...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Day 3875: TORCHWOOD: Molecule Day: Frying Tonight!


I may be a little slow, but I'm not quite sure why the triangle conspiracy need to engineer a Miracle in order to achieve their aim of segregating people into categories of alive and dead when, well, death was achieving that pretty well on its own. Still, I'm not a sinister geometric figure so what do I know.

It's difficult to describe this as "enjoyable" given that – spoilers – it concludes by incinerating Torchwood's only decent character, but it's certainly the best episode so far this series. If you'll forgive me, this is where the series caught fire.

Jane Espenson writes a fine episode, deftly handling the storylines of all the regulars: humorously tackling the rivalry between Jack and Rex; sympathetically bringing Esther back on board after her failure last week; providing some rousing if entirely cover-blowing snoggage between Gwen and her Rhys; actually delivering on Oswald's growing messiah complex and having him, in his increasingly demented speech, actively choose to sell his soul to Jilly's devil while deliberately shafting Jack at the same time; and ultimately horrifying us as creepo-supremo Colin goes mental and shoots Vera and then roasts her alive.

The episode manages not one but two effective thriller plots in parallel: Rex, Esther, Vera and Gwen all infiltrating overflow camps to investigate the "modules"; Jack's obsession with Oswald leading him to the Miracle Rally and the build-up to Oswald's speech. Both sides of the story ratchet up the tension. Rex misdirects us with various suggestions about what PhiCorp might be using the "category ones" for in order to blindside us with the idea that they've literally recreated death. And Jack and Jilly become the good and bad angels on Oswald's shoulders, tempting him to be hero or heel – and both of them want a "revelation" from him.

After last week's – to my mind – misstep with her characterisation, it was good to see Jilly back on wicked form, spikily dismissing people who let her down and apparently jumping over the heads of her PhiCorp bosses, attracting the attention of the "handsome man" (yes, thank you "The X Files") who presumably represents the triangle conspiracy people.

Meanwhile, Jack, I think, fundamentally misunderstands Oswald because he thinks – because of his own guilt over the death of a child – that Oswald is like him, and Jack's first reaction to immortality – going all the way back to season one of "Torchwood" even – was that he wanted to die. Oswald doesn't want to die. Oswald wants power, he wants to corrupt everyone, ultimately to make everyone be like lesser versions of him. In telling the world that they are angels, Oswald wants to be god.

And it's particularly fine that Oswald's final speech actually incorporates what both of Jill and Jack wanted him to say… but in such a way that Jack's intelligence – about PhiCorp knowing about the Miracle in advance – becomes not merely useless to him but actually an asset to them.

If there's a misstep it's only that writing San Pedro overflow camp administrator Colin Maloney as such a grotesque is massively unsubtle – bitingly funny, it's true, especially Vera's early contemptuous response to "you're so think you just might snap", but not exactly shying away from wearing the "I'm a villain" tee-shirt. On the other hand, you can't really blame Espenson for Bill Pullman's "Tony Blair having a stroke" delivery of the "angels" speech. And anyway, he clearly thinks Oswald's supposed to be going bonkers.

However, the real problem is that she is saddled with some crushingly banal "banality of evil" shtick, the sort of politics that even the Socialist Workers would call pitifully naïve I wish it were so!, and for that, the finger of blame really has to point at her boss. Oh, her too, surely!

It's not in the crass one-liner: "This is what you get if you allow private companies to run the health service" (well, no, actually, and perhaps someone from Europe could explain to Russell how the French or German or Swedish health services work). But that's just all very "teehee do you see what I did there"; it may not be big or clever, but the real problem is something far larger than that.

As a self-avowed lefty and so notionally in favour of big state power, Russell seems to have turned "Torchwood" into a medium for saying "all governments are shite".

Mind you, he's also an out-and-proud atheist who keeps on throwing Mr Floaty Jesus Doctor into his "Doctor Who" mix so maybe he's just wilfully perverse.

"Children of Earth's" finest hour was probably the episode almost entirely devoted to the British Cabinet discussing the 456's ultimatum and coming to the shittiest possible decision about what to do.

So, likewise, "Miracle Day" sees the governments of the world quickly snatch up the Final Solution offered them by PhiCorp. Apart from, apparently, the Chinese. Because they would never take any unethical action to tackle overpopulation.

