Will Torchwood: Miracle Day Change the Boundaries of On-Screen Violence?

On Friday, Torchwood: Miracle Day hit U.S. screens with a bunch of explosions, a lot of running, and as promised, not one single death. Within the fictional universe of Miracle Day the moral, ethical, spiritual and practical implications of a world without death are being tackled expertly. But another competing premise is happening just below the surface of the action. What kind of TV will emerge from this violent, heavy-on-gunplay series? From the looks of the first episode, this new Torchwood is set to be one of the most gruesome and jarring TV shows of all time; and it’s not just because of the visual depiction of the violence. Instead, it’s all about how we deal with the violence when characters can’t die.

Spoilers for “The New World” below.

Recently, I saw a YouTube video that had strung together every single “gun barrel” introduction of all the James Bond films. For about ten minutes, I watched 007 amble into view, turn and shoot his gun resulting in a screen covered with blood. As the arrangement of the music changed and Bond’s bell bottoms grew and receded, something else happened: I started to hear the gunshot after the blood starting spilling over the screen. The violence became an inevitable part of the experience, something I expected to happen which meant my brain assumed it had already happened. It occurred to me that this is pretty much the experience of watching all onscreen violence, the offing of characters is an expected part of action/violence narratives.

But Miracle Day is altering this perception with its basic conceit. In a show in which no one can die, having guns or bombs going off means something completely different. Sure, under this premise, people can still be stopped by guns and violence, but not eliminated entirely. A gun has dramatic tension because it is a final answer to the question of what the future of a character might be. In Miracle Day this is totally different because here a gun or other tool of violence is actually more horrifying because it will maim a person without ending the misery. This is demonstrated pretty effectively in the scene in which an autopsy is being performed on the suicide bomber and Jack casually says, “What would happen if we removed the head?” When truly decapitated, this mess of a person is still alive.

With television and film, audiences obviously process death differently than they do in real life. In the previous Torchwood series Jack suffered two losses; his grandson and Ianto. There were other deaths in that series, too, but we certainly didn’t register those the way we did with characters that are central to the story. Further, as pointed out by numerous comedians and critics, Luke Skywalker murders countless people when he destroys the Death Star in Star Wars, but we’re not upset about it at all.

The point is death isn’t necessarily what creates the dramatic tension in fiction. Instead, the level and intensity of the violence is what registers with us. We don’t hear the screams of the people Luke murders, so we don’t worry about it. In Children of Earth we see Ianto and Jack’s grandson die, so we’re depressed. And now with Miracle Day, we see characters being brutally and physically maligned, and live on. Whether it’s the hole in Rex’s chest, or the poison that runs through the veins of Oswald Danes, these people are in serious physical pain, and because the pain is neverending, we’re thinking about it the whole time. In short, the violence goes on and on after the shot goes off.

In the final scene of the first episode of Miracle Day, Gwen shoots down a helicopter of mysterious mercenaries intent of taking out her and her family. As Jack and Gwen approached the wreckage of the downed helicopter, the only thing I could think was: the people inside are still alive! The idea of undead humans is not new to science fiction or fantasy one bit. But the humans in Miracle Day aren’t zombies or vampires. They aren’t brain-dead or bloodthirsty. Instead, they’re just more in pain than they were before. In this way, writer and creator Russell T. Davies is really ratcheting up the experience of violence on screen. Just how much punishment can we endure; when we know ultimately there is no end to it?

However, there’s a bit of a paradox here.  Unlike the show from which it was spun-off, Torchwood has usually solved its conflicts with gun-play style violence, but now these characters are going to be forced to explore other options. It remains to be seen if these characters will indeed be able to come up with new options, or if the violence will get even more gruesome and neverending. The Torchwood team, and Captain Jack specifically, have always had a bit of amorality to their behaviors, but now the events of Miracle Day could potentially force them to behave a little better in the face of so much suffering. The fact that Russell T. Davies is able to push this kind of drama out of characters with a simple three word concept is amazing. Just by saying “no one dies” the dramatic uses of violence are totally redefined and characters we thought we understood are possibly going through massive changes. Just how dark will this mini-series get? At this point, I’m a little freaked out. And that’s good thing.

Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. He really can’t picture that one blowfish alien from the old Torchwood having a place in the new Torchwood.


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