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Torchwood: Children of BBC Sci-Fi

I have to admit, my family’s hooked to Torchwood: Children of the Earth playing on the BBC at the moment. For those unfamiliar with the concept and execution, it’s a five-part epic that is playing at 9pm every night this week. It’s the type of television event that shows why the BBC might just be the best broadcasters in the world – the show is perfect for the format. The tension is elevated by the fact we know the run will end on Friday, the budget is clearly there for all the spectacle and all the talent involved is top notch. It’s the kind of thing that I wish that RTE might pick up on, even once. The really beautiful thing about this run is that manages to demonstrate that not only are the Beeb doing something very well, but they’ve been doing it well all along. From what we’ve seen so far, Children of the Earth can hold its head high with all the other great science fiction events the channel has pulled off over the years.

Back in black...

Back in black...

The first and most obvious parallel is with Torchwood’s own sister show: Doctor Who. Not the modern incarnation though. Running a single story over five hours calls back to the good old days of multi-part serials. In fact, a ten-parter was released on Monday, The War Games. Of course, officially there’s no connection to the classic releases and the events in the current Who-niverse, but it’s hard to imagine some fan somewhere within the DVD-release hierarchy isn’t smiling at the return of the traditional five-hour sci-fi saga to British television. Still, there are stronger thematic echoes of other elements in the BBC’s long history of science fiction mystery theatre that resonate through the current television event.

Contact with alien life forms is hardly a rare event in science fiction, but Children of the Earth pulls it off with rare aplomp. The mysterious visitors – known simply as the 456 – are clouded in mist and gas and only half-glimpsed in shadows and shapes. Most of the action revolves around the reaction to them by the human population – surprisingly engaging political wrangling as the world ends. The notion of hiding your alien is a trope that is fairly common in the BBC’s library (partially because productions usually had relatively small budgets, so it’s easier to scare the audience with shadow play than with bubble wrap and spray paint). The construction of the gaseous chamber to hold the creature may call to mind Independence Day, but the receipt by humans of instructions and plans for construction hark back through the original A for Andromeda and various other science-fiction works. It’s a verye ffective way to generate discomfort – having the characters build something that they don’t understand. In A for Andromeda, the scientists are given instructions for a computer that tells them how to create new life – new life they fear may destroy them. The original source of the signal is never determined.

Remember when posters actually looked like this?

Remember when posters actually looked like this?

It’s nice to have a good old fashioned science fiction serial on the air. The BBC used to be home to dozens of them. I know people who fondly recall the original Quatermass Experiment, even though the originals (like A for Andromeda and numerous vintage Doctor Who serials) were lost when the BBC wiped their tapes. However, given the current trends in the Beeb, the plan for creating a Torchwood story in this manner shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise. The BBC has been seeking to evoke this golden age of television science fiction with a whole host of remakes based around this principles. The year before David Tennant became the Doctor, he starred in a live broadcast of a remake of the Quatermass Experiment. Before that Tom Hardy starred in a remake of A for Andromeda. Both versions heavily condensed the original material, cutting running time down to a quarter of what the serials had been and running the remakes in a single night. This year’s relaunch of Terry Nation’s Survivors has been confirmed for a second season, so it may equal the run of the original post-apocalyptic drama. The BBC have also announced their intentions to film a new version of The Day of the Triffids.

The Beeb have always treated speculative fiction quite kindly – they are a lot more comfortable taking risks with material than many American networks (perhaps that’s the real role of a national broadcaster – RTE should take note). Torchwood: Children of the Earth looked like  such a risk on paper. I imagined that any story spread into five hours would require padding or stretching, but it hasn’t. I thought that the sight of children chanting in the playground would be cheesy, but instead it was creepy. And I thought that Torchwood would be too light to really carry what was clearly a major television event. I am willing to admit that I was wrong on all counts. he show has finally hit its stride thanks to a truly gutsy move. I don’t see why John Barrowman is complaining about the shortening of the run. Though I’m still waiting to catch The Pacific, the upcoming sequel/companion to Band of Brothers, Children of the Earth is shaping up to be the television event of the year.

Check back on the weekend for a full review.

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