And you know what? It's the most lazy clichéd cobblers going.

"Children of Earth" worked because it made drama out of people making the worst possible decisions because they were covering their own arses.

Here, we are just taking it as read.

Here they don't even both to show us the politicians discussing it; they're politicians, so now they'd just rubber-stamp concentration camps in under a day.

Would no one in any of those governments have objected? At all?

Even if you don't believe in the simple altruism of people – and I assure you, there are plenty of senior politicians who would speak out against anything like this – then consider the power of self-interest .

Even within the world that "Torchwood" has already shown us – rather than pretending these are anything approaching real people – Brian Green, the PM in "Children of Earth", ultimately takes the blame and gets fired because of what his government agrees to do. Okay, he's replaced by a woman who is arguably just as guilty and just as mendacious, but do we really think that no one on Earth learned anything from this lesson?

Would no one in any of those governments have thought they might want to cover their back in case their little mass-murder scheme came to light? At all?

In the Second World War, the Nazis… yes, I'm going to have to mention the Nazis because, in case you didn't notice, Russell just accused every government on Earth of being just like the Nazis (and by Godwin's Law that means he loses)… the Nazis were able to implement their Final Solution because they escalated the treatment of "undesirables" gradually and kept the number of people involved in the actual murders to a minimum.

(And I forgot to say: my favourite line from "Let's Kill Hitler" was "I was just on my way to a gay gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled and I thought, the Third Reich's a bit rubbish, isn't it." Which basically covers it. And bless them for that!)

Here, the number of people actively complicit with the treatment of "category ones" extends to a vast army of medical and military personal, plus the admin staff. Look if Gwen can work out that "burns unit" is a sick joke, then plenty of other genuine nursing staff are going to figure it out too. And Rhys really, really isn't the only driver in the world who's going to react with guilt-stricken horror when told where he's been taking patients. If nothing else, the dirty great chimneys belching out fatty soot – not to mention the smell – are going to give the game away.

So we have this crime against humanity happening way too quickly here and with way too many people getting their hands dirty.

And do they really think those huge crowds of relatives aren't going to notice? Pretty soon, someone will spot that no one can get see their "category one" relatives.

Alex suggests that Russell seems to be thinking: "Shit, I've made the New Labour government into Nazis. The Coalition can't be as lovely as Labour; I'll have to make them worse than the Nazis, and literally overnight, and without a second thought."

We dehumanise the process of government completely by not even showing the people who make the decision. What's that you say, Sooty? Dehumanising people is what the Nazis did? Lovely!

(And yes, Russell did it in "Doctor Who" too, in the episode "Turn Left", which sees the country go when London gets nuked. Of course, it gets nuked by a crashing spaceship in the form of a replica Titanic but you kind of had to be there.

(Except it wasn't "directly to concentration camps"! It was directly to house-sharing, and only the collapse of the world economy after America was reduced to Adipose and the after-effects of the Sontaran attack lead to racial purity quite a long time later.

(But "Turn Left" gets away with it because, really, it's a series of sketches, rapid fire vignettes of the world taking the fast track to hell without the Doctor. They're doing the story in 45 minutes not 300. And yet the journey from crisis to ovens is made faster in the 300!)

The mechanics of this crisis really does not make sense to me.

As I already touched on back in episode one, taking death out of the equation doesn't even double the rate at which we are already adding people to the planet. How does this cause such a spiral out of control?

Similarly, the notion that people not dying now means that cholera and typhoid and MRSA will spread like wildfire through our cities and hospitals does not add up. These things are already perfectly capable of travelling around the world and we do not have to rely on the carrier dropping dead to stop them. Indeed, as I remarked last week, we could annihilate MRSA, at least, by thoroughly bleaching every surface in the hospital (including the patients) because no one is going to die of bleach poisoning.

The last few episodes have given us glimpses of this gathering health Armageddon – Dr Vera's emergency room being overrun; the people being sent to the PhiCorp overflow hospital last week for Oswald to make undeliverable promises to; and now the full-on overflow camps. Yet in spite of having the last two, maybe even three episodes outpaced by a medium sized glacier, they never managed to fit in any sense of gathering despair and panic.

