Friday, July 13, 2012

Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV: From "Trek" to "Torchwood" (Part Six: The Doctor Who Universe 2)

Previous installments:
Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Reviewing the Literature
Part Three: The Star Trek Universe (part one)
Part Four: The Star Trek Universe (part two)
Part Five: The Doctor Who Universe (part one)


Section Two: Torchwood  Does It All

Within the diegesis of the Doctor Who universe the Torchwood Institute was founded in response to Queen Victoria's interactions with The Doctor and her belief that England (or, as the fictional Queen Victoria puts it:  "the Empire") must have its own defense against the monsters from which The Doctor so often saves the world.  In time, the Torchwood Institute became quite powerful, using scavenged alien technology to create sometimes incredibly destructive weapons and operating branches out of England, Scotland, Wales and India (as well as one which is referred to simply as "missing").  This was a highly nationalistic organization, and it considers The Doctor an enemy of the state.  When Torchwood London is destroyed the Institute becomes decentralized and Torchwood Cardiff (Wales) is reformed by Captain Jack Harkness "in tribute" to The Doctor, instead of in defense of "the Empire.”  The television show Torchwood is based around the Cardiff branch under the leadership of Harkness, that rogue-made-good who so cunningly “disrupted the heteronormative binary” of Doctor Who.[1]
Both the decentralization of and the reformation away from imperialist project undergone by the Torchwood Institute are important elements of Davies’ creation in this series.  As I discussed in the last section, the framework Davies deployed on Doctor Who allowed him to center his stories around characters drawn from marginalized classes in a way that often undermined kyriarchal norms, but the emphasis on the individual did not leave much room for a structural critique of the social elements leading to the marginalization of those characters or their real world counterparts.  The destruction of Torchwood London was a direct consequence of its over-reaching power and the arrogance of its leaders, made all the more possible by its centralized and hierarchal organization, reminiscent of the organization of the British Empire that gave birth to it; thus demonstrating a contempt/critique of kyriarchal (particularly colonial) institutions. 
The decentralization that followed Torchwood London’s downfall scattered power amongst the other locations: facilitating increased local control over conduct and strategy.  In Cardiff, this decentralization means that the local Torchwood’s mission can change drastically, from an organization that treats aliens rather ruthlessly and their technology as resources to be exploited (also tropes of colonialism), into an Earth-side support system and backup for The Doctor (who is no longer branded an enemy) that attempts to protect the Earth from otherworldly dangers (which means always giving the threatening alien/ghost/fairy/etc. a chance to leave peacefully).
In this section I want to talk about the way in which Torchwood utilizes familiar genre tropes to perform a televisual disidentificatory practice, ultimately building to a discussion of its deployment of a structural critique in Children of Earth.  As I have demonstrated with Davies work on Doctor Who, Torchwood (re)deploys the familiar in unfamiliar ways.  By comforting us with familiar (and often problematic) genre/neoliberal tropes Torchwood is able to subvert mainstream ideas about community, partnership, sex and, most importantly in conjunction with the last section: put forward a critique of structural marginalization and oppression.  In addition, Torchwood queers what appears to be an otherwise normative masculine hero (Captain Jack Harkness).  As a useful juxtaposition, I demonstrate how Torchwood is effectively “the anti-24;”[2] in that Torchwood uses similar tropes and themes to dramatically different outcomes.  This juxtaposition came to my attention in Robin Redmon Wright’s essay: “Narratives from Popular Culture: Critical Implications for Adult Education” wherein she makes the claim that “Torchwood is a soap that offers a narrative of political morality that counters that of 24(56), an argument that I build and expand upon as a way to exemplify Davies’ continuing strategy of utilizing/manipulating the normative to undercut the same.  One of the key ways Torchwood displays this counter-morality is by emphasizing the importance of the community (or, specifically, the team). 
Jose Muñoz’ theory of disidentification continues to be instructive and useful in this section because “disidentification is not an apolitical middle ground,” in fact, “its political agenda is clearly indebted to antiassimilationist thought,” although “it departs from antiassimilationist rhetoric for reasons that are both strategic and methodological” (18).  The distinctions Muñoz makes clear here are important to my own argument, which suggests that by embodying common tropes Torchwood is able to create new knowledges through a queer deployment of those tropes.  My work here, too, assumes no “apolitical middle ground” but a working on and with these common tropes to intervene in hegemonic understandings of heroism and difference.  Just as its plots deploy the uncanny to discomfort its viewership (Rawcliffe 102), so too do Torchwood’s “queer moments” disturb the waters of the kyriarchal sexual dichotomy (Sullivan 191).  Indeed, almost everything about Torchwood is queer, if by queer we mean unusual or strange and unsettling of norms.

