Let’s just get this over with from the get go: this episode involves a gas-like alien that kills men by having sex with them. This episode quickly dashes anyone’s hope that Torchwood would be just another version of Doctor Who. (I suspect that’s part of the reason why they decided to create an alien that kills through sex, not exactly a concept one can use in Doctor Who.) No, as far as I know-Christian theology isn’t exactly concerned with sex killing aliens, however, Christianity places a heavy emphasis on forgiveness. While many denominations-especially some of the more evangelical and fundamentalist types emphasize stress guilt and shame to the point where forgiveness is overshadowed, some of the mainline and progressive denominations have the opposite problem. In an attempt to present a more loving God they often seek to present a God of radical forgiveness and acceptance, yet perhaps without realizing it they instead present a God out of out of touch with the consequences that thoughtlessness, mistakes, and sins can have. While evangelicals and fundamentalists can present a vengeful and unloving God, consumed with wrath, mainliners and progressives present a God who simply seems to exist to ensure that the status quo does not upset or made to feel uncomfortable.
On Gwen Cooper’s first day as an official member of Torchwood she accidentally sets loose an alien of unknown origin. While Torchwood does not know anything about the alien, their experience tells them that whatever was unleashed as the potential to cause chaos, destruction, and death. Gwen, immediately feels guilt and while Owen, being Owen gives her a hard time while Captain Jack seems to brush off the incident.
GWEN: I mean, it was just gas, wasn’t it? That can’t be too bad, can it?
OWEN: Right, because gas never did anyone any harm.
JACK: On the plus side, we’ve got good evidence, relatively undamaged.
OWEN: On the downside, there’s an alien on the loose. We don’t know where it is, why it’s here or what it’s going to do.
TOSH: Give her a break.
GWEN: God, this has been the worst first day ever.
JACK: We all make mistakes. Get over it. Now, we find and recover whatever came out of there.
On surface, Captain’s Jack’s reaction is understandable. They do not have any time to waste playing the blame game nor being consumed by guilt. Yet as the episode unravels one begins to see that while pragmatism may play a role in how Torchwood operates and reacts, they have also forgotten what it means to not be consumed by their job.
Shortly after the alien is released, she claims her first victim, a young man.
JACK: We’ll need a body from the cryo-chamber, close match for the dead guy’s appearance. Disfigure the face, dump it someplace remote, make it look like a suicide attempt.
GWEN: You have a stash of bodies?
GWEN: What about his family? You can’t just fake his death.
JACK: You want to tell his family he died screwing an alien?
While Jack clearly has a point that telling the young man’s family members how he really died would not be a good idea-what is really striking is Jack’s blasé attitude toward the whole situation. One understands why Jack does not want the family to know the truth-yet the way he chooses to have the death covered up is to take another body and have it positioned as if the death was caused by a SUICIDE. While any form of death is devastating, believing someone you loved died from suicide can wreck one with helplessness and guilt. He saves the family from knowing the embarrassing truth of how their son died- but he condemns them to a lifetime of guilt and shame.
GWEN: It’s my fault. If it weren’t for me, he’d still be alive.
JACK: That’ll get you nowhere, that thinking. At least now we know a little more. The alien’s taken on a host body
GWEN: We can’t let her kill again.
Again Jack dismisses Gwen’s concerns. Jack prevent her from becoming consumed by guilt yet he also prevents her from wrestling with the consequences of her actions. Inadvertently he is encouraging her to develop a coldness where mistakes and the consequences of one’s actions (intended or not) are an afterthought. While the episode does not specify how much time has passed between the first episode and this one, it is striking to note how the group seems to have moved on from the death of Suzie-someone who they had worked with for years. While such a transition is easy for the viewer-who barely knew Suzie-the transition should be much more difficult for the original team members.
Now one may be wondering, “well what does this have to do with forgiveness and progressive Christian theology?” Progressive Christianity seeks to present a God that is radically loving, not one that appears as cold as Captain Jack. They want to avoid the excesses that their evangelical and conservative peers when it comes to guilt. Yet at times the forgiveness that seems to be offered is “cheap.” Like Captain Jack, they want to avoid people becoming consumed with guilt, but inadvertently they also prevent people from wrestling with the ramifications of their actions. There are some things we should feel guilt about. Religion can make us fear shame of who we are or irrationally guilty for mistakes we have made or sins we have committed. Yet at the other extreme, religion can offer a cheap kind of grace that simply serves to make one feel better about one’s self-it does not lead to true healing-for the people hurt nor for the “perpetrators” (for lack of a better word).
Towards the end of the episode- Jack seems to change course.
GWEN: Use me. Leave Carys. Take my body as host. Just let her live.
GWEN: I’m stronger than she is. I’ll last longer. You might be able to save me, I don’t know.
TOSH: Jack. You can’t let her.
JACK: Like she said, she’s responsible for this.
GWEN: Come on, then. Do it. Leave her.
In reality, he manages to trap the alien before it takes control of Gwen. Though it was part of an alternative plan, it is the only time he concedes that Gwen needs to take some sort of responsibility for what occurred. In a similar vein, I am NOT suggesting that all talk of forgiveness be thrown out the window or that talk needs to jump to the opposite extreme. But I think Christianity loses a distinct part of its theology when forgiveness is portrayed as something to make a person feel better instead of providing healing and wholeness for all.