Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Four: Escaping Cliché?
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.