It's February 27th, 2008. Duffy are at number one with "Mercy," with Kylie Minogue, Adele, Nickelback, Rihanna, and Kelly Rowland also charting. In news, the British Government officially nationalizes the failing Northern Rock bank, Tottenham Hotspur defeat Chelsea in the Carling Cup final, and Pakistan, in an attempt to censor the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, blocked access to YouTube and, in doing so, inadvertently took the site down worldwide.
On television, Torchwood, broadly speaking, improves. It would be overstating things to suggest that A Day in the Death works. It doesn’t. But it fails in an interesting way more evocative of Season One than of the banal mediocrities of Series Two. Whatever else might be said of it, A Day in the Death is trying to do something interesting and new. It’s an intimate character piece that focuses tightly on Owen and works to give us his perspective on his new status quo as an animated corpse. It’s a story that works hard to stay on the human level.
There are problems. Maggie is perhaps a bit overdone - losing her husband is probably sufficient reason for her to be up on a rooftop contemplating suicide without needing to add the bathos-inducing wedding day car crash. The ending is mawkish. Owen’s overall plot still doesn’t really do anything; it’s not a functional lens on any aspect of human experience. There’s some stuff that’s vaguely evocative of people putting their lives together after an extreme trauma, particularly one leaving them with permanent disabilities, but the metaphor never quite crystalizes. There’s too much focus on the imagery of death, and particularly on Torchwood’s usually more interesting “there’s nothing” image, and it distracts from the plot being about anything other than its own science fiction conceit. It’s not that science fiction only works when exploring understandable and familiar spaces; that’s the opposite of true. But it is that science fiction that’s just about coming up with weird concepts isn’t very interesting. Yes, something odd is happening to Owen, but there’s no metaphoric depth to it, not even here, in the episode that focuses on it.
But there are real strengths. Richard Briers does a phenomenal amount with his brief appearance, although it lacks some of the intensity of his previous appearance within Doctor Who. The bizarre alien artifact that serves as the story’s MacGuffin is, in fact, just a pretty alien artifact that emits beautiful light displays. It’s completely harmless; it wasn’t keeping Henry alive, and it wasn’t a bomb. This is a wonderful plot beat of the sort that Torchwood (and for that matter Doctor Who) doesn’t do often enough; one in which the world of the alien is actually the wondrous thing it’s usually advertised as being instead of just a source of unimaginable horror. And while it seems strange to mention it, Martha works quite well here. She’s a minor character and her departure scene is shoehorned in in a fashion that’s utterly extraneous to the plot, but she actually has something to do here that both extends sensibly from her character and fits into the story such that she doesn’t need to be knocked out of the plot at the two-thirds mark by some contrivance.
The result is the baseline of Torchwood we had in Season One - television that’s interestingly flawed. Hooray. In many ways this is an isolated circumstance. The episode is possible largely because of the idiosyncrasy of Owen’s undeath. It’s a one-off episode by design, which allows it the ability to cut loose a bit. This is, in and of itself, cause for concern. The reason the episode works is that it’s throwing away the week-to-week format of Torchwood in its second season. This raises the obvious question of why you’d keep the formula in place at all if it’s an impediment to quality. In its own way, this episode makes the compelling case for killing a chunk of the cast and retooling the underlying premise.
We interrupt this blog post for an important message from my wife, a nurse specializing in end-of-life care, who would like to make some comments on this episode, and promises not to hurt me any more if I let her.
“Owen makes no sense. No fucking sense whatsoever. I mean, the logic just doesn’t work. It’s like all the convenient processes for him being noticeably dead stops but, I mean, the brain still works, and we’ve still got muscles. He’s only lost sensory input to pain, but he’s still got the rest of his sensory input. Clearly the neurons are still working, clearly the muscles are still working, we’ve still got impulses shifted along pathways, it’s just the convenient stuff. You know, OK, so the heart’s not going to generate impulses anymore. And we’re not going to have… I mean, essentially what’s happened is that any autonomic processes has just completely crapped out. Which is actually interesting when we get to the whole breathing thing, because those muscles can be autonomic or somatic. You can consciously control your breathing. There’s no reason he couldn’t have told the muscles in his chest to expand and take a breathe, and then exhale. Every muscle involved in this has somatic control. You can consciously control them. You go to the doctor and he tells you to take a deep breathe. He doesn’t tell you to take a nice strong heartbeat.