Let's Talk About Sex

Unlike its almost asexual parent show (Doctor Who), all of the characters on Torchwood are unapologetically and more or less actively sexual.  And unlike so many other shows that feature sexuality as a key component of the character’s makeup, this active sexuality is never “called to account” (Wilchins) – it is simply allowed to exist.  This is particularly significant because in general, queer characters are punished (physically or emotionally) for their culture-norm transgressions.  Further, this representational pattern is part of a larger television landscape in the United Kingdom that is openly hostile towards when not utterly dismissive of bisexual characters and bisexuality (Brewer, Barker and Bowes-Catton).  Like Kyra Roc’s observation of the common representation of “killer lesbians” on United States television (Roc, Diaz and Varkentine), Brewer et al. observes that “if explicitly bisexual characters are represented in fiction, then they tend to be promiscuous, wicked people…it is not safe to be a bisexual or to be in the company of people who are" (146).  In this environment, the discursive rupture of an entire series wherein active sexuality across genders, races, alien species, etc. is not explicitly punished cannot be overstated.
Some fans and scholars might argue with this reading of Torchwood’s narrative, as Captain Jack is subjected to torture and death on a regular basis, and as of this writing all but one of the original Torchwood team (those introduced and held over as main characters starting with the pilot episode) are dead.  However, I would assert that their deaths are traceable to very specific causes, and are thus not the “pointless” deaths that served only to punish past queer characters.  For example, in Torchwood: Children of Earth (the third “season” of the series) Ianto Jones (main character and popular romantic partner of Jack Harkness) is killed, but the narrative surrounding Ianto’s death is clearly about exposing Jack’s recklessness, not to his queerness.  In true “sidekick” fashion, Ianto is used to further the heroic lead’s character development, and in true romantic partner fashion it could be said that he was “put in the refrigerator” (Simone).  As I will discuss later, this is one moment where Jack’s tendency towards heroic individualistic actions actively harm those around him, thus enforcing the importance of his team to constrain his actions (a team that is largely absent from Children of Earth).
Just as the characters of Torchwood are not punished for their sexual identities and/or activities, neither are they defined by them.  This is another key difference between the imaginary produced by Russell T. Davies and that of Gene Roddenberry.  In Star Trek, characters were written to represent one marginal identity (if any) and that one identity is pushed to the forefront of storylines about that character.  For example, Geordi La Forge is not incidentally blind; a point is made in the plotlines to call attention to his disability.  Similarly, Benjamin Sisko is not incidentally black; whole episodes are constructed around looking at issues of racial prejudice on Deep Space Nine in a way that didn’t happen before such a central character was a person of color.  That Geordi La Forge is both blind and black, and that stories could have also been written at this intersection (for a start), is never explored by the writers.  Furthermore, there are, to date, no gay, lesbian or bisexual characters of any kind within the Star Trek universe (Heller).  There is a distinct contrast here with Torchwood, where sexuality-as-identity is even playfully criticized by Captain Jack in the second episode of the series with the famous quote, “you people and your quaint little categories” (Chibnall, “Day One”).  
This idea of the “category-less-ness” of the Torchwood universe is in continuity with Davies’ choices on Doctor Who, wherein he attempted a story-telling model that centralized people from marginalized classes, without calling explicit attention to this fact.  It is a choice that is made even more overt when, when his sister informs Ianto Jones that she has discovered his relationship with Jack Harkness, Ianto is able to tell her that “it’s not men, it’s just him…and I don’t even know what ‘it’ is really” – and this response makes perfect sense within the bounds of this universe (Davies and Moran).  This response queers the discussion Ianto is having with his sister, as she continually tries to find a “box” in which to put him, and he instead resists categorization as “straight” or “gay.”  Similar sexually ambiguous acts occur throughout the show: seemingly “straight” characters are seen “snogging” members of the same or similar gender and Jack Harkness is shown to have had many relationships with women, men and aliens.  These repeated occurrences of sexual fluidity make our “quaint little categories” of sexual identity utterly meaningless within these fictional bounds.  Thus it is in part through representations of sexuality that Torchwood queers science fiction television.

