The episode “A Day in the Death” from the second season of Torchwood has not just vague religious themes or overtones, but explicit reference to the story of Jesus. And so it makes for an interesting starting point for a discussion of religion and science fiction.
The story focuses on Owen Harper, who died in a previous episode, only to be brought back to life using alien technology, and now, for some reason, he remains conscious and human and active, and yet he is also dead, and so doesn’t age or heal or digest food or feel anything.
In this episode, Owen explicitly compares himself to Jesus, which is perhaps natural, given his having been dead and yet not dead for three days at this point. “I was brought back – like Jesus really, except for the beard.”
The remark is, on one level, just an example of Owen’s typically dark and irreverent sense of humor at work.
But on another level, the parallels in the episode are unlikely to be accidental. Owen has tasted death, and as a result, is able to provide comfort and support for both an old man who is dying, and a young woman who was widowed on her wedding day, only an hour or so after getting married, and so is contemplating suicide.
For the former, Henry Parker, Owen helps him not to be afraid of death. Because of his “fear of the dark” that lies beyond death, he prefers to stay alive even though bedridden on life support machines.
For the latter, Maggie Hopley, Owen is able to share that beyond death is darkness, and thus if there is even a glimmer of light in her life, which now seems so dark, then she should not jump off the building, as she was contemplating doing. Here are his own words:
You’ve got a choice. If you think that the darkness is too much then go for it. But if there is a chance, just some hope… It could be having a cigarette, or that first sip of hot tea on a cold morning. Or it could be your mates. If there is even a tiny glimmer of light, then don’t you think that’s worth taking a chance?
That’s not the message attributed to Jesus, by any means. But Owen coming into her situation, seemingly to join her in jumping and sharing her despair, but instead there to offer a warning and hope, has many elements one would expect of a TV “Christ figure.”
The episode concludes with the revelation that an alien device that Owen had been investigating in the episode turned out not to be a danger or a weapon but a message, in response to our messages sent into space. Its meaning isn’t clear, but its delivery is still powerful. As Owen puts it, this “interstellar answer sang to him in the darkness.” And so his final message is that, while we often expect things to turn out badly, particularly if we’ve had particularly troubled or difficult lives, sometimes it really does get better.
If you’ve seen this episode, what did you make of it, and in particular the exploration of religious themes? And if you haven’t seen it, apparently you can watch the entire episode online: