"Torchwood: Miracle Day" is Redefining Sci-Fi Television

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With the airing of the fifth episode last Friday, we are now halfway through Torchwood: Miracle Day and we are still no closer to understanding the mystery of this season. Nobody can die, a mysterious entity is behind the event, Torchwood is back on the case, and... What?

This leads to a lot of frustration as viewers. There are ten episodes to tell this story and on the outset, it felt like the writers are wasting time focusing on details that are irrelevant to the main plot. Luckily, the fifth episode changed that somewhat by having those details converge into a reveal that inspires this thought: what if it’s the whole point? What if Miracle Day isn’t so much a science-fiction story as it is a scientific hypothesis of a fictional phenomenon?

The criticisms are still valid, of course; because there are certain expectations that come with a serialized television show that asks its audience to continually tune in with the promise of a story moving forward. The popular sentiment is that Miracle Day would be better if it was only five episodes like the previous season, Children of Earth, instead of the current order of ten, as fewer episodes would necessitate tighter plotting. I’d go further than that: the plot of Miracle Day could probably be properly told in just one episode. The monster-of-the-week format of the first two seasons of Torchwood certainly contained premises roughly as dense as Miracle Day’s main mystery, sometimes more so, which the team tackled and solved in under an hour. Those early days make this incarnation of Torchwood look horribly incompetent by comparison, and it doesn’t help that the new members are awfully irritating to watch (the “Kill Rex Matheson” fan campaign should be at least as passionate as the “Save Ianto Jones” one).

And yet I’m glad they’ve chosen to do it like this, because we’ve never seen mainstream science-fiction television done this way before. Instead of telling a story with forward momentum, the way serialized TV does it (even when it’s as oblique and stretched out as LOST or Battlestar Galactica), Torchwood is standing still so they can branch out and explore the different facets and consequences of a single premise. It is, essentially, trying to explain modern society and human behavior in bleakly unsettling ways.

It’s a lot like HBO’s Treme in that regard—even the early criticisms from their respective fans are very similar—except instead of New Orleans, it’s the entire planet; and instead of a devastating hurricane, it’s the absence of death. If fact, the fifth episode has a political dig reminiscent of FEMA’s botched handling of Katrina.

Extrapolation is the key word.

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Spoilers for up to Episode Five ahead.

One of the staples of a successful science-fiction world-building is that it invites fan discussions on the various aspects of that world not explored in the main text. If ____ is ____ in this world, what happens to _____, and how would _____ work? Torchwood creator Russell T. Davies and co-showrunner Jane Espenson have instead decided to actually make a show that revolve around those discussions. Davies came up with the core premise of Miracle Day, he gathered a team of writers, they talked about all the different ways the world would change if people stop dying, and then they show their conclusions. What would logically happen to death row inmates if states can’t execute them? They showed that in Episode One. What would logically change about hospital procedures if they have all the time in the world to treat trauma victims? They showed that in Episode Two. What would happen to Buddhism if reincarnation is no longer a possibility? That was talked about in Episode Three.

At the center of this is the character Dr. Vera Juarez, played by Arlene Tur, who we have been following as she attends medical panels assembled by the government to figure out a solution to the Miracle Day crisis. While these scenes of hers tend to just be a bunch of talking heads—a table of doctors and scientists arguing about biology and medical bureaucracy with each other, not unlike the sessions in the writer's room, I'm sure—it’s where the most unsettling concepts of Miracle Day are unearthed.

The first “oh shit” moment came when they concluded that because diseases no longer kill people, the human race has become walking carriers. People are living incubators for all kinds of deadly viruses, and the longer they stay alive, the more likely they are to spread it to others. This led to figuring out how to deal with those people, which we saw in the fourth episode as the creation of quarantine hospitals. A modern day version of plague ships, basically, as a doctor points out in the episode. This isn’t a perfect solution, as the show quickly shows a woman dumping her aging father on the hospital. Before Miracle Day, she took care of him, knowing it would only be temporary; but if her father is going to live forever in that doddering state? Who wants to keep feeding and changing diapers for sickly old people until the end of time? The truly scary part about Miracle Day is its depiction of people and institutions, both private and government, that are entirely, depressingly, too believable.

It’s a prickly reminder of the chilling quote that opened the last episode of Children of Earth, which called attention to the absence of Torchwood parent show Doctor Who’s timespace-trotting savior.

“The man who appears out of nowhere and saves the world, except sometimes he doesn't. All those times in history where there was no sign of him, I wanted to know why not,” said a bitter and desperate Gwen. “I know the answer now. Sometimes, The Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame.”

Following the logic of human society, Davies and his writers came to the realization—the same way the Torchwood team did in Episode Five—that the natural progress of things would lead to world governments deciding who deserves a place on Earth and who doesn’t. The ones that don’t? There are incinerator modules all ready for them, in order to keep our resources under control. Even if being cremated still doesn’t kill you (and we don’t know for sure yet), obviously you’d be nothing but ash and pose no problem for the rest of the world. In other words, as long as you’re out of the way, it’s all good. It’s the same kind of preserve-me-first thinking that we have subjected to the sick and unwanted for centuries.

