Torchwood: Children of Earth

I remember sitting down to watch the first episode of this back in 2009, thinking “this will be shit, but at least it’ll be over by the end of the week”. I was half right. This mini-series does not make sense. The first series was garbage. The second series was only marginally better. I didn’t even make it to half way through Miracle Day before giving up completely. So how is it that Children of Earth is so gripping, thought-provoking, scary, intense and generally brilliant?

This is an adult version of Doctor Who done right, and if this is what Torchwood had been like from the start, my complaints would have been very few. Watching it back now, it’s clear that the new format is a huge advantage. Only telling one story over five hours allows time to deal with both character and plot development, whereas previously it often seemed to be a choice between one or the other. There’s also the necessity to raise the stakes higher and higher by the end of each hour, always pushing the story forward in imaginative and surprising ways.

There’s the new team dynamic too, although obviously this in itself would develop over the course of the story. The two worst characters are gone, and in their place is the ever-improving Rhys. But more than that, the story length means that the guest cast are around for long enough to really play a big part, resulting in an ensemble cast that was just as important to the narrative as the main team.

Basically, it wasn’t very much like Torchwood, and therefore it was good. This is an over-simplification, of course, so let’s go through the details one day at a time. I’ve been writing up my notes after each episode throughout the week, so here’s a recap of the story as it unfolded:

Day One

* Peter Capaldi appearing in a Doctor Who spin-off as a civil servant makes this exactly halfway between his two most famous roles.

* Wow, those screaming children are certainly very creepy. Although the unfortunate side-effect of their “we are coming” message manifesting itself one word at a time was that I couldn’t help but hear them shout “wee-wee” over and over again.

* Who’s this Rupesh, then? He’s being set up as a potential new recruit, but I don’t remember him at all, so – much like any time The Doctor offers to take someone on board, but you know they’re not a new companion – he’s doomed.

* I see the UK’s new Prime Minister is Mr A. Genericman. Still, I suppose it’s an improvement on Harold Saxon.

* Jack has a daughter! That’s a nice little twist, and a good opportunity to explore an interesting issue that his immortality raises: he’s her dad, but she looks older than him.

* Ah, so Rupesh is a bad un. Should have seen that coming, considering Jack’s tendency to walk into obvious traps. And look, his mate is the Hitchhikers woman off that episode of Peep Show. Oh, she’s not his mate. She’s killed him.

* Jack blowing up is hell of a cliffhanger. I can’t remember if they go into the gory detail of how his body resurrects itself when it’s been blown to smithereens, but I do hope so.

Day Two

* Ah, so Jack grows back bit by bit – an assortment of body parts in a bag can grow into a new Jack skellington. Shame, I was hoping the various chunks of him would make their way through the rubble to join together and slot into place. Having Jack wake up before his skin had grown back was pretty horrific, but not as horrific as the sight of his penis when he was fully recovered.

* Torchwood, the organisation, is now *completely* fucked. No silly SUV, no Hub, no money, and they’re being hunted down by their own government. It’s still weird that the guy in charge of killing them is Peter Capaldi. The Torchwood team as powerless fugitives is an interesting new dynamic; maybe things were a little too easy for them before, when they had a vast array of alien tech at their disposal.

* Also, Gwen’s up the duff. As good as it is overall to have Rhys along for the ride, his function at times is to tell his wife what she can and can’t do. Obviously he wants to protect her, especially given her condition, but the connotations of this tie in to the old cliché about women not being able to have it all. Although admittedly, most careers don’t involve chasing down aliens, or being chased down yourself by government bounty hunters.

* Possibly the most amusing and joyful sequence in Torchwood to date was Ianto turning up in a JCB to steal a big block of concrete, and then freeing Jack by throwing the fucker down a quarry.

Day Three

* Did Jack’s daughter attract the attention of the police deliberately as some sort of gambit, or is she just a fucking idiot? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to springing traps, or indeed when it comes to a penchant for running around with a gun in a big blue coat.

* The 456 are probably the first Torchwood alien to be actually scary. It’s because they’re so bloody *weird*; we can barely see them, so all we’ve got to go off is them making the occasional guttural noises and vomiting on the glass for seemingly no particular reason. It’s another example of the new format being beneficial; they can afford to take the time to eke the mystery out, and therefore it’s so much more effective than usual.

* Ah, Colin McFarlane has turned up! No matter how many Batman films he’s been in, he’ll always be the token black guy on The Fast Show to me. Did you know he’s also the voice of The Cube? Also, I’ve just remembered that he was in Doctor Who recently – with Capaldi, no less.

* Turns out the team do have one bit of advanced tech at their disposal – those contact lenses from when Martha turned up. But is there any bit of alien kit that Torchwood won’t use for sex?

* Every bit of Capaldi’s interactions with The 456 is utterly superb; it’s a great performance from him, unsurprisingly. But the highlight has to be the bit where they repeat his line back at him in a sarcastic voice. I feel like the first two series would have milked that moment, but here they have the restraint to just let it linger in silence for a few seconds, completely unmentioned, before moving on. It becomes another aspect to the unpredictable weirdness that makes them scary, rather than being played for mood-breaking laughs.

