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Morality and Immortality in the Who-niverse

Immortality is a quality of gods and monsters. Zeus, Odin, and the monotheistic God are all immortal, but so are vampires, zombies, and the devil (Voldemort did try his damnedest, though). It is then unsurprising that a tension between moral and immoral immortality would appear in works that feature the possibility of living forever. The Who-niverse offers three examples of moral immortality– Jack Harkness and Owen Harper from Torchwood and the good Doctor himself. These men represent three models of immortality, the god-like invincible, the zombie, and the shape-shifter. Within the narrative of the two shows, these characters are our heroes. They certainly can be flawed heroes, but they are also sympathetic and endearing and engender no small amount of identification from the audience.

Note: Chock full of spoilers
Immortality is an affront to the natural order. If a thing cannot die, then can it be alive? The general consensus would be no. Before Stephenie Meyer’s hijacked vampire lore, this was what turned humans into the pale demons we all know – they cheated death and chose a depraved everlasting life. The choice of immortality is a cowardly choice, but one that involves active participation on the part of the soon-to-be vampire.

The traditional process of transformation shows a human drinking vampire blood as a way to be reborn as a one. In these legends and episodes of Buffy, the person is on the brink of death, either by natural causes or vampire attack, and averts the natural order by biting back. Vampire blood, then, prolongs existence, but subverts God’s will. This is why vampires are shown to recoil at the sign of the cross and be burned by holy water– the soul that they lack is inexorably linked to the markers of religiosity.

The importance of agency in immortality is a point that is brought up again and again in the Who-niverse. The Doctor is able to regenerate with a younger face but Dr. Lazarus is not. Jack’s body is impervious to lasting harm, but John Lumic’s attempts to banish physical pain and preserve the intellect of man must end in fire. And both Rose and Jack can bestow immortality on a friend, but Joshua Naismith cannot do the same for his daughter without recurring the horrors of the Time War.

What makes certain characters “moral” is their lack of choice in their immortality. On Doctor Who, Jack is made immortal by Rose Tyler and the “Bad Wolf” in the final episode of Season One. In the second season of Torchwood, Owen is resurrected with the “resurrection gauntlet” by Jack. And the Doctor is essentially immortal by virtue of being a Time Lord.

Owen’s form of immortality is essentially that of a zombie, albeit one that does not crave flesh and/or brains. After being brought back from death by Jack and the “risen mitten,” Owen finds himself stuck in limbo between life and death. His body is nothing more than a mass of unfeeling bones and flesh. He cannot eat, sleep, or have sex, activities he describes as his favorite things. As Owen noted, Jack gets to live forever, while he gets to die forever.

The Torchwood Team

Jack’s existence is the closest to the literal understanding of immortality. He is unable to truly die (for what is death that only lasts several minutes?). His body heals itself, memorably erasing a gunshot wound after Suzie Costello shot him in the head in the first episode of Torchwood, “Everything Changes.” Jack has been shot, stabbed, poisoned, incinerated, exterminated, mauled by Weevils, and, most cruelly, buried alive by his brother in the year 27 CE after which he continuously suffocated to death for almost 2000 years. In the first season, when asked about his immortality by Gwen Cooper, he says, “One day I’ll find a doctor, the right sort of doctor, and maybe he can explain it, but until then”¦”


In the episode “Utopia,” Jack continues to expose his confusion over his existence, replying to the Doctor’s question of, “Do you want to die?” with, “I thought I did.” And indeed, after Jack returns to Torchwood Three after The Year That Never Was, he is more content in his immortality. He brushes off questions of if the Doctor was able to “fix” him (that is, make him mortal) with, “What’s to fix? You don’t mess with this level of perfection.” This comfort in his existence may be because of his romantic relationship with Ianto or it may be because he no longer sees everlasting life as a secret burden.

I'm inclined to agree with him about that perfection thing...hubba hubba

Prior to the episode “End of Days,” Gwen was the only living member of Torchwood who knew of Jack’s immortality. In “End of Days,” not only does Owen shoot and seemingly kill him, the demon Abaddon, who feeds on the life force of any living thing that his shadow touches, drains him of life. Forced to accept Jack’s immortality and seemingly permanent death on the same day, the team decides that this death is final. They prepare his body for storage in the Torchwood morgue. Gwen, unwilling to accept that Jack is actually dead, sits by his body for three days. Finally, giving up her vigil, she kisses Jack and walks away. Unsurprisingly, this kiss brings Jack back to life. While it is difficult to ignore the Eastertide nature of Jack’s resurrection, it is even harder to overlook the message the writers are trying to send: love is worth living for.