(Actually, I suspect this is down to trying to use one character, Vera, to fulfil three different roles in the plot: the medical woman, the Washington politician, and the doomed love interest. We could have been repeatedly going back to her in the hospital being gradually but steadily overwhelmed by the tide of ought-to-be-dead people, but instead we've had her making the moral points in the medical panels and then missing the conclusion of that too by taking a jolly spy trip to PhiCorp. And taking time off to bonk Rex.)

And I'm not sure how "category one" is even possible under the previously established rules of the Miracle. There's a graph and everything to say that "category one" is "low chance of survival/low brain function" which is quickly taken to mean "injured and unconscious". How are people being unconscious? Aren't people "so alive"? We've seen people blown up and still conscious, with their necks broken right round and still conscious, even crushed in a car crusher and still conscious. But now, people are shot and they pass out or they just suffer an old fashioned heart attack and they're k.o'd enough for some doctor to shuffle them off to the cooking farm. Is the Miracle wearing off?

(And Gwen, sweetie, if your dad collapses as you're trying to rescue him… keep going. He isn't going to die, but some jobsworth might just category one him if you start waving and shouting and drawing attention to him… oh.)

I said "this is the best so far", but I'm making it sound crap.

What we have is a really good piece of television… weighed down by the pace and contradictions of the arc plot it has to be part of, an episode of "Torchwood" that powerfully delivers the dawning horror of what PhiCorp are really doing… and yet is undermined by the hollowness of one-dimensional, frankly juvenile depiction of government and the absence of credible development to reach this point.

And that's without getting cross about the fact that the whole overflow camp investigation is going to turn out to be a massive wrong turn. But I'm getting into next week's plot now.

I guess what I'm saying is that Jane Espenson was better off writing for Joss Whedon because at least he knew what he was doing when it comes to a story arc.

And of course "Children of Earth" had a column of flame at the exact middle point too.

Next Time… The dead are walking. Who ya gonna call? Winston Zeddemore, the Zeppo of the Ghostbusters, guests as one of "The Middle Men". (And actually he's bloody good in it!)

"Torchwood: Miracle Day" continues tonight at 9pm on BBC1 and BBC1HD or if you're falling behind like me, then there's always the iPlayer!


Bob The Fish said...

Is it just me who thinks that, horrible though it is, burning people who are still alive but so badly injured that they no longer have any brain function or hope of brain function - in a world which is in crisis because of a massive population explosion - is actually a good idea?

Reminds me of watching "Soylent Green" as a kid and, at the "shocking" final twist just thinking, "well, that's practical".

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr Bob the Fish,

"Practical" maybe, but "right", hmmm…

In the first place you use the caveat "or any hope of brain function" which is a useful get out but clearly that is not what is used to classify the cat 1's. As Rex himself says, he went from Cat 1 back to Cat 2 after his accident; and Gwen's father certainly looks to have "hope of brain function": he's unconscious, not in a coma.

And who is to say in practice what the future will hold in terms of bodily regenerative surgery. How many years, or hundreds or thousands of years will it be before regrowing bodies becomes a practical possibility? Because it doesn't actually matter how long it takes if you're not going to die in the meantime, does it?

But more important than that, is the principal: governments should not decide that you are dead. That is a direct breach of the number one human right: the right to life. And (almost by definition) the category one patients cannot give consent.

Incinerating people who cannot say no is ALWAYS MURDER.

And it's fundamentally addressing the problem at the WRONG END. The population "explosion" is being caused by the numbers of people coming into the world, not by the number of people failing to get off at the end.

And yet that has barely even been mentioned.

Surely heavily dosing the water supply with contraceptives is the more urgent and practical solution than offing the actually not dead. Although, mortality rates are one of the drivers of high reproductive rates; bodily immortality might see a dramatic fall in the numbers of new births (and coupled with that a greater liberation of women). A sort of anti-baby-boom. Though obviously, there would be a nine month lag between the Miracle and any impact of reduced births.

(Besides, surely the Cat 1's do NOT consume resources beyond oxygen. You don't have to feed people who will not starve to death. There may be a case for keeping them anesthetised, but if they have no brain function, then surely they aren't feeling pain. All they really need is a shelf and dusting. Not turning to dust.)