Torchwood and the Death Penalty

As I promised in my last blog, I am keeping up on these weekly posts!  I still have not decided whether to set an official weekly posting day; I guess we’ll see what day I end up posting most frequently and go from there.  Anywho, I thought today I’d write about something that has been on my mind ever since I took a human rights course two years ago this fall: The Death Penalty.  It’s not a particularly light subject, so I thought, what better way to talk about an issue than through the lens of television and popular culture? Okay, okay, give it half a chance. I’m just as curious to see how this turns out as you are (despite your lack of interest, pretend to be just as curious as I am, for my sake?)

As is a typical and unsurprising habit of mine, I have been using my free time this summer to get caught up on several television shows (Marvelous use of time, isn’t it?–Well perhaps for this post’s sake, yes).  One show that I have become particularly keen on is Doctor Who.  In fact, I fell in love with the show so much that at Christmas time (after only having seen the first season of the new “regeneration” of the show–2005, ninth Doctor: Christopher Eccleston) I got so excited about all the Doctor Who gifts my sister-in-law was giving to my brother that I unintentionally made both her and my brother feel bad about not having bought any Doctor Who items for me (so, if anyone reading this would like to send me a sympathy sonic screwdriver, I would have no objections).

Jumping forward to now, having caught up on the most recent episode of the new series, I’ve returned to finish the one spin-off series of the show that I’ve started: Torchwood.  Now, there are several Doctor Who spin-off series–seven or eight official ones, not counting the numerous special appearances, special episodes, and special-everythings that include Comic Relief and other charities, comedy shows with guest appearances, and even a very special episode of Britain’s “The Weakest Link” (I spend way too much time bored on Youtube). Torchwood, however, is the only spin-off that I have so far allowed myself the time to get into. Eventually, assuming I don’t ever let my inner child and sci-fi nerd grow up, I will watch all the rest, and then I will become the most Whovian, nerdy, knowledgeable Doctor Who fan around (or at least, that’s what I will obnoxiously and–unfortunately–uninhibitedly claim to everyone).

Alright, I know, now you’re wondering: How in the world does this relate to the death penalty? And why?

Well, to first satisfy your leeriness about watching the show, if you were considering it before I tied it so desperately to this controversial subject, I don’t think the writers ever intended the show to make any statement about the death penalty. As a typical English major would do, I’ve taken it upon myself to connect the dots between what was said and done, and what no one ever probably wanted it to mean, and I’m applying that into a life lesson here. Or maybe just a political and moral opinion.

Okay, so a bit of background:  Torchwood is a spin-off series that started its main character’s story line–Captain Jack Harkness–in the first season of the new series of Doctor Who, but began airing around the start of the third season of the new series (at least, that’s how the timing of the two different show’s story lines line up, roughly). Torchwood is Britain’s defense against alien invaders–it was a government-affiliated institution until the (spoiler alert!) Cybermen and Daleks essentially destroyed it in the finale of the second season of the new series.  Now our lead, Captain Jack Harkness, and Gwen Cooper, the determined, mouthy, and head-strong, bad-ass female lead, protect the world from alien invasions and investigate disturbing and seemingly extraterrestrial crimes in typical CSI fashion (sort-of) from the tucked-away Cardiff branch of the facility.  Or, at least, they did through the first and second seasons.  In the third season (which aired in five-part, hour-long specials) the Cardiff branch is destroyed and Torchwood is essentially decimated, to the point that the one character working for Torchwood who was not a lead and hadn’t been (spoiler alert!) killed off in the second season, Ianto, is killed.  At the end of the specials, Gwen and Jack part ways, presumably to let their emotional scars heal and learn to live their new lives, post-Torchwood.  But I’m not really concerned with any of these seasons.  What I’m really interested in here is the fourth season.

That’s right, Torchwood has a fourth season.  It’s interesting to see that the show developed so far into what it did, considering that after both the second and third seasons the show seemed to be saying, “Okay, we’re done now. You can leave it be–no, just leave it–stop, okay! Just leave it–well, alright, maybe one more.”

But I digress.  Despite my initial disappointment in the show’s “Americanization” by being brought over seas (and also just the general feeling of overdone-ness) I concern myself with it in this blog because it has a morality to it that fits really well into the conversation about the death penalty.

Now, I’m not going to lie; I am wholeheartedly, and unashamedly, against the death penalty.  No one should have the right to end another person’s life intentionally, even in the name of the law.  The fourth season of Torchwood, entitled, “Miracle Day,” strikes this chord right at it’s heart.  The season centers on the “miracle day”–the day no one died, and everyone started living forever, and attempting to investigate the cause of the miracle day, and to stop it, before the world goes bizonkers.  In the midst of time between the  miracle starting and Torchwood stopping it, the world turns into quite the dystopian novel–population numbers rise above sustainable rates, hospitals are over-flowing, the stock market crashes, concentration camps are set-up for the sick and injured, and those dubbed category ones–those who should be dead, though they are still living–are burned alive to regulate population numbers.   All the while, these injustices are felt most deeply because, as Gwen Cooper so elegantly puts it, “No one should have the right to control death.”

