Torchwood: Miracle Day is one of the most intensely political things I’ve ever seen on television. Through two episodes, everything from health care, to extraordinary rendition, to the death penalty, to drug stockpiling, to the ethics of abortion and contraception in a world where the population’s exploding. What’s exceptional about Miracle Day, though, is not just that it’s tackling the issues of the day, but the way it’s using science fictional conceits and our affection for existing characters to reframe key issues rather than simply to pose the same questions again.
Charlie Jane Anders has a wonderful outline of the show’s core dilemma: what happens to every aspect of health care, from management to chronic conditions, to disease control, to organ donation, in a world where no one dies? Miracle Day isn’t throwing out the world of politics — people are still opposed to abortion and contraception, and with swamped emergency rooms, there are still questions about health care rationing. But rather than fighting over death panels and mandates to purchase insurance, the events of Miracle Day totally upset the rules, making the question not about how we’re going to pay for health care, but how we’re going to deliver it at all when there aren’t enough beds, enough drugs, enough doctors. In the real world, of course, the payment question’s still there, and still important. But shifting the framework and the questions we ask about the issues, even temporarily, is the kind of thought experiment science fiction’s made for.
And on a smaller scale, I thought the rendition scenes were more effective than Charlie Jane did. It’s one thing to show the impact of extraordinary rendition on a family we’ve just met a couple of minutes ago, like in Rendition. It’s entirely another to see character’s we’ve gotten to know over three or more years torn away from their kids on a tarmac, dragged limp up a set of moveable steps and into a plane. It’s easy to abstract experiences we haven’t had, and that no one we know have had or are likely to have. Art can provide an emotional connection to those kinds of issues, things we oppose in principal but not out of an actual visceral objection to them.