Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Six: Stuck in the Middle?

August 19, 2011
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In this week’s post I want to tackle the idea that Miracle Day has been too slow, suggesting that the critique rests on a category error; a refusal to enter into the genre game being played by the series. Because the thriller is a genre identifiable as being almost all middle: a journey where the pay-off doesn’t arrive until the finale.

Episodes one to nine will, by definition, be gradually decoded bits of narrative machinery encountered en route: enigma after mystery after puzzle. This week, for instance, we get the Shanghai operative who joins the 45 Club within moments of its introduction: whatever he saw on that secret Phicorp site was evidently grotesque enough and bleak enough to provoke immediate ‘suicide’. At the heart of any thriller there’s a gap, an invisibility, a blankness promising significance and meaning. Imagination fills that gap: what do you think he saw? How bad could it have been? What the hell was it?

This episode poses other questions; are Phicorp executive Stuart Owens and overflow camp boss Colin Maloney both just ‘middle men’? Both are caught up in a system that they can’t clearly understand or effect. Phicorp’s control over the Miracle is thus akin to penpusher Maloney’s control over the San Pedro modules, suggesting a symbolic coherence of sorts. Indeed, Owens’ account of the build-up to the Miracle is a dialogue highlight. He tells Jack that this doesn’t betray any perceptible force at work, just carefully hidden and artfully dispersed networks of accountability implicating everyone and no-one. A truly powerful conspiracy would never be visible… so the failure to find any sign of unknown forces at work is evidence of inconceivable, omnipotent forces at work. Writer John Shiban sells this mad logic by dressing it up in the form of actor Ernie Hudson; conspiracy paranoia in a three-piece suit.

However, Shiban can’t quite decide how to handle the concentration camps storyline – this episode wants to indicate that team Torchwood secure a moral victory by exposing what’s going on, but then also wants to undercut their triumph by showing that the political system simply carries on. The former perspective exaggerates Torchwood’s action-adventure agency – the Holocaust as Monster of the Week? – as well as overplaying the role of social media in a rather self-congratulatory way. The implication appears to be that in a world of uploaded video, there could be no Holocaust because the truth would always get out there (either on a video-camera or via magic contact lenses). And the latter perspective – “Torchwood wasn’t designed to fight politicians”, Jack solemnly intones – broaches a melancholic worldview where easy fixes (and genre resolutions) don’t work, and where reality is a more complex system. It’s a murky world which leaves Torchwood‘s heroes stuck in the middle too.

But what of the show’s audiences? Are we stuck in the middle in another sense – watching the sixth of ten episodes and still not understanding what’s going on? As literary theorist Lars Ole Sauerberg has argued, suspense in the thriller hinges on concealment and protraction: withholding crucial narrative information (who’s behind the Miracle? Why?), and “stretching an issue and its result as much as may be tolerated” (1984:83). There are two ways of achieving protraction: prolongation and shift (ibid.). As examples, Sauerberg refers to a countdown (prolongation) and a flashback that changes the story’s setting (shift) – a textbook example of the latter looks to be episode seven, judging by the ‘Next Time’ trailer. In short, Miracle Day is placed within a genre which hinges on not giving away key narrative information until perhaps the closing scenes of the closing episode; we edge closer to the final reveal, but encounter numerous layers of implications, hints, and clues along the way – with “The Blessing” being added this week to previous weeks’ mentions of “the families” and special “geography.”

Because we’re ‘The Middle Men’ and women, Torchwood‘s viewers who assent to the thriller’s rules and go along for the ride. Sure, we expect twists along the way – but the end of episode five did that, as did this week’s ending, whilst episodes one and two largely set up the show’s premise and the new Torchwood team. Eps three and four consolidated the post-Miracle world, building up Phicorp’s role and prefiguring the overflow camps via ‘Dead is Dead’. I can’t see any of this as “treading water” – but if you try to read a thriller as episodic TV (with a tidy resolution or a big reveal allocated to each week’s narrative) then it will look slow, whether you’re talking about The Shadow Line, Edge of Darkness, State of Play or Torchwood: Miracle Day. Moving even closer to the thriller format than Children of Earth, this year’s Torchwood wants its audience to spend nine weeks asking questions and imagining answers rather than being handed them every fifty-or-so minutes. I’m still hoping that the final reveal will be breathtaking enough, challenging enough, and bold enough to have richly deserved weeks and weeks of speculation over cryptic phrases. But ultimately any thriller’s labyrinthine plotting – where those stuck in the middle are “just following orders”, and where our heroes can’t instantly bring down a political elite – is about transforming opaque, incomprehensible systems into legible, significant patterns of meaning. Miracle Day‘s genre contract involves the promise of meaning – delayed, deferred and withheld via concealment/protraction, yet promised nonetheless. You have to tolerate being stuck in the story’s elongated middle in order to appreciate eventual revelation.



5 Responses to “ Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Six: Stuck in the Middle? ”

  1. Morgan Hamilton on August 20, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    But in spite of what Russell now wants to shove down our throats, Torchwood was conceived as a *SCIENCE FICTION* program not a Thriller or Political Drama. As much as I enjoyed/ am enjoying parts of both CoE and MD, if I want to watch a Thriller/Drama there are any number of them to choose from already but when it comes to Sci-Fi there just aren’t as many choices out there. Changing generes in midstream is just tacky. For me the change in TW has been akin to turning The Brady Bunch into Oz. It just doesn’t compute.

  2. Jason Mittell on August 26, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    I’ve fallen behind on the show, so just catching up to your reviews now. I think it’s less of a genre problem than an execution issue – I’m on board with a compelling slow-burn thriller (Rubicon was a recent example that mostly worked in that vein), but not one with such weak dialog, clichéd action plots, and thin characterization (beyond Jack & Gwen). I’m so bored moment to moment, even when it’s supposed to be exciting action, that I’m only left wondering about the larger meaning or rationale – is the high concept payoff worth a tedious & forgettable journey?

    • Matt Hills on August 29, 2011 at 5:23 PM

      A good point, Jason. I watched Rubicon, and agree it worked well (I was sad not to see it return for a second series). But I’m not sure I’d agree with your characterization of TW:MD. Regardless of our differing interpretations, at a subjective level I guess there’s a kind of utilitarian calculus to the thriller. If “stretching an issue… as much as may be tolerated” goes beyond what feels tolerable for a viewer then they will tune out. And, equally, if the (delaying) journey feels intrinsically unrewarding in and of itself then the ‘equation’ called for by the thriller again won’t play properly.

      Having said that, I wonder if there’s a necessarily masochistic component to taking pleasure from the thriller form? A different (and less loaded) way of thinking about audience engagements with TW:MD might be to consider fandom as articulated with “heuristic hope” — hopefulness that the pay-off will prove worthwhile (and offer an intensity of sensation), thus redeeming TW:MD’s less compelling moments or episodes. So perhaps it’s partly my fandom that keeps me watching — not masochistically, but hopefully. And perhaps, by contrast, your own viewing isn’t linked to this overarching hope?

      • Jason Mittell on August 30, 2011 at 2:13 AM

        I think you nailed a key aspect of watching a serial: faith in the (implied) author. For me, my allegiance to Torchwood & RTD is shallow – I adore Children of Earth, but haven’t liked the episode or two of earlier TW I’ve seen, and I’m quite mixed on RTD-era DW. So I’m not willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt, and thus I assume that the payoff will underwhelm. The more I watch MD, the more CoE feels like a moment of accidental genius. But clearly you’re much more prone to have faith in RTD, so you read moments of delayed gratification as leading to something grand. (And for the record, I hope you’re right!)

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