Yet again a television programme causes much consternation among the members of my family. This time it’s Torchwood, which my husband and son are watching. Not me, I know enough about my television viewing preferences not to go anywhere near it. I have a Cassandra complex as it is, and will predict apocalypse on very little evidence; I really don’t need encouragement like Torchwood to see disaster looming on all possible horizons. Anyway, I was reading peacefully on Saturday afternoon, when the menfolk came through to disturb me with their ongoing argument. Apparently Captain Jack (John Barrowman in my head – he is always himself regardless of the drama and I just wait for him to burst into song, a big toothy smile on his face), has been shot in the chest and is dying in the back of a car, after a bungled escape attempt. He was running off having disabled a piece of alien technology that the CIA was investigating, and which Jack realised was capable of wreaking havoc with civilisation As We Know It.
This is where the episode ended and my husband and son had very different ideas as to what should happen next. My husband’s suggestion was that Jack should be taken back to the place he had escaped from, and reunited with the alien technology which, it seems, might have the power to save his life. This because, in his opinion, Jack is needed to prevent Miracle Day from happening. This must mean something to people who watch Torchwood; I have no idea why, but apparently Miracle Day must not happen, and you’ll just have to take my word on that. My son was horrified by this solution. He felt that the power of the alien technology to destroy civilisation As We Know It should never be witnessed by the CIA officials who would then behave in wildly irresponsible ways with the knowledge, thus hastening the end of the world. He felt Jack should be taken to a hospital, and risk his chances with the NHS, and if he died, ah well, tant pis. There were plenty of other people capable of preventing Miracle Day from happening.
What this all boiled down to, the implausible meanderings of Torchwood to one side, was a debate about saving the many versus saving the special one. Are individuals ever special enough to warrant the (potential) sacrifice of ordinary others? Or should we always sacrifice the one for the greater safety of the masses?
‘So you’re saying that we’ll save Jack, even if it means unleashing a technology on the world that will inevitably destroy it,’ my son said accusingly.
‘The world’s screwed anyway,’ Mister Litlove replied. ‘Jack is the best chance they have of preventing Miracle Day from happening, so they should do everything possible to save him.’
‘Can you believe him?’ my son appealed to me. ‘In what possible situation would you save one person regardless of the danger to everyone else?’
I thought about it. ‘I have to admit I’d probably save you,’ I said.
‘Even if you knew everyone else would die? Even if you knew I would probably die a short time later?’
I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I never said it was a rational choice.’ I winked at Mister Litlove. ‘Best not to ask him what he’d do with his ageing parents in a similar situation.’
‘Well, duh! For the rest of the world!’ said my son, in some indignation.
‘Yes but there’s nothing to say that the world certainly will be destroyed by the alien technology,’ Mister Litlove said. ‘Lots of things could happen to prevent it. It’s only a possibility.’
‘Sure it might not happen,’ said my son, ‘like you might win the lottery five times in a row.’
Talking it over later, it was his certainty that we found intriguing. Was this a teenage thing? Certainly I can remember at his age feeling very black and white about any issues put in front of me. Or was it a reflection of the society we live in, in which we are not encouraged to distinguish levels of risk, only to react fiercely when we see risk approaching? Or did he have a real point, and the rights of the individual should be put to one side whenever the concerns of a whole community are at stake?
It was also interesting how strongly my son felt. When we were all dispersing once again to get on with our Saturday jobs, he cornered me in the kitchen.
‘I’m going to make sure Dad never gets to decide the fate of the universe,’ he said. ‘Or else we’re all doomed.’
‘Don’t worry, darling,’ I said. ‘I’m sure the two of us can hold him down, when the time comes.’
Although in fact, I had no idea which side of the argument I agreed with. In all honesty, I felt the end of the world would not be so kind as to signal itself from a distance, and that it was unlikely there would be any element of choice in the matter – I told you I had a Cassandra complex. The rules of narrative suggest that in Torchwood next week, both Jack and the world will be saved by some ridiculous plot twist. But as for the special one vs the many, I don’t know what to think. Is there ever a good answer to that one?