Jack is immortal thanks to Rose Tyler using the power of the time-vortex from the TARDIS in the Doctor Who episode “The Parting of the Ways,” but every Who fan knows in their heart of hearts that Miracle Day will NEVER bring that up. This makes Miracle Day kind of weird. On the one had Miracle Day is playing it really safe by not incorporating their Doctor Who or old school Torchwood geeky sci-fi baggage. On the other hand the show is being extremely risky with its actual subject matter. This is interesting, because just like the various categories of life defined in the latest episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day, I’m not sure what category this whole mini-series falls into. Is it as Esther says,” Category Jack?” Or is it something else?
True to the episode title, “The Categories of Life” is about a new measure instituted by several world governments (and manipulated by evil pharmaceutical company Phicorp) to define the various states of life and death for the now-immortal human race. Category One is the worst, as it effectively renders you dead in the eyes of the government. The implications of this are fairly severe, as “overflow camps” are being set up around the world that imprison the living dead who are beyond help, but cursed by the “miracle” of being alive. The powerful social commentary of a paranoid government taking extreme measures feels reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness insofar as ignorance and class division rule the day in an apocalyptic scenario like this.
This isn’t the first time Russell T. Davies has delved into the notion of a government gone mad because of a science fiction conflict. We had similar kinds of death camps in the Doctor Who episode “Turn Left” and children being shipped by the busload towards dubious fates in Children of Earth. In the Russell T. Davies world, the entire social political infrastructure of the planet gets screwed with pretty much every six months. But is this the same Earth that was moved across the stars by Davros in “Journey’s End” or threatened by the Sycorax in the “The Christmas Invasion?” The Torchwood team was involved in both of those Who stories, to say nothing of the various ways they thwarted alien stuff coming out of the rift in the first two seasons of the show. However, I can’t picture Rex or Esther talking about that space-time rift in Cardiff, and even though Jack makes references to distant moons and distant stars throughout the show, sometime I don’t even buy it. I know that Miracle Day has toned-down the Whoinverse stuff in order to expand its viewership, but the show is marketed at someone like me, too, and quite frankly I feel like Jack and Gwen have slipped into an alternate universe.
This is not to say the alternate universe is a bad one, or an unconvincing one. “Categories of Life” as an episode is actually pretty damn good. Dr. Vera Juarez’s infiltration of one of the overflow camps is particularly harrowing and the fact that the uninsured patients are being treated barbarically is uncomfortably realistic. The moment when the creepy director of the facility tells Vera that he’s “under budget” bespeaks of the worst tendencies of government. In Miracle Day, the Torchwood team is really fighting red tape and the mediocrity of society instead of aliens.
Gwen has a somewhat parallel adventure to Vera and Rex in this episode as she infiltrates the Wales overflow camp in an attempt to rescue her father. I found this plotline to be slightly less interesting, which is ironic, insofar as Gwen is a more familiar character. There was something about what was being revealed in the American overflow camp that felt more central to the horrific themes of what the show seems to be all about. Gwen’s adventure had lower stakes for me, as ultimately, I just want the team to get reunited and start kicking some ass.
Herein lies the paradox of Miracle Day, as many characters point out, there is no such thing as Torchwood anymore. They don’t have a base, they don’t have any authority, and for the most part they are running scared. While all of this creates good dramatic structure and a sense of realism, I can’t say it’s entirely satisfying. When Jack goes to confront Oswald Danes at the end of the episode in an attempt to expose Phicorp, you really get the sense that it might work. But it doesn’t, and Oswald proves himself to be the terrible human being we knew he was at the start of the show. The speech Jack gives him is almost reminiscent of something The Doctor would do, and so you really want it to sink in, and when it doesn’t, you’re devastated. This isn’t bad writing, but I’m starting to get a little depressed.
The depression kicks in full tilt when poor Vera is brutally shot in the overflow camp. Previously, I’ve written about how frightening violence is within the Miracle Day conceit, and this probably the best example. We know that Vera is not going to die, but will instead be in perpetual, agonizing pain. This is made all the more depressing, as we know what a great and heroic person Vera is, so now we’re being robbed of her being able to continue to save the day. Again, is this bad writing? Probably not, but I’m starting to sense things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.
Torchwood: Miracle Day has me hooked. The social commentary and complete exploration of a science fiction concept is outstanding, and I’d say slightly better than Children of Earth. And yet, I wonder if it needed to be Torchwood at all. Because the tone is so different than previous incarnations, I suspect people won’t be fixed by some kind of Rose Tyler miracle in this storyline. The universe of this version of Torchwood is fairly cynical and depressing. This makes for great writing. But in a way, I’m holding out for a hero here. And we’ve got one; Captain Jack Harkness. And despite my fears, I’m still hoping he steps up and saves the day.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.