You’re really posting this? You’re doing this while I’m slightly tipsy…
So anyway, I mean, medically, there’s just so much wrong with the scene in the mansion. Can you put it back on for me? Right. So, you have, like, six bags of blood hanging, none of which seem connected to him, cause I didn’t see a single line running. Ooh, actually, let’s start off with ‘why is all of this in his fucking house without, you know, a doctor there?’ But blood bags, why are they not actually running? They’re all, like, half run. So they’ve probably clotted off by now. So congratulations, you’ve just wasted six units of blood. Which, you know, to what end here? Where in the fuck is he bleeding from if he needs that much blood?
OK, so, these are just a bunch of monitors. They could be showing different sets of information I suppose. In fact, the one on the left looks like it’s blue screened. Which is actually a lovely detail, cause that really happens. That could be an EKG machine. I guess you could have someone hooked up to a twelve-lead all the time. I mean, he just had a heart attack… but a regular monitor would be fine, and I suppose I can’t actually see the leads so it could be a regular five-lead. There’s a saline bag. That works. And see all this tubing over here? That shit’s not connected to anything. What is this random oxygen tube? I mean, that right there could be hooked up to an ambu-bag, if you have one there, and why wouldn’t you when you have everything else? There are plenty of methods of delivering oxygen. The key thing is that you want to replicate respirations in a code, so you can’t just throw an oxygen mask on and say “there, you’re good.” But still, there’s got to be an ambu-bag somewhere.
I see no evidence of a tube feed, which he says he has. I don’t see a pump. It could be running through this box over here. But I’m guessing it does not have a tube feed. Besides that, he’s laying too low; you’re going to have him aspirate.
And then there’s the code. First off, this man has just gone through an entire conversation with Owen about handing over this alien thing that he thinks is keeping him alive and saying ‘I might as well be dead.’ Throughout this conversation, he’s kind of come to the ‘I don’t want to do this shit anymore,’ point, you know. I mean, that’s what it boils down to. Talking with Owen, he gets to the point where he’s saying ‘come back, I don’t want to die alone, come back and I’ll be OK to do it.’ And Owen is going to leave, and leave this man in this fragile condition. And actually, he doesn’t look like he’s going to die right then… but Owen’s going to leave and then come back and have this man die with him. And then he dies, he loses a pulse, he stops breathing, he dies, and Owen fucking runs a code! He runs a fucking code! After having this conversation with the man he says, ‘fuck it, I’m going to code him.’
And does a shit job of it too, by the way. I mean, basically no fucking TV show ever gets this right. Compressions are not done fast enough. Compressions are meant to simulate the heart beating. That’s what the compressions do. So you need a pretty fucking fast heartbeat. Your aim is a hundred beats a minute for a code. Instead we have this shit where it’s like one… two… three… you get maybe thirty a minute.
And then after a grand total of four compressions… fucking four! And then he goes to do rescue breaths. Which aren’t the most important part of CPR - I don’t think lay responders are even supposed to do them anymore, though I suppose Owen’s a professional. So after four compressions he switches into rescue breathes. And decides when he realizes that apparently breathing is no longer something he can do he just gives up. He doesn’t look around for an ambu-bag, doesn’t continue with compressions, which are really what he should be doing now, doesn’t attempt to call for any help, cause I’m sure there aren’t like thirty security guards who couldn’t come in and give rescue breathes for him. Instead he’s just an old grey donkey who sits and mopes.
Which, you know, in the end it actually reaches the conclusion of this that I would prefer, though it throws this whole big wrench into it. The message of this episode is that life is the ultimate good, that this man who’s been through three heart attacks and one failed bypass, who’s probably in his eighties, wants to live. But he makes the choice, with Owen’s support at the time to decide that he’s done with this. And instead of respecting that decision that both he and Owen made, this episode goes above and beyond to point out how wrong that is. There is this lovely moment that is so completely tarnished when he’s on the roof with the woman and says that it’s your choice. But this episode does everything in its power to make it clear that if you don’t choose life you are choosing incorrectly. And that pisses me off beyond any measure.”
Right. So that
went a bit Wife in Space
. (Yes, that's what you have to look forward to when we get around to doing those commentary tracks next year.)
In any case, that is, in many ways, the real problem. For all that this story is trying to do interesting things, it is, at the end, as morally and conceptually flaccid as Reset and Dead Man Walking. The story ends with the most banal and all-encompassing “life is worth living” statement imaginable. All that the entire concept of Owen’s undeath is good for is an anti-suicide message that, while broadly commendable, goes beyond what is reasonable, to the point of rejecting people with terminal illnesses to go comfort measures only. Sure, the episode “works” in the sense of “being more interesting than most of Torchwood’s second season and only screwing up in the manner of the first season,” but it’s only the sheer perversity of the low expectations the show merits at this point that accomplishes that.
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