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'Torchwood' recap: Off to camp (and in deep trouble)

August 6, 2011 |  6:00 am

Well, I’ll give “Torchwood” some props for this: I didn’t see it coming that the “modules” at all of the overflow camps were actually ovens, used to burn the living dead alive. I have absolutely no idea where Russell T. Davies and company are heading with this revelation, but it was a twist that was unexpected and yet completely obvious once it was revealed. In other words, it was the best kind of reveal, and “Miracle Day” has had too few of those throughout its run so far.

The way we got there, however, left a bit to be desired. While inspecting the overflow camp down in San Pedro as part of a Torchwood secret mission (while pretending to be there as an inspector from the government), Vera found herself having to hang out with the camp’s director, an odious stereotype of an evil bureaucrat who values the bottom line over people and sees what he’s doing as good, heroic work and all that stuff. He’s even got a slight Southern accent, just in case we’re confused as to his status as an evil stooge within the show’s cosmology. (You can never accuse Davies of being subtle in these matters.)

It’s not even just that he’s a bad guy. Obviously, if you’re running a camp where the ovens run on living corpses, you’re going to have a few issues. Everything he does is so transparently evil that it robs the story of any suspense or fun. As soon as Vera hooks up with him, it’s pretty obvious that no good can come of it, and, indeed, he shoots her twice, locks her up in one of the modules, then turns on the fire, just in time for Rex to pound on the door and for her to shout at him as her skin burns to a crisp. I’m surprised the show “killed” Vera so early on, but I do admire the guts of it. It’s a good way to indicate that no one’s safe, not yet, even if the connection between Rex and Vera that was meant to make their final moments seeing each other more poignant still felt forced.

But it’s not just Vera being fed to the fiery furnace. Gwen’s infiltrated a similar camp back in Wales with Rhys, and in the process of breaking her father out, he suffers a second heart attack, seemingly more serious than the first. Rather than bring him back to “life,” the officers at the camps move him from “category two” (people who have life-threatening conditions but are healing and able to move and speak mostly freely) to “category one” (people who are essentially corpses that are still breathing). But Gwen’s dad isn’t a breathing corpse. He’s someone who’s still “alive,” just unconscious. And as Gwen puts together the true purpose for the modules and realizes her father’s fate if she doesn’t do something quickly, that moment does earn the emotional power the sequence is going for.

I complained last week about how limited the scope of the show seemed, despite the fact that it was supposedly telling a truly global story, and this week was better in that regard. The look into the camps was suitably chilling, and it was accomplished on a limited budget at the same time. Having Rex wake up in that refrigerated room of breathing corpses was nicely spooky, while the other images were nicely evocative of any time a government stops thinking of certain numbers of its citizenry as actual citizens. The show, to its credit, didn’t even push too hard on these genocide allusions, even though it could have. They were simply there for us to contemplate, unlike, say, last week’s in-your-face "tea party" references.

All the same, I don’t know that the episode did a terribly good job of selling its central idea: It’s a bad idea to let a government decide when someone’s alive or dead. Obviously, most of the audience is going to be smart enough to realize that the show is toying around with the old idea that once a government declares one person undesirable, it can declare anyone undesirable. For instance, what’s to stop category twos from joining category ones in the furnace, if that’s deemed necessary? Or even, ultimately, category threes (normal humans with no serious health conditions or injuries)? If the world is full of undying people with endlessly regenerative tissue (at least I assume that’s part of why whatever Phicorp’s plan is hangs so much on making all of us immortal), then eventually a group of “haves” can force a group of “have nots” into the furnaces to burn for eternity while they enjoy themselves.

It’s an interesting idea, and a nice science-fiction twist on some of the great moral failings of the 20th century. But the show doesn’t do such a great job of laying out its case this week, simply having the characters say a bunch of times that letting a government declare who’s alive or dead is too much power to give the government. But don’t we already sort of do this? Don’t we require birth and death certificates? The argument feels perfunctory in the show, particularly when we wasted so much time with Capt. Red Tape and his marauding band of evildoers.

Or, for that matter, with Oswald, who repeats the same story he gets every week this week: He’s forced into a binary choice, then finds a third option that allows him to avoid having to actually choose while still bringing him closer to Phicorp. At this point, I’m ready to write off the Oswald scenes entirely. I get it. He’s a terrible person who’s smart enough to turn this whole situation on its ear and to his profit. But the show repeats itself so often in regards to his character that I’m just waiting for the inevitable moment when he realizes what Jack says about the evilness of Phicorp is correct and tells the world, performing the only noble act of his whole life. Until then, however, this whole storyline isn’t working, and I wish the writers would vary it just a bit.

Still, this was a marked improvement over last week, despite those clumsy scenes with the camp director, and we can hope it leads to good things in the weeks to come, now that the story has found a new, twisty momentum.

Related articles:

'Torchwood' recap: Missing the big picture

'Torchwood' recap: I'm buying stock in Phicorp

Complete Show Tracker 'Torchwood' coverage

— Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) tries to persuade Oswald to do the right thing. Photo credit: Starz.