Torchwood: “The Middle Men”

Posted on August 13, 2011

We’ll give the creators credit: when they spin their wheels, you can’t always tell.

Last week’s episode ended with Vera dead; Rex and Esther stuck inside the San Pedro overflow camp, and Gwen and Rhys inside the Wales overflow camp, trying to get her father out. Forty-five minutes into this episode, Vera was still dead, Rex and Esther were still stuck inside San Pedro, and Gwen and Rhys were still trying to get Gwen’s father out of the Wales camp. That there was a flurry of activity in the last 15 minutes doesn’t really excuse the previous 45 minutes of wheel-spinning, but it did a pretty good job of making you forget about them.

And sure, there were explosions and unlikely combat between 80-lb wimpy CIA analysts in 5-inch heels and large, murderous middle managers; plus, creepy threats delivered via contact lenses, but there was virtually no movement on the plot. We got a sort of “confirmation” (from an EXTREMELY questionable source) that Phicorp isn’t pulling the strings, but we’d already heard information to that effect. No explanation was given as to why people are being incinerated, though. And since incineration is being treated in-story, with no questions asked, as an actual way of achieving death (i.e., Vera is considered dead, as is everyone who’s been incinerated and we see no reason not to accept that unless they’re going to try to posit that dust has a consciousness, at which point our suspension of disbelief might just shatter) … then, what’s the problem?

Despite seeing no evidence of it outside of a lot of people on gurneys, we are told again and again, that “healthcare” is the big problem in a post-Miracle Day world. In fact, it’s pretty much the only problem; or at least, the only problem the story is focusing on, outside of people joining cults or jumping off buildings. We’re supposed to accept that the entire worldwide healthcare industry would be brought to the brink of collapse within weeks or months and that people are pitching themselves off of buildings because a couple months without death would…what? Why are people tossing themselves off buildings? If it’s the normal number of suicides – that is, if the percentage of the population who join the 45 Club is the same or similar to the percentage of people who committed suicide pre-Miracle Day, what’s the issue here? And if it’s a greater percentage, it would be nice to hear that in the story. We’re just told that suicide has a new face but we’re not told if there’s been an increase in suicides.

If people stopped dying, the world really wouldn’t change for most people that quickly. Think about it: how many people do you know who died in the last 4 to 5 weeks? If you’re like most people, you’re only going to be able to name one or two, if that. All this massive worldwide panic doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Nowhere in this entire story is anyone – except massively creepy people like Oswald Danes – having what we would consider a far more human reaction: “We can’t die? AWESOME!” This story is expecting us to accept that the news of worldwide immortality would result in concentration camps, the dismantling of the healthcare system, the granting of the power of life and death to the U.S. (and other) governments, and people jumping off buildings in despair within weeks. The more this story unfolds, the more we think it should have been set on some far-off planet in the Doctor Who universe because setting it on present-day earth makes almost all of the concepts and ideas impossible to accept.

And to return to an earlier point, if incineration = death, then the entire concept of the story falls apart. Death isn’t gone; it’s just more difficult to achieve. And if you consider the guy in the first episode who survived the explosion AND getting his head cut off, does incineration sound like such a horrible idea for someone like that? Or if the elderly just keep aging without dying, wouldn’t many of them choose the ovens rather than, say, a 150th birthday, hopelessly frail and senile without an end in sight? Wouldn’t this be a version of “pulling the plug?” Wouldn’t family members get the right to choose the ovens for someone who is hopelessly incapacitated and as close to actual death as one can get? Why did the story automatically go to “The government builds concentration camps?” Why, every time we see “Category 1” patients, do they look relatively normal and treatable? Where are the smears on the road who survived? Or the people with 3rd degree burns all over their bodies? Because if we saw more of that in the overflow camps, rather than Gwen’s gently sleeping father, the story wouldn’t feel so stacked and one-sided. Instead, the minute we hear about the ovens, it’s when someone young and healthy is being murdered inside one. It’s not that we object to the depiction of human ovens as a monstrous thing; it’s just that they’ve set up a world where such a solution makes a certain amount of sense and don’t seem willing to explore that idea.

Still, explosions, right? There was, like most episodes, a decent amount of fun and tension to be had, but, again, like most episodes, you have to sit through a lot to get to the good parts. Forty-five minutes of Gwen in tight leather on a motorcycle blowing up chunks of Wales would have been a hell of a lot more fun than watching some incompetent middle-manager trying to cover up a murder. As silly as Esther’s takedown of a murderer three times her size may be, we found ourselves cheering her on. For all the talk by her team mates of Esther’s naivete and lack of experience, she is the ONLY member of Torchwood who seems to understand that when you’re undercover, you don’t make huge threats to the bad guy in charge with no exit strategy(Vera), or go around a concentration camp giving self-righteous (and loud) speeches trying to appeal to some administrator’s better side (Gwen), or you don’t hand over all the evidence of wrongdoing to the guy in charge while you’re chained up (REX, WTF?). The Torchwood tradition of doing really, really stupid things continues.

And while it was fun seeing Jack work his little Jack magic and get some information from a high-ranking Phicorp exec (whose words should not be trusted by any agent with a lick of sense), we thought it was odd that he was spending his time hitting on gorgeous secretaries in bars and disrupting meals in expensive restaurants while everyone else was fighting for their lives. Sure, Jack’s charm is pretty much his superpower, but it made him look a little frivolous, traipsing through trendy bars and restaurants while literally every other member of his team was in dire circumstances.

T has been introducing Lo to some classic episodes of pre-Children of Earth Torchwood (Lo on Suzy: “That bitch is CRAZY!”) and when they occasionally stumbled across a good story, the show could be quite fun. But no one could ever accuse it of being thought-provoking; not really. We may have to return to looking at the show that way, despite the current creative team’s insistence that we ponder the big questions. Stick to the fun and the charm.  It ended on a pretty shocking – and well-presented – note, what with Gwen receiving the message – via her eyes – that her family has been kidnapped and the bad guys want Jack. If we just focus on the fun parts, like Jack being Jack (“DOES YOUR WIFE KNOW?”) and Gwen being Gwen (boom), with a little bit of Esther redeeming herself, we can have fun with it. Honestly, it’s only the next morning when we think about the actual plot and the implications of it that we start getting all cranky.

Although we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that part of the reason we enjoyed much of this episode is because Rex acted like a human being, rather than just a dick (albeit a really stupid and suddenly naive human being), and because the wholly unbelievable Oswald Danes was nowhere to be found.

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