Mon
Aug 8 2011 2:51pm

Category Jack: Torchwood Miracle Day, “The Categories of Life”

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?

Spoilers ahead.

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.

10 comments
Ty Margheim
1. alSeen
I'm annoyed by this season so far.

The dig at "uninsurred" was really heavy handed. These are government run installations in a time of emergency. Insurance wouldn't enter into the equation.

I also hate that they aren't part of the Who universe.

Children of Earth was great (up until the last episode). Miracle Day is so so.
Tara Mitchell
2. Jaxicat
So far I just haven't really liked Miracle Day. It doesn't feel like Torchwood and I don't like the characters.
Alex Brown
3. AlexBrown
I'm also really unclear about this whole lack of remembering the constant alien attacks. In Doctor Who, Eleven mentioned something about that in (I think) season 5 when Amy asked what the Daleks were and he was shocked she didn't remember. But it doesn't seem that RTD is playing that same game. If the Americans know about TW blowing up half of Cardiff then why don't they know about Buckingham Palace getting almost blown up every frakking Christmas for the last 5 years?

Also, WHAT THE FRAK happened to the Weevils and all those prisoners in the basement of TW? Why does NO ONE care about them? What, are they just running around Cardiff again?

I'm not entirely sold on this new TW. America seems to be a superfluous plot point - this story could just as easily (and with less plot holes) be told in the UK and not suffer from frakking Rex and Babe (I don't know what her TW character name is, but to me she'll always be that dumb blonde from All My Children). This season seems to have taken the worst of seasons 1 and 2 and tried to pair it with the grandeus and melodrama of CoE and it just isn't working.

@alseen: I'm not sure what you're thinking of in terms of government, but the more dire the situation the more bureaucratic the government gets. I mean, seriously, have you been watching the news recently? I was actually surprised to see the non-insured even processed, frankly. In the real world there'd be 4 categories, with the uninsured who aren't category 1 stuck in a government run tenement without basic utilities. Saving money ALWAYS enters the equation, especially if you don't have to pay for it. If the government can foist payment onto the insurance companies, dollars to donuts they will. Not to get all political, but just look at New Orleans during and post-K. The federal, state, and local governments became a clusterf*ck of bureaucracy and denial of responsibility which left the Gulf Coast to suffer alone.
Ursula L
4. Ursula
As far as the Torchwood/Doctor Who connection goes, just how strong is it? Yes, the Doctor is important to the fan-viewer.

But Jack is the only person in Torchwood who was ever close to the Doctor. And from what I can tell, to Jack, the Doctor is someone he traveled with for no more than a few months, thousands of years ago. An old friend, but not one he's in the habit of relying on in an emergency.

***

As far as the uninsured being treated badly, are these camps really being run by the government? I thought they were set up by the pharmacutical company?

And for the US government to subcontract public services with for-profit private companies is quiet realistic. As is the company putting its finances ahead of the government's needs.

How realistic is the way that the camps are being run in the UK, with its long history with NHS? I'd expect that the culture of the medical workers there would be quite different, and that should reflect in how the patients are treated.
Nicoclaws
5. Nicoclaws
I find it funny that you mentionned Saramago's Blindness and not the more accurate Death with Interruptions which dwell on the same subject (in a less action-y, more satirical kind of way) .
I still have faith that a lot of the alien elements are going to be shown next episodes. Enough foreshadowing already !
Nicoclaws
6. Tumas-Muscat
I'm actually going to go with the unimpressed fans at this point; I'm sorry, but Torchwood is a mess this season. Part of it has to do with the 'Americanisation' of the programme, and I do not the mean the change of setting (See http://doctorwhotv.co.uk/torchwood-miracle-day-episode-2-review-23253.htm for what I mean).

Anyway, I digress. So, where to begin lambasting?

First: Lack of Doctor Who references. Seriously, that was intentional? Part of the charm of the previous series was that they reflected developments in DW and vice-versa; at one time the former gave hints on the latter (two words: 'Vote Saxon'). In one of the best moments of Children of Earth Gwen even mused on the idea that the Doctor may actually abandon them because humanity has brought its plight unto itself! Practically taking Torchwood out of DW universe just doesn't make sense, and alienates the core fans, in my opinion.

Second: The portrayal of government. I love the fact that a cynical angle is taken on portraying the goverments' reaction to such a drastic crisis, because I think it's rather realistic (including that jab at insurance in this episode). Here, however, I can't help but compare CoE with this episode's portrayal of government employees. In the former, yes, they were antagonistic and acted out of some twisted logic and with increasing bureaucracy, but at least they were shown to be three-dimensional characters. Frobischer was as much the victim of the system and his superiors as the rest of the country was. In this episode, we have Maloney. Seriously, this guy is a caricature of a typical villanous American lackey: he's sexist, ignorant, and lacks any redeeming qualities. If I want something which takes the time to realistically consider the effects of worldwide immortality, I'd like it to make people's reactions also realistic. Children of Earth did something similar beautifully in 5 episodes, why didn't it happen this time?


Third: Inconsistent characterisation. *SPOILERS AHEAD* My main qualm this episode is with the portrayal of Dr Juarez. In the last episodes we saw this intelligent woman who could work well under pressure. And I'm supposed to believe that all of a sudden, she'd be ready to threaten an obviously sick man accompanied by an armed soldier, while on a RECON mission? I'm sorry, but that was totally out of character, and an insulting way to end a character who had otherwise proved herself better. Shoddy writing if I ever saw any. *SPOILERS END*

Well I think I've had enough ranting for now. As much as I've lost faith in the series so far, I just hope the next episodes pick up the pace and give some REAL clues on who's behind all this and why.
David Thomson
7. ZetaStriker
I'll add that I could buy Vera getting angry and going off the handle at the poor care those patients were receiving; it went against everything she'd built her entire life around, and being intelligent doesn't necessarily make you good at espionage. What I found unbelievable was that she took it that far. The scene just lasted too long, and ended up devolving to "you're gonna go to jail~ neener neener neener~!" I can see her taking the guy to task, I just don't see her throwing that kind of childish tantrum.

Worse though was that Jack, who really should know better, does the exact same thing to Jilly just a few minutes later. It felt as bad as watching a superhero villain explain his plan for the reader's benefit; all "BWAHAHAHA, look what I've done!" that just feels like lazy writing.
Ursula L
8. Ursula
Vera's outburst seemed very in-character to me.

She's an attending surgon, who, by force of her personality, got the emergency department at her hospital to completely change their triage proceedures. This was completely beyond her authority, but rather than being repremanded, she convinced the administration to make her changes permanent and put her on key committees to handle the "miracle."

Vera is someone who sees something that needs doing and is quite loud about it. It doesn't surprise me that she tried the same forceful way of instigating necessary change at the overflow camp. This time, her standard way of attacking a problem backfired.
Nicoclaws
9. aipat
"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."

Wasn't that the whole point of the storyline on the plane? Jack's the only mortal now! The whole thing's back to front and he STILL is the odd man out! We haven't heard anything on this lately, but I bet it's coming up again soon. I'm intrigued by the storyline, but it is going awfully slowly right now.
Janet Thomas
10. Taffy
"Also, WHAT THE FRAK happened to the Weevils and all those prisoners inthe basement of TW? Why does NO ONE care about them? What, are they justrunning around Cardiff again?"

Oh, Milo. That's *so* "last" season. This is the NEW Torchwood. Apparently we're not using continuity this season.

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