Working Through and Against Normative Power (and 24)

Jack Harkness: Do I show off?
Ianto Jones: Just a bit (Tregenna)

As Robin Wright has noted, on the surface Torchwood and 24 look like very similar shows, and indeed they are quite literally very aesthetically similar programs.  Both series revolve around white, masculine, good-looking American men (named Jack) who are troubled by the cost of the leadership position they occupy and who work from their own moral system for what they see as the greater good.  But in fact, their most fundamental differences can be found in their supposed similarities; the way in which both programs deploy hegemonic neoliberal narratives.  Jack Bauer and his universe are strikingly heteronormative and intolerant of difference.  His is a masculinity cultivated out of hardness and inflexibility, like his unwavering belief that no matter how morally inexcusable his actions appear, he is always working for what is “right” (saving “innocent” people’s lives and defending the nation).  In contrast, as Lee Barron has put it “Captain Jack is an iconic figure who combats television heteronormativity as much as he combats Weevils, cannibals or Abadden” (217).[3]  Indeed, Jack Harknesses’ masculinity is explicitly founded on flexibility, adaptability, and humor, as well as a frankness regarding sexuality that is unimaginable in Jack Bauer’s heteronormative universe.  In this way, I argue that each narrative utilizes similar tropes towards dramatically different outcomes and metanarratives.
Harknesses’ queerness is made explicit in two instances during the Torchwood pilot.[4]  First, in a short monologue the audience is privy to: “Estrogen. Definitely Estrogen. You take the pill, flush it away, it enters the water cycle, feminizes the fish. Goes all the way up into the sky and then falls all the way back down onto me. Contraceptives in the rain. Love this planet! Still, at least I won’t get pregnant. Never doing that again” (Davies, “Everything Changes”).  Although in most other ways Captain Jack represents the familiar heroic-leader role throughout the episode, we are given a hint here that he is something “Other,” despite looking and sounding like an otherwise “normal” American man.  The second revelation about Jack’s queerness occurs near the end of the pilot, when he is shot in the forehead at close range and a minute later stands up, the bullet hole healing itself as we watch.  Jack is in fact immortal.  Finally, Jack is also “literally” queer as, in the immortal words of character Toshiko Sato: “he’ll shag anything if it’s gorgeous enough” (Chibnall, “Day One”).  His sexual attraction is demonstrated throughout his roles on Torchwood and Doctor Who as ranging across many different bodily configurations and gender presentations.
Sci-Fi TV scholar Sherry Ginn has said “at the very heart of Torchwood are the relationships that Captain Jack has with each of his team” (169).  Although Harkness often works with the brash, individualist certainty of the archetypal masculine hero, full of confidence that he is correct, this is also tempered by a self-awareness of his weaknesses.  It is this self-knowledge that draws him to Gwen Cooper, a person he sees as grounding him, challenging him to remember the importance of compassion in dealing with the people (and aliens) they run across in their work (Wright 57).  In contrast, Jack Bauer refuses the development of such reliance on another person in his work, keeping even his own daughter at arm’s length for fear of harm coming to her through him.  Unlike Jack Harkness, Bauer never considers that by keeping away those who might ground him in the mundane that his perspective becomes so skewed as to cause harm to them (and others) anyway.  Though both characters display moments of supreme self-centeredness, Harkness knows that it is the community around him (his Torchwood team) that grounds him and holds him accountable to his guiding principles/morals.[5]  It is this accountability to his team that resists hegemonic narratives of neoliberalism that defy and obscure, community accountability both domestically and abroad (Ong, Erevelles).
In looking at the different universes Jack Bauer and Captain Jack Harkness act within Robin Wright observes that “the extradiegetic story for Torchwood is one that directly contrasts that of 24” (57).  In other words, amidst the contrasts and similarities discussed above, the messages these shows produce are radically different ones.  24’s message is one of “the age-old battle between good and evil, with the United States as good and terrorists as evil. It is a narrowly ethnocentric, even bigoted fable that posits anyone opposed to an uncritically represented U.S. as evil” (Wright 54), whereas in Torchwood “right and wrong are contextualized and critically examined [and] the lines between them are often blurred” (Wright 57).  I argue that it is within these different messages that one can find narratives of the neoliberal nation causing tension, and as with Doctor Who we find neoliberal narratives producing a variety of results.
The character of Jack Bauer works directly for the United States government in a fictional entity called “CTU” (Counter Terrorist Unit) which serves as an in-story proxy for a sort-of Homeland Security office.  Although Bauer regularly defies orders and works outside “proper channels” his vocalized motives are always those of the patriot working in service to his nation.  As mentioned earlier, Jack Harkness’ purview is specifically designated as “outside the government.”  But, more than that, Harkness vocally rejected the nationalist/imperialist tendencies of the Torchwood Institute in his reformation of Torchwood Cardiff, and has at times worked against the government and supposed “national interest” (such as in Children of Earth).  To be clear, while Bauer may work against some government employees or indeed be insubordinate, his “greater good” is always conceptualized as that of serving the nation through patriotic duty, while Harkness sees the greater good as working for the good of humanity as a whole.  So, what look like very similar actions on the part of both characters thus produce a subtle, but markedly different message. 