And isn’t that why murder is so bad, anyways?  Someone has taken it under their control to determine another person’s life, and subsequently, death.  They have taken another person’s right to life out of that person’s hands–out of the hands of life and fate–and made it their own right to take that life away.

But isn’t that just what we do with the death penalty, too?  There is debate about whether a person is entitled to their basic human rights–including their own right to life–when they commit a vile act like murder.  But as a modern, civilized society, shouldn’t we know by now that an eye for an eye is a barbaric justice system? The New Testament knows it. Heck, you could even argue that the old testament knows it. But I’m really not here to argue a religious reasoning for or against the death penalty.  I’m here to state some facts and statistics about why the death penalty is not only barbaric, it’s inefficient, unjust, and ultimately more expensive than life in prison, and thus try to convince a few more readers why getting rid of the death penalty would be one more step away from the dystopian world that Torchwood: Miracle Day portrays.

1) Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right: While I can’t begin to imagine the pain and horror that must be felt by the loved ones and families of murder victims, and I’m sure that if I knew that feeling, I would myself feel the blood-curdling hate and horror against that person who committed such a terrible crime, I am also glad that I live where a justice system doesn’t rely upon my vengeful spite.  However, the death penalty is essentially that–a blind retribution of the crime against a perpetrator.  As Amnesty International puts it, “It imitates and compounds the crime it condemns.”  And frankly, the thought of a murderer also being a ‘victim’ sickens me.

2) Frightening Flaws: The death penalty in the United States has a frightening amount of evidence against its flawed system.  According to Amnesty International, 70% of cases are overturned because of serious legal error, and just since 1973 alone, 135 people have been exonerated on the evidence of their innocence.  Even so, many people are put to death on limited and often sketchy evidence of their guilt, and with new forensic science developments, some have even had convincing cases made for their innocence–too late.  Amnesty International states that, “the most reliable predictors of who gets sent to death row are a defendant’s economic status, the victim’s race, and the jurisdiction where the crime occurred.”  So, like what seems to affect much of the justice system in this country, there seems to be some underlying  racial and economic factors that determine whether a person’s life is worth saving. Even as a white, middle-class American, I am uncomfortable with those implications about our society.

3) America is Behind the Times:  As Americans, we pride ourselves in being on top of the game; a leading military force, economic force, and governmental system.  But it seems that as we grow more stubborn–yearning for this false idea of the “Golden Years,” some mystical past time where everything was much better (here’s a hint: it doesn’t exist)–and attempt to revert back to older ways of thinking and governing, we fall farther and farther behind in the modern world, both in new developments economically and governmentally, and in our title as a leading nation. Presently, two-thirds of countries around the world have eliminated the death penalty.  Even in the U.S., some states have begun to recognize the staggering costs and inefficiencies of the death penalty, as well as the fact that most criminologists agree that capital punishment does not deter murder.

4) Capital Costs: According to Amnesty International, New Jersey saves about $11 million annually, since abolition of the death penalty in 2007.  An estimated $126 million/yr would be saved by California, and $51 million/yr by Florida.  According the the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the estimated median cost of a case ending in a death penalty is $1,200,000, while the estimated median cost of a case not ending in death penalty is $740,000.  I don’t know about you, but it seems to me like this money could go to a much more effective use in crime control and our judicial systems, especially in the economic state of America currently.

In Torchwood: Miracle Day, one of the leading characters happens to be a man who was put to death on the day of the miracle.  Naturally, he survived and becomes a national celebrity and spokes person for this new, never-ending life.  However, as a pedophile and child-murderer, he is despised by all and often comes across violent interactions with those who meet him.  And though he so publicly makes clear his pleasure at being alive, the viewer discovers over time that the man wants nothing more than to die.  Not only does he face disgust, humiliation, and torture from everyone he meets, he is internally tortured by his own mind and his inability to understand that he cannot make a new life for himself after the crimes he has committed.  In this case, in the end, death comes as a pleasant gift to him.  Wouldn’t it be more of a punishment, after committing such a horrible crime, for the man to live out the rest of his life behind bars, having to wrestle everyday with the idea of the type of man he has become? Wouldn’t it be more humane and moral, as well, to give the perpetrator the rest of his life to peacefully come to terms with himself and his crime, if he is able?  While I don’t wish to dive into the moral and religious arguments for or against capital punishment, isn’t  wholly, unspecified or categorized forgiveness what we are aiming for in the end? Not only for ourselves, but for others as well?  There is no doubt we must keep society safe on the whole; that does not mean that we need to enact upon others what they enact upon us, for both humane and financial reasons.

*If you would like to learn more about Amnesty International and their case against the Death Penalty, visit

*If you would like to learn more about the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, visit

*If you’d like to learn more about Torchwood, just Google or Netflix it.