Warning: Contains mild spoilers.
Torchwood: Miracle Day‘s episodes, “Dead of Night,” “Escape To L.A.,” and “The Categories of Life,”are episodes that bridge the gap between a narrative that spoon-feeds new viewers and gets down to business at last.
“Dead of Night,” penned by BTvS/Caprica alum Jane Espenson, relies a little too heavily on contrasts. A chilling confrontation between Wayne Knight’s duplicitous Friedkin and Mekhi Phifer’s Matheson segues into a car chase distinguished only by Murray Gold’s score. The masked, silent, “Soulless,” (who seem to exist only to provide the creepy visual,) breaks to a British/Americanism lesson. Crisps/Chips, Fizzy/non-fizzy lemonade. . . it’s meant to be a bonding moment, but the literal explaining of differences between the team members feels a little too precious.As I’ve stated previously, Alexa Havins has not been selling me on Esther Drummond. I’m beginning to think this is less the actress’s performance, and simply the way she’s written. A CIA analyst doesn’t just, “Read blogs for a living,” and I’m fairly certain that a working knowledge of basic security protocols and tradecraft wouldn’t be over an analyst’s head. Unfortunately, the writers can’t seem to decide if Esther is naive and incompetent, or a tech wiz who can hack anything. This is a huge flaw that consistently snaps me out of the drama.
Lauren Ambrose, Arlene Tur, and Bill Pullman dominate ep 3, in the best ways. As Dr. Juarez grapples with the practical realities of the new world order, Jilly Kitzinger is very obviously trying to profit from it. Oswald Danes is the wild card: he’s a monster and opportunist who doesn’t claim to be anything else except in front of the cameras, and it’s clear he’s just trying to survive. For now.
DoN can’t seem to decide if it’s about a team coming together or falling apart before that can happen. Rex is in rage mode, Jack just wants to get laid, and Gwen seems to want to smack them both. (NB: No analysis of the sex scenes. They make sense in context, they’re not hardcore and if it offends your delicate sensibilities to see either a man and a woman or a man and another man having sex: you might want to stop watching Torchwood.)
The key scenes in DoN are a phone call between Jack and Gwen that gives a very clear sense of the before and after of Torchwood, and a confrontation between Jack and Oswald Danes that is beyond chilling (and makes fantastic use of this study in contrasts.)
This episode finally puts the expected name to the Big Bad: PhiCorp. Enlisting a monster to do their PR, stockpiling drugs in preparation for the Miracle, wielding influence over elected officials, bureaucracy, and the population at large to make a profit. Typical Big Pharma.
The pieces are in place, now it’s time for Torchwood: Miracle Day to show the audience what’s really going on.
“Escape to L.A.” does that, to a far greater degree than any prior episode of TW:MD, but it’s still not quite enough. We get a lot of exposition, a couple of fish-out-of-water scenes for Gwen, and backstory for Esther and Rex. Here’s where I started to feel like we needed an alien of the week.
The mini-series format worked for CoE, because it was five nights and packed with relevant information from the starting line. TW:MD has ten weeks to tell a story that might be better suited to five, and doesn’t seem to know what to do with its characters, outside of Jack, Gwen, and Oswald. I can only hope that if there is a fifth series, the pacing picks up. Relentless tension may be draining, but it holds an audience far more readily than endless meandering. Family matters take up the bulk of the emotional impact of EtLA, but those family matters are far too predictable and don’t serve to grow the characters. Jim Gray and John Shiban’s script seems to have an affinity for the caper-flavored scenes as the team attempts to infiltrate PhiCorp. The subplot of a, “Dead is Dead,” movement with Mare Winningham’s Ellis Hartley Monroe, a hard-right Mayor who advocates segregating those who would or should have died, from the living, in order to conserve resources, is truly chilling. It also represents one of the few moments of furthering the plot without an info-dump. It’s made clear that while there may be a Big Bad (which may or may not be PhiCorp, when all is said and done,) there really aren’t that many neutral or good players at the table when it comes to the Miracle. It does raise the question of what reality would look like, for all of us, if such a thing were to occur.
And then, we have “The Categories of Life.” The foggy narrative begins to coalesce in this Espenson-penned episode. FINALLY.
“Overflow camps,” introduced in EtLA are the focal point. Congress and Europe determine that there will be three categories of life: 1. Dead or should-be, 2. Recovering, 3. Normal people.
Declaring them concentration camps seems unneccessary, because it’s pretty obvious that’s what they are. As Dr. Juarez, Esther, and Rex infiltrate a camp in the US, Gwen and Rhys go undercover to rescue Gwen’s father from another in Wales. (Points for, “Yvonne Pallister,” as Gwen’s false identity.)
With a clear story to tell, Espenson sets about telling it, and interestingly enough, it’s not just about what happens when no-one can die. Pointing out that an under-funded NHS would go broke trying to care for a population devastated by an epidemic, or even one that skews excessively geriatric is incredibly timely. As is pointing out that the uninsured in the US aren’t getting even basic care. The subtext of what happens when limited resources are already strained to the limit and how quickly society can descend into a fascist mob is not only relevant but takes a lesson from history. Go look at how Hitler wrested power from the Weimar Republic, or the circumstances that led to the French Revolution. The parallels are there.
It’s also nice to see that while not everybody gets out alive, even with the Miracle, there is a narrative function for the losses suffered in TCoL. Events play out in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re there for shock value, but because these things happen in horrible situations.
People die. Good people die. People trying to do the right thing, die. People who don’t deserve it, die. By placing everyone at risk and telegraphing that we’re not likely to see everyone survive, Espenson softens the blow somewhat, without lessening the impact of a character’s death.
“The Module,” is exactly what we fear it will be, and standard operating procedure is exactly what we fear it will be. The question is, knowing what we do about the survival of consciousness due to the Miracle, is even cremation enough to bring about true death? Is each fragment of bone, each molecule, still aware throughout the process?
As Oswald Danes proclaims that human beings have, “Ascended,” and taken the, “Next Great Leap Forward,” at a rally, the juxtaposition of the camps and crematoriums gives the lie to his words. The question is: Why? Why create the Miracle and then destroy those affected by it? Who’s responsible and what do they want? Can it be undone?
“The Categories of Life” brings the narrative focus back to TW: MD, and my hope is that we’ll continue to see that focus driving the rest of the series.