I’ve been watching Torchwood: Miracle Day, the latest series in the spin-off from Doctor Who. When it started, Torchwood was advertised as ‘Doctor Who for grown-ups’, although many grown-ups think that Doctor Who is also for grown-ups. The difference is probably in some of its adult themes and its post-watershed timeslot. ‘Adult themes’ in the context of Torchwood tends to mean that Captain Jack Harkness gets the opportunity to allow his sexuality free rein. Otherwise, Torchwood – an anagram of Doctor Who – has given its creator, Russell T. Davies, a platform to play around with political and philosophical ideas that are present in Doctor Who, but less appropriate for a younger audience and a format in which the world has to be saved every 40 minutes.
The premise of Torchwood: Miracle Day is that for a reason yet to be disclosed no one has died since a day the media dubbed ‘Miracle Day’. While this seemed at first to be a good thing, it has quickly been found to be a bad thing. The world’s population has begun to spiral out of control. Hospitals can’t cope with people who are sick, but who are not dying, thereby freeing up beds for others. A&E triage has had to be reassessed in that minor injuries get to be treated first because there is no ‘30 minute window’ to treat serious cases before they die, because no one dies. Foetuses with severe impairments that would normally auto-abort go full term and are born. In other words, there is an unexpected downside to immortality.
This theme of immortality is one that has frequently occurred in Doctor Who. The Doctor is effectively immortal and the spin-off character Captain Jack shares this trait. On the other hand death is ever present. In ‘Forest of the Dead’, an episode in series four, a voice-over, River Song, one of the Doctor’s companions says: When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it'll never end. But however hard you try you can't run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever for one moment, accepts it. Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. The context of this quotation is of interest to those who like to look for faith issues in Doctor Who in that it takes the idea of being saved in an unusual new direction and offers a suggestion regarding the nature of an after-life.
If we bring together these story-lines from Torchwood and Doctor Who, we get an interesting starting point to consider the importance of death and dying. ‘Everybody knows that everybody dies’, but the Doctor refuses to give in to death. ‘Everybody knows that everybody dies, but not every day and not today’, is the starting point for Torchwood: Miracle Day. But how much of a miracle would this be? How important is it for humanity, that we die? How important is it that life is framed by birth and death?
The point of praying for healing and, the much rarer, praying for the dead to be raised is not so that no one dies it is so that some days are ‘blessed’. It is also a demonstration that God does not accept death, in the sense that he does not bow to the inevitability of death. God controls death, because God allows death to happen. One might even say that God has created death in the same way that he has created life. Without death life is not eternal, it is interminable.
I like the idea – John Polkinghorne’s, I believe – that human beings have hardware and software. The hardware dies, but the software can live on. It can be saved. Perhaps our destiny is not to live with God in the clouds, but in The Cloud.