David Chute reviews Episode Three of Torchwood: Miracle Day.
Torchwood has perhaps the roomiest pretext ever devised for an SF TV show: weird stuff keeps spilling through a space time vortex in downtown Cardiff, Wales, and an intrepid band of imperial watchdogs (led by an immortal bi-sexual flyboy from the 51st century) has to prevent them from inconveniencing the human race. In addition to dealing with the various beasties that emerge from the vortex, the Torchwood team happily makes use of any chunks of alien technology that happen to slip through, such as the video camera contact lenses featured in a key sequence of “Dead of Night,” episode three of the current Starz/BBC mini-series Torchwood: Miracle Day, without feeling a need to explain or even understand the devices. (“How does this thing work?” “I have no idea, it just does.”)
I embrace this laissez faire approach to a genre that, after all, in addition to furnishing opportunities to wrestle metaphorically with serious moral and political issues, has also always been, at heart, playful, speculative and fantastic. I quickly lose patience with fans who can find nothing better to do with a show like this than nitpick airline schedules. Torchwood has never been aimed at plausibility fetishists. And as it turns out, T:MD never looks sillier than when it’s wrestling with serious moral and political issues.
“Dead of Night” went a step too far even for me, when it asked us to believe that PhiCor, a multi-national pharmaceutical company, would take on as a media spokesman a convicted and admitted pedophile rapist and murderer (Bill Pullman, still perfectly vile as Oswald Danes) – and this only a day or two after the spectacular failure of his execution by lethal injection was broadcast on national television.
To be clear, it’s not that this development is far-fetched that bothers me. I love far-fetched. The problem is that the implausibility hasn’t been earned. You can almost taste how much fun Danes’ first chat show appearance as a shill for PhiCor would be if it was properly prepared for and made to seem inevitable, or at least poetically apt. Then it would be the kind of wild turn of plot that makes us laugh with pleasure at what we’ve been tricked into accepting, rather than the kind that makes us roll our eyes and say, “Oh, please.”
“Dead of Night” elaborates on a development that went right over my head in last week’s installment, “Rendition.” io9 editor Charlie Jane Anders was astutely described this “medical thriller” episode as “our real-life heath nightmare writ extra large.” If no one dies, medical care becomes pain management, neither more nor less – and the presence in the cast of an eager beaver drug company PR rep (Lauren Ambrose) begins to make a lot more sense.
The major revelation in “Dead of Night” was that Oswald Danes’ employer has been secretly stockpiling a non-narcotic painkiller, leading intrepid CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer, who I’m liking more and more for his Jack Bauer-ish vehemence) to the conclusion that at the very least the evil suits knew this Day was coming. Danes is trotted out in support of a corrupt Senator’s campaign to make all painkillers available without prescriptions.
So now I’m officially worried that T:MD will turn out to be one long laboriously extended metaphor for the current health care crunch — although some of the more shivery implications of the death of death are still being teased out. We learn, for example, that 50% of deformed fetuses of the type that on the past that spontaneously aborted are now being carried to term, born into a horror that thankfully is only talked about, not shown. And when Captain Jack is about to consummate a tryst with a gay bar pick up, the question of “protection” arises: Is it no longer important after Miracle Day or more important than ever? (“The lifetime of regret just lasts longer now,” Jack suggests.)
Jack’s vigorous motel room bout with his latest conquest (surely a first for a show aimed at fanboys) is intercut with a scene in which Rex renews a past connection with the character that has become my favorite, Arlene Tur’s chain-smoking activist surgeon Dr. Vera Juarez. Tur is a Starz veteran (she was LAPD officer Bebe Arcel on the TV version of Crash) and her crisp line readings make complicated notions easy to follow when medical issues are discussed. Vera’s relationship with Rex makes sense because both characters are no-nonsense working class heroes, nose-to-the-grindstone professionals rather than self-infatuated idealists. I’ll keep watching T:MD, no matter how fatuous the politics get, just to root for this relationship.