Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Four: Escaping Cliché?

August 5, 2011
By | 7 Comments

One of the odd things about blogging a TV series as it goes along, rather than writing about it after the fact, is that certain narrative events, even specific scenes, can come to define a show. Torchwood: Children of Earth announced its intent through that Cabinet discussion, for example. Miracle Day has, thus far, offered its share of gruesome, spectacular non-deaths – Ellis Hartley Monroe’s this week managing to top earlier efforts – but it doesn’t feel as though it has yet reached its defining point. Episode Four, ‘Escape to L.A.’, offers some prefiguring, perhaps, via ‘Dead Is Dead’ satire. Because the overflow camps are coming. I can’t help but wonder – and this is speculation rather than spoiler – if Torchwood is going to go to the darkest of places… primetime BBC1 connotations of the Holocaust? Would Russell T. Davies really dare? Because if Miracle Day does go there, then all earlier discussions – all earlier grumbles and niggles – are going to tumble into irrelevance. Have episodes one to four constituted nothing less than the delay and decay necessary to accrete a narrative world in which the unthinkable can, somehow, become thinkable?

Viewed, as yet, without that larger context, episode four still feels attenuated. It’s the protraction – the you-don’t-know-yet – that thrillers need. A scary mystery man pursues Torchwood. And he gives enigmatic clues about what’s going on, bless him, embodying a hackneyed device that’s even older than Captain Jack, and which the writers hang a sizeable lampshade on by way of deflecting criticism; “oh great, he’s cryptic”, Gwen tells us just in case we’d not noticed. But this is where it gets interesting. Because Miracle Day has made a big show of its socio-politico-medical extrapolations – what would happen if nobody could die? Breeding infections; the ‘Dead Is Dead’ right-wingery; Oswald Danes as a Phicorp mouthpiece, etc. ‘Look’, the series says, ‘look at how carefully we’ve thought about what this would do to the skin, and flesh, and bone and sinews of the world.’ Dr. Vera attends various medical panels, as further consequences are computed and considered. Everything changes, as they say.

And then we get the following narrative gambit: scary mystery man (C. Thomas Howell) is about to spill the beans on his scary mystery paymasters. And he gets shot before he can do so. Doh! But wait a minute – nobody can die now, so this cliché shouldn’t work any more. Like macro world-changing extrapolations, the conventions of thriller narratives also need to be extrapolated from, shifted, and destabilised by the writing team. But instead clichés are replayed with just a veneer of difference. The Baddies want rid of Ellis Hartley Monroe. They can’t kill her, so instead she’s crushed inside a car, leaving her a compacted cube of baleful eye and engine parts.

Or, in old money: she’s bumped off and out of the story.

Likewise, scary mystery man can’t be silenced by his untimely death. Oh, wait, no, he’s been shot in the neck by Rex and so now can only gurgle and froth even more cryptic sounds. But Team Torchwood could surely still get him to write down the answers to what’s going on. Pen and paper to save the world. The story doesn’t seem interested in pursuing this line, though, because in narrative terms he’s been bumped off too, as per thriller conventions.

In short, what this episode illustrates is that Miracle Day is characterised by a schizophrenic, divided premise: it makes a big show of altering social/political/medical logic, yet soldiers on with pre-Miracle narrative logic and all its associated cliches. The result is a series that feels torn in two.

Whether the writers’ room intuited this or not – and I’m guessing it did – episode four does something rather marvellous. It appears to set out two distinct story strands: Rhys and baby Anwen are back in Swansea, whereas Gwen is on a Torchwood mission in Venice Beach. Rhys calls at inopportune moments, and the US-UK time difference is toyed with; “it’s already tonight”, the poor fellow protests. The separateness of these two worlds is reinforced. Then, just as the overflow camps are discovered, we find that what have been constructed as two divorced realms collapse together to create a new level of jeopardy for Gwen’s family. This unexpected dovetailing is well crafted, leaving the viewer with a feeling that things are, at last, coming together. But the merging is partly a feint; by crafting a storyline with such a strong unifying impulse, ‘Escape to L.A.’ covers over the fact that it remains structurally split between an altered diegetic world and unaltered thriller tropes.

Oh, and the spinning-triangle Baddies know Captain Jack of old. Who are these evil geometry fiends? The hokum quotient puts me in mind of Russell T Davies’ 1991 TV drama, Dark Season, although that was BBC kids’ television rather than a big, global, grown-up conspiracy drama. And yet there’s something oddly child-like about Miracle Day‘s adherence to the reassuring familiarity of unreconstructed action-adventure. While humanity stumbles toward ruin, there are shadowy figures behind the scenes pulling all the strings. Ontological shock meets old school. Forget US/UK tensions. This, I’d say, is the most powerful culture clash currently underpinning Miracle Day: a startling science-fictional novum strained through thriller clichés.



