Monday, February 10, 2014

Outside the Government: Torchwood: Children of Earth: Day Two

[previously] It should, of course, be remembered that the character who makes this proposal, Denise Riley, is the same one who we’re told is going to succeed the Prime Minister following Bridget’s calm overthrow of him in the story’s conclusion. Which is to say that the problem really pointedly is not Frobisher but the system he represents. Ultimately, a woman who unquestioningly consented in ordering the covert and extrajudicial assassination of four British citizens helps make a person who actively advocated for culling the poor the next Prime Minister in the name of a man who helped orchestrate both plans. This is what passes for political victory - the replacement of the absolutely and unfathomably bad with the slightly differently absolutely and unfathomably bad.

In this regard, Children of Earth is something that Doctor Who, under Davies, only occasionally got to be: very, very angry. Davies lashed out occasionally - his embittered Iraq satire in Aliens of London/World War III and his delightfully bleak turn in Midnight stand out - but for the most part, under Davies, Doctor Who is a series about hope. Torchwood has always been allowed to be at least somewhat more cynical, but it’s not until Children of Earth that we see Davies pen something for within Doctor Who that is just unabashedly bitter and pessimistic. 

This is not uncharacteristic for Davies as such. A trawl through his earlier work reveals him to be a hopeless romantic, but he is also someone who has said more than once that his ideal vision of love is unrequited love, which speaks volumes as to the nature of his romanticism. For him, the romantic and optimistic is a howl in the dark - the one piece of meaning or hope that can be found in a desperately bleak world. In Doctor Who, at least, this is framed in terms of the fantastic nature of the show - the romance comes, often, not from the world but from a radical escape from it brought on by interaction with a completely barmy time traveller. 

So Children of Earth, in positioning itself in a somewhat aggressively normal environment, consciously steps away from the saving wonder of the fantastic. There’s only one alien and they don’t even bother with names or descriptions. We don’t even ever properly see them - they’re forever cloaked in fog. The aliens are little more than representatives of the unknown and unknowable - forces of nature to which people have to respond. 

Instead we get Gwen’s episode five monologue about why the Doctor doesn’t show up, with the suggestion that it is a judgment of humanity. This is clearly at least partially metaphoric - after all, it’s not as though the Doctor checks in to see how humanity is doing with an alien invasion before deciding if he’ll intervene. The point is rather much like that of Turn Left. Indeed, that story we suggested that the message “without the Doctor, Britain would become fascist” was a bit stretched. Children of Earth, of course, serves as something of a refutation to that: a bog standard alien invasion (albeit with a particularly sick and nasty alien scheme - the detail that the 456 only want the children to get high is very possibly the single most phenomenally depraved detail that Davies ever wrote) that the Doctor could presumably have foiled in a single episode becomes five episodes of utter horror. 

An intriguing but significant what-if forms here in the question of Martha Jones. In the original conception of Children of Earth the role in the story that goes to Lois was to be Martha’s, but Chris Chibnall poached Agyeman for Law and Order: UK, and she wasn’t available as a result. 

One cannot read Lois as a straight like-for-like replacement of Martha. Where Martha is hyper-competent, Lois is consciously a neophyte. It’s impossible to imagine Martha having any of Lois’s key scenes in which she works up the courage to use the contact lenses, simply because the idea that Martha would hesitate in the slightest at that is ludicrous. The presence of Lois, in other words, fundamentally alters the story.

And, more to the point, it does so for the better, adding another instance of a character who provide a sense of good in humanity. Lois, like Ianto’s family and Rhys, is not a Torchwood member. This is distinct from Martha - a character who comes from the world of aliens and sci-fi. Martha being a heroic human is no more notable than Gwen or Ianto being so. But Lois serves to give a different sort of hope - and an important one given that the other human characters that unambiguously demonstrate any sort of positive potential are all explicitly working class. Lois becomes the figure of most unbridled optimism in the story.

And yet ultimately she’s irrelevant to the resolution. She contributes only to the false ending of “Day Four,” the entire point of which is that it doesn’t actually work to resolve anything. Her approach is fundamentally unproductive - all it’s good for is enabling Bridget’s later half-victory of overthrowing the Prime Minister to replace him with an equally bad choice. But, of course, the heroism of Rhiannon and Johnny doesn’t work either - ultimately, all of the children they were protecting are captured before the resolution. Only Gwen, in fact, manages to make it to the end of the story without every single one of her prior accomplishments being ripped away from her, in that she is still holding on to the child she’s trying to save, and this is a narrow victory that seems like it couldn’t have been sustained for even a few more seconds. 