* The gloriously resurrected prodigal son ups and fucks off again for most of the episode, leaving the team to figure out what’s going on without his help, which would have been pretty useful considering he already knows exactly what the situation is. Then he comes back right at the end, after Lois has put herself in danger and Clem has been traumatised, to tell them the thing that they’ve spent ages figuring out, with the added information that he once sent twelve innocent children to their deaths. I’m being facetious, mind; that scene was tense as fuck, and another great cliffhanger.

Day Four

* After four series and five specials of the main show, and two series each of Torchwood and SJA, it’s finally time to unveil Nick Briggs’s face. I like Nick Briggs’s face, and he’s very good. His character is the spin doctor who proposes selling a child cull as a measure against overpopulation. I don’t think even Malcolm Tucker would go that far.

* The political discussions are the main feature of this episode, and all of those cabinet scenes are just brilliant. They’ve stuck with me for all this time, as they’re disconcertingly realistic, even more so after seven years of Tory austerity. Of course they propose using asylum seekers. Of course the only thing they agree on is that their own kids shouldn’t at stake. Much like The Thick Of It, they don’t actually say which party are in power, but the ultimate decision to sacrifice the poorest and most vulnerable children makes it perfectly clear.

* Torchwood’s convoluted plan to take control is clever, and the reveal that they’ve done so is triumphant. This is a really good thriller. This is not like Torchwood at all.

* Ah, but their confrontation with The 456 is. Their big plan is to blackmail them into leaving, but why should The 456 give a shit about their ultimatum being made public? It’s of no political concern to them, and they can easily crush any resistance. And yes, Jack, they are also capable of developing bullet-proof glass.

* And then Ianto dies. Obviously I knew it was coming, but I’d forgotten that it was in the penultimate episode, so it did still come as a bit of a surprise. After being a bit nothingy for the first series, Ianto has grown into a far better character than any of the previous casualties, and will be a genuine loss to the show. It’s all very sad, but I’m not sure it warranted a shrine. Much less a shrine that’s been maintained for eight years and counting:

Me in Cardiff, February 2017

* It’s a bit of a shame that, ultimately, Ianto died for nothing. Jack’s plan comprehensively failed; the cabinet were in exactly the same position afterwards that they were before Torchwood’s intervention, and all they achieved was a sports hall full of corpses. Nice one, Jack.

* Still, eh? Susie, Owen, Tosh, Ianto. Gwen is still pretty much the new girl, and yet other than the immortal one, every single member of the team that she joined is dead. Torchwood is an institute that desperately needs to revise its health and safety policies.

Day Five

* Ah, The 456 are off their tits on child-smack. That certainly explains their unpredictable behaviour, and the random bouts of vomiting.

* Frobisher’s downfall is the darkest that any Doctor Who-related series has ever been, and likely ever will be. I mean, fucking hell. I had to pause it and compose myself – I wasn’t crying, because I was too stunned, even though I knew what was coming. It’s yet another incredible performance by Capaldi (possibly the only Doctor to have turned in so many incredible performances before he was actually The Doctor), and brilliantly directed. No need for words, just gestures, expressions and four gunshots.

* Well, I say that’s the darkest it’s ever going to get, but it’s not often that a plot is resolved by the protagonist killing his own grandson. While he was obviously in an impossible position, and even taking into account the logic of sacrificing one child to save millions, after everything that happened in the 60s and with Ianto, Jack doesn’t come out of this story particularly well.

* It’s good to see the PM get his comeuppance in the immediate aftermath, but the godawful woman who advocates culling the poor gets to take over? RTD predicted the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

* As with the last finale, zero time was taken to explore the consequences of the catastrophic events. The story ends the second The 456 disappear – the army immediately stops trying to capture the Welsh kids, despite not having received any orders to do so. How the hell does society come back from this? From having parents watch as the government round up their children at gunpoint? Because you can bet it’ll never be mentioned in proper Doctor Who or Sarah Jane, despite supposedly taking place in the same universe.

* Either way, off Jack fucks, leaving the people of Cardiff completely undefended from whatever comes out of the Rift. With only a heavily-pregnant Gwen left (presumably the pterodactyl died when the Hub exploded), Torchwood – the organisation – is effectively over now. Really, Torchwood the TV show should have been too. Much like how Del Boy and Rodney walking off into the sunset was the perfect ending to Only Fools And Horses, I can’t think of anything more apt to round off Torchwood than the complete dismantling of everything it ever built, against a backdrop of harrowing death and destruction.

So perhaps elements of the conclusion prove that no matter how much Torchwood changes, it still can’t quite escape from its main pitfall: being Torchwood. Nevertheless, it’s a truly spectacular piece of television, standing head and shoulders above everything that came before and after. For one brief, glorious week in 2009, Torchwood was the best show on TV. Two thousand words later, I’m still not entirely sure how it happened, but I’m very glad it did.

RATING: 9

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 9, I SUPPOSE.

  • Torchwood series watched: 3 of 4
  • Torchwood stories watched: 27 of 37
  • Individual Torchwood episodes watched: 31 of 41
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