Television: Bloody Torchwood

This post is part of a series about representations of disability in movies, television shows, and books. They contain spoilers.

[Originally published as part of Blog Against Disablism Day, May 2009]

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009If you haven’t seen Torchwood, I’m not entirely sure how to describe it. It’s a Doctor Who spinoff where Captain Jack Harkness and his band of misfits battle to keep the Earth safe from aliens arriving in Cardiff, Wales. There is a Rift in Time and Space that is the Plot Device when needed – aliens pop out of it and, sometimes, people get sucked into it.

It’s also a show where sex and flirtation are part of the plot. Episodes have revolved entirely around sex, such as the one with “sex pollen”, but sexuality, flirtations, and explicit sexual relationships – both same sex and opposite sex – have all been main or side plots. One throw-away line that’s often quoted ’round the fandom is recurring guest star (and ex-lover of Jack’s) Captain John Hart’s comments about how attractive he finds a poodle.

But of course no one in Torchwood would ever flirt with someone with a disability. They’ve never had the chance – no one with a visible disability has ever been on the show.

Oh wait! I tell a lie! Of course someone who has a disability and is deformed has been on the show! I totally forgot. Let me tell you about it.

In Adrift, an episode in late Season 2, Gwen Cooper realises that several people have gone missing in Cardiff, and slowly starts to piece together that they’ve been “taken by the Rift”. The episode focuses on the story of one mother, Nikki Bevan, whose son had gone missing seven months earlier. It shows her grief, and her obsession with finding out what happened to her son. She’s loving and emotionally invested in the search, in contrast to the growing hardness of viewer-standin Gwen.

I’ll skip a lot of summary, which you can read at Wikipedia should you wish.

Guess what! They find Nikki’s son! He comes back disfigured, having seen into the heart of a dark star, and has aged 40 years, but he’s still her son. However, Jack has been keeping him in an underground lair with no windows and concrete, unpainted walls. All the doors are locked from the outside, so the inmates can’t possibly get out. They’re even transported to the dungeon with bags over their heads so they can’t see where they’re going, and no one can see them. And they’re left there, locked away from the world. For their own good.

Against Jack’s orders, Gwen brings Nikki to see her son. Nikki is at first horrified at what remains of the boy she knew, but quickly starts insisting that she wants to care for him. That she loves him. That she’s the best person to be with him as he recovers. He’s her son, after all, and even if she has to keep him away from the windows, she’ll love him and take care of him.

Until the screaming starts, of course. Then she can’t cope. She can’t ever cope with someone who screams like that. She runs out of the room, and the next time we see her she’s putting away all of his things. Now, he’s not her son anymore. There’s no turning back. He screams, because he’s seen horrors, and she can’t imagine this thing is her son.

In her final scene, she makes Gwen promise not to tell anyone else what happened to their children, because not knowing is better than knowing your child will spend the rest of hir natural life with a disability.

You may have noticed throughout my write-up I haven’t referred to Nikki’s child by name. That’s because the story isn’t about him. He’s a prop to tell us about Gwen, about Jack, about Nikki. Once he’s revealed as being discardable, we never see him again.

I wrote about my first, gutted reaction to this episode when I watched it, but have never been able to get over it. I want to participate in the general fandom-related squee and enjoyment, but all I can think of is this show thinks having a child with a disability, even a severe one, is worse than having a child disappear. All I can think of is the complete ignorance of the experiences of families with disabilities, whose children do scream and scream and scream, or do some other harming activity, because of their disability, and their parents love them anyway. I think about how this is another episode of television that’s used a person with a disability as a way for the non-disabled to learn something about themselves.

I think about how they decided disability and deformity would be their stand-in for horrible and unimaginable.

That’s what ablism is. It’s implying that a mother is making a huge sacrifice by choosing to interact with her son who has a disability. It’s saying that having a disability is the worst thing that can happen to someone, that it makes them so horrible they should be locked away. It’s not even thinking to add a ten second scene where Gwen, the so-called heart of the show, tells Jack that he will buy some bloody paint for the walls, that he’ll put some carpet down, that he’ll move these people (they are still people, Jack) to a better place, because they don’t deserve to be locked away from fresh air and sky.

His name was Jonah.


  1. There are tests for humanity, you know. Objective and scientifical. Sometimes something with a roughly human shape and born to human parents isn’t actually human. Sometimes something that once was is damaged and becomes other than human.

    It’s best just to look the other way. Let the professionals handle it.

  2. I’m currently making my way through Series 2. Thank you for the warning.

  3. I’ve blogged about this episode too (here). I’m interested in how we approached this episode from different points of view but found it equally problematic. You approached it as a metaphor for parenting children with disabilities, I approached it as a metaphor for how society responds to mental illness. I think we were both right.

  4. It’s not that I disagree with you regarding how problematic the episode is (and btw, I also went the “mental illness” route rather than the “physical disability” route) – I just think that that’s the point. Torchwood is all about people doing rather nasty horrible things – sometime for good reasons (saving the Earth!) sometimes for bad ones (finding the Doctor, attracting women, being lonely, saving a half-Cyberman girlfriend etc.).

    The show is all about a bunch of people with rather rotten judgement (oh JACK) running about the place and walking a thin line between saving the planet and destroying it. I don’t think we’re supposed to look at them – or their behavior – as a model for anything or anyone, other than the dark humanity often turns to.

    And, unfortunately and horribly, people often ARE unable to deal with mental illness (or physical disability). Parents abandon children, marriages fall apart… it ain’t pretty, it ain’t right, but it’s HUMAN in the same way so many other nasty things are. Torchwood is all about the nasty humanity.

  5. Gillian,

    Yeah, no, I’m well aware of what happens when there’s a child with a disability in a family – I spent some time working in a children’s hospital as a secretary and I’ve never forgotten some of the things the doctors would say about family dynamics and how long they figured a marriage would last. It’s pretty depressing stuff.

    I think when Jack does something the creators of the show think is wrong, they make it really really clear that it’s wrong. There’s always *someone*, in my experience, who tells him that this is wrong, even if he’s not able to see it himself at the time.

    And, I don’t appreciate people with disabilities being used as props to be Very Special Lessons for other people. Not when it happens in t.v., and not when it happens in real life. Jonah wasn’t a character, he was a plot point, and I really resent that.

  6. Honestly, I think RTD was just warming up for COE with that episode (and some others, but yes, this one is incredibly, incredibly striking in it’s horribleness). And what I mean is, like COE, it seems to be about how FUCKED UP the world is, and the people in it. I was shocked, and horrified, by the ending for Jonah in this, but like others have pointed out, it was like, jesus christ, some people really would turn their backs because THEY can’t deal and how FUCKED UP is that? I thought there was a real calling out of privilege in that episode. Similar, though not as easy to understand I think, as what he did in COE. Because yes, we all know the first thing people in the leadership would do is start deciding which kids we can honestly do without. And we know they ALREADY DO THIS.

    What is FUCKED UP about both stories though, as much as I do think it’s worth having stories that point out how FUCKED UP our society is in it’s hierarchies of WHO MATTERS is that in both cases the people being exploited (Jonah, and, well, every child on earth, respectively) were turned into plot devices and operated with little to no agency.

    I liked that the stories were told, but I think they could be done MUCH BETTER. Is, I guess, my conclusion.
    .-= whatsername┬┤s last blog ..Michigan Wants to Make a Doctor’s Note Mandatory for Acupuncture =-.