Instead there is only Jack - the character most outside of the ordinary world, who ends up saving the day along with a motley assemblage of minor supporting characters who had previously been at best amoral and at worst thoroughly evil. Salvation, in other words, comes neither from the system of the world nor from good people, but from something that lies fundamentally outside the system: a world of super-powered men, hyper-competent assassins, and amoral technicians. And they save the world not through heroism, but by ripping a child away from his mother and murdering him right in front of her. 

An odd aspect of Children of Earth is of course the children. They are, after all, largely the one theme that is conspicuously absent in Torchwood due to its status as an “adult” show. We’ve had a few - Small Worlds, obviously, and Exit Wounds in its own way. But this is a show that is far from the question of how children see and experience the world. Children of Earth exemplifies this in an odd way. It is about children, but they are only objects within the narrative. No child’s own story impacts events particularly. We do not see the 456 from a child’s perspective. Indeed, the thing most conspicuously absent from the narrative is any treatment of what it is like for the children to be possessed by the 456. All the children we see are oddly fine with events, joking with their parents about how they want ponies.

They instead are simply the objects of adult anxiety. What is employed here are not children as people, but children as the political props that they become - the things in whose name awful things are done. “Think of the children” being a slogan that almost completely forecloses any possibility of actually doing so. “The children” are in the end a nebulously defined potential utopia severed from the lived experience of any actual people. They are non-existent but ideal citizens, defined by the very fact of their non-participation in sex or politics. When the child becomes an adult - i.e. an actual functioning citizen, they notably lose this aura of protection, rendering the ugly fallacy of this rhetoric clear. But what is equally important is that this does not occur at the age of majority, but rather at the moment when a child asserts their right to a role in their own narrative. (Consider how easy it is to decide to kill off the children who can easily be assigned political traits: “the less able, the less socially useful. Those destined to spend a lifetime on benefits, occupying places on the dole queue, and, frankly, the prisons.”


It is worth noting that much of the theoretical work on this subject comes out of queer theory, with the defining text being Lee Edelman’s No Future, which coined the term “reproductive futurism” to describe this sort of ideology of children. Edelman’s approach is based on the observation that homosexuality provides a direct challenge to this by investing itself in a social order that is largely ambivalent to the notion of the child, treating partnership and marriage as existing not only for purposes other than making babies, but for reasons that outright exclude reproductive futurism as a value. Part and parcel of this is the nature of the non-participation that defines the child. To be the adored and hypothetical child, one must be neither politically active nor sexually active - two concepts that are inexplicably but inexorably linked. Sexual and political activity are, in this lens, weirdly conflated, and both are of equal danger to the established world. [continued]

16 comments:

  1. Narrative collapse? At this point we know Moffatt is the next showrunner. And we know that Moffatt's take on the Doctor, as you've said before, is the man who wins because a world where he does is more fun than a world where he doesn't.

    And so we get a world where there is no such thing as fun, and therefore the Doctor's given up on us. And to restore Doctor Who, we're going to have to sacrifice Torchwood...

    (Apologies if I'm stepping on future installments here.)

    Incidentally, I never bought that Riley was going to be the next PM, because I couldn't see how Green could be exposed without her being exposed as well. It'd be like if Cameron was forced to resign because horrible things were revealed about the education system, and was replaced by Michael Gove. We'd notice the disconnect.

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    1. I'm beginning to wonder if this is actually Gove's plan. It makes as much sense as his policies

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  2. "One cannot read Lois as a straight like-for-like replacement of Martha."

    Along a similar vein (and, likewise, apologies if I'm pre-empting), my imagination gives out at trying to place Noel Clarke in Days Four and Five - as was originally intended until a scheduling snafu arose.

    There's an interesting exchange in The Writer's Tale where Davies goes from being despondent about Clarke's loss to being invigorated by it in the space of a day - instantly devising a way for the story to shape around it. And to his credit, the story now shapes around it so perfectly that I can't even see the seem.

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  3. To me, Children of Earth is inseparable from The Christmas Invasion, wherein Harriet Jones asserts the right of Earth through its elected officials to defend itself from alien threats rather than simply hope that the Doctor will always show up in time. And for her presumption, the Time Lord Victorious destroys her career, thereby ushering in the completely amoral government of Children of Earth, which embraces truly monstrous policies when aliens far, far worse than the Sycorax show up and the Doctor never comes. I don't know how PM Harriet Jones would have responded to the 456, but I find it difficult to believe she would have sanctioned the sacrifice of an openly despised lower class.

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    1. I think this more than anything puts the lie to the idea that Doctor Who and Torchwood really do take place in the same universe. The events of Children of Earth simply couldn't take place in an episode of Doctor Who, and Harriet Jones couldn't be the PM in CoE. If Jones acted the way she did on the Sycorax spaceship, the Cabinet of CoE would stare at her as if she was mad. The narrative styles of the two programmes are too different for something like Children of Earth to be ported across to the family entertainment world of Doctor Who.

