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Torchwood: Children of Earth Review

That was… intense, in a word.

I really didn’t come to the miniseries expecting too much. The first two seasons of Torchwood had been entertaining – for the most part – but nothing special, and seemingly lacking the va va voom of its older sister series. The promise of a more mature and considered Doctor Who was more-or-less unfulfilled – unless you consider nudity and sex jokes to be mature. Then Children of Earth aired.

Frobisher initially thought the alien ambassador was full of hot-air...

Frobisher initially thought the alien ambassador was full of hot-air...

Note: This review contains spoilers. Really. Lots and lots of spoilers. If you want a recommendation: go watch it. It’s the best sci-fi you’ll see on TV this year. Then come back and talk about it.

It really has been the best thing on television I’ve seen so far this year. It finally exploited the potential of the world of Doctor Who after the watershed. The Doctor always wins, good always trumps evil and if there’s a cost it’s always earned in a way that doesn’t seem too dark or depressing. Doctor Who is pure unadulterated fun. Torchwood had the potential to be something more, but was too focused on simply being (or trying to be) pure, unadulterated fun with evil alien sex gas.

Davies seems to have spotted all the flaws inherent in the execution of the concept and set most of them right. In his occasional stints on the mother show, Captain Jack defends Torchwood as something built in the Doctor’s honour, but the truth is that it never really faced anything in the Doctor’s league. In a way, this was refreshing (as Davies likes to up the ante in every possible series finale, Torchwood was a welcome buck of the trend), but it always felt like a con. These were threats the Doctor himself would likely dispel in the teaser at the start of an episode, or within the first act. Here, Davies gives the team two real enemies. One – the wonderfully realised 456 aliens – which is in the Doctor’s weight class, and one – the British government – which he’s flirted with, but never really had to deal with (at one stage he dismissively abolished one government with a single question, but it’s never really come after him as viciously as it ought to).

The stakes are high, but they don’t seem forced or melodramatically high. The biggest problem of Davies’ finales on Doctor Who (aside from his use of the big “Reset Button” he apparently keeps in his office) is the tendancy to try and top himself. So, you cram a threat to the entire universe into two episodes and have the hero topple it – which, due to constraints, usually has Davies leap to that big red button. Here a threat to the planet is slowly built up and revealed. We don’t even see the aliens (as much as we ever see them) until more than half way through the series. It works wonderfully.

And then there’s Captain Jack. Sure he’s had a rough past, but he’s just too light hearted for a guy who we’re supposed to believe has the fate of the planet resting on his shoulders. I thought that the problem was Barrowman as an actor, but these episodes demonstrated he can deliver dramatically. The truth is that the character has got off fairly lightly until now. When your biggest complaint is that you live forever, it’s a hard problem for the audience to buy into or relate to. Here, Davies again acts to remedy the problem. Sure, there was a lot of head shaking on the internet when Jack declared “I’m back!” fifteen minutes into the third episode, but Davies makes him pay for that glib cheekiness in the face of annihilation. He effectively humbles him by brutally subverting the “big dang heroes” moment at the climax of the fourth episode, and then strips away everything Jack has earned in his time on the planet (even if the death of his lover has unfortunate implications). By the end of the run of episodes, Jack has seen his own, personal Gallifrey burn. And he’s burnt it himself. To complete his thematic union with that other protagonist, his response is to run as far as he can from it. Earth is too small, but will he have any better luck in space? The TARDIS can travel the whole of time and space, but The Doctor has never stopped running – can we imagine Jack will? It was brutal and uncomfortable to watch, but sterling delivery from Barrowman made it more palpable. We can’t blame him for running away at the end, but it would be a crime not to bring him back.

This isn’t to say that Davies has lost his sense of humour. The first two-and-a-half episodes are fantastic in their own way and contain more energy, spark and wit than most of what came before. Hell, even Davies’ snapshots of regular life at the height of the climax (making a profit running a creche at £10 a kid), show he does see the humanity in these horrible moments. And that’s the strongest part of Davies’ writing on the franchise: his glimpse of humanity, both horrible and fantastic. Then there’s also the dry wit. My personal favourite witty rejoinder comes from the second episode, where Ianto’s sister asks him what kind of civil servant he and his colleagues are. His response? “Unappreciated ones.”

Indeed, the series maintains the universe’s wonderful “being human even in the midst of horrible things happening” theme. PC Andy Davison is a particularly good example of this, as are Ianto’s extended family. Admittedly this glibness is more present in the first half of the serial (it seems to end with a sequence where Gwen teaches the Torchwood-ians what she learned from The Real Hustle as they steal all manner of supplies from the general public). Small bits like these are welcome and refreshing. In the past they’ve maybe been a bit intrusive, but here Davies strikes a fine balance.

