Outside the Government: A Day in the Death
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.
November 6, 2013 @ 12:45 am
Your wife would probably love http://www.politedissent.com where a Doctor comments on various depictions of medicines on tv and in comics (he's especially a "fan" of the psychic nosebleed phenomenon). He also kept a stream of medical reviews for House when it was airing, which he has archived at http://www.politedissent.com/house_pd.html
As to Torchwood… well, by this point I'd lost interest, pretty well for the same reason that I lost interest in the Sarah Jane Adventures: it was Doctor Who without Doctor Who in it. That said, I do agree that "Day In the Death" was probably the best episode of series two of Torchwood since "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang." But I do disagree with your view that "Owen’s overall plot still doesn’t really do anything; it’s not a functional lens on any aspect of human experience." Owens experience is a visualisation of adolescent (and we have to remember that adolescent behaviour now stretches into the twenties) alienation: essentially, Owen is a Goth, feeling one step removed from the rest of humanity.
Whether it's a good representation is another thing altogether, though we should probably be thankful that we were spared the eyeliner.
The overall plotline of Owen's Death is a success on one level, though: it addresses many of the same concerns and body horror as Torchwood: Miracle Day, but in a third of the time and with far more interesting characters.
I still have never finished Miracle Day (my wife had a baby roughly half way through and we simply… lost the will to follow it after). One day, I may try to catch up, but I look forward to seeing your take.
November 6, 2013 @ 1:06 am
That was very enjoyable, I'd love to see more contributions of that nature in future please, whenever you're of a mind to do them!
November 6, 2013 @ 1:07 am
I was about to search up the House link, which I remember really enjoying at the time even with no medical background of my own. Good shout.
November 6, 2013 @ 1:49 am
Well, at least that wasn't four paragraphs about carpentry.
November 6, 2013 @ 2:04 am
'Richard Briers does a phenomenal amount with his brief appearance, although it lacks some of the intensity of his previous appearance within Doctor Who.'
Hilarious, This made me spit my breakfast cereal! Also…
'Right. So that went a bit Wife in Space.'
That one deadpan line, after your wife's passionately impressive and informative invective, was comedy gold. You sure know how to employ understatement Phil. However, in response to Mrs Sandifer, I think the depiction of any specialist routines, such as CPR, in drama is always open to critique from those who are professionally interested and even to most laypeople (I am frequently irritated by the ubiquitous bedside monitor in sick-bed scenes which are only there to provide the inevitable 'flat-line panic' scene'). I am inclined though to cut these tropes a huge amount of slack and file them away in my suspension of belief folder. Surely they rank with the 'insert technobabble here' scenes and lassez faire attitude to scientific or historical accuracy that Doctor Who in particular is prone to? I think it is often acceptable to use visual shorthand for a dramatic effect which strict adherence to 'realism' would not achieve. In other words if I can buy The Web Planet as expressionist cinema I'm not going to let a few uneccesary dangling tubes and bloodbags put me off enjoying the high concept operatic shennanigans of Torchwood. It's just a shame that, with this episode, once again the show demonstrates a failure of courage in its own convictions. It wants to be edgy and controversial Sci-Fi but needs to be liked by casual viewers too much and insists on clinging to character arcs that go nowhere. It finally finds its feet with Children of Earth but promptly loses them again in Miracle Day by overcooking the demonstrably unworkable themes of undying from this episode rather than the far more interesting themes of political conspiracy thriller meets alien abduction scenario of Its most critically acclaimed season. But more on that when we get there.
November 6, 2013 @ 2:55 am
I am that guy.
November 6, 2013 @ 3:23 am
I am SO glad your wife comment on this episode. The whole "undead Owen" lark just seriously pissed me off and I know bugger all about medicine. In the previous episode the food he ate wouldn't digest, but his vomit reflex still worked – how and why? But the "no breath" thing was just the ultimate insult to the viewership. You're TALKING, you idiot! Obviously you can breathe if you want to! Gah. This was where I very nearly gave up on Torchwood, to be honest.
November 6, 2013 @ 4:06 am
I'm in IT, and I simply can't help myself looking closely and shouting "bollocks!" at the screen any time someone attempts to track down an IP address, or copy data onto a USB stick.
I love that "Recovering Deleted Files" application that practically every PC or Mac on TV has, with a big fat progress bar. Where can I get one of those?
November 6, 2013 @ 5:17 am
Owen-has-no-breath-for-mouth-to-mouth-but-can-speak-just-fine was my biggest gripe with the episode.
I'm delighted to see that Phil's wife uses "which" the same way he does. Now I'm wondering who got it from whom.
