Torchwood: Miracle Day Episode 4

By this point in the series, it’s pretty clear that the writers are deliberately trying to play with the “legal” consequences of the premise. And you know what? Good for them. Of course, it would have been better if they’d asked someone who knew something about the legal system before they went with it, because things aren’t getting any better on that front.

I. Miracle Day and Employment

Early on the episode, there’s a TV spot about a man who is suing his former employer for letting him go as a result of his heart attack. “I can still work! It’s not like I’m going to die or anything!” True enough. But that’s not really the point. It’s already illegal to fire people for health conditions, at least those that substantially limit major life activities or major bodily functions (e.g. the circulatory system).  So if it was legal to fire this guy before Miracle Day, i.e. if his heart attack interfered with his job to such an extent that reasonable accommodation was not possible, then it’s still legal afterward.  And if it was illegal before (i.e., if he could still do his job with reasonable accommodation), then it would be illegal after.

II. Dead is Dead

Then there’s the introduction of a new social/political phenomenon: the “Dead is Dead” movement. This is spearheaded by a female mayor of a small Midwestern town who is explicitly identified as a Tea Partier. The show is nothing if not heavy-handed. The idea here is that because no one is dying, people who “should have died” are now consuming vast amounts of resources that would otherwise have been available for the living. Which is true, as far as it goes. The proposal is to basically round up everyone who “should have died” and put them in camps, with an explicit reference to segregation. Because we didn’t already know that the writers disapprove.

Approve or not, there’s absolutely no way this could work in practice. The reason is obvious: How do we know if someone was going to die? Sure, there are obvious trauma cases, but even some of those aren’t quite so obvious. People make amazing recoveries every day, and someone can be touch and go for weeks before turning a corner and getting better. And this is to say nothing of people with chronic diseases, many of whom can hang on for years, decades even, before finally dying. How are we supposed to know whether these people “should have died”?

We can’t. Which is the whole problem. And as a result, the proposal is a massive violation of Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to Due Process and Equal Protection. One gets the impression that the writers were vaguely aware that this would be problematic, because they have the Tea Party mouthpiece say something about needing to change the law, but they conveniently drown her out with conversation when she starts making proposals. Probably because they don’t have any idea how to make it work, but it fits with their political hobbyhorse, so they’re going to go with it.

III. PhiCorp and Corporate Ownership

Lastly, Oswald Danes has started to suspect that his corporate masters are up to no good. It’s not clear whether or not he cares, but he at least wants to know. Fair enough. So he does some digging online, which he can apparently do because he has learned how to “hide his tracks” online due to not being allowed to access the internet since his conviction. None of which makes any kind of sense, but whatever. He discovers that when he tries to find out who owns PhiCorp, the trail goes cold. And he concludes that someone was trying to hide PhiCorp’s corporate parentage just like he had hidden himself.

This doesn’t make any sense either. PhiCorp is a corporation, presumably, or at least some kind of business entity. Probably in Delaware, maybe Nevada. That means it is registered somewhere, as it had to file articles of incorporation or some similar document depending on the kind of entity we’re talking about. For what he’s saying to be even remotely plausible, PhiCorp can’t be publicly traded, because if it were, figuring out who owns stock isn’t all that hard. It’d probably be beyond Danes’ ability to do in an afternoon with no special tools, but it’s not that hard to get this information. Hell, if any of the directors own stock, that has to be publicly declared to the SEC as part of the company’s annual filings. These documents are boring, but they’re matters of public record.

So say PhiCorp is privately held. Even privately held companies can’t completely hide their ownership information. They don’t have to make SEC filings if they aren’t publicly traded, but a company that big is going to have attracted journalistic attention. We basically know who owns most of the largest privately held companies in the world. For example, Koch Industries is owned by the Koch family. Mars, Inc. is owned by the Mars family. Ernst & Young is owned by its partnership. Bechtel Corp. is owned by the Bechtel family. Sure, we don’t know precisely who owns what, but we know the list of people who own the majority of the stock. If PhiCorp is even half as big as it’s made out to be, the idea that the ownership of the company is completely unknown is pretty implausible.

IV. Conclusion

Legally speaking, things really aren’t getting any better. Maybe this is because the writers are Brits and are only dealing with half-understood stereotypes of the American legal system. Maybe it’s because they don’t think these details are important. But if your show deliberately sets out to explore the legal implications of a speculative event, these details are important. Maybe Davies should stick to blowing up universes.

