Nomi and I are big fans of the family television show "Doctor Who." (What does this have to do with parenting? Patience, please.) For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, "Doctor Who" is a British science-fiction program traditionally aimed at pre-teens and teens about a human-looking alien who can travel anywhere in time and space, frequently with a human traveling companion. He routinely finds himself protecting Earth and humanity from alien threats. The show led to two current spin-off shows. The first spin-off, "Torchwood," is a show for adults about a group of human beings in the UK who also defend the Earth from aliens. The other spin-off, "The Sarah Jane Adventures," is a show for kids starring Elisabeth Sladen, who in the 1970s played the Doctor's companion. Last week, Sladen died and the new season of "Doctor Who" started, and both of these things brought back to my mind the last season of "Torchwood."
The last time a season of "Torchwood" was broadcast was in 2009. The season wasn’t a traditional American television season of about twenty episodes. In essence, it was a five-hour miniseries, which ran in one week in both the UK and the US. It so happened that the show ran just before our kids were born, which was a good thing, because I don’t think I could have tolerated watching it if it had been broadcast afterwards.
The plot of the miniseries, “Children of Earth,” centered on an alien threat specifically to Earth’s children. An alien race demands that we, the human race, hand over ten percent of the world’s children to them, or else they will destroy Earth. As part of the story, the governments of Earth essentially cave in to the demand to hand over the children. In the UK, the government officials, unwilling to place their own children into a lottery, instead decide to hand over children from what they consider the lowest rungs of society. Meanwhile, the team at Torchwood Institute tries to figure out a way to stop the aliens while fighting their own government at the same time.
I have to admit that I found the show brilliant: within five hours, characters that we had come to know and love were given an impossible dilemma, and it was fascinating to see them struggling within their crucible of decision. I thought it was one of the most poignant expressions of what good science fiction can do if given the chance.
But when I watched it, I was not yet a father myself. As I think about the show now, I have a more visceral reaction to the plot. I suspect I wouldn’t be able to last through it if I were to try to watch it again.
I know that because of another TV show that we’ve tried watching. Nomi and I used to watch "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" fairly regularly; we like the way the show includes back story about the characters, and as it so happens one of Nomi’s cousins is a producer on the show. But every time we try a new episode and find another story about a young child in jeopardy, we come to a point where we just can’t watch anymore.
It’s not just a television phenomenon. My high-school friend Andrew was a fan of the novel "Ender’s Game" by Orson Scott Card when we were teenagers. The novel is about a gifted seven-year-old boy named Ender who is enrolled in a military school against the wishes of his family because the boy is literally Earth’s only hope against an alien attacker. A lot of teenage boys tended to identify with Ender when growing up, and Andrew was one of them. When his own son turned seven, Andrew went back to re-read the novel and was horrified, from the perspective of a father, at what Ender goes through.
And given how intensely I am now repelled by fictional depictions of children in jeopardy, it’s even worse when the jeopardy is real.
I was hit very hard by the death of Christina Taylor Green, the nine-year-old girl killed during the shooting in Tucson back in January. Before I was a parent, I would watch news stories of this sort with a certain sense of detachment. But as a father myself, who seems to have inherited the genes for excessive worrying from my mom, I can’t help now but imagine the horror of my own children being caught up in these tragic events. I’ve always felt sad when hearing about these sorts of tragedies, but now I feel a little scared as well, and I hug my kids a little tighter.
The one good thing is that I now understand better where my mom was coming from. I only wish she were still around so I could let her know.
This week’s column is written by Michael A. Burstein.