November 6, 2013 @ 5:25 am
Reminds me of the TNG episode "The Next Phase" where Geordi and Ro Laren can walk through walls but can't drop through the floor. Also, what air are they interacting with to breathe and talk?
November 6, 2013 @ 5:27 am
Well, okay, but if we admit the necessity of unrealism for fun, we should also admit the fun of criticizing unrealism.
November 6, 2013 @ 5:34 am
Oh yes there are too many 'computer hacker' tropes to list. My favourite being the fact that no-one ever uses a mouse on a PC or tracker pad on a laptop, preffering to key-slam at an alarming rate while muttering nonsense about 'encryption protocols' and 'firewalls'. The most recent example being this weeks otherwise excellent episode of Orphan Black which also had a confusion of babble about DNA, barcodes and intellectual property copyright to rival an Alan Moore interview. Not to mention the fact that the inept New York cops have taken ten episodes to figure out that checking the subway cctv footage of their colleague's suspicious suicide might be a good idea and what a good thing it is that the subway's security office has such a sophisticated viewing suite with the ability to rewind zoom and enhance it's multiple angle footage to rival Blade Runner.
Despite all that I still believe dramatic effect beats adherence to verity (sorry Ms.Lambert) every time.
November 6, 2013 @ 5:36 am
Of course and I enjoyed Mrs.Sandifer's interjection immensely. I may be arty but I am not humourless.
November 6, 2013 @ 5:42 am
You're TALKING, you idiot! Obviously you can breathe if you want to!
Reminds me of the Season 1 finale of BtVS, in which Buffy is clinically dead after drowning and Angel and Xander are trying to resuscitate her. "I can't do CPR because I don't breathe," Angel said, ignoring how speaking works.
November 6, 2013 @ 7:22 am
On hacker tropes: when you're trying to crack a password, it helpfully tells you when you've got the first part right. That's an odd security feature.
Probably from the same company that manufactures time bombs with countdown displays….
November 6, 2013 @ 7:59 am
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November 6, 2013 @ 8:02 am
The choice is whether to create dramatic tension diagetically or via exposition. The countdown display on the bomb does indeed serve the same cliched function as the heart monitor by the sick bed or the progress bar on the computer. It's a cinematic shorthand. The alternative is loads of "What's happening Doctor?'' dialogue. An onscreen countdown graphic, ECG graph or progress bar could serve the same function but, like the voice-over and the scrolling caption would be distracting. Sometimes it's just better to employ a cliche.
November 6, 2013 @ 8:03 am
As to whether magic vampire undead people use breathing to talk, I don't know. Perhaps they have a magic telepathic thing that sounds like they're talking in your head but doesn't necessitate working lungs or I don't know perhaps they're just fictitious.
November 6, 2013 @ 10:07 am
I started worrying more about this sort of thing after reading Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett, which does actually take some time to think about how it all actually works when Windle Poons becomes a zombie.
November 6, 2013 @ 1:42 pm
I'm not a huge Pratchett fan, but I do like Reaper Man. There's a lovely line when Poons is trying to get his body up and running again, and he's baffled by the "dark and silent chemical factory of the liver", which is just great. How would you get your organs to work by thinking about them? Lungs are easy enough; everything else much less so. I think it's likened to walking while balancing a dozen spinning plates.
November 6, 2013 @ 2:00 pm
Owen makes no sense. No fucking sense whatsoever. I mean, the logic just doesn’t work.
I pretty much decided instantly that Owen is actually not undead: he's a ghost, who can move his inanimate corpse around like it's a marionette.
Though the real reason he can't do rescue breathing is because Angel couldn't back in the season 1 finale of Buffy, and at this point in the show, the makers seem to have decided that the problem with Torchwood was that it wasn't enough like Buffy.
November 6, 2013 @ 7:19 pm
One of the developments that created modern science fiction was the application to traditional fairy-tale motifs of the realist techniques of the modern novel. So for example, many stories had been written over the centuries about invisibility, but before H. G. Wells no one had really explored the question of how it would work practically. Are you in danger of being run over when you cross the street? Do your clothes turn invisible too? If not, do you have to go naked? What if it's cold? Does your food turn invisible as soon as you eat it, or not?
Likewise many stories had been written over the centuries about eternal youth and turning lead into gold, but before William Godwin no one had really explored the question of how they would work practically. If you can turn lead into gold, how do you explain your source of income when people grow suspicious? If you have eternal youth, how do you explain never aging? Do you have to move on periodically? What if you get convicted of a crime carrying a life sentence?