Building on this, the importance of “teams” and teamwork are demonstrated to be similar on the surface, but actually radically different.   Both characters display a penchant for the “heroic individualism” so coveted by audiences of action movies and Westerns.  But, what happens when each character chooses to pursue the individualistic path?  In the world of 24, Jack Bauer is by far most successful when he works on his own. Although the members of the CTU team are often useful, working with them also tends to involve vital plans being leaked by moles, and Bauer being undermined by subordinates or repressed from above.  The team is little more than a resource to be exploited (an attitude analogous to the colonial perspective Torchwood rejects).  Ultimately, the 24-hour case the show is named for is only solved when Bauer is allowed to act freely and alone as a fully integrated (patriotic) subject.
In contrast, Jack Harkness is at his best when he is working as a part of his team.  This is not to suggest that Harkness never pursues activities on his own (he often does) or that he is not individually heroic (he often is), but like Jack Bauer, Jack Harkness has a tendency to let his job consume him in a way that undermines his humanity and renders him capable of, at-best, morally gray actions (Ginn, Sexual Relations and Porter).  Where Jack Bauer thrives and triumphs in this environment it is made clear repeatedly throughout Torchwood that for Jack Harkness these “Cowboy Cop” (TV Tropes) moments are reckless and incredibly dangerous to those around him (as in the death of Ianto Jones in Children of Earth).  Thus while “going it alone” on 24 produces a clear narrative of “the ends justify the means” as correct and heroic, similar actions on Torchwood are presented critically and the value of a team with people coming from different perspectives, challenging each other, working together and holding each other accountable to the community is held up as heroic instead.  This disidentificatory representation of hegemonic hero narratives serves to undermine the valorization of the “personal” in neoliberal thought (Duggan), emphasizing instead the need for community.
Nowhere is this difference more explicit than in the episode wherein Harkness’ past comes back to haunt him in the form of Captain John Hart.  “He’s Captain Jack all over again but darker, twisted” (Frankel 61).  Everything about Hart is Harkness to a sinister extreme, “the way Jack could have gone [and] made a very conscious decision to move away from” (Wilkes).  In this episode, Hart tries to con the Torchwood team, kills Harkness and almost murders Gwen, all in pursuit of a money-making scheme.  In the end it takes the entire team working together to defeat Hart, with the reliable “Big Damn Heroes” trope (TV Tropes) thrown in for tension and some additional meta-fun (as John Hart comments beforehand “What's the point of being on a team if you don't get a last minute rescue?” (Chibnall, “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”))  (Ireland, Playing to the Crowd).  Put bluntly, Jack Bauer would never have survived this interaction with John Hart, because every tactic that works for Bauer would have backfired on him.
Saturating these portrayals and narratives are the logics of neoliberalism.  From Jack Bauer’s “ends justify the means” attitude towards his work to Jack Harknesses’ flexibility in sexuality and heroic tactics.  Drawing from the previous discussion of Jack Harknesses’ doppelganger John Hart, it is Jack’s flexibility, his ability to adapt to the requirements of each unique scenario that allows him to save his team.  While Jack Bauer displays cunning and resilience in the face of the threats he faces on 24, there is no such flexibility displayed by his character.  Faced with an enemy, Bauer does not consider multiple options or attempt to adapt the way Harkness does, he simply tortures someone (not always the “bad guy”) until he gets the information he needs.  To anyone who has not viewed the show this characterization may seem hyperbolic, however, given that 24 “[shows] a torture scene every 1.8 episodes” (Wright 55) I would assert it is accurate.  
It is within these complex portrayals and narratives where Torchwood acts within the “borderlands” of disidentification, using neoliberal tropes and redeploying them.  While 24 embraces the hegemonic power afforded USian neoliberal thought, institutions, and curtailing of individual liberty (Ong)Torchwood deploys equally neoliberal narratives of flexibility and identity-less-ness in a way that turns them against kyriarchal hegemony.  So we see the continuation and adaptation of Davies work from Doctor Who to Torchwood as one wherein he utilizing the dominant narratives of the day in disidentificatory ways, both reinforcing and resisting kyriarchy.  In some ways this is also touching on Avery Gordon’s “complex personhood” (or maybe “complex character-hood”) where Davies pulls from “what is immediately available as a story and what [his] imaginations [is] reaching toward.”  While I enjoy and applaud this complicated and subtle approach, it is important to understand the ideologies they rely on and not to uncritically celebrate the work these stories do through working on and against norms.