14 responses to “Torchwood: Miracle Day Episode 4

  1. Melanie Koleini

    “If PhiCorp is even half as big as it’s made out to be, the idea that the ownership of the company is completely unknown is pretty implausible.”

    I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know much about corporate law. I’ll grant you that in practice you are probably correct. Any really big company would not be able to hide ownership. However, aren’t there shell corporations that only exist to ‘own’ other companies and thus hide the true owners? I vaguely remember reading about a small house (in Delaware I think) that was the registered headquarters of over 1000 corporations.

    • Chains of ownership through shell companies can still be tracked down, although one would expect a slight delay.

  2. Actually… after episode one, the writers of the episode (at least, those listed, who knows how much RTD tinkers with the scripts afterwards, he’s known for doing that a lot) are Americans.
    (BTW, love this series of posts!)

  3. Just a small correction: What Danes implies is very similar to what Melanie said above. It’s easy to find who owns PhiCorp: a bucketload of small corporations. But then *these* corporations are all harder to track; probably privately owned.

  4. Each episode worst than the last. Ridiculous, and such a waste.

  5. For what it’s worth (not much), I thought Danes’ ‘not allowed online in a while’ comment just meant he hadn’t been able to get on and look around (ie, for Phicorp, in this case) for ages and so he hadn’t til now learnt anything. I thought his experience at hiding his tracks was referring to what he got up to before prison.

    I agree about Heart Attack Guy. Could his boss have weird insurance issues?

    (Of course, if something like this did happen, chances are people like him would get on TV and say stuff like that, legally accurate or otherwise.)

  6. The sad thing is rather than the idiotic “let’s put people in camps” idea (for one thing, who wants to put their grandma in a camp?), this could have led to a rather realistic discussion of how libertarian movements might deal with this event. For example – nobody will ever starve to death. So why do we need food stamps? Nobody will ever freeze to death in the gutters, so why do we need homeless shelters? Close ’em all down and save resources…

  7. lets not even talk about the “legal” stuff, and focus on smaller things for a second. like, how do they buy and deliver a server to their new hideout when they specifically said they can’t use plastic? how do they suddenly have a new black van to drive around in? how do they get away with this whole new server replacement scheme after shooting a dude in the server room and leaving blood all over the walls? these might be smaller details, but it’s this kind of stuff that kills me. when things just magically work themselves out and/or appear with no explanation or thought.

    • The point of this blog is the “legal” stuff, however… they can’t use their plastic, but they can still move money around (either secret accounts or nick other people’s plastic), and need a physical delivery address. And a van. They still swapped the servers, whether or not the bad guys see through their transparent ruse because of the blood, they still can access the information on the server. Some access stuff migth change, but the overall picture will remain the same.
      (And no doubt the team will find some small detail to follow up on that the bad guys haven’t changed yet…)

  8. Scratch Martin

    You just know the Tea Party lady trying to discriminate against the un-dead Americans is a closeted un-dead American herself. Maybe it was a brief brain aneurysm she passed off as a headache, or a bad case of the flu she thought she got over.

    • What about people who just fantasize about being undead because they are curious?

      • Scratch Martin

        Because everyone experiments with necromancy in college?

        Alas, women are much more likely to experiment with un-death than men are. Really took all the fun out of my college after-nightlife experience.

  9. An eternal problem in writing, the writer tries to make the plot specifically go in a certain direction even if all reason suggests that it would be unlikely. Personally I suspect the politics of the writers is to blame*, something that appears to be very common.
    Then there’s the question of how on Earth you’re supposed to prove that someone really should have died. Not even getting into the points (made above) about how people can survive horrible injuries and others can live with diseases for decades, how are you going to round up people on a street and guarantee that they should have died when they fell down the stairs last week? What about old age? Obviously the plot won’t go on that long but technically every single human on the planet will survive past their last possible moment. Does this woman intend to intern all three hundred million plus Americans in sixty years time?
    On another note I’m fairly sure that the idea of the world becoming unsustainable for humans in a matter of months due to the lack of deaths is probably far off. It might cause some constrictions but a few months shouldn’t be enough for those consequences. Besides you would expect poorer nations with much larger relative populations to be far worse off than the U.S.

  10. Well, that a politician proposes something in no way implies that it is either legal or constitutional. The bigger issue is that it makes neither legal nor practical sense to move all of the non-ambulatory patients out to an overflow camp even when they have families willing to take them home and take care of them as best they can and they have nothing all that contagious.

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