This doesn't mean that Godwin and Wells were writing hard sf with a firm grounding in realistic science. On the contrary, they're completely handwavy about how their invisibility/eternal-youth/lead-into-gold formulae work. My point is that they make a real effort to think through the effects of the formulae and how they would interact with the details of ordinary life. So that's why I find the "don't sweat it, it's just fiction" response unsatisfying; it seems like a regression that gives up on what makes the genre historically distinctive.
November 7, 2013 @ 12:01 am
Then there's the Big Map of the World With Lots of Lines trope, used both for IP and phone tracing (and probably first popularised in the 1992 movie "Sneakers").
Both sides use this model, either with the trace vanishing just before our Heroes reach it, or our Heroes hanging up/disconnecting the PC just before the trace reaches them.
For full dramatic effect It is also vital that the word "proxy" is used at least once.
November 7, 2013 @ 1:51 am
I agree, a lot of the pleasure of science fiction and fantasy can be gained from the detail. The amount of thought some authors put into their world building is impressive, producing classics like Herbert's Dune or Asimov's robot stories. You rightly mention Wells as a progenitor of this style, the grandfather of science fiction. However, this doesn't and shouldn't preclude other ways of writing, particularly in a visual and performative medium. TV drama in this respect has more affinity with shadow puppets than literature. Yes one can depict the practicalities of some magic effect or speculative scientific process, that is one way of approaching the narrative. Another approach is to focus on the psychological or sociological aspects of whatever new technology is being speculated. In this respect the mechanics of the process become secondary to the impact they have on the characters and the spaces they inhabit. The former deals with cause while the latter looks at effect. So, rather than saying 'don't sweat it, it's just fiction' I think what I was suggesting was to be aware of what type of fiction one is dealing with. both Buffy and Torchwood became allegorical speculations on death, magic and the liminal; perhaps beyond the authors intentions. To give an example from literature, Does one care whether Heathcliff really becomes,an avenging ghost, haunting Catherine and what the mechanics of his afterlife might be? Or, even closer to the source, are we expected to believe there's a scientific explanation for Count Dracula's metamorphic powers? How can a human become a mist and reform into a corporeal form? An overly critical examination of the science would be to miss the beauty of the fiction.
November 7, 2013 @ 3:26 am
Good points Berserk & Anton. I am all for the semi-allegorical / magical realism side of science fiction that Doctor Who does so wonderfully. However, when a major plot point relies on the simple mechanics of breathing and gets it wrong, a handwave just simply isn't enough. This was the moment when Torchwood quite simply failed as a show. I think it redeems itself with later stories such as Adrift and Children of Earth, but at this point I found myself thinking, "well if THEY don't even care, why should I?"
November 7, 2013 @ 5:49 am
I don't think the story has to be about the realistic detail; but it shouldn't throw in things that blatantly screw it up.
And no, I don't need a scientific explanation of Dracula's condition, any more than I needed a scientific explanation of the invisibility formula either. That's not what I'm talking about.
If Dracula doesn't cast a reflection, I don't need to know why. I do need to not have him show up in photos take with an SLR camera though.
November 7, 2013 @ 6:02 am
@BerserkRL I re-read your comment after I'd replied and realised I'd got your point slightly skewed. In fact I'm pretty sure we agree in principle. I just think that, though I can be as pedantic as anyone, it's a shame to let insistance on empirical accuracy ruin a good yarn .
November 7, 2013 @ 7:48 am
Yeah, the Angel-not-breathing thing pissed me off, too. They could've explained it metaphorically by saying that vampires, being undead, are incapable of "granting" life to others.
It's arguably worse with Owen in that his condition was a result of (alien) science rather than mystical forces. Again, it could've been handwaved in any number of ways without declaring that he had no breath.
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January 12, 2015 @ 11:05 am
After reading the previous episode's comments, I watched this one (just today, yes) thinking about Owen's condition as a metaphor for severe depression. That worked surprisingly well for me, so I ended up appreciating the episode quite a bit more than I expected to.
I thought of the ending as being less about choosing life as striving for connection. Owen's real problems begin and develop with his isolation — he's marginalized from Torchwood, he's home alone, he tries to drown himself, he can't bring himself to listen to Tosh's monologue. Eventually he breaks into the home of a man who's shut himself into his home, clutching a device he doesn't realize is not some artifact centered on him, but a communication from some other world. It's this that Owen shows to the woman who's trying to jump because her connection to her husband has been severed, and the connection they make with each other culminates with that final shot of the Pulse sending out its communiques into the air.
Isolation and connection are something I think about a lot in relation to depression. I'm not sure they did the best job possible exploring all that, but it's what I got out of it.