Going for the Structural Critique: Children of Earth

“Save yourselves and when it's done,
when they're questioned: ‘It wasn't us.’
This is war, this is what we really are” (Minnear)

If Torchwood’s intervention into sci-fi/political discourse ended here, it could be recounted as a compelling and important televisual rupture in the discourses of heroism, sexuality and the individual over the community.  It would, however, replicate the lionizing of the individual present on Davies’ work in Doctor Who.  But in the third season, produced in 2009, Davies went beyond the framework he developed working on Doctor Who and previous Torchwood seasons and did something he hadn’t done before: dove headlong into a structural critique.  Such a critique is vitally important to inject into Davies’ story-telling methodology because as noted when discussing Doctor Who this model is otherwise too easily interpreted as simply being about exceptional examples of extraordinary individuals, feeding into a “pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps” narrative that particularly demonizes the poor and working classes, but also more generally categorizes people of color, disabled people, fat people, queer people, trans people, Native/First Nations communities, people in prison, immigrants and cissexual women as oppressed through their own doing and not because of social structures actively working against them.  Yet, as we know from the work of scholars addressing all of these populations, this victim-blaming narrative could not be further from the truth.[6]
In brief, the basic plot structure of Children of Earth (COE) is as follows: the British government is faced with an alien enemy threatening to destroy not only the UK but the world with a plague, and the price they demand to avoid this catastrophe is 10% of the world’s children.  But just as with Doctor Who under Davies not really being about The Doctor, Children of Earth isn’t really about this alien plotline either.  The real enemies of COE are the people in power in the UK, who immediately start scrambling to figure out how to appease these aliens instead of challenge them.  In a particularly chilling scene, one member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet ruthlessly offers up the children of the poor and working classes in this way:
Cabinet Member: “The first responsibility [of government] is to protect the interests of this country, right? Then let’s say it: in a national emergency a country must plan for the future and discriminate amongst those who are vital to the continued stability and…those who are not[…]On the one hand you have the good schools, and I don’t just mean those producing graduates, I mean those with the pupils who will go on to staff our hospitals, our offices, our factories. We need them. Accepted, yes? So, set against that, you have the failing schools, full of 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. Now look, should we treat them equally? [A pause and eerie silence around the table] And if we can’t identify the lowest achieving ten percent of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables for?”
[There is a long uncomfortable pause as the Cabinet members look around at each other]
Prime Minister: “Anyone want to speak against that? [Another long uncomfortable pause] Well then there we have it” (Fay).
Before the Torchwood team can think about deploying its usual clever hostile-alien fighting tricks, this is what they have to contend with: a government who immediately sets aside fighting back and instead works to eliminate those who have already been deemed unworthy of respect or real humanity.  This “unworthy” portion of society is represented in the season by the sister of Ianto Jones and her family: a family that lives in public housing, bear working class signifiers (such as accent and clothing) and is indeed among those targeted by the government agents sent to round up this “lowest achieving ten percent.” 