      Although there is one sequence in recent Doctor Who where I think it swings the closest to Torchwood as it ever has. The look of cold determination on Eccleston's face in that scene in "Bad Wolf" when Jack and the Doctor break out of detention on Satellite 5. I can't see the 10th or 11th Doctor in "Children of Earth", but after that scene I can see the 9th.

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  4. “Think of the children” being a slogan that almost completely forecloses any possibility of actually doing so. “The children” are in the end a nebulously defined potential utopia severed from the lived experience of any actual people.

    I cannot find the link to it, but I remember a study done about ten years ago which showed that poll respondents were, IIRC, 25% more likely to support a proposal -- ANY proposal, not matter what it was -- if presented with an argument that said proposal would be beneficial "for the children." That was when I immediately became suspicious of any organization that had the world "Family" in the title.

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  5. It is about children, but they are only objects within the narrative.

    Clement MacDonald is a partial exception to this. Admittedly he's an adult when we meet him, but we see events through his flashbacks to his childhood.

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  6. We do not see the 456 from a child’s perspective. Indeed, the thing most conspicuously absent from the narrative is any treatment of what it is like for the children to be possessed by the 456. All the children we see are oddly fine with events, joking with their parents about how they want ponies.

    Phil, you've already touched on this in your post on the SJA episode Day of the Clown where you said -

    ...the threat of child abduction is, in practice, largely a threat of concern to adults. To a child any child abductor might as well be an evil clown. The actual concepts underlying child abduction are outside a child’s frame of reference.'

    In fact, though I think there is little that could be done to make this story any more disturbing than it already is, re-watching it I was struck by how an opportunity may have been missed to explore one aspect of the children's point of view. What if the children were sold the idea of alien abduction as a fun thing? There is a hint of this in the flashback scenes with Jack telling the 1965 kids to walk into the light because it's an adventure. But what a bleak and disturbingly distorted mirror of Doctor Who it would have been if the idea of leaving the Earth with an alien to have adventures amongst the stars was presented as just a cover story for the unimaginable horror of the 456. In 1965, in our world, the children of the U.K. were running around school playgrounds with stiff arms yelling 'exterminate!' in 2009 there was a revival of that phenomenon. How easy, not to mention deliciously meta, it would have been for RTD to have the establishment create...Oh I don't know, perhaps a Saturday evening Sci-fi show for all the family which presented alien abduction as a friendly gateway to adventure.

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    1. Reminds me a little of John Christopher's prequel to his Tripods trilogy, in which the aliens, as part of their invasion plan, insert themselves as funny cartoon characters into children's tv.

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  7. It is about children, but they are only objects within the narrative.

    This reminds me of my main beef with Children of Earth: the ending is entirely about Jack, and not about the child he decides to kill.

    And that reminds me of one of my main beefs with Davies: his habit of getting an emotional reaction by having bad things happen to helpless people. Rose doesn't get to choose her fate. Donna doesn't get to choose her fate. Jack's grandson doesn't get to choose his fate. And yes, life is arbitrary and bad things happen to good people, but I prefer drama where people make their own decisions and know the consequences.

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    1. @William White

      I agree totally with this, and believe it to be the biggest fault of Children of Earth. For some reason, unless I'm reading this wrongly (and I'm writing this reply after Day Three's entry has been posted) the treatment of children as objects in the narrative as opposed to actual characters appears to be justified as the text is a Queer one, and rejects heteronormative reproductive futurism. Which I have a huge problem with, as what if the 456 demanded 10% of one gender, or one religion. Or even, 10% of the homesexual population of the Earth. Would we, the audience, be as accepting of a lack of characterisation and treatment as objects in the narrative if this were the case?

      My wife, who thought the first four episodes of CoE were brilliant, felt its ending deeply flawed and showed a lack of understanding of the bond between parents and grandparents.

      I felt it worked on one level, showing the curse of the immortal that Jack has exemplified throughout Torchwood: he will out live all is descendants. So for him, what does it matter when they die? His grief seemed from watching his grandchild suffer more than from knowing he will never be seen again. But it is a visible (and possibly the greatest) flaw in an otherwise brilliant piece of drama.

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  8. Hm, most of the way through Tuesday and no new post? I reckon the government must have incased the good Dr. Sandifer in a block of concrete...

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  9. That scene around the cabinet table is searing, I can almost feel RTD's red hot anger. My partner, as a mother has a hard job thinking about ever re-watching CoE.

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