The Categories of Life
Thank heavens, this week Torchwood stopped pussyfooting around and got to some really dark stuff, more in the vein of Children of Earth than the previous four episodes of running around and ‘character development’. The events this week were somewhat signposted at the end of the previous episode, but still gave a few nasty shocks on actually seeing them. This was signalled last week by the ‘Next Time’ sequence, which as in episode four of Children of Earth had Gwen talking to camera about how terrible things were going to be. As it turned out, she wasn’t exaggerating.
The various plot strands do seem to be drawing together into something more coherent, but this week was less about the Miracle and its causes than about its effects – and about how humanity deals with them. Consequently, we had less evidence of the rotating triangle people this week, though Phicorp was everywhere. We still don’t know what, if anything, Phicorp has to do with the rotating triangle people, but for this episode they were almost irrelevant. Pretty much all the nasty stuff here could be laid squarely at the door of humanity, in a similarly bleak look at our ability to stoop to the lowest moral depths in the name of pragmatism to that which is often seen in George Romero’s zombie movies. Or Children of Earth, for that matter.
Back on scripting duties this week, Jane Espenson acquitted herself rather better than previously. Unlike her last episode’s clumsy ‘British/American slang misunderstanding’ character comedy, she actually gave us some much less contrived moments of fun in the early part of the episode. John Barrowman and Mekhi Phifer in particular are starting to have some rather good buddy chemistry (or is it something more?). Captain Jack’s snidey remarks about where Vera was going to sleep (“I mean… you did… didn’t you?”) were followed up by a bit that actually made me laugh out loud, as John Barrowman affected even greater levels of camp than usual to pretend he and Rex were boyfriends. “I really love him. My crazy boyfriend!” Rex flipping him the bird just out of the paramedics’ sight was priceless.
But the humour didn’t last long, as the episode veered determinedly towards darkness. We’d got the impression last week that the ‘Overflow Camps’ had a sinister ring of segregation and internment like those Russell T Davies had previously created in Doctor Who episode Turn Left. And so it proved, as even before the credits Dr Vera was informed that the medical panels had summarily broken up and recommended that life would now have to be ‘categorised’. This would have been sinister enough without the knowledge that, as Ellis Hartley Monroe hinted last week, those who fit into the category for what would have been death were to be segregated and locked up. Of course, the big question for the audience was, what was going on in these camps? So pretty much the entire team, including new recruit Dr Vera, set about infiltrating them on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yes, Gwen was back in Wales this week on a mission to rescue her father, who Rhys had well-intentionedly sent off to one of the camps. It was good to see the UK shown properly this week, as I’d begun to think the occasional sequence of Rhys on a phone was all we’d see of this side of the pond. But this is a BBC co-production, and just hearing Welsh accents again – other than Gwen’s – made it seem more consistent with the Torchwood of old. For British viewers, it also has slightly more of an impact seeing the events unfold on familiar ground; we’re so used to seeing the US through the prism of films and TV that it seems almost fictional in itself. But internment camps in South Wales gave it a chilly reality that sunny San Pedro didn’t have, for me at least. Plus, seeing aspects of these events unfold in tow such widely separated countries gave a sense of global scale far more effective than the over used device of showing lots of different news broadcasts.
The camps, and their funding by Phicorp, gave some great opportunities for righteous anger at the healthcare systems in both countries. Gwen’s disgust at the glossy Phicorp leaflets distributed in the camps, and her realisation that the NHS couldn’t pay for all this and healthcare had effectively gone private, was oddly timely and relevant. Presumably when Russell was plotting the season, he already had some inkling of the way the incoming Tory-led government was going to try and marketise the NHS. Meanwhile, in San Pedro, Vera got some righteous anger of her own as she stumbled into the second class area of the camp – a festering hellhole where those without health insurance were left to rot, and patients weren’t even categorised properly. It was a neat indictment of the US’s two tier system of healthcare, craftily done in a sci fi setting – George Romero would be proud.
Unfortunately Vera’s righteous anger was also her undoing, in what must be the shortest run for a Torchwood agent ever. Shot by the unctuous, sexist civil servant in charge of the camp, she found herself investigating the mysterious ‘modules’ a little more closely than was entirely safe. Torchwood has never been shy about killing off main characters, and it’s one of the things that has given the show something of an edge – like Spooks, you know that no-one’s safe (well, except presumably Captain Jack). However, with the show’s main premise this year being that no-one can die (except Captain Jack), it’s been something of a challenge to put any of our heroes in mortal danger, leading to rather a lack of jeopardy.
