Categories of Life
Torchwood: Miracle Laws
The categories of idiot plots
It seems Russell T Davies so enjoyed his role as political commentator on Children of Earth in 2009 that he decided to repeat the experience with Torchwood: Miracle Day. Unfortunately, commentary and entertainment are not natural companions; one easily spoils the other and it takes a remarkable craftsman to make a happy marriage of the two.
Halfway through a series with twice as many episodes and a helicopter full of shiny American dollars at his disposal, all indications are that Davies is not that craftsman. A story needs more than a Big Idea and a few hasty character outlines to succeed.
Miracle Day's Big Idea, that something puts an end to death, is an intriguing macguffin, but what we cannot so easily accept is a plot driven almost entirely by the stupidity of its characters and by impossible-to-credit actions (or inactions) on the part of institutions like governments, courts and Evil Corporations.
Categories of Life opens with a whole passel of nonsense we seem to be expected to take at face value. Vera enters the nearly-deserted hall of Washington's City Hall for another meeting of the emergency medical panels, only to be stopped by an improbably stylish and supercilious clerk.
Clerk: Oh, you didn't you get the email? Sorry, those are done.
Vera: Those are done? How, how are they done?
Clerk: The report was sent to Congress today. The HHS Secretary took it directly to the President. Now the Categories have been finalized, it clears the way for a lot of legislation.
Vera: The Categories, what categories?
Clerk: The Categories of Life.
Vera: What does that mean?
Clerk: Instead of dead or alive, there are now three categories ... It's being rolled across America and Europe. The Categories become official at midnight.
Here, settle back, put up your feet; I'll fetch you a cup of tea while you ponder the stunning quantities of idiocy in that bit of dialogue. To whit,
- Doctor Vera Juarez was paying no attention whatsoever to what was said at the meetings she was attending — maybe she missed the important bits during her smoke breaks;
- lots of American legislation gets passed in half a day; and
- every other country in the western world also pays no attention to their respective constitutions or parliamentary traditions.
Compared to the Miracle of the Legislatures and the Parliaments, the end of death is nothing at all.
Back at the Torchwood hideout, the food shortages have been forgotten. Our heroes are preparing to chow down on Chinese take-out when Vera calls Rex to say she's "joining the cause".
When Vera reveals what she's learned (information that was presumably all over the news, but nevermind), Jack solemnly intones, "... this process has given the United Nations a definition for life, which is therefore a definition of death. The government now has the power to decide whether you're dead or alive. No one should have that much control."
Would you like some more tea ...?
Where in the world does Russell T Davies live? Has he never heard of brain death or organ transplants? Has he never read of litigation whose very purpose is to establish legal definitions of life and death? Tell us more, Russell T, tell us more!
Rex, Vera and Esther determine to infiltrate the local Overflow Camp to uncover the secret of The Modules, mystery structures featured in the camps' plans but missing from satellite images. Now-mortal Jack plays Ianto and promises to stay home to watch the computers. Barrowman makes that small bit of frustrated body language the best 10 seconds of the series to date, a delicate balance of camp and deadly earnest.
Rex, armed with the biggest video camera in spy-dom since Get Smart, infiltrates a camp as a "patient", Esther as a secretary and Vera, having "pulled some strings in Washington", as a VIP.
Vera's guide is the
Kamp Kommandant camp's manager, a walking stereotype of incompetence, racism and sexism named Carl Malony, so steeped in cliche that he is shocked (shocked) to learn that women can be doctors.
Despite Carl's inept attempts to hide the truth, Vera learns the Overflow Camps are more concentration camps than hospices. Naturally, she decides the best person to whom she can express her dismay is the Kommandant himself, while she is alone with him and his (armed) assistant.
Vera: ... Oh for god's sake, that's why a system like this is never gonna work, because it's always gonna be run by men like you.
Carl: Oh, so what are you gonna do, report me?
Vera: Oh I'm gonna do more than that. I'm gonna have you prosecuted.
Carl: Oh you're so full of it.
Vera: You're gonna be prosecuted for causing harm to those people in your care, and you will be found guilty as charged. I guarantee you're going to jail, you stupid little man. I'm gonna see you inside a prison cell, you limp-dicked little coward.
Carl doesn't appreciate Vera's upstanding tone and so shoots her down. Vera, sensing her advantage, insults and threatens Carl some more.
Funnily enough, Carl shoots her again. His assistant is upset, but Carl reminds him (and us, in case we've forgotten), "It's a brand new world Ralph, a world of no more death. Which means there's no more murder." Nya ha ha ha ha.
He's right about Vera. She's in a lot of pain, but she's no corpse, not yet. So it's off to The Module with her, the very same one from which Rex recently egressed after finding himself surrounded by "bodies" with no apparent signs of consciousness (What? Pay no attention to the very conscious eye trapped in the crushed automobile last week!).
Vera does get locked in, so Rex escaped either at the whim of ludicrous coincidence or an Evil Corporation with less sense of security than the average apartment-dweller popped out for a litre of milk.
But Carl's not done yet. Hold the Zyklon B, Batman! To absolutely no one's surprise, The Modules are death chambers and incinerators all in one. And Carl is firing this one up early.
Rex returns just in time to spot the bleeding Vera on the floor, but can only play the helpless documentarian, his MiniCam recording the growing conflagration through the tiny glass window.
In the outside world there is another anaemic confrontation between Jack and Oswald Danes, and more signs that Jilly Kitzinger is somehow Special, but none of it is going anywhere particularly fast.
And meanwhile, back in Wales, Gwen has gone home on a personal mission, to get Dear Old Dad out of the clutches of an Overflow Camp.
Her sophisticated Torchwood training first sees her shouting at low-ranking soldiers and bureaucrats. When that strategy unaccountably fails to free Dear Old Dad (and even fails to get her arrested) she and Rhys resort to subterfuge in the form of a big truck.
Surprise! They easily find their way into the (ahem) highly secure compound, then wander about for a while apparently at random until they stumble upon Dear Old Dad — who promptly has another heart attack. And so on.
Why PhiCorp wants Danes as its poster-boy remains a mystery, but it's not one keeping me up nights. Nor is the fate of Gwen's Dear Old Dad or the nature of Handsome Man saying cryptic things to Jilly. I don't even have much interest in what happens to Vera. Given Davies' history, she might as easily live as die, but since I don't believe in her or her predicament, but really, who cares?
And therein lies the rub. This program is not just staggering along at a narcoleptic pace, it is so fundamentally implausible that we can't care what happens to the characters because we don't believe in them. Similarly, we can't take Davies' political commentary seriously because we don't believe he understands the first thing about politics, or medicine, or law, or, or, or ...
At this point, the Miracle — the end of death — is the most credible element of the whole series. And that, Mr. Davies, is one hell of a problem.