I got into Torchwood because it was sexy-silly adventure. A friend of mine referred to it as Doctor Who fanfic that actually got made into a show. A fair assessment, as for the first two seasons. But with the Children of Earth miniseries, all that changes. (Note: The series has run in the UK already. It will air in the USA and Canada beginning July 20 on BBC-America and Space, respectively.)
My post is absolutely chock full of spoilers. If you haven’t seen it all yet, don’t read another word. Also, if you are reading this post, I’m assuming you’ve seen the entire 5-day miniseries.
What is an acceptable sacrifice? Can heartlessness and villainy be measured in degrees? What separates utility from evil? Is sacrificing one innocent life to save the world acceptable? How about twelve lives? A thousand? Ten thousand? Is a hero still a hero if he or she endangers the blameless in the pursuit of the so-called greater good? Such questions have been asked countless times in science fiction and fantasy and yet, when presented correctly, these questions never fail to evoke a strong emotional response. These are not the questions I had ever expected a show like Torchwood to ask, at least not with any real depth. I expected sex and humor, charm, fun, light-hearted scifi with the occasional poignant moment. Children of Earth utterly destroyed my expectations for the show. And I’m glad it did.
Before getting into the real core of the miniseries, a few words about the acting. I never gave much thought to the cast as great actors, but Children of Earth is their finest hour (or five) by far. Mediocre actors couldn’t have pulled this off. Every single actor in it shines. Best of the lot, though, is the heartbreaking performance of Paul Copley as Clement McDonald. He perfectly captured the essence of a perpetual victim, someone whose past is terrifying and present circumstances no less torturous. He’s an old man and deeply frightened child at once. The power of his performance strengthens the entire series, giving greater gravity to, and removing abstraction from, the idea of an “acceptable sacrