Torchwood: Miracle Day: The Categories of Life

Posted on August 06, 2011

We have to laugh.

We realize we shouldn’t be laughing about the grimmest episode yet, ending with the (it was bound to happen eventually) gruesome death of a Torchwood team member, but we can’t help it. Sometimes, the silliness of the conceits we’re supposed to accept in this story overwhelm us and even as we’re watching scenes of human beings being incinerated, we’re stuck rolling our eyes and smirking.

Lorenzo doesn’t watch Doctor Who. Well, technically he does watch the show, but only passively, out of the corner of his eye because Tom’s hogging the TV. He doesn’t really know the names of any of the companions (Rose: “the trashy one,” Martha: “the fabulous one,” Donna: “the funny one”) and watched only enough of the three latter doctors to declare Matt Smith a genius and David Tennant irritating. He knows just enough about the show to marvel at the malleability of the concept behind it (his words after the S6.2 trailer aired “Man, you really can go anywhere and do anything with this show.”) and to know that such flexibility in concept means wildly different episodes that can range from pure camp to disturbing suspense. He just saw two different episodes from Torchwood showrunner Russell Davies’ last regular season with the franchise and during the occasionally disturbing psych horror of “Midnight,” he muttered “Wow, this show can get really dark,” but earlier in the week, the first time he saw a Sontaran without his helmet on, he burst into uproarious laughter and exclaimed “I canNOT take this show seriously!” to which Tom replied, “Oh, you’re not supposed to! Well. At least not this time…”

And that’s one of the problems with Torchwood. It’s not that you can’t do a dark story with light touches, but sometimes it feels like we’re watching entirely different stories; even worse, sometimes that feeling happens within the same episode. If we absolutely had to, we might be able to accept a character like Oswald Danes and his rise to significance (as well as the not-so-late-or-lamented Sarah Palin pastiche, or the caricaturistic Jilly Kitzinger) if it was occurring in a more over-the-top kind of show. But when you have silly characters, paste them into stories with helicopter explosions and chase scenes, and then suddenly bring human concentration camps into the picture and expect us all to nod gravely and marvel at the darkness of the storytelling and the Serious Questions it raises, well… that’s expecting too much from us. As wildly anarchic as the storytelling world of Doctor Who can get, they mostly avoid heavy-handed holocaust reminders and that fictional world was mostly populated with people who had somewhat normal or expected reactions to events.

But really, our complaints about the inconsistent tone of the show are merely quibbles in comparison to the problems we have with the basic story. We’re tired of repeating ourselves but virtually everything that has happened so far in this series doesn’t ring true to us in any real way. We hate to make this nerdy connection, but looking at Gwen’s baby (and it was nice to see Swansea), we can see not much time has passed since the series started, otherwise we’d be looking at a much older baby. The story vaguely supports this. Even though no real mention of the time passed has been made, the general sense is that it’s been no more than a month or so since Miracle Day. Back in the first episode, when it was hypothesized that the world would be looking at societal collapse in 4 months, we pointed out the absurdity of that statement.  It seems like the cynicism of the writers got the better of them, because we’re now supposed to accept radical shifts in policy and culture in a mere 4 weeks.

We might accept the idea of an Oswald Danes reaching some sort of prominence in this world, but not until things got really bad and life as we know it changed drastically. That shouldn’t have happened yet. The fact of the matter is, a month of people not dying isn’t going to lead to radical changes in medicine and government, as well as a legal redefinition of life being agreed-upon (worldwide, no less) and policies to that effect being enacted. A month of people not dying means a net population gain of about 5 million people worldwide. The population of a medium-sized city – but spread out all over the world – is simply not going to cause the kind of strain to “the system” all the characters are gravely warning about.  In other words, absolutely nothing having to do with the overflow camps or the healthcare system, or Oswald Danes or the “Dead is Dead” movement make any sense whatsoever if you’re applying standards of normal human behavior (and simple math) to any of the people in this world.

And the longer this story goes on and all the characters proclaim the impending societal collapse, we get more and more annoyed with the absence of one topic; the one topic that would not only make sense from a policy perspective, but would make sense if you want to tell a story that satirizes or comments upon American culture and politics: abortion. If there’s such a horrifying rise in population happening every day, why isn’t anyone talking about stopping population growth completely by outlawing birth instead of trying to come up with unworkable definitions of life and death? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the governments of the world to force all pregnancies to terminate, thereby stopping the population from growing at all? A horrifying concept, to be sure, but infinitely more interesting than shoving ovens and concentrations camps at us.

Having done all that bitching, we’ll say that the episode was mostly pretty enjoyable and tense (it was the ovens that ruined it for us) and Vera’s death was appropriately horrifying and should make for some nice team motivations later on. Loved seeing Gwen in action in a less-warm, less-sunny, less-American location, but this brings us to why we were laughing a bit. Watching Vera force her way into a mission when she wasn’t trained and somewhat stupidly make escalating threats to a man who clearly has little in the way of morals while at the same time watching Gwen blunder her way into a camp, somewhat unbelievably stumble across her father, and then force him to try and escape, resulting in a second heart attack and a ticket to the ovens, we just shook our heads. “That’s Torchwood.” In other words, this team has a history of being bumbling idiots, over and over again.

Also that evil camp administrator was such a poorly written and poorly acted character that it took us right out of the story. He couldn’t just be an amoral bureaucrat; he had to be sexist in a totally 1980 way (“You’re a woman, who’s a doctor?!? And you’re pretty!”) and all-around silly. There are so many interesting ways this character could have been presented, but the sneering and the leering was straight out of Saturday morning cartoons.

And in a way, we really wish the show would stick with Saturday morning cartoon stories with lots of action and heroics. It’s not that we don’t appreciate nuanced stories that tell dark things about the human condition, but the longer this series goes on, the more we think it’s not the right place for it and the creators don’t know how to do it. Which is odd, because Children of Earth swam in those waters and was all the better for it. We suspect the attempts to comment on American culture are what’s making this story so hard to take and less believable with each week. Yes, we totally get the observation that everything in America is bigger, louder, and faster; that to the rest of the developed world our political and healthcare systems seem byzantine and unworkable; bought and paid for by corporations, resulting in the political process collapsing and the rise of demagogues and cults preying on the public’s fears. All of that would make for great themes to explore in a speculative fiction story, but we just don’t buy that the whole country will drive off a cliff in a month.

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