Outside the Government, Beyond the Police: On the Queerness of Torchwood

Much is often made of the queerness of the (Dr) Who-niverse’s Captain Jack Harkness. Sure, he’s played by an openly gay actor, been in same-sex and inter-species relationships, and in the new Starz/BBC collaboration the character is allowed to have on-screen gay (if not queer) sex. He’s also a fixed point in time, so he doesn’t follow the birth-marriage-kids-death narrative of what Jack Halberstam calls “family time.” He may not even have a sexual “orientation” per se: a “pansexual” with an appetite for anyone, he’s not so much inclined in a direction as he is open to all. But actually Jack’s sexuality is only a minor contributor to the show’s queerness. I don’t even think it’s a particularly interesting thing to theorize, given the bigger issues in play. Jack is the least queer thing about Torchwood.

The last two seasons of Torchwood have been scathing critiques of what heteronormative humanism. “Children of the Earth” deals directly with our fetishization of “The Child,” and “Miracle Day” is about “life,” or more specifically, how hegemony works not primarily through the taking of live, but through the incitement to life. In both these series (in the British sense of “series,” which Americans would call a “season”), Russell T. Davies, the show’s producer and writer, engages with several prominent themes in contemporary queer theory to show us (as all great scifi does) that humanity and, more significantly, humanism itself are the real monsters we need to worry about.

Never Trust a Junkie

Because it’s chronologically first, I’ll start with “Children of the Earth.” In this series, the Torchwood crew battles an alien race called the 456. The 456 take control of the Earth’s children, and demand Earthlings tithe their children to the 456—literally, they want 10% of the population of human children, an actual tithe. In return, the 456 will let the other 90% of children alone (for now). It is revealed that the 456 use the human children as drugs. When asked what they want them for, the 456 representative says “a hit.” The point, however, is not that these aliens are evil monsters because they use human children as a drug. The point is that WE humans fetishize “The Child”—an overly-idealized idea of a hyper-privileged baby—to the detriment of most actual children, adults, and non-human life forms (like the environment). As Lee Edelman explains, “The Child”

Embodies the citizen as an ideal, entitled to claim full rights to its future share in the nation’s good, though always at the cost of limiting the rights ‘real’ citizens are allowed. For the social order exists to preserve for this universalized subject, this fantasmatic Child, a notional freedom more highly valued than the actually of freedom itself, which might, after all, put at risk the Child to whom such a freedom falls due” (No Future, 11).

The whole discourse of “The Child” is a drug we use to blind ourselves to the horrible, shitty, despicable things we do to one another. More importantly, The Child is a symptom and a component of a more fundamental humanism. “Humanism” is another name for classical liberalism, which is another name for the set of concepts and values we get from the European enlightenment: the autonomous, free-willing “self,” the privileging of authenticity and wholeness, of mind over body, individual over society, etc. Humanism holds that each individual life is valuable in and of itself, and that no baby ought to be sacrificed for the “greater good.”

Thus, Jack stands out as the most queer and least human character NOT because of his sexuality, but because he, unlike the actual human beings, will overtly and directly sacrifice not just any child, but his grandchild, for the greater good. He performs an in-humanist moral calculus, and saves the world’s children in the process. Killing a child, he kills “The Child,” and thus protects actual children and adults.

The Right to Death and the Power Over Life

“Miracle Day” is all about Foucaultian biopower, the “power over life (HSv1), or “the power to ‘make’ live” (SMBD 241). Though death is often thought to be the most horrible, awful thing that could happen, this series shows that death is actually a necessary thing. Death is not the problem; life is the problem. The world goes into a huge crisis once people stop dying: we will run out of basic resources, pathogens will grow stronger and stronger (as they cannot die with their hosts), and so on. We shouldn’t be worrying about how power can “subtract” life from us, but about how power incites us to live, to, in the words of Trainspotting, “choose life.”

Though I am not current on this series (I’m only up to the episode where Jack picks up the bartender), the series has already established itself as a meditation on Foucault’s question in Society Must Be Defended: “Given that this power’s objective is essentially to make live, how can it let die? How can the power of death, the function of death, be exercised in a political system centered upon biopower?” (254). Biopower could be exercised most efficiently if people didn’t die, if there were no impedements to its “making live.” The Miracle creates optimal conditions for the functioning of biopower. Foucault argues that biopower optimizes or incites life by identifying and eliminating threats to life. By creating a “break between what must live and what must die” (254), biopower incites some to ever-“optimized” life by allowing others to decay into oblivion (they’re not so much killed or executed as left to rot away). Foucault identifies race as the primary “break” between those incited to life and those left to die. It will be interesting to see both (a) how “Miracle Day” figures this break, and (b) what role, if any, race will play in the series.

But to return to the idea of Torchwood’s queerness and anti-humanism, “Miracle Day” critiques the idea that life is an inherently good thing, that we should all, as Roy the replicant says in Blade Runner, “want more life.” The postmillennial (i.e., RTD and SM) Who-niverse generally portrays its immortal characters as melancholy figures who can’t seem to get over the death that they will never have.