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Wednesday 14 April 2010

Torchwood: Goodbye Ianto!

Posted in: Worth Checking Out
By Craig Young - 4th March 2010

On last night's Torchwood: Children of Earth episode, Ianto Jones, Captain Jack Harkness' lover, died [see the video clip below]. This has caused no end of controversy across Torchwood fandom and elsewhere…

Defeated? Ianto & Jack on Torchwood last night.
Opinion is divided on the necessity of Ianto's death, with two divergent streams of thought. One strand is the dramatic necessity argument, and goes something like this: Torchwood is a darker, more adult series than its stablemate Doctor Who usually is. In its fictional universe, people die and don't return to life, unlike Jack. In the first two series, this fate befell Suzie Costello, Owen Harper and Toshiko Sato. Yes, okay, I am aware that technically, Suzie and Owen died twice, but the second time was permanent. If Torchwood wanted to earn its credentials as a quality dramatic series, then there can be no happy endings. Ianto's death is personally devastating for Jack, and leads to another heartbreaking dilemma in the final episode.

Just as Iphigenia's sacrifice at the hands of Agamemnon was necessary to set in train the events of Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy of plays, and just as Ophelia's madness, suicide and accidental death led to the climatic duel between Hamlet and Laertes which ended in the death of both and the downfall of his murderous uncle Claudius, so Ianto's death can be argued to be a dramatic neccessity which adds to character and narrative development.

Like Torchwood creator Russell Davies, Joss Whedon made an identical argument in a parallel case, the dramatic closure of Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that series, lesbian witch Willow Rosenberg also lost her lover, Tara MacLay, to a random bullet ricochet. In rage, pain, grief and despair, Dark Willow became a ruthless killer and sought to destroy the world after the death of her beloved. It should be noted that Whedon had decided that this was going to happen to Willow long before the character came out as lesbian after she fell in love with Tara in that series fourth season. Dramatic necessity compelled this.

Is this a valid argument? It has its detractors, who adopt the 'falling piano' outlet. This is premised on anti-homophobic principles. It asks why it is that lesbian and gay couples can never be seen to have long-term, fulfilled relationships and form and raise families of our own. We have 'tragic fates' because "we are" sinful/deviant/abnormal/pathological and don't deserve happiness.

There is a nuanced version of this argument that tries to accommodate the imperatives of narrative sequence. It agrees that there should be darker developments if this befits the fictional universe in which the work of fiction is set, but asks why it has to be the lesbian or gay characters whose relationships are abruptly destroyed and who are left bereaved.

Fanfiction authors have their own particular variant version of this question, called the AU (alternate universe). It asks what would have happened to the sequence of events if a key event had turned out differently than it did in 'canonical' continuity. In Torchwood and Buffy AU fanfiction, it means rewriting the conclusions of Children of Earth Episode Four and "Seeing Red," Tara's death episode. Instead of Ianto and Tara, (say) Gwen Cooper and Xander Harris, straight core characters, die in their place. Given that (like Eve Myles herself!), Gwen was pregnant at the time, her death would have added a dimension of particular cruelty and depravity to the 456 and their British government collaborators.

Dramatic necessity proponents, including Russell Davies and Joss Whedon, point out that Jack and Willow move on with their lives. In Buffy Season Seven, Willow grieved long and hard for Tara, and still does so, but she found new love with Kennedy, a lesbian pre- vampire slayer. As for Jack, in the Tenth Doctor's final episodes, The End of Time, the wounded Doctor engineers a meeting between Jack and Midshipman Alonso Frame (Voyage of the Damned, and played by openly gay actor Russell Tovey).

Needless to say, neither Tara or Ianto loyalists have been particularly happy at these denouements. However, I assume Russell Davies will depict Jack's grieving and mourning process in Torchwood Series Four, currently underway. In any case, is it any less homophobic to have Jack and Willow so devastated that they're unable to form enduring relationships after the traumatic loss of their lovers?

In any case, Whedon and Davies might well protest that they're not the only parties who've done so. Take Babylon 5 in the mid-nineties, for instance. The 23rd Century's space station SIC, Commander Susan Ivanova, came out as bisexual after she fell for telepath Talia Winters. Cruelly, though, "Talia" was an implant personality established for espionage purposes by the nefarious Psi Corps. Telepath Lyta Alexander disclosed the facade and Ivanova lost Talia forever. Worse still, bisexual Ivanova then fell for Marcus Cole, a male resistance fighter. However, he sacrificed his life to save hers, leading her to become a career soldier and unwilling to enter intimate relationships. Being bisexual shouldn't have to mean that you can experience two different forms of heartache. At least Willow and Jack's current situations are an improvement on poor Susan Ivanova's plight.

To date, Six Feet Under and Bad Girls are the only two dramatic television series in which lesbian and gay characters were allowed to have satisfactory resolutions to their relationships. In the case of Bad Girls, Wing Governor Helen Stewart and Nikki Wade were allowed a satisfactory denouement when Nikki's appeal was successful and she was released from Larkhill Prison to be with the woman she loved. As for Six Feet Under, in its final episode, David Fisher and Keith Charles settled down together, formed a family with two adopted African-American children and later either married or had a civil union. They had several decades of happiness together- that is, until Keith was murdered as a security guard at a holdup, leading David widowed. However, that didn't occur until 2029. In any case, that was far longer than his hapless straight brother Nate, whose marriage to Brenda only lasted several months before his death from a cerebral haemorrhage.

As for New Zealand drama, don't ask about Shortland Street. I stopped watching it in disgust after serial killer Joey Henderson ended the life of Jay, widowing her wife Maia (who is currently moving on after a period of mental illness). It isn't the first time that happened with the series occasional lesbian and gay supporting cast either. With the exception of one lesbian couple, who eloped together, gay male characters have either been exposed to HIV or murdered.

Nip/Tuck deserves some mention here. Apart from anaesthetist Liz Cruz, an out lesbian, Julia Macnamara came out and got involved with Olivia Lord (Ellen de Generes wife Portia di Rossi in real life). It didn't last- Olivia was accidentally killed by her own unbalanced daughter, Eden, leaving Julia widowed. However, it has to be said that most of the straight relationships in that series areworse shipwrecks. Witness the Christian/Kimber and Sean/Teddy storylines, about to take a tragic turn in future episodes of the penultimate series, now playing on TV2. For that matter, Buffy Summers' straight relationships ended badly and Xander Harris lost his partner, Anya, in the Season Seven series finale of Buffy.

So, which side of this debate is valid? Are there still far too few lesbian and gay characters and relationships onscreen to resort to violent dramatic resolutions and bereavement? Are calls for character retention unwarranted and counter to the imperatives of dramatic necessity, which, however, might be resolved through alternative narrative outcomes? Or is it acceptable if straight characters don't get their own happy endings either, or if the bereaved characters mourn, heal and then move on? You decide.

On the video below: Torchwood's Ianto Jones dies.

Craig Young - 4th March 2010