Friday, July 31, 2009

The Tragic Immortal Life of Captain Jack Harkness

The best new sci-fi I’ve seen in a while was the last Torchwood series, Children of Earth, and even though I ordered the dvd, I’m not sure how often I’ll watch it. The five-hour miniseries was brilliantly made, but terribly bleak. We weren’t quite in Requiem for a Dream territory, but it’s certainly far from a happy ending. Basically, everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and just when things are looking hopeful, it gets a whole lot worse.

I mean, the secret sci-fi superbase underneath Cardiff is blown to bits at the end of the first episode, as a means of setting the stage. By the time Jack, Gwen, and Ianto regroup at the beginning of episode four, the aliens known only as The 456 are set up like kings in the MI5 building, and the government is preparing to completely acquiesce to their demands for a cull of about 35 million children from Earth. The children will then be inserted alive into the aliens’ bodies, where they will live fully conscious inside the alien, causing chemical reactions that get the aliens high as kites.

The loudest fan reaction about the series is the death of Ianto Jones, a very popular character and Jack’s lover. There’s a letter writing campaign organizing to bring him back to life, but here’s why I’m against such a move. The quality of this series came from the development of its central character, Captain Jack Harkness.

When we first met Jack in the 2005 series of Doctor Who, he was a singular version of the caddish rogue. He was a decent person, but with a past that has remained utterly mysterious. Jack had been a Time Agent in the 51st century, but left the Agency when he woke up one morning and discovered that two years of his memory had been wiped, and in that time, he could have done anything in the employ of a somewhat shady space-time intelligence service. He told Rose, “Your friend over there doesn’t trust me. For all I know, he’s right not to.”

Jack’s friendship with the Doctor inspired him to become a better person, and not let himself be haunted and defined by his missing two years. Or at least, I’m understanding it that way as I think about the character. We discover throughout Jack’s time on our televisions that he has tortured people while working as a Time Agent, and during Children of Earth, we discover that he initially gave up twelve orphans to The 456 under government orders on their initial visit to Earth in 1965. Jack knows he is capable of terrible acts, and justifying those acts. His work travelling with The Doctor and running Torchwood is an attempt to prove to himself that he is a good person.

At the end of Children of Earth, Jack understands that he is not a good person, and he cannot leave his ability to justify his terrible acts. Jack, on his own, is simply not as good at fighting hostile invading aliens as The Doctor. When Jack is in charge of a situation, he frequently has to make moral compromises to defeat the hostile forces. He also makes tactical mistakes, some of which lead to the death of the people he’s trying to protect. Ianto dies because he and Jack confront The 456 at their headquarters on Earth, and he makes a big speech of ultimatums to the aliens and lines drawn in the sand.

And The 456 nonchalantly release a virus into the building that kills almost everyone inside, including Ianto, who dies in Jack’s arms pleading with his immortal lover not to forget him over the next few billion years of his life. The death of Ianto, and the hundred or so people in that building, is Jack’s fault because he was trying to be like the Doctor. But the Doctor never confronts an alien without knowing enough about them to protect himself and the people around him. Jack barged in knowing almost nothing about the abilities of The 456, and got a lot of people killed.

Jack is utterly shattered by what he had to do because his own arrogance and ignorance backed him into a corner where the only course of action to save the Earth was a terrible, cruel act that only a monster could have made. He ends the story facing up to his inadequacy as both a hero and as a moral man. He flees Earth because he has given up hope in himself. He cannot escape his cruelty, or his propensity for violence. And he leaves Earth because he cannot live in the place he discovered that fact for the next five billion years of his life.

Torchwood has been renewed for a fourth season. But I don’t think any of the old cast should return, except Gwen and her husband Rhys. Ianto is dead, and should stay dead, because if he’s brought back to life somehow, that will give Jack hope again. And Jack should never have hope again. It would cheapen the power of Children of Earth, Russell T Davies’ masterpiece, the grandest tragedy in all of Doctor Who.

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