There's seldom been an hour of television that brought up as many fascinating ideas about the nature of humanity as Torchwood: Miracle Day's first episode, which just aired. Russell T. Davies may have hit on his most fertile premise yet.
The previous Torchwood miniseries, Children of Earth, had a darkly sardonic premise that could almost have worked as a non-science fiction story. You could imagine a story about a foreign country showing up with overwhelming weaponry, and demanding Britain's children. But Miracle Day is a pure science fiction story about ideas. Spoilers ahead...
After rewatching the first episode of Miracle Day, the whole thing seems more terrific than it already had. Davies is a first-rate hand at establishing characters and situations, and he does a fantastic job of intercutting between a few stories until we gradually realize how they're connected.
In "The New World," the state of Kentucky is about to execute Oswald Danes, a man who seems like he could be in the running for worst person alive. He was a schoolteacher who raped and murdered a 12-year-old girl, and told the police, "She shoulda run faster." The scene where Oswald is executed, via lethal injection, is one of the most harrowing things I've seen in a while - he keeps thrashing around, over and over, until he wrecks the machine he's strapped to, and still he won't die. Oswald, the monster, is suddenly unkillable.
Bill Pullman manages to make Oswald twice as repugnant, with his weird squint and his slight smirk, and his inability to look anyone straight in the face. And his weird almost-lisp. When Oswald argues that the Constitution was practically written with him in mind, arguing that he should be released from prison, it's enough to make your skin crawl.
But then Oswald's non-death turns out to be the most high-profile sign of a larger issue. Nobody, anywhere on Earth, can die. As various characters point out, this is beyond anything that seems possible with our science. For one thing, every death is unique, and there are many ways that the processes that keep you alive can be stopped. For another, people are remaining alive even after they're blown up and decapitated, which is insane. The phenomenon is restricted to humans, and it's as if we've become a different species all of a sudden. We've been changed on some basic level.
The ideas that this brings up are fascinating, not least of them the notion that death is an essential part of life. If nobody dies, then hospitals quickly become overcrowded. People in horrific pain continue to suffer indefinitely. The entire world quickly becomes overpopulated and faces a kind of ultimate Malthusian nightmare in which there aren't enough space or resources left for everyone. People will starve, without being able to die of starvation.
Some peoples will stop fighting - like the Somalians - because they can't kill each other any more. But some conflicts will get worse than ever.
It's another worldwide nightmare that's perfect for Davies to expose his huge misanthropic streak - just like the idea of aliens demanding millions of our children. The perfect opportunity to show just how wretched and corrupt and selfish humans can be.
But this premise also gets to the heart of what it means to be human, something that a lot of great science fiction has dealt with. If we can't die, are we still people? Is death the thing that makes us what we are? Is human dignity still a meaningful concept if we're now this unkillable swarm of vermin?
I love the bit where the doctor autopsying the exploded man tries to talk formally, then breaks down and admits he doesn't know what the hell this is. And then Captain Jack suggests decaptitating the man — a living patient — and nobody can think of an argument why not. Is this still a living person that they're slicing the head off? Or something else?
At the exact same moment that everyone in the world stops dying, the word "Torchwood" is emailed to intelligence agencies in the U.S. and possibly elsewhere, as if someone is trying to get Torchwood's attention - or bring Torchwood to the attention of people in power. Either way, this is enough to spark the curiosity of Esther Drummond, a low-level CIA analyst, who's talking to her friend/boss Rex Matheson about this while he drives in the rain - just as a truck loses control and Rex gets impaled through the chest by one of the rods the truck was carrying.
Rex survives, thanks to Miracle Day, but he and Esther become curious about the connection between this worldwide event and Torchwood.
Meanwhile, Captain Jack Harkness, who's been off planet trying to forget his countless mistakes, learns of the "Torchwood" email going to intelligence agencies and comes back to clean up. He releases some malware (why can't John Barrowman pronounce "malware"?) and tries to get rid of all the remaining Torchwood files - only to have some gun-toting, suicide-bomb-wearing maniacs try to kill him. And by kill him, I mean kill him - Captain Jack, who was previously immortal, is now suddenly vulnerable.
Meanwhile, Gwen Cooper is living in the middle of nowhere in Wales, with her husband Rhys and her daughter Anwen - in a very picturesque location, judging from the many lavish aerial shots of the area. Gwen is retired and in hiding, and is very paranoid about people coming after her because of what she knows. (And this results in some great Dramatic Chipmunk faces on Gwen Cooper's part.) Gwen learns that her father's had a heart attack, and when she goes to visit him she learns about Miracle Day.
Gwen goes back home, but Rex Matheson tracks her down - and so do the gun-toting maniacs (with a helicopter) who want to erase the last remnants of Torchwood from existence.
I absolutely love Rex, with the sucking wound still in his chest, journeying to Wales and freaking out about paying for the bridge. Apparently, Wales is like New Jersey! Rex is already my new favorite character on this show, especially when he randomly brings up the bridge again. And "Wales is insane!"
Gwen Cooper shooting a bunch of guys while holding her baby is almost enough to make me forgive her for the Dramatic Chipmunk faces and squeaking earlier in the episode.
I also love Jack's "never annoy me again," when he comes to rescue them.
And then Gwen shoots a rocket launcher and the helicopter blows up while zooming over their heads and for a brief moment it all feels like a fancy action movie. Woo!
And then Rex has Gwen and Jack extradited back to America, where they apparently don't have toll bridges and everything is more awesome and big-budget.
All in all, this was a fantastic first episode and a great reintroduction to Torchwood. The speed with which Davies unspools his idea and all of its ramifications - not just the fact that nobody dies, but also what it means for the human race - shows that he's got a lot of ground to cover and a lot of ambitious ideas to unravel, coming out of this one big idea. And suddenly, Torchwood is the most idea-driven show on television. Who'd have thought it?