“Torchwood” Gets Even Darker With a “Final Solution”

 
 

Warning: This post contains MAJOR spoilers for Torchwood: Miracle Day episode 5, “Categories of Life,” which aired Friday night in America, and will air Friday, August 12th in the UK.

JK Rowling once said if you are writing children’s books, you need to be a ruthless killer. But the truth of her quip extends far beyond the world of Harry Potter, reaching into science fiction and fantasy universes across the space-time continuum. It’s a great irony, really: If you are writing stories in a genre many people consider nothing more than escapism, sometimes you’ve got to brutally murder your characters to take the story where you want it to go.

Nobody knows that better than Torchwood creator Russell T. Davies.

Torchwood was, of course, conceived as a spin-off of Britain’s longest-running, most-beloved fantasy series. A Doctor Who for grown-ups. And while Torchwood’s characters were sexed up a bit and the themes were darkened quite a lot, it shared a certain campiness with Doctor Who in its early days.

But even at its silliest, Davies was unafraid to invite the Angel of Death to visit the Torchwood team. By the end of the third series, he’d offed three of his five main characters — Owen Harper, Toshiko Sato and Ianto Jones — all of whom were beloved by the show’s fandom.

Ianto Jones, Toshiko Sato, Owen Harper

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Davies brought his fictional murdering ways across the pond. Yet, somehow it still managed shock most of the audience Friday night when the Jane Espenson-penned episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day ended with the savage death of Dr. Vera Juarez. In fact, I already knew Vera was going to die; I’d read it in a memo in my Starz press kit — but that didn’t keep me from sitting through the last three minutes with my mouth completely agape.

Watching Vera burn alive with hundreds of other undead people was jolting on a variety of levels, and one of the most unnerving was that it evokes a vivid memory of the Nazi ovens used in the Holocaust. That was the image that haunted AfterElton.com editor Michael Jensen and me as we talked over the episode last week. He said he thought the ending was dark, even for Torchwood, and we both wondered how dark is too dark when you’re writing in the fantasy universe.

Dr. Vera Juarez comes to a horrible end

When we asked Jane Espenson if she worried that invoking the Final Solution would drive away some viewers, she told us, “I think this is a show that has already established that it’s willing to go to horrible places. This season is about what it takes to push humanity over the edge. And it’s worth remembering that history’s atrocities were committed by human beings. We didn’t want to make people turn off the TV, but we didn’t want to flinch away from what mankind can do, either.”

What’s interesting about Torchwood is the delineation between the first two seasons and the most recent two seasons. In the beginning, the show took a Monster-of-the-Week approach to storytelling. Each episode featured an alien or mythical being or time-traveling catastrophe that was soundly defeated or resolved in an hour. Children of Earth had aliens, and surely Miracle Day will reveal an alien soon, but the focus of both mini-series’ is humanity’s response to the monsters.

There are plenty of epic black and white morality stories in the world of fantasy. But for every Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, there’s a story that explores shades of grey, and there is some disgusting stuff to look at on that color spectrum.

Are Weevils evil? Of course they are; they’re sewage-dwelling aliens with giant fangs who want to destroy the earth.

And they’re imaginary. I can walk away from Weevils with my psyche unscathed.

But who’s the bad guy in Children of Earth? The 456 aliens, for starters. But how about Captain Jack? He sacrificed a busload of children to The 456 in his younger days, and then sacrificed his own grandson at the end of the series. What about John Frobisher? He OK-ed the sacrifice all those years ago, and ended the series by shooting his daughters, his wife, and himself in the head.

But Jack turned those kids over to parasitic aliens to save the rest of the world, and Frobisher killed his own family because he thought it was more humane than risking the chance that they’d be handed over to the 456.

And how about Miracle Day? Are the bad guys the governments who are handing over their ailing citizens to a private company, no questions asked, for the luxury of not having to pay for their health care? Is the bad guy a convicted child rapist and murderer?

Or is life so messy, and are motivations so complicated, that there’s no such thing as The Bad Guy?

Good or evil? Black, grey or something in between?

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