Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Five: The Allegories of Life?

August 12, 2011
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There’s no faulting the ambition of this version of Torchwood, which here tips its hand as SF TV coding the Holocaust. Science fiction has long been lauded as a genre which is able to smuggle in social critique via symbolic, allegorical means. But this episode doesn’t surreptitiously smuggle its meanings in, it pretty much drivcs them in through a big plate-glass window. It’s one way of doing hard-hitting TV (c.f. Queer as Folk).

By wearing its (great)coat of allegory so conspicuously, Miracle Day creates a problem for itself. Because it isn’t just symbolically coding the Holocaust, it’s also doing something else at the same time: creating a science-fictional mystery about who’s behind Phicorp, and what they stand to gain. This means that the Holocaust parallels are muddled, if not undercut. The likes of Maloney may be petty bureaucrats intent on coming in “under budget”, and the modules’ purpose may be opaque to many of those involved who shrug and say “ask admin”, but all those renderings of ‘just following orders’ beg the question – what’s the point of it all? What do Phicorp’s controllers stand to gain? And this level of meaning runs somewhat counter to ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ by implying an as-yet-unknown fantastical explanation for events. Vera speculates that the category 1 patients may be used as petri dishes to breed new diseases, but burning them doesn’t immediately or obviously benefit Phicorp.

What, then, is the value of presumably still-living ashes to the spinning-triangle Baddies? Has all this happened before, and so somewhere on earth (or beyond) there are special areas of geography where the soil is already sentient? Perhaps “the Families” used to have names because they are now living molecules, dispersed into the environment, but still interconnected by morphic fields (and that’s been mentioned enough times it’s clearly going to come back in the eventual reveal). I’m tempted to ponder whether, following the Holocaust parallels, there’s going to be some sort of Gaia agenda, with living earth being (re)created on Earth. But the fact that, as a science fiction fan, I’m considering such questions and mysteries suggests that Torchwood‘s coding of the Holocaust could be so much more powerful – and so much more hard-hitting – without accompanying layers of SF mystery. The fact that this is science-fictional allegory gets in the way of what’s being connoted, rather than simply helping to smuggle challenging material into primetime TV.

Worse, though, the revelation that we’re dealing with a version of the Holocaust comes at Miracle Day‘s midway point, suggesting again that there are further, bigger reveals to come. There’s a breath-taking kind of allegorical grade inflation here: the Holocaust somehow only merits an AA+ allegory rating, with the triple-A-rated stuff yet to come. Holocaust parallels as a kind of midseries game-changer? Didn’t anyone dare question this in storylining terms? Because it raises the question of what, if anything, could possibly be worse. And it simultaneously raises an ethical question: should an historical event of such magnitude and implication be used to furnish a rather muddled set of half-time, second-tier connotations?

This episode also focalises its trauma via Dr Vera Juarez’s fate. But Torchwood has killed off so many lead characters across its run, that to (seemingly) kill a character we’ve only seen in 5 episodes lacks the impact of Ianto Jones’ death, say, or even those of Tosh and Owen back in the days of series two. It feels comparatively less significant this time, which is surely again a difficulty: for long-terms fans, at least, Miracle Day is potentially pulling against the show’s history in order to realise its intended impact.

Intertextually (Vera is no Ianto), narratively (coming at the end of episode five rather than climactically at the end of episode nine), and generically (what about the Big SF Mystery?) Miracle Day‘s allegorical coding of the Holocaust is lessened, weakened, and reduced. It should be plain heartbreaking. It really should be utterly, utterly devastating. What we get are cuts from stadium lighting at the Miracle Day Rally to flames surrounding Dr. Vera. The bright lights of media celebrity visually rhymed with concentration camp death; different shades of (extra)ordinary humanity. It’s a startling piece of editing and intercutting, to be sure, its meaning-making also strongly aestheticised. But it’s yet another layer of distraction, pushing the audience to think about Oswald’s loyalties while the San Pedro module fires up. In fact, this episode pulls its punches in so many ways that I’m tempted to conclude the Holocaust parallel is made obvious only to the extent that its impact can be warded off, guarded against, and contained. Perhaps ‘The Categories of Life’ would have been more shocking, and more potent, if its allegorical coating had been that bit thicker, and its connotations just that bit less obvious. By wanting to announce its audacity, Miracle Day calls into question its own narrative ethics – globalised TV drama may ask tough questions about what humanity is capable of, but should it evoke real-world global traumas as second-order shocks, subordinated to a science fiction story-arc? The show’s undoubted success this week lies in provoking questions not just about man’s inhumanity, but also about Miracle Day‘s own narrative and allegorical form.



One Response to “ Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Five: The Allegories of Life? ”

  1. Matthew Kilburn on August 12, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    This post very usefully provides definition to the uncertain reception the concentration camp parallels have elicited. I was barely in doubt of Oswald’s loyalties, though it’s difficult to be certain, given how Miracle Day has cut Torchwood adrift from familiar moorings, how far the audience is meant to recognise Jack’s instincts as flawed. It’s not surprising in the context of the overflow camp storyline that some commentators have begun to doubt whether there will be an SF explanation unveiled at all, at least within the established Torchwood tradition of alien intervention.