Star Wars was my first movie, a metaphor for tolerance if not celebration of difference if ever there was one. I’ve explored ideas about social structures through science fiction ever since.
So when Torchwood began it was a no-brainer I’d be watching.
Aliens. Gadgetry. Explicit and regular examination of gender and power. Probably the hottest sex scenes, with all manner of couplings, I’ve seen on a mainstream television show, because desire is explicit by everyone participating. Set in Wales, so able to gently critique England as the centre of the universe, and using that as a plot mechanism, repeatedly, to explore issues of class. Every single main character exploring attraction at one point or another to the same and different genders.
Season 3 is remarkable. Brutally stripped back plot spoiler: Aliens want to take 10% of Earth’s children as recreational drugs. They will release fatal viruses if Earth’s leaders don’t agree. They can do this; they have the technology.
What makes it remarkable is for the first time, Torchwood turns their beam on the machinations of the state responding to the crisis, in particular, the British government. A kinda sci-fi imagining of how western governments might react to such a dilemma.
We don’t come out well. The UK government had authorised, in 1965, a gift of 12 children to the same aliens, from a children’s home because “no one will miss them.”
The theme is extended to present day. First British ministers offer asylum seeking children in detention centres. When this isn’t enough for the aliens, the British state decides they cannot risk the children who will work in our hospitals and our schools, run our country. But the Deputy Prime Minister says some children matter less:
“If we can’t identify the lowest achieving 10% of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables for?”
So the army rounds up children at school. Many, many parents keep their children home. The army rolls into working class areas, into council estates, and pulls children away from screaming parents.
The British Ministers don’t like what they are doing. There is no joy. But there is the ability to decide that some people are worth less than others. That some people matter less. And therefore, the ability to sanction the unspeakable.
This series was almost unwatchable. As with all good sci-fi, the issues it was exploring were only human. How do we decide worth? What is the power of the state for? When it comes down to it, where do you stand?
One of the many scenes which made me cry featured unarmed men on one council estate running at soldiers kitted out with batons, guns and riot gear, to try and buy their children time to run away. And one police officer, watching in horror, taking off his uniform to fight with the men he knew, rather than stay safe with the state.
Fantastical? Not so much. Can we really say, in Aotearoa today, that all of our children matter the same to the state?
The most obvious parallel is New Zealand armed police rolling into Tuhoe, treating the children of Ruatoki with absolute disdain. Police boarding schools buses, terrifying kids, detaining them illegally. It’s hard to imagine similar actions being signed off for buses headed to private schools in predominantly Pakeha areas.
But there are other parallels too, where the state might not be clad in riot gear. About 270,000 New Zealand children live in poverty, according to the Children’s Commissioner. These levels go up and down, depending on the state’s actions:
That’s a lot of our children, living in poverty, in families where their caregivers earn too little or the state allowances for looking after children are insufficient.
When the state rolls up to reduce real access to state allowances for those parenting, or introduce new measures to allow employers to pay less than a living wage for parents, or sells off state assets meaning essential services like power cost more, what we are really doing is treating some children as less important than other children.
It’s got a prettier face than Torchwood. But the psychological process is the same, make no mistake. Distance. Othering. Outright denial. Killing off empathy.
In Torchwood, the British government start using “units” to describe the children they are sending to the aliens as living happy pills. At Ruatoki, we talked about “terrorists” to justify that school bus being boarded. And the language and images we use to describe the poor? Subjective cartoon, anyone?
The motto of Torchwood Season One is: “The twenty-first century is when everything changes. And you’ve got to be ready.” Prescient? Or cheesy beyond compare, allowing those of us that way inclined another chance to gasp admiringly at John Barrowman? Not for the first time, I’m going to choose both.