Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Eight: A Fatal Floor?
Having long since set up the rules of a post-Miracle world, here those rules are challenged and reworked. This is a tricky game to play, as the meaning of a man dying, and the definition of a Category Zero depend entirely on audiences having already internalised this shifted, skewed science-fictional world for their shock value. If supernatural horror achieves some of its effects by breaking the rules of realism and introducing threatening, fantastical elements, then Miracle Day sets itself a more difficult mission: first to realise a coherent, convincing vision of a world without death, and then to unsettle the audience by unexpectedly restoring elements of our reality. But, as yet, mortality has returned to just one deathbed.
Pre-Miracle Day Torchwood has been criticised by some writers for its “lack of originality”; in the recently published book Cult Telefantasy Series, Sue Short argues that the show never convincingly found its own identity instead typically coming across as a mix of The X-Files and Buffy (2011:179—180). This episode seems to take that refrain and play with it – look, there’s Nana Visitor from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Oh, and there’s The Next Generation‘s Q, John de Lancie, almost effortlessly stealing the show. And look, it’s co-written by Jane Buffy, Battlestar Galactica etc Espenson. This week, links to other telefantasy shows are not only front and centre as fans of American telefantasy are treated to a parade of cameos – such links simultaneously dare the viewer to ponder what, if anything, they’ve ever seen that’s remotely like this. The essence of the world is altered by one flooring underlay; characters magically discuss their escape with guards standing all around them; a celebrity paedophile requests a prostitute of legal age and tries to will himself into a different identity. Where have you seen that combo served up before?
Mind you, 24-style plot beats are all present and correct – Jilly being offered promotion by the Families; Shawnie infiltrating Oswald’s set-up and then being discovered; Charlotte acting as a Family mole within the CIA. But surrounded by Star Trek star guests and re-contextualised by Miracle Day‘s quirks, these plot points feel as if they’ve fallen through a rift in space-time and found themselves mysteriously embedded here, a veneer of generic content plastered over rampant strangeness.
Because it’s a square of flooring that’s the narrative star of the show in this ep. Unlike Henry James’ The Figure in the Carpet, this bit of floor covering surrenders its secret meanings rather than remaining forever elusive. James’s novella challenged reviewers – implying that authors could evade and escape their readers’ understanding – and this episode also throws down a gauntlet to its reviewers: Angelo’s floor may have promptly given up its mysteries, but can you find the Families? Hidden “in plain sight”, everywhere and nowhere, they are the Jamesian motif – the metaphorical figure in the carpet – through which the showrunner’s secret currently outruns his audience, tantalising with the lure of meaning yet to be unearthed. How can their names never have existed?
Angelo’s under-floor tech is sufficiently important that tie-in novel Long Time Dead by Sarah Pinborough takes specific care to integrate its recovery from the Hub. In this recently published Miracle Day prequel, one character enters the devastated Hub back at Cardiff Bay:
“he laid his torch down on the floor, idly noting an unfamiliar name stencilled on an empty packing crate: ‘Colasanto’” (Pinborough 2011:238).
It’s all rather self-referential: Jack inspired the search for immortality last week, and this week flotsam and jetsam from the good old Hub offers a way out of deathlessness. At this rate, the mysterious three men at the historical head of the Families will prove to be part of some 1920’s American Torchwood spin-off (Torchwood in Manhattan?), and the Families will have vanished themselves using time-travel shenanigans stolen from a travelling Time Lord. Personally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that things don’t get any more self-referential across the next few weeks.
Livetweeting the episode, co-writer Espenson noted that its heroes felt vulnerable and real to her; Jack doesn’t know exactly how to deal with the null field, just as Esther doesn’t know how to help the wounded, mortal Jack, and Gwen clearly doesn’t know how best to deal with Shapiro. Some have playfully interpreted this as Torchwood’s absurd incompetence (both the organisation and this series), but I’m tempted to read it more positively. Rather than omnipotently dealing with the Families’ scheme, our protagonists don’t quite cut it as action heroes: all are fatally flawed, whether by lack of field experience (Esther), lack of smooth diplomacy (Gwen), lack of knowledge (Jack) or lack of empathy (Rex). Muddling through, and doing the best they can, if this Torchwood team are victorious then it won’t ever be as a result of their pure shiny professionalism.
Of course, it’s a remix of Doctor Who: amateurism and human improvisation against monstrous worlds of managerialism, evil capitalism, and techno-industrial control. Torchwood is all about its character and organisational flaws; it always has been. Even when series one manically badged itself with hexagonal ‘T’ logos this never quite seemed convincing – as if Torchwood was trying to persuade itself of its professional standing by madly imprinting that brand everywhere. But whether flawed or floored, this serial continues to provide a rich sense of oddity and originality.