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Mr. Harvey to TORCHWOOD: Clichés!


“The Categories of Life”

Sigh. Here we go again. It’s very frustrating watching this episode after my disappointment with the previous one. I was really enjoying the first three episodes of this series you see, what with the chaos and madness of a world changed by the Miracle. The rise of pedophile and murderer Oswald Danes, the collapse of the American medical system, the mysterious connection of Torchwood to it all. I was enjoying the unpleasantness of Agent Rex Matheson, the sheer rationality of Dr. Vera Juarez, and the return of Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper. I was especially intrigued by the story of Bill Pullman’s Oswald Danes… here we have a monster, one of the worst examples of humanity, and yet he’s a character we’re spending a LOT of time with. The mystery of PhiCorp, the Triangle group behind them. Oh it wasn’t perfect, what show is? But the questions and the writing and the performances kept me interested.

And then episode 4 happened. For my thoughts on that see my review, but short version it was a huge disappointment. And guess what? The disappointment continues. Not there isn’t some good stuff here, there is in fact, and much more than Ep. 4. But the things that I didn’t like continue into “The Categories of Life”, and unfortunately it gives us more new problems.

You know, suspension of disbelief is part and parcel of science fiction. Among many other things, you have to accept faster than light transportation, time travel, rayguns and aliens. You have to believe that mankind will band together to defend our fragile little planet and drive back the alien invaders, even if they are far more advanced than we are. Oh, there will be inconsistencies of course, but the best science fiction has stories and characters and ideas that are good enough to see past them. It gives us shows like STAR TREK, FIREFLY, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, FARSCAPE and so many others. When it doesn’t work we get the modern V, STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE, and GALACTICA:1980. TORCHWOOD: CHILDREN OF MEN was a series that worked. TORCHWOOD: MIRACLE DAY hasn’t quite made it into the second list, but it seems like they’re trying. I know, it may seem odd that I’m bringing up suspension of disbelief when talking about a show that’s basic premise is the sudden immortality of humanity, but there’s a good reason. Here Be Spoilers…

So, what happens this episode? Well, it seems that all the medical panels are done and the decisions from the top have been made, and there are now three classifications in this scary new world: Category 3, the people who have been made immortal by the Miracle; Category 2, the people who should have died but didn’t, but are now healing; Category 1, the people who should have died and despite the fact they didn’t, they might as well have. Brain dead, physically devastated beyond repair or otherwise beyond any hope of recovery, these are the millions of humanity that no hospital can help, but not even death can release them now.

Blindsided by the speed of these events, Dr. Jaurez contacts Rex and joins Torchwood in fighting back, while Gwen heads back to Wales to try and get her father out of one of the new camps springing up all over the world. Here the governments of the world have sent those who fall into Categories 1 and 2, in an attempt to control the massive chaos the Miracle has wrought. When Juarez arrives in L.A., Torchwood hatches a plan to infiltrate the closest camp, using Rex and that sucking chest wound as the means of entry. Meanwhile, Gwen finds that she can’t get her father out of the Welsh camp through normal means, and plans a breakout. And a giant rally is being planned in L.A., with Oswald Danes as a featured speaker…

Oh my. Where to begin?

Let’s start with Gwen’s Welsh adventure. Eve Myles has more to work with than last week here, and she gives Gwen’s desperate desire to save her father the right tone. Reunited with her husband and daughter, she goes to the camp the Category 1 and 2’s are being held at, and quickly runs into both a bureaucratic wall and a military one. Good here is the sense that many people are upset about the forced incarceration of their loved ones, no matter their classification, and the reaction the military has to someone trying to remove someone from the camp without authorization. The Lieutenant whom Gwen confronts is both polite and firm, and under the context, very reasonable. Dealing with the outbreak of disease raging through the camp and his orders from above, he’s not about to let someone take anyone out and spread more illness.

Gwen get a more rude awakening when she returns to break her father out, and he collapses with a second heart attack under the stress. Forced to let the very people she’s trying to take him from help him, she sees her plan come crashing down around her. What’s not good here is the way she barrels through the facility, obviously looking for someone, showing no stealth or subtlety. Oh it’s understandable, it’s her father for heaven’s sake, so I can appreciate the filmmakers showing us that. What doesn’t work is the fact that no one there seems to think she’s remotely suspicious. It’s also unlikely that with the Triangle folks aware of Torchwood as they are, and the reach of their PhiCorp lackeys, that Gwen’s entry back into the UK and very public clashes with the public side of the camps wouldn’t draw attention. But somehow it doesn’t, somehow she doesn’t end up in jail at the end of the episode, despite going far above what almost gets her arrested by the Lieutenant earlier.

Then there’s the events unfolding in Washington. When Arlene Tur’s Dr. Vera Juarez arrives to continue her work on the medical panels she discovers that since she apparently forgot to check her email today, she’s missed the news that the panels are over and the new categories will go into effect at midnight. Aside from the fact that she clearly has a smart phone which gets emails, and that if you’ve ever experienced working on a panel or committee of any kind, you know that they don’t move this fast, we also have a U.S. Congress that is ready to pass this new legislation and a President ready to sign it. This despite the absence of ANY political movement in any of the earlier episodes, and if you’re a U.S. viewer you have to question a Congress that acts in any way resembling speed. This echoes the timetable problem I have been seeing all along, and saw so prevalent last episode. It beggars belief that Juarez wouldn’t know the panels were ending, or that the results of said panels would be brought together in a plan to be made into new law at such a pace.