The show also rather excellently handles probably one of the best first (technically, second) contact scenarios I’ve ever seen. Everything is so British, even in the face of the end of the world and the horrible dilemma facing the governments of the world. Peter Capaldi is simply amazing as the put-upon civil servant John Frobisher, a good man in horrible times. The conclusion to his own storyline is heartwrenching, powerful stuff. But, yep, what happens when these intergalactic bullies show up, as they seem wont to do in the Whoniverse? What would have happened during The Christmas Invasion if the Doctor hadn’t shown up? The cautious optimism of that scenario is undermined as the world falls to a default position of capitulation and cover-up. What’s depressing is that it is so believable. In fact, the best moments of this serial don’t focus on the Torchwood team (for the most part). The COBRA meeting where the government decides which 10% to give is simply chilling, as is the scene where Prime Minister Green (geddit? Davies ain’t subtle) informs Frobisher that sacrifices must be made.

Pity the civil servent who has to clean this mess up...

Pity the civil servent who has to clean this mess up...

On the other hand, Davies manages to give us an effective counterpoint to the depressive nature of these scenes from (where else?) the council estates. When the residents realise what the soldiers are doing, their spontaneous call to action is somewhat heart warming, though I’m not sure it’s possible to completely counter the soul-destroying nature of the earlier scenes. Davies has always put more faith in people than in governments (that’s why this universe is great for him, as the Doctor is the quintessential anti-establishment figure), and this serial gives him a better opportunity to make his case than shoehorning it into a subplot during a Doctor Who series finale (which does explain why the US President doesn’t want to be involved in these negotiations, to be fair). His conniving Prime Minister is saved by a great supporting performance. It’s also refreshing that he doesn’t resort to paint the Americans as bogey men, even lampshading the tendency. And his depiction of an alien invasion centring on Britain (and his explanation for it) are very refreshing in a world where Independence Day and The Day the Earth Stood Still have taught us that aliens like America.

Speaking of aliens, the 456 are a fantastic creation, both in the writing and the execution. I’m glad we never got a good look at them – the shadows and prongs were enough visually. The voice was chilling. Given they never actually did anything, they made a nice baddie. I’m actually quite delighted with the reason given for their fascination with our children. When we saw that shot during the fourth episode of the child hooked up and being ‘drained’, I immediately assumed that they were somehow parasitic, that they needed these children to live. I knew it didn’t make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, but somehow it made their abduction of the children… I won’t say reasonable, but maybe fathomable. The revelation that they “shoot up” on children was fantastic. They are putting the human race through this not so they can live, but “for the hit”. It really knocks the audience (who, by this stage, are used to the whole ‘harvesting humans’ trope from all manner of popular media – most prominently in The Matrix movies) for twenty.

And on tropes and cliches, I loved the way the series subverted just about all of them. None of the regulars were safe. The human race didn’t band together to blast the aliens in a fire fight (they couldn’t even find the space ship to shoot). When Torchwood got their “big heroes” moment (complete with a speech about how “an injury to one is an injury to all”) at the climax of the forth episode, it was like something from a Doctor Who episode. And then – to everyone’s surprise – they were brutally smacked aside, squashed like insects.

Of course, I wasn’t entirely happy with everything. In particular, Davies’ weakness with endings kicked in about halfway through the last episode. I wasn’t satisfied with the ‘toppling of the Prime Minister’ resolution to the political plot, since it’s meant to be a happy ending even though his replacement will be even more looney (and there are recordings that could just as easily have been used to blackmail her – she was the woman behind the whole “who should we send?” logic). The vanquishing of the aliens came a little out of left field. It was almost a Deus Ex Machina, but possibly the best use of the concept since Davies’ first finale in the universe – The Parting of Ways, Eccleston’s last episode as the Doctor – partially because there was a very real and tangible cost to using the Machina. I did like that the show didn’t tell us how to feel about what Jack did, it was a welcome piece of ambiguity.

There’s a much smaller complaint that really has nothing to do with this story, but more the tapestry of the universe Davies has woven. Where is the Doctor? I like that he attempted to deal with the issue in the opening minutes of the final episode, but I don’t buy the “ashamed” theory. As mentioned above, people come out a lot better than governments and the character has never had any difficulty differentiating the two before. An alien invasion is just up his alley. Maybe he was busy, but no one tried to contact him? On the upside, it means that the next time the Doctor criticises the existence of Torchwood, he can be told to shove it (in fairness, this was foreshadowed during The Christmas Invasion when Harriet Jones asked what happens when he isn’t there?). It’s a minor complaint, and one that has broader implications than this five-episode miniseries, but it’s still something that occurred to me when the stakes jumped dramatically at the climax of the third episode.

All in all, pretty spectacular. It’s a riveting science fiction epic, another jewel in the BBC’s crown. It is the best thing I’ve seen on television so far this year, and it really ups the game for the remaining Doctor Who specials later this year. I’m actually looking forward to Torchwood’s fourth season.

3 Responses

  1. Very nice site. Keep up the great work!

  2. […] all worked relatively well when he was writing the kind of stuff that the fanboys approve of. Then Children of Earth managed to do something completely unexpected and shocking, SPOILER! killing off one of the […]

  3. […] metaphors for morals and lessons. I’ve also been thinking about the rather epic and excellent Children of Earth miniseries that the Beeb ran last week and the Americans are receiving next week. With the report […]

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