of it? In some ways of course it is. He recruited them. He maybe wasn't the best of leaders. Toshiko especially didn't have much of a choice, but everything was better than that cell and she didn't blame him. Owen was grieving, vulnerable and doubting his sanity after Jack decided not to retcon him because he needed a doctor; it's hard to tell what his life would have been like without Torchwood, and much the same can be said for Ianto, who found meaning, however imperfect, in Torchwood, and he also tried to tell Jack that it wasn’t his fault, although it’s doubtful the message got through at the time. Suzie was probably the only one where Jack could and should have noticed something was wrong, but Torchwood wasn’t the cause of her problems, it only exacerbated them.

Jack killed Steven, but he didn't order to have Alice and Steven, who would have been safe in Cardiff, kidnapped and held hostage. Jack might have been happy to forget the 456, but unlike in Adrift, and maybe partly because of the events there, this time he wasn't the one obsessed until the end with covering up the events of 1965, proposing and ordering assassinations and effectively preventing even the possibility to find a solution until it was almost too late—that was the good, hard-working John Frobisher. The circumstances under which Jack joined Torchwood are highly problematic and strongly imply that there were probably plenty of instances in all that time where he should have and could have said no and didn't, but he wasn't the only one involved in 1965 and it's not certain at all whether 'standing up to them' would have stopped anything. Maybe. Or perhaps they would just have thrown him into a cell and picked someone else to hand over the children.

Jack usually isn't very given to introspection unless he absolutely can’t escape it, and maybe it's time for him to take a long, hard look at what he'd done with his life in the century that to him was little more than time to be passed somehow until he met the Doctor again, but Jack blaming himself for something that is partly, but certainly not only his fault, isn't just taking responsibility, it's also a desperate attempt to give the events some sort of meaning, to regain at least a little control over them. At the beginning of CoE Dr. Patanjali told Gwen about the increase in suicides after the appearance of aliens on Earth, because people lost their faith and with it the certainty in their own importance in a universe that suddenly became a lot bigger. Ellen Hunt, faced with the demands and promises of the 456, put these events in a religious context of gods and sacrifices, mixed with Christian hopes of paradise, trying to give them a higher significance. And finally in Day Five Gwen to all intents and purposes tries to replace the God she lost with the Doctor, accepting that what is happening here is a human atrocity, but still needing to explain, to understand the absence of help in a situation like this. Jack's universe is colder and harder; if he ever had any kind of faith he lost it a long time ago. He doesn't have Ellen Hunt's illusions or Gwen's hopes, but if it's all his fault, Gray in S2, and now this, there is a reason why it happened, it wasn't just random. If it all could have been prevented—if he could have prevented it—, then the universe is maybe a less cold and indifferent place that leaves us only at each others' mercy, a place where these things are done to children, and lives are wasted and bartered with, sold and bought, used and abused and thrown away and so often worth so very little. A place where ever three seconds a child dies and 'the human response is to accept, and adapt'. Exit Wounds wasn't fair on Jack if one looks at it as punishment for the mistake, if one can even call it that, of a child made in a panic, but what happened to Gray was even less fair. The tragedy of CoE was horrible for Jack, but horrendously unfair to the children given to the 456 in 1965, Clem, who unlike Jack never had time enough to come to terms with what these events, Steven, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and never had a chance, or Alice who worried about the state of the world and condemned her own son. Jack's confrontation with these fundamental injustices of life that most of the time are beyond a single person's control, as well as—once again—with his unchosen and unwanted immortality and the guilt of surviving when all around him people die, matches the Doctor's moment of self-awareness that Davros forced on him in the S4 finale, but Jack, who doesn’t have a Time Lord's power, in the end can only try to run from himself, whereas the Doctor will attempt to change the whole universe around him rather than accept this.

At the end of the story Jack feels he has nothing left to stay on Earth for, but however bleak things may be, he still is left with something. CoE with its juxtaposition between the Jack of 1965 and the Jack Ianto and Gwen know and love, is also very much about Jack's struggle for the humanity that not only Gwen challenged at the beginning of S1 and implicitly even in S2's Sleeper, but that at least by inference the entire philosophy of both TW and DW, where being human is very much defined through mortality, calls into question. In Sleeper the thing Beth feared most was to lose her humanity and with it even the guilt for having killed her husband, to forget and no longer care about him. For her the lack of capacity to feel pain was worse than the pain itself, and according to this inexorable logic she chose to die. At the end of CoE Jack, who promised Ianto not to forget him with heartbreaking determination, at least least still has all that, the pain and the guilt, because of course love made him just as vulnerable as he warned Gwen it would make her in Meat, and even while he has the means to rid himself of these memories, he's holding on to them so much that after six months he still cannot even bear to remain on the planet any longer.

The message of CoE is the same that was so pervasive in S1—the hardest thing, and sometimes, like for Jack at the end of this story, the impossible thing is to live on, to keep fighting for life and humanity, and hope that it's worth the cost, even if it's for a world that is far from perfect, where the thin veneer of civilization cracks much too fast under pressure and gives way to the egoistic banality of evil, where even good men fall so easily and people like Dekker, who follow orders and stand back survive; to be strong enough to find a balance between empathy and despair, and to be able to do all this without any kind of metaphysical safety net, and with the knowledge of being only a tiny spot in an infinite, indifferent universe, a blip in time.

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


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 6th, 2010 07:21 pm (UTC)
The S4 finale creates a world where the Doctor has to recognise that he isn't any longer the highest moral authority and where humanity has started to take responsibility for its fate and future instead of waiting for someone to save them, although of course that means they'll also have to take responsibility for their mistakes and the consequences of their actions.
This is an excellent insight (esp the way it paves the way for CoE), and not one I'd thought of before. Also it makes me view WoM in a slightly different light, because in many ways it is the Doctor going back to the simplicity of that sword fight with the Sycorax, where he chooses the way the world goes.

Love all your CoE thoughts (of course), and the way in which you lay out the complicated moral web, showing us each part and how it fits in with the whole.
Sep. 7th, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC)
because in many ways it is the Doctor going back to the simplicity of that sword fight with the Sycorax, where he chooses the way the world goes.

Yes, he does try that, but this time Adelaide tells him that she's not accepting this, and gets/claims the last word. I really, really love that episode, and the ending is fantastic, it's such a complicated and powerful scene. And I love that it's a woman doing this, because what always irritated me a bit about the Jasmine arc in Angel is that in the end you have a man defending human freedom and individuality against the female hive-mind.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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