However, as we chillingly discovered what the ‘modules’ were actually for, all that changed. Rex’s musings about them being too small for the torrent of living dead were something of a clue, but as Maloney’s fiddling with the controls was intercut with Rhys telling Gwen about the Welsh facility’s ‘burn unit’, it became horribly clear. They’re giant ovens for burning the inconveniently undead to ashes, where they can’t be a burden any more.
The internment camps in Turn Left were merely talked about, leaving their actual conditions to the viewer’s imagination. Nevertheless, the presumably intentional immediate impression was of a rerun of the Holocaust. Not having to worry about a family audience here, Russell has taken the implicit and made it explicit. The dead are to be segregated in terrible conditions and eventually burned like refuse.
The Holocaust looms large over the last eight decades of history – it’s become a benchmark for the depths of degradation the human race is capable of sinking to. As such, its echoes are prominent in drama of all genres. Sci fi has dealt with it before, notably as an allegory forming the basis of Star Trek’s darkest incarnation, Deep Space Nine, and as one of the planks of the conspiracy in The X Files, with their alien/human hybrid experimentation. Nevertheless, it’s a very sensitive subject that needs to be dealt with thoughtfully, and at least one person I know has already expressed reservations over using such an overt reference to a horrifying reality in what’s essentially a fantasy story. I do think that it’s treading a fine line here, particularly in the actual depiction of crematoria to burn the living dead to ashes; but I think the tone is about right. This season, and this episode in particular, have consciously had a fair bit of social commentary to them – and showing that, given the right conditions, we could stoop to those depths again is a disturbing, if pessimistic, possibility.
Such dark subject matter makes it difficult to be jocular about this week’s offering, but it has to be said that we were again blessed with at least one really cute young man – the rather camp nurse who ‘categorised’ Rex – and one great guest turn from Marc Vann as the slimy, perma smiling Colin Maloney, petty functionary in charge of the San Pedro camp.
Outside of the camps though, it was business as usual for Oswald Danes, making yet another rousing – if somewhat incomprehensible – speech. Bill Pullman, while still not exactly naturalistic, does seem to have permanently pulled back on the exaggerated quirks he gave the character initially, and he now seems even more sinister. And unpredictable – with both Captain Jack and Jilly Kitzinger waiting anxiously to see which of their speeches he’d deliver, he went with one of his own. Man, he told a rapturous audience of Californians, has made a great leap of evolution – to angels. Oswald’s increasing position as a new Messiah is – given that he’s a paedophile and a murderer – one of Miracle Day’s more disturbing aspects. There’s obviously a payoff waiting down the line as to why he’s so central to this, but again, this is edgy stuff – for an American show in particular.
With all that going on, the rotating triangle people did find time to put in a proxy appearance, as represented by a clean cut, Mormon missionary like young man in a suit, who popped up randomly to tell Jilly that she was doing a good job and was being noticed by ‘the right people’. Lauren Ambrose continues to be excellent as the amoral Jilly, and she seemed thrilled by the prospect. Or perhaps she was just coming on to the guy – he was kind of cute, too.
So, we’re at the story’s halfway point and we’ve already reached the stage where humanity is burning people to ashes on an industrial scale. Granted, it took a rather roundabout, dallying route for the story to reach that point, but where can it go next? Children of Earth left the actual capitulation to the aliens, and the giving up of 10% of the planet’s kiddies, to the very last episode. Here, we’re only halfway in and we’re re-enacting the Holocaust. I have no idea how you top that. It might cause a rather unbalanced storyline – or perhaps there’s something even more insane waiting in the wings.
Story spectacle aside though, there’s still plenty of unanswered questions – who are the rotating triangle people? What does Jack have to do with them? How does burning people to ashes benefit them in any way? The show’s had a shaky start this year, perhaps as a result of the radical overhaul needed to co-produce with an American company, but it seems to be into its stride now and the better for it. I don’t think it’s ever going to remembered as a classic – although the next few episodes may prove me wrong I suppose – but it’s never less than watchable, and when it hits the heights it did this week, thought-provoking too.