Friday, 3 June 2011

Give Us Your Children

This was originally writtend for and published it the brilliant Doctor Who e-zine The Terrible Zodin issue 8 autumn 2010. This post CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR TORCHWOOD CHILDREN OF EARTH as well as some Doctor Who episodes. Don't say I didn't tell ya!

“A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess -- the children and the elderly. I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!...”
--Chaim Rumkowski, September 4, 1942

Growing up in Israel, I tend to forget that the Holocaust has affected others, like gays, Gypsies and communists, as it did the Jewish people. This is why when I first stumbled on Holocaust references in the revival of Doctor Who I was a little bit surprised. 


For those of us who have had Holocaust imagery drilled into us since we were kids, the image of an orphaned child with a gas mask, looking for his mummy, in “The Empty Child” can only be connected with one historical event. But it was only when I first watched “Planet of the Ood”, that I started to wonder about Russell T Davies and whether he had any Jewish connection. I know he didn’t actually write “Planet of the Ood”, but this episode was created under his creative control, and was the strongest in a long line of bleak and dark Doctor Who episodes, which all carry Holocaust imagery. I had to remind myself that the tragedy of the Holocaust doesn’t belong exclusively to the Jewish people.

Davies is openly and proudly gay, writer of the ground breaking Queer as Folk, who discussed issues of sexuality throughout Torchwood and Doctor Who. References to the Holocaust throughout his work need not be due to a Jewish connection, but rather simply, humane. Then came along Torchwood: Children of Earth, and I was left with no doubt in my mind that RTD must be a “closet Jew”.

Ianto’s death by gas on “Day 4” of Children of Earth may be the most obvious reference to the Holocaust  but far more important, is that the whole story centres around the children. The “Give me your children” speech  I quoted above represents one of the darkest and most chilling moments in European Jewish history.

Rumkowski was a Polish Jew who became head of the Lodz Judenräte. The Judenräte were the Jewish Ghetto’s authorities and was mostly composed of pre-war Jewish leaders. They were supposed to stand between the Nazis and Jews and take care of the Jewish community’s needs, but during the Holocaust, they were forced to provide Jews for slavery, those who were not chosen for labour camps would be sent to the extermination camps, and the Judenräte were forced to assist in their deportation. This was one of the many perversions carried out by the Nazis, forcing the Jews to become executioners of their own. Those who refused to cooperate, or couldn’t, would either be rounded up and executed publicly, or their refusal would bring more suffering to the whole ghetto community. On September 4th 1942 Rumkowski was forced to stand before the ghetto and make that speech.

Children of the Earth is not just another generic WWII metaphor with aliens = Nazis and humans = the Allies. This entire storyline conceived by Russell T Davies, with the 456 demanding the people of Earth give up their children and with Captain Jack complicit in past handover, strongly echoes the story of Chaim Rumkowski. The moral and conscious decisions which weighed upon Jack are not very different from those Rumkowski had to face, knowing that if he refused the Nazis, the whole ghetto would have suffered as a result.

I was motivated to try and research RTD’s background, perhaps to find a link to suggest a relationship to the Holocaust, but it wasn’t as simple as I thought.

I should explain that the story of the Holocaust is a very different story to that of World War II and this is especially true in portrayals in film and TV. Think of the differences, for example between Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Both are set during the same war but tell different stories. Saving Private Ryan romanticizes the war, it’s a patriotic tale of individual heroes. Schindler’s List by contrast tells the tragic story of the victims.

The first time the idea of Holocaust imagery sprung to my mind was when watching the Ninth Doctor story “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” written by Steven Moffat. Aside from the aforementioned orphaned child in a gas mask desperately searching for his mummy there are the Nanogenes from the Chula warship. Originally designed to heal, these Nanogenes have misread the DNA structure of humanity and created a monster. This reminded me greatly of the horrific genetic experiments Nazi scientists carried out on the sick and mentally ill during the war. Of course there is also the obvious reference to Oliver Twist. “I’m not sure if it’s Marxism in action or a West End musical” says the Doctor to Nancy.

I mentioned “Planet of the Ood” earlier, which was written by Keith Temple. The Ood themselves, however, had been introduced much earlier, in “The Impossible Planet” from RTD’s second series. “Planet of the Ood”   tells the story of the Ood, aliens born with the sole purpose to serve, or so Ood Operations would have humans believe. As the episode continues, we discover that Ood Operations actually abduct the young Ood and forcibly turn them in to slaves by cutting off their external hand held brains, as well as creating a telepathic barrier around the collective Ood consciousness brain to stop them from communicating with one another.

Most commentators of this episode have mentioned the issue of slavery and the grim reflection on our current society by suggesting even in the 42nd century we will be reliant of manufactured slaved. But I think this sad episode looks not only ahead but backwards with a bleak examination of our past. The look of the Ood is unpleasant to our human eyes and when we first meet them they are shown to be scary and intimidating. There are obvious parallels with Nazi propaganda in Germany throughout the 1930s which focused on portraying Jews as different and alien, scary and intimidating and gave them physical caricatures like the big nose.

The Ood are held in groups in big containers waiting to be transported, not different from the trains which transported Jews to the ghettos, labour, and extermination camps. Mr. Helpen of Ood Operations decides to gas what he refers to as a “bad batch” of the Ood and he even says “kill the livestock, a classic foot & mouth solution from the olden days, still works”. When we are first introduced to the Ood in “The Impossible Planet”, it is said the Ood were born to serve, that if they don’t serve they will die, and in “Planet of the Ood” the company that creates them as slaves wants us to believe that this is their purpose. “Arbeit macht frei” meaning “Work will set you free”, was the sign hanging at the gate of every labour camp during the Holocaust.