7 Responses to “ Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Four: Escaping Cliché? ”

  1. Laurie on August 5, 2011 at 10:21 AM

    You do raise an interesting question beyond the one raised by the series. Not only: what happens to a world in which no one dies, but also what happens to a narrative when no one can be killed off? Are these characters really out of the story, or are they like Jack in Day 2? Seemingly out of it but slowly reassembling themselves into the narrative?

    • Matt Hills on August 7, 2011 at 8:13 PM

      Thanks, Laurie — it’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at least one character we assume is out of the story is brought back later on; it would seem remiss not to exploit this narrative possibility generated by the Miracle. (And it’s a soap/thriller staple, after all; the Big Reveal of a character assumed to have died). Having said that, Ellis’s exact fate in 4.04 would seem to preclude any return for her, and the scary mystery man very strongly fitted into a specific set of story beats, so I can’t really see him returning either. But time will tell!

  2. Aya Vandenbussche on August 5, 2011 at 2:37 PM


    Very interesting review and quite insightful. I look forward to see how it all unveils. I hope it improves as so far it has been a disappointment.

    Interesting point you made about the holocaust aspect, and I do wonder if he can top Children of Earth. So far it looks like a second hand recycling of CoE (note that the previews for the next episode included a monologue of Gwen to the camera which looked alarmingly similar to the one she had on CoE) and the silence from the Moffat’s Doctor Who, though I hope to be proven wrong about that.

    I hope you don’t mind me referring you to a post I wrote about Children of Earth that relates a lot to what you say at the beginning of this post. Would love to know your thoughts.

  3. Matt Hills on August 7, 2011 at 8:30 PM

    Thanks for the link, Aya; a very interesting argument. CoE and ‘Turn Left’ have certainly included quite clear Holocaust imagery, although with the appearance of ‘overflow camps’ TW:MD looks set to develop this beyond any of Russell T. Davies’s prior takes on the subject. Rex’s jocular nickname for Jack suddenly seems ever more relevant, and I can’t help but wonder whether Jack’s WWII experiences will become part of the MD plot.

    Wasn’t Gwen’s monologue-to-camera filmed as part of the Starz promotional campaign for MD? I recall there being a set of pieces, one for almost every lead character, in which they all spoke directly to camera. So although it appears to cite or repeat CoE, I think it was a stylistically unified part of the Starz marketing. I could be wrong on that, though.

    • Laurie on August 8, 2011 at 8:12 AM

      The latest episode reinforces the Holocaust parallels to the nth degree, and I hear that a future episode is a flashback to one of Jack’s past relationships, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we go back to WWII Jack yet again. One of the things I’ve observed about TW is that it always tells its investigative stories in terms of how they impact the core TW crew, especially Jack. It’s not like most investigative team shows where the team investigates an episodic plot without obvious personal connections. TW always frames its stories in terms of the effect on the crew. Think “Small World” where they were ostensibly investigating the fairies, but the focus was on Jack and Estelle and Gwen figuring things out about Jack.

      • Aya Vandenbussche on August 9, 2011 at 3:17 AM

        It is very clear that RTD is once again going the holocaust way. I’m not sure I like it though. I personally feel the impact is lost, or if not lost definitely not as strong as it was on CoE.

        I agree with you Laurie that there’s always a personal relation to the story, which usually helps us relate and care. However with the current series I can’t say I feel the same. It might be because I can’t stand Gwen so her personal story has no impact on me whatsoever. I am curious about Jack’s connection to it all but I can’t say my emotions are moved so far. The new crew haven’t made me relate or like them as much as I did Toshiko, Owen and Ianto.

        Spoiler Alert:

        In this episode when Vera is shot and than left for undead in the container, it didn’t affect me as much as all that happen to the former crew. I can’t put my finger on whether they are not great actors or that the character development is a bit flawed.

        I will say this Bill Pullman gives a fantastic performance so far, and I find him to be the most interesting character so far. Despite that, I am still hopeful.

  4. Bellaluna on August 13, 2011 at 9:59 PM

    I just watched that episode earlier and I personally found that it was close to boardering on poor taste. I’m okay with Holocaust allegories, one would just need to do three things. 1. As long as one is careful about it since it’s still a sensitive subject, 2. It makes sense in the context, and 3. make sure there is a reason for it, don’t add in a allegory “just because.” Because if one does that, it will come off as in poor taste, and not only offensive to the 32 million victims, but also to the survivors and their families.