Torchwood: Miracle Day 5 "The Categories of Life" Review

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Paul Brian McCoy
After learning that her father was taken to an overflow camp, Gwen travels to Wales to get him out. Meanwhile, Jack approaches Oswald to give him a chance to join their cause and Rex, Vera and Esther infiltrate the San Pedro Camp where they uncover the horrible truth.

Torchwood airs on Friday nights at 10PM on STARZ. In a bizarre marketing move, the BBC will air the episodes the following Thursday nights, with the cable channel's naughty bits cut and replaced with longer character bits.

This week takes us to a strange place. It was written by Jane Espenson, which is a mark of quality for some, but I find her work more miss than hit (although her "A Golden Crown" episode of Game of Thrones was pretty freaking awesome), especially with this season’s Torchwood. She is responsible for what I consider to be the worst episode yet, "Dead of Night."

This time out, however, she pulls it together as the episode goes on, and after a shaky start moves us into what is one of the darkest moments in the show's history.

Along the way, we get more scenes where things happen because they need to rather than because they follow narrative logic, plus we get one of the most annoyingly stereotypical "villains" to ever be introduced to the show.

I want to talk about the bad stuff first. Mainly because I want to emphasize that as weak as I thought most of the episode was, the ending was strong enough that it really made me forgive the faults.

I suppose that the main development this episode, the governmentally mandated new definitions for the titular Categories of Life are supposed to force Torchwood into a narrative mode that is more satire or social criticism than actual straight science fiction. I have a problem with this, as I think it happens to quickly, is accepted to easily, and it really just an oversimplified way of establishing the overall situation, but a quick jaunt around the Internet seems to show that I'm in the minority on this.

I just don't think the show has established the emotional justifications that will allow the citizens of this world to accept what's going on. I mean, we're seeing in graphic detail that nobody dies, and we're being shown horrible image after horrible image that's supposed to drive home the seriousness of the situation.

But I'm just not buying it.

I'm not sure why, either. The creative teams seem to be doing everything they can to make it work, but I'm just not feeling it.

I'm missing the emotional connection to the Miracle that would make me believe that people would react the way they are. Especially in the case of the media rebirth of Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman). I'm supposed to assume that the idea that we can't die has put people into a mindset where the messianic ravings of a convicted pedophile/murderer would be accepted by arenas full of cheering fans.

Especially when the arena full of fans were booing and heckling him earlier.

Especially when he gets the cheers for claiming we are all now angels and now he's pro-isolating the sick in camps when last week he made his mark by defending those same sick people from isolation.

It's all very loose and shifty without any real groundwork being laid to allow the viewers to come along for the ride. It's more like one of those Haunted House rides where it doesn't matter that around one corner there's a guy with a chainsaw threatening you, but so long as you stay in the cart and keep moving, he'll fall behind and not really threaten you, allowing you to be bothered by the next boogieman to jump out of the bushes.

Does that make sense?

The cynicism of this whole scenario is off-putting.

I'm beginning to think that the writing team overthought this whole thing to the point of becoming too close to it and blinding themselves to the basic narrative requirements of the storytelling. It's all plot and very little character. And it doesn't seem to matter much if the plot makes sense, so long as the necessary plot points are hit on schedule.

So we get Oswald making a big speech that's mostly nonsense, but now he's a media messiah. Because the story requires him to be a media messiah.

So we get camps built overnight to keep the sick and "dying" isolated all across America and Europe. Because the story requires there to be camps full of the sick and "dying."

So we get Gwen (Eve Myles) flying back to Wales on a moment's notice with no repercussions, even though Torchwood is clearly being hunted, while her husband is going around using his real name, and she's telling everyone who'll listen that her dad is Geraint Cooper and she's there to get him out of the camp. Because the story requires that she be there for this phase of the narrative and that no bad guys are keeping an eye on her family.

So we get Dr. Juarez (Arlene Tur) forcing her way into an overflow camp and confronting the bureaucrat in charge of the camp with his ineptitude and threatening to send him to jail for what he's doing. Because the story requires that she be shot and left for dead in one of the giant furnaces that the camps are hiding.

Okay, that last one is acceptable. I can believe that after seeing the horrible abuses of authority she's witnessing that she would lose her shit and go off on the walking cliché that is Colin Maloney (Marc Vann). But really, it's 2011. Are we still going to fall back on the whole "I was expecting the doctor, not a lady" bullshit.

That's so stupid it's a plot point in the absurdist comedy series Children's Hospital, not on a show that's supposed to be serious. It works for comedy. It's lazy when you're writing a huge socially conscious science fiction epic.

Anyway, all that aside, the big reveal this week, that the camps are actually setting up gigantic furnaces designed for burning the sick (Category One: people with no brain function or who would have died. Although that judgment is being fudged right and left, apparently) is pretty freaking horrifying.

I have no idea what the endgame is here. I have no idea where the story is going. I have no idea who the "Blue Eyed Man" is and what he has in store for Jilly (Lauren Ambrose). I have no idea what happens when you burn someone down to ash when they technically can't die.

That's the shit that turned this all around for me.

To be honest, though, what has me most excited is that next week John Shiban is scripting again and I can't wait to see what he does with these developments. We're on the verge of something really amazing coming into focus with this show, and so long as we can put the forced plot movements behind us and put the action in the hands of writers who can really craft engaging stories, I have hope.

So yeah. This episode was mostly kind of bad, but it got us where we need to be for some horrible things to happen. So for that, I give the episode .

It's a little better than average, thanks to that ending. And hopefully there are better things to come.

For more Torchwood action, check out our previous reviews:
Episode One, "The New World"
Episode Two, "Rendition"

Episode Three, "Dead of Night"
Episode Four, "Escape to L.A."

Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot. He currently has little spare time, but in what there is he continues to work on his first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.

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