Looking widely at other episodes there is “Gridlock”, by Davies himself. In this episode we see a world where the air is poisoned, and you can’t breathe, due to the cars’ fumes. This world is a gas chamber, and underneath all this fumes there lie monsters.

The killing gas is reiterated in “The Sontaran Stratagem” / “The Poison Sky”, as well as in Children of Earth. This method of mass killing will always be associated with the Nazis, in the Jewish minds, but I believe also in RTD’s mind.

Experimenting upon human DNA, is another repeated motif in such episodes as “The Lazarus Experiment” and “Daleks in Manhattan” / “Evolution of the Daleks”. In the latter, the Daleks separate humans according to intelligence just as the Nazis used to with what they considered sub human forms such as those with special needs and non Aryans. Of course as most old Doctor Who fans know but as I’m just discovering as I begin exploring the old series, the creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation, always intended that they be a metaphor for the Nazis.

“Turn Left”, also written by Davis, shows a world without the Doctor; it has become a global ghetto. “It’s the new law,” says the Italian father sharing a house with the Noble family, to Donna, before being taken away by the military, “England for the English”, and then Wilfred adds with tears in his eyes, in case the analogy wasn’t clear enough “labour camps; that’s what they called it last time”.

From the background material I’ve read about RTD, he admits the link, at least in his case, between major depressive disorder and creativity, and he is quite known for writing about bleak moral choices and the dark side of humanity, and what is more bleak and dark than the Holocaust?

Most of what I  read about RTD and the specific episodes I’ve mentioned, including Children of Earth, don’t explicitly come out and mention the Holocaust. Most of the writers will mention other classic sci-fi books, films or TV shows that influenced his writing, but I’ve got news for you; they’ve all been influenced by the Holocaust. What can I say, Hitler gave us a lot to write about!

Okay maybe it is all in my head, maybe I am seeing this because of the sensibilities created by my upbringing in Israel, but I really think echoes of the Holocaust are there in the subtext of Doctor Who and Torchwood. To me this adds value to his creation. RTD is a ground breaker in his portrayal of sexuality (a topic for another article but I’m sick of the narrow-minded definition of Captain Jack as bisexual) and has a strong moral stance regarding politics, religion and humanity, that he puts across. The Holocaust fits, in my opinion, with the viewpoints and issues that RTD is trying to put across in his writing.

This was a time when humanity was shaken, where morality had failed, not just in Germany, but around the world. Millions (not just Jews) were slaughtered, and the world let it happen. It doesn’t surprise me that the moral and human implications occupy much of Davies’ work.

After my research, I admit I couldn’t find any direct Jewish connection for RTD. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, for he treats this painful trauma in Jewish history with sensitivity and care and much like the true Jew, it seems Russell T Davies doesn’t forget.

6 comments:

  1. Don't really have a comment about the episodes in question but your point about forcing the Jews to become their own executioner.. it's really not that difficult. Living under fear for a long time,the moral absolutes that you would never think of transgressing under peaceful circumstances completely fade away. Survival is limited to the smallest possible circle. First your ethnic group, if that doesn't work, your nieghbourhood, next extended family, and after that you and yours alone. Fear dulls most other senses, including grief. Grief is a luxury of survivors. I would be interested to watch something from that perspective, because people in western media have never felt that fear. I think for a script writer, it would be an amazing area to work on if it could be captured. Too many stories glorifying being able to save one or two people and not showing the cost. I'd like to see what you could do with it after you are done with romantic comedy!

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  2. Sadly you are right. Fear is in the root of most if not all racism and violent hatred.

    Pain, fear and the tragic are definitely things that I would like to explore as a writer. I think any writer should at least try all style of writing, even if eventually they will settle on one. It is something that interest me for sure. I don't know that I would be good at it. I don't know if I'm good at comedy either...

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  3. Having just seen the Children of the Earth for the first time, I was struck by echoes of the Holocaust and the terrible moral choices made by the Jews of Europe. You are right on the money, I believe. In addition to those things you've stated, I would add the additional discussion in episode 5, wich frames the final episode in fact. Gwen's question about the Doctor and saving the world sometime and turning away in shame. It asks the eternal question of where was God during the Holocaust. Briliant, brilliant series. I'm a professional Jewish educator (and clergy) and am thinking now of offering a course to deconstruct the COE series as an allegory for the plight of European Jews.

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  4. Thank you very much for reading.

    I think you make a very good point about how the Doctor sometimes turn away in shame. It makes this series more human in a way. Despite the big enemy being from out of space, the subject matter and the handling of it is sadly the dark side of humanity.

    Another thing that came into my mind is that Frobisher (Peter Capaldi)killng his wife and girls and committing suicide also echoes Goebbles' end.

    I think CoE is a brilliant and rare television masterpiece and should be studied. As I say in the article, it is quite interesting to me that RTD, as far as my research went, has no Jewish connections.

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  5. The references to the Holocaust are just as clear in Miracle Day, at least in today's episode. Frankly, I think he's laying it a bit thick now, really. I mean, it was impressive in Turn Left, but now it feels just... I don't know, overdone.

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  6. I completely agree with you. I watched the episode last night and I couldn't help feeling he is repeating himself and doing it less subtle and without the same impact that Turn Left and CoE had.

    I don't know if you also watch the UK version, but after last week's episode the preview for the one coming up showed Gwen in a similar monologue to camera as she did in CoE. I find that a bit worrying and disappointing.

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