The importance of love is certainly a worthwhile sentiment. Throughout the five seasons of new-Who and Torchwood’s three, we see myriad characters living, dying, or killing for love. But while love might be worth living for, it makes to possibility of living forever heartbreaking. In the Doctor Who episode “School Reunion,” the Doctor makes one of his frequent references to the “curse of the Time Lords,” saying, “I don’t age. I regenerate. But humans decay; you wither and you die. Imagine watching that happen to someone that you”¦ You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on. Alone.” This line serves as an explanation for why the Doctor refused to requite his love for Rose until he was able to give her a mortal version of himself.

Jack’s horndog personality is perhaps why he is the only one of the three who finds sex and romance an upside to living forever. Unlike Owen, whose lack of a blood flow makes romance impossible, and the Doctor, who more or less shuns romantic entanglements, Jack tangles with anything. The defining relationship Jack has on Torchwood is with Ianto Jones. When Ianto dies in “Day Four” of Children of Earth, it seems that Jack loses both his lust for life and those living it. After Ianto’s death, Jack makes the difficult, and morally questionable, choice to use and sacrifice his grandson as a weapon to defeat an alien race. It seems, at the end of this series, Jack returns to his earlier ambivalence of his immortality.

Owen’s romantic narrative is perhaps the most tragic. The long-time object of affection for his colleague Toshiko Sato, he agrees to go on a date with her mere hours before he is murdered. After his death and resurrection, Tosh continues to show an interest in a relationship with Owen, frequently reminding him that she loves him. Fed up with the pressure from her, Owen bursts into a rage:

Owen Harper, post mortem

I’m broken, Tosh! I don’t work. I’ve got no heartbeat, no feelings, no tears! I have got nothing to give you! Do you understand that? Maybe that’s what you want! Maybe you want somebody who’s as screwed up as you! Who’s twisted and screwed up like you are. You want to see broken? Do you want to see broken, Tosh?

At the end of this rant, Owen bends back his right ring and pinky fingers until they break, as a way to prove that he is not worthy of love. Immortality redeems Owen. He goes from a character who uses alien technology to seduce uninterested men and women to one who uses it to convince a suicidal woman that life, while painful, is worthwhile. And when his body is disintegrated by radioactive waste, he says to Tosh, who is also dying, “We never did get that date, did we, you and me? We sort of missed each other. It was my fault. I didn’t notice until it was too late. I’m sorry.”

Of course, the concepts of “eternity” and immortality are not fixed. We believe these characters can live forever because we are told they can. We have seen them survive impossible injuries and appear unscathed in the next scene (Owen’s broken fingers being a notable exception).

In the cases of these three men, immortality is not eternal. Time Lords have a finite number of regenerations, 12, and could permanently die if their injuries were to sudden or severe to allow for regeneration (before the BBC amended the 12 regenerations rule in the Sarah Jane Adventures episode “Death of the Doctor”). Owen dies off screen in the Torchwood episode “Exit Wounds.” And it is hinted that Jack lives on for 5 billion years as the Face of Boe, but eventually dies in the episode “Gridlock.”

Doesn't look a day over 900

Since we see the deaths of two of these men, and are aware of the possibility of the third, are they really immortal? Is immortality defined as being absolutely unable to ever die or a temporary state of being impervious to fatal injuries? Does Jack have an astronomical, but finite, number of deaths? Is Owen no more than a zombie, only viable until there is not part of him left that could sustain consciousness?

Twice in the first season of Torchwood, the “integrity” of Jack’s immortality is brought into question. The most dramatic is Jack’s showdown with Abaddon, but the first instance is in the episode “Cyberwoman.” In it, Jack is twice electrocuted by Ianto’s disturbingly scantily-clad abomination of a cyberwoman girlfriend. Of course, he recovers (as this episode is only the 4th of the first season), and goes on to save the day. At the end of the episode, he and Gwen discuss the attacks:

Gwen: When she had hold of you, I thought, just for a moment, I thought that maybe you could  die after all.
Jack: Wanna know a secret? So did I. And just for a second, I felt so alive.

Really, Jack? You weren’t sure you’d survive electrocution, but being blown up from the inside and reassembling your scorched pieces is no problem?

More like Time Lord Unsympathetic

By reminding the audience that immortality is fallible and to some extent unwanted, the writers ensure that we can still identify with these three men. And perhaps that is the ultimate answer to the immortality question. We want characters who struggle with their lot in life, who have more dimensions than can be read in words on a page. And we quickly lose our sympathy when immortality becomes assured and the characters complacent. Was David Tennant’s Time Lord ever less endearing as when he was on his “Time Lord Victorious” jag in “Waters of Mars,” or when he seemed genuinely conflicted about saving Wilf’s life at the cost of his own in “The End of Time?” And it was Jack’s hubris that led to Ianto’s death in “Day Four,” breaking the heart of every audience member. We love these characters because they are reflections of ourselves. They struggle with their existence and often fail to live up to their own standards. And even if their universes are filled with sonic screwdrivers, vortex manipulators, or alien cologne, we see and recognize the mundane and true. By watching these men every week, we know them and their immortality becomes only one facet of their character. And through that, we are able to accept it.


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