                Davies takes this critique of social/political institutions further, in characteristically subtle fashion, when at the end of this crisis we see the very woman who recommended this plan setting herself up to take power once the Prime Minister is ousted after it is discovered what he chose to do to deal with this threat.  This scene is almost as chilling as the first as we see 1) no community accountability whatsoever from the Cabinet as a whole and 2) that the expulsion of one head of state is worthless when it is the system itself that is corrupt.  But unlike other narratives of corrupt institutions coming out of sci-fi TV that hinge on a sort of helplessness, a feeling that such institutions are so powerful the everyday person can do nothing to stop them, [7] we have seen throughout Children of Earth that everyday people, once again, can be heroic.  The Torchwood team would have been helpless without their mole into these meetings: Black British temp Lois Habiba.  While it is unclear, at the end of COE, if Habiba will ultimately attempt to work against the government she has now seen is corrupt and willing to sell out its most vulnerable, but we know she has the technology and the determination to do just that.  Therefore, the potential for the everyday person to do something in the face of these structures of power is at least made clear.
While this critique of structural power is not the sole message of Children of Earth there is a significant amount of time spent on the storyline.  In particular, the humanizing of the targeted population through Ianto’s sister, and the critical eye of Lois Habiba on the proceedings by the Cabinet make it clear that Davies is attempting to bring to light the way in which some classes of people are actively oppressed through the structure and actions of those in power, as well as the way in which those in power will privilege their own classes over the oppressed.  This is an incredibly important intervention because in large part, it this cycle that upholds kyriarchy. 
The neoliberal turn away from understanding people’s “lot in life” as emerging from structures and institutions and instead as a consequence of their individual actions is flatly refused through Davies’ work here, which is a hugely significant rupture in popular discourses of poverty, racial oppression, and ability, in particular.  If it is to stories like these (stories that capture the heroism of the everyday and marginalized person while maintaining a critique of institutions of power) that science fiction television is turning, then social justice-minded scholars, fans and fan-scholars will have significant and powerful ammunition for discussing critical social and political realities of our world in the years to come.  A prospect I turn towards in my conclusion to this project.

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant”
– The Doctor in “Vincent and the Doctor” (Curtis)

[1] This background would generally be known to viewers of Torchwood if they were avid Doctor Who fans, and some of it was covered via flashback in the second season of Torchwood (Chibnall, “Fragments”).
[2] 24 being an immensely popular and thematically similar drama from the United States.
[3] Weevils are vermin-like aliens and Abbaden is a supernatural, demon –like figure.
[4] I choose to look at the pilot episode’s treatment of Captain Jack since it was intended to introduce the character to an audience not necessarily familiar with him from Doctor Who and is thus a self-conscious attempt to impart what Davies believes is important about this already established character. 
[5] This dynamic is also present on Doctor Who to a certain extent, with companions often acting to restrain The Doctor from his more (self-)destructive impulses.
[6] Please see my bibliography for a plethora of such work, Angela Davis and Andrea Smith are particularly good 101 resources for understanding the work of institutions in the oppression of marginalized classes.
[7] See: The X-Files (Delasara).