thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Death and Bureaucracy in Torchwood: Miracle Day

In Uncategorized on August 30, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Austin Wren Hansell*

It is said that the two things we can never escape are death and taxes.  But in the latest season of Torchwood death is no longer a factor. One day, no one dies.  No one dies the day after that, or the day after that, or the day after that.  People still get hurt, sick, grow old and weary, but no one dies. No one.  Not the child rapist on death row injected with a cocktail of poisons.  Not the security guard disemboweled and charred in an explosion.  Not the CIA agent impaled through the heart in a traffic accident.  Despite everything, people keep on living, hurting, loving, existing. It is, they say, a Miracle Day.

This Miracle, as you can imagine, causes quite a few problems.  The health care industry must be entirely revamped. People who hate themselves can no longer use death to assuage guilt.  Religion is in crisis, for with no death there can be no afterlife.  And, perhaps most urgent, resources are running out fast.

Torchwood is one of those rare shows not afraid to look directly into the eyes of modern society and tell it exactly where and how badly it is screwing up. Because it is a scifi show, it carries our foibles and fallacies to more logical extremes than a strictly realist show and the social criticism is all the harsher. So, in Torchwood, when death is no longer a factor, life quickly becomes categorized, complete with forms in triplicate and proper (though often illogical) procedures.  Predictably, all hell breaks loose.

The child rapist and killer Oswald Danes, no longer on death row, argues that his sentence was commuted and thus he is now a free man.  He has a natural talent for manipulation and quickly becomes a figurehead in the PR wars over the Miracle.  Danes shifts his image from infamous parolee to media darling by fighting for the rights of those who should be dead, or as they are soon to be known, Category Ones.  The Cat Ones have no voice of their own, as by definition they are unresponsive. The government plan for dealing with them is holocaustic, and while Torchwood fights from the shadows, Danes preaches on the national media circuit.

Oswald Danes

Danes also takes on the unwanted job of champion for the Category Twos, those who are stuck somewhere between life and death, the sick and injured who are being ignored by the system for lack of supplies, manpower, and money. They are ignored because hey, it isn’t like they are going to die while we are busy figuring out what to do, and they are miserable – dysentery, infections, pain all run rampant in the overflow wards. Danes has a lot of powerful help and money behind his vault to fame as he attempts to manipulate the situation for his own increasingly disturbing ends.

Bill Pullman is captivating in this role, with enough of his leading man charisma oozing through his repulsive character to draw you in – and make you hate yourself for continuing to be fascinated. Who knew Captain Lone Starr and President Whitman could be so creepy?

Jilly Kitzinger

At his side is his PR rep, Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose), yearning desperately for her scrap of power.  Kitzinger works immensely hard for this man she loathes simply because the right people are noticing her efforts.  And the right people, inevitably, are not government workers but corporations. Pharmaceutical companies, family businesses (in the mafia sense of the word), and shadowy networked corporations working invisibly behind the government. Kitzinger’s sheer determination will ensure her employers reach the pinnacle because it means she too will get a taste of the prize.

(SPOILER) When Danes’ ugly nature can no longer be controlled in the most recent episode, she prepares to fight back with a means far worse than the law: by calling a press conference. In the post-Miracle world, much as in our own death-riddled society, a press conference can mean a fate much worse than an arrest. Justice has moved from a blind court to blind bureaucracy. But bureaucracy is blind to human needs, suffering, and all those exceptions to the rules that individuals require, and this is terrifying. Just look at the ovens they plan on using for the Cat Ones and Zeros!

Ambrose is so very good in this role – sweet, lovely, feminine in appearance, but with a hard and fast cutthroat need for power.  Kitzinger’s girlish glee in success wins you over, but only until you remember you are cheering for the woman representing a child predator and an increasingly villainous bureaucracy.

In Torchwood: Miracle Day, death is no longer an option, so bureaucracy – the next best thing to taxes – steps in to try to control the chaos of the Miracle.  Death, the great equalizer, got rid of the best and the worst, all in good time.  But now, the good can go on fighting forever, but so can the bad, the awful, and the very worst. So much contemporary scifi postulates that bureaucracy, public relations, and corporations are our most conceivable future, but this is especially horrifying when coupled with a world suddenly without death.  The impersonal nature of bureaucracy can’t have sympathy. Numbers, spreadsheets, and bottom lines are all that truly matter and it is the job of people like Miss Kitzinger to appease, however superficially, the individuals lost in the paperwork of the masses. Torchwood: Miracle Day is terrifying, captivating, and so utterly watchable. Go set the DVR!

*Hi!  I’m a new contributor and I am pumped to be in such excellent company. I think you’ll quickly become aware that I am a huge nerd and hope to be your companion in scifi and geekery.

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  1. I love this post, Austin! You are such a good writer and Torchwood sounds so great — I’ll be looking this season up post-haste.

  2. I just watched my first Miracle Day episode … So good! And interesting …

  3. [...] also want to thank our other amazing contributors Narinda Heng, Taylor D., Jennifer Lynn Jones, Austin H., Jeni R, Sarah H., and Gina L. for allowing us to post their thoughts on everything from rock [...]

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