Again, the world and the Torchwood team seem to be operating on different timestreams, with our finally getting a conversation about Esther’s errors. Alexa Havins has been having a hard time here, with her character written as a terrible CIA agent, and it’s nice to finally have her asking if she’s in over her head. If enough time has passed for all these camps to be built and all of these bureaucratic hoops to be jumped through, then this is a conversation that should have happened I don’t know, weeks ago? We do get a nice display of Esther’s analyst cred, which leads to one of the better plans our team has had so far. Using that chest wound, Rex goes into the system as a patient, with Juarez using her Washington contacts to go to the camp as an official observer and Esther as a member of the clerical staff.

Unfortunately this leads us to a scene where instead of Jack observing the operation from their makeshift command center, and operating as some kind of, oh I don’t know, backup, he instead goes to the convention center Danes is speaking at. Again we have Torchwood as a ridiculously disorganized group, and critical support for an operation being tossed aside for story considerations. He does confront Danes, and gives a fairly impassioned plea for Danes’ help in exposing PhiCorp. But Danes is having troubles of his own.

Clearly aware that he is a tool of PhiCorp, and one with a likely short shelf life, Danes is trying to get the most out of his situation as he can. Finally we are seeing more than a handful of people feeling dirty or angry for having him being such a public figure, and it’s getting to him. From the crowd of people calling for his head outside the convention center, to the other celebrities at the event refusing to have him share any of the dressing rooms with them, Danes’ unlikely celebrity status is finally being shown as something people can’t stomach, and that’s good.

Also good is the moment where Jack confronts him, and they discuss Oswald’s true desire to die. But still Danes can’t let go of the fame, and when given a speech to replace the one PhiCorp wrote for him, a speech that would expose them, there is a real question which Danes will give. Nice work on Pullman’s part, and moments like this are what makes the character interesting. But what follows is a mixture of the farcical and the disturbing, with Danes giving a completely new speech that while cementing his relationship with PhiCorp, uses the Miracle as his way to kiss up to the public. His comparison of the Miracle to the emergence of humanity 50,000 years ago to the “Angels” of the modern immortals is actually clunky as hell, and frankly ridiculous. And as a speech it’s just bad, so one has to wonder how anyone is going to react the way the crowd does.

What is good is how that scene is juxtaposed with what’s going on in the San Pedro camp. Rex has been given a Category 2 rating, but with Esther’s help he’s re-categorized as a 1, and sent to the mysterious Modules. Inside he finds the other Cat. 1’s stacked like cord wood, and the exterior size of the Modules seem far too small to contain all of the Cat. 1’s that must be stored there. Meanwhile, Jaurez has met with the official in charge of the camp under the guise of an inspector, and is far from pleased.

I really feel for Marc Vann, who plays Colin Maloney. He’s a good actor, but here he plays such a grotesque caricature that you just want to cringe. He’s arrogant and slimy, a sexist and a petty tyrant, and from the moment he casually insults Jaurez to the moment he cracks you just know it’s going to end badly. His tour of the camp is all PR and no substance, and his insistence on being recognized for saving money and having clean kitchens belie the overcrowding and disgusting conditions. When Jaurez sees the emergency measures she pioneered put to such use, she can’t help but be outraged, and there lies her downfall. Faced with exposure, Maloney reacts, um, badly, and Jaurez is left shot and broken, and dumped in one of the Modules, their true nature finally revealed.

They’re ovens you see, a final solution for the problem of those who should be dead and aren’t, those who are choking the system with their illness and wounds that can’t be healed. It’s the Death Panel argument writ large and taken to its horrific extreme. It’s a fairly awful look at humanity, that this is the solution our leaders came up with to “solve” the problem of those who should have died, but one thing that has been seen over and over here is that humanity is awful in this post-Miracle world.

There is a particularly horrible bit at the end where Rex finds Jaurez trapped inside the Module as Maloney turns it on to cover his crime. Unable to rescue her, all Rex can do is record her death, and here we see a man watching the woman he cares for die in a way that can’t be survived, even in this new world. It’s only a few seconds long but it’s probably the best scene of the episode.

Again, there’s some really good stuff here. From Gwen realizing her barrel forward approach doesn’t always work, to Danes embracing his selfish yet pragmatic nature and the revelation of the plan for the Cat.1’s, we have solid storytelling and real questions about the real world being taken to their horrific extremes. What’s bad is the complete lack of sense our team is displaying in confronting the situation, with Jack off on his own when he should be backing up his team, Jaurez letting her outrage get her killed, and Gwen putting her father before the bigger picture. It’s not that I can’t see this happening, or that I can’t see a lawsuit-waiting-to-happen character like Maloney being put in a position of power. It’s that it’s so clichéd, so obvious that bothers me.

With the exception of Rex and, oddly enough, Esther, our heroes aren’t acting like any of them know what they’re doing, and their actions are driven less by logic than by story imperative. And it really sticks out, that timeframe thing I’ve mentioned before, where in this world Overflow Camps and hospitals can be built or refurbished seemingly overnight, and people can be transported and interred there in days, not the weeks and months such a real situation would require. Where our Torchwood team is experiencing what seems like days when the outside world is obviously experiencing weeks if not more.

It’s better than last week, but remember that Suspension Of Disbelief thing? Yeah. Not so much.

[photos: Starz]

[Official Show Site at STARZ]   [Official Show Site at BBC]

Timothy Harvey

Timothy Harvey is a Kansas City based writer, director, actor and editor, with something of a passion for film noir movies. He was the art director for the horror films American Maniacs, Blood of Me, and the pilot for the science fiction series Paradox City. His own short films include the Noir Trilogy, 9 1/2 Years, The Statement of Randolph Carter - adapted for the screen by Jason Hunt - and the music video for IAMEVE’s Temptress. He’s a former President and board member for the Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City, and has served on the board of Film Society KC.

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