When nobody can die, the world ironically becomes a massive hospice. That's the giant revelation at the heart of week two of Torchwood: Miracle Day.
At its core, the idea of hospice care revolves around preparing people for death, of course. But a lot of what hospice care involves in practice, is caring for illnesses that are beyond any possibility of cure. What do you do in that situation? You manage them, you contain them...and you prescribe tons of painkillers.
A world where nobody is dying, Torchwood tells us, is suspiciously like a world where everybody is dying. Spoilers ahead!
Last night's episode was the "medical thriller" installment of Torchwood: Miracle Day, so it was fitting that it was the work of prolific House screenwriter Doris Egan. Thanks to a giant bull session by a bunch of doctors who apparently have nothing better to do, we got an absolutely beautiful dissection of all the ramifications and details of this newly undying world. And meanwhile, a crazy improvisation worthy of House himself saves Captain Jack from being poisoned by Evil Sierra. And then there's a sleazy/ditzy drug company rep trying to worm her way into the lives of influential people.
The medical speculation in the episode gets off to an excellent start, with Dr. Juarez realizing that "we're doing it wrong." All of medicine, especially emergency medicine, is based on trying to keep people alive — which is why we have triage. But in a world where nobody dies, every condition becomes a chronic condition. And the goal, instead of keeping people alive, is to get as many people out of scarce beds as possible.
In the ongoing crisis of American healthcare, as you probably know, one of the main problems is that there are so many chronic conditions that are expensive to treat, in part because they're badly managed. Heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, etc. So turning every disease, however life-threatening, into a chronic illness is a fascinating way to talk about our real-life health challenges.
And then once Dr. Juarez gets into the rap session with the other medical experts, the revelations keep coming.
Apoptosis is still going on, which means that individual cells, like skin cells, are still dying. And when you try to kill living human tissue, it goes into hibernation — but there's "a kind of natural oscillation" to it, as though someone were turning a dial upwards and upwards. Telomeres are shortening, which means we're still aging but not dying — like Tithonus. Or the Tenth Doctor in "Last of the Time Lords." Too bad Martha Jones isn't here to make that reference.
(Speaking of which, why isn't Martha at the center of this? She's a doctor and an alien-fighter, after all.)
Meanwhile, the implications keep emerging. There are no more organ transplants, because there are no donor bodies. And because death usually puts a stop to lethal infections, "the human race has become germ incubators." Soon drug resistant organisms will be everywhere, because we'll keep using antibiotics until they stop working. It really is a version of the nightmares we already face, with overpopulation, lengthening life spans, drug-resistant illnesses, and increasing chronic illnesses.
Or as Rex says to the suddenly dying Captain Jack, "Immortality leads to hypochondria." Captain Jack actually has the opposite problem — he's been invulnerable for so long, he's never developed any resistance to common diseases. (Although, don't they believe in vaccination in the 51st century?) Jack also says, "I'm mortal, not dying... well, technically I am dying, but in slow motion." (Although he says that before he gets poisoned by Evil Sierra.)
So what's behind all this? Captain Jack's got a theory, that it's a demon. A dancing demon? No, wait. Sorry. His theory is that it's "morphic fields," which sounds a bit like reaching to me, but is no sillier than many of Russell T. Davies' other science fiction ideas. Captain Jack's idea is close enough to the truth that it spurs Evil Newman and his masters, the triangle phone people, to order Captain Jack's death at the hands of Evil Sierra.
(Oh, and add "hegemony" to "malware" on the list of things John Barroman can't quite say.)
One of the things I liked a lot about this episode was its focus on seat-of-the-pants resourcefulness, which is one of my favorite things. From Dr. Juarez's reinvention of the concept of triage, to Esther Drummond's escape from the CIA offices after Evil Newman decides to have her framed for treason, to the whole "let's make an antidote to arsenic on a plane" sequence, there was a lot of problem-solving in this episode.
I'm continuing to love Rex, especially his "I'll take drugs for now, and maybe sex later, woman" line, and his silly speech about how every extradition to American soil requires bullshit. I know he's a bit obnoxious, but I'm enjoying it. Oh, and the fight scene between Rex and Evil Sierra at the end is the weirdest thing ever — she keeps punching him in his gaping chest wound, and then he breaks her neck. Which slows her down a bit.
Meanwhile, I'm still finding Gwen unusually grating, even for Gwen. Her whole "I am coming back, bitch" freak-out on the jetway, and the attempts to demonstrate sexual/romantic tension between her and Jack... it just didn't wash. On the other hand, Gwen saying "I'm Welsh" and decking Evil Sierra was gold. And apparently every episode of Miracle Day has to end with Gwen going, "we're Torchwood (TM)" or "welcome to Torchwood (TM)" and looking kind of smug.
And then there was the other plot strand, the rise to media stardom of Oswald Danes, the pedo murderer, which... I can't decide if this storyline is the most brilliant thing ever, or just the weirdest. Bill Pullman's jerky, slimy, oddly-dignified-even-when-bawling performance is doing a lot to nudge it over to being "most brilliant" though.
There is a weird Youtube remix of Oswald Danes' execution, even though such things are not usually televised. Oswald Danes is going on television because he's a symbol of Miracle Day writ large, and he steals all the food from the green room because he's going to be a pariah for the rest of his life... but then a weird thing happens. After Oswald cries on television, he becomes a newly sympathetic figure, and Twitter trends with the hashtag "forgive."
And thus is the secret villain of Miracle Day revealed — it's all Twitter's fault. Who didn't see this coming?
Seriously, though, does anybody believe that a monster like Oswald, who has never denied raping and killing a young girl, would get forgiven and embraced just because he cried on television once? Are we that depraved and barbaric (in the George Santayana sense)? I think the idea is supposed to be that the end of death has thrown people so far off their axes, with the lack of an afterlife or reincarnation, that they'll embrace even a monstrous figure. And maybe if everybody lives for thousands of years, they'll all eventually commit worse acts than Oswald? It still seems intensely weird though. It's the perfect expression of Davies' essential misanthropy.
It's easy to see why overpopulation is Davies' worst nightmare — in his world, people are always awful en masse. Every crowd is a mob. It's only individually, or in small intimate groups, that people are capable of kindness or greatness. So the more crowded the world becomes, the more human decency is extinguished.
(Off the top of my head, the only example I can remember of crowds behaving nobly in Davies' work is "Last of the Time Lords," where they all chant the Doctor's name. But that takes a whole year of small intimate moments to set up.)
So like I said, a world where nobody dies is awfully similar to a world where we're all terminal patients who are just hanging on. The most sardonic note in the episode comes from a couple different characters, who advance the idea that this is the Singularity, the transformation of humanity that Vernor Vinge, Ray Kurzweil and other geek icons have predicted.
And that's the most awful thought of them all. The Singularity was supposed to turn us into something akin to gods. But this Singularity, far from deifying us, is turning us all into a legion of the damned, the endlessly suffering, trapped in a kind of half life.