If you predicted the twist at the end of the episode, as I did, that's because it's all familiar to us. Because this monstrous situation, remember, has actually already happened in the real world.

“I realize I was born less than 20 years after the end of WWII. We're talking the same distance as the early 90s, which is yesterday,” Davies said in a recent June issue of SFX magazine. “You realize everything was so close—a society that opened up concentration camps and burnt Jews and gays and gypsies was yesterday. Have we taken a magic pill and civilized ourselves? Are we better than that now?”

“It's all there within us, and the wrong vote or the wrong government and we go right back to that state of affairs. There's nothing better in us as human beings than there was in Nazi Germany. We're not cleverer than them, we don't have better instincts."

All of Episode Five is a disturbing exploration of how something like the Holocaust could come to be, or more specifically, how anybody could allow something like the Third Reich to come to power. Even before the reveal of the incineration, there’s already the eerie decision to eliminate the concept of “life and death” and peg people into categories “one and two.”

“People don’t just conveniently fit into categories!” Dr. Juarez protests. True, but haven’t we been doing that all along, anyway? The endless arguments we have about abortion and euthanasia can be traced back to society’s inability to conclusively agree on what counts as “life.”

The attitudes shown by the bit characters during the episode are all set-ups to a sick joke that become all the more horrifying once you realize the punchline. Rex complains to a doctor that he’s hurriedly judging people’s fate using colored clothespins. “It’s standard emergency procedure. I’ve got fifty patients to treat in an hour,” the doctor snaps back. Gwen demands a military officer to let her see her detained father, and we were fully on her side, but the military guy then gives her an explanation as to why things have to be the way they are to maintain a semblance of order during a crisis, and suddenly we’re not so sure anymore. Even the initially lighter encounters, like Dr. Juarez’s dealing with a slimy idiot who heads the detainment camps and Esther’s attempts at a conversation with a secretary who clearly just does not give a shit about anything, are indicative of the incompetence and apathy that are often associated with bureaucracy. The point is that all these decisions, from the reasonable to the dismissive, all contribute to a Holocaust-like situation. I'm sure that when the people-burning becomes public knowledge and a backlash takes place, the defense of the camps' staff members will be reminiscent of those of the Nazi guards. They're either "just following orders" or "didn't know what was really going on."

And the kick in the ass is, what should have been done differently? When we usually see evil governments in sci-fi, there’s this boiling suggestion that someone should have put a stop to it. That a single Big Brother-like entity took over and made things shitty. With Miracle Day, we saw no such thing. We know exactly how it came to this, because the show spent four episodes cutting a trail to it. Burning disease carriers to ensure they don't harm the rest of the world is just human logic, executed because they don't have other options.

This season ends up being a study of dehumanization—how easy it is for us to shut off our empathy when there’s a bigger picture to chase, and how sacrifices need to be made to ensure longevity. It’s just that society’s infrastructure always ensures that the process will never, ever be a fair one. In a sense, this is a theme that Torchwood has always flirted with, most notably in Children of Earth, when it shows the Prime Minister of England and his cabinet callously deciding which section of society are the most expendable.

The brilliance of Miracle Day is that, by examining different institutions, it extends the blame past the governing bodies, by showing how the desperation of the crisis has stripped people of their compassion—excepting the few who remain comfortable in their seats of power. I’m reminded of the chilling sequence from Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta (the sequence is tamer and less inflammatory in the movie adaptation), in which V threatens all of England via a television broadcast, blaming them for their own Big Brother predicament:

“We've had a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars and lunatics making a string of catastrophic decisions. This is plain fact. But who elected them? It was you! You who appointed these people! You who gave them the power to make your decisions for you! While I'll admit that anyone can make a mistake once, to go on making the same lethal errors century after century seems to me nothing short of deliberate.”

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It doesn’t suddenly make the first four episodes of this season any less clumsily written (or in some cases, acted) in retrospect, but it does clarify the perspective of Torchwood deciding to move in this manner. I don’t expect or want all science-fiction television to adopt this format, but it’s exciting and refreshing that one is trying a different approach to this kind of puzzle-forming, where we are just sitting back and watching a snowball roll downhill—almost like watching things unfold on the news channels.

If this season of Torchwood had stopped here at Episode Five, it would be narrative suicide, but it would make it a pretty great 5-part misanthropic postulation. It has completed the story of how the human race condemned itself. Now we’ll see what direction it will take for the second half. When things are seemingly at its worst now, will they have the Torchwood team finally do something useful for a change, or are there even more terrible strands to this Miracle Day predicament that Davies and co hypothesized but yet to broadcast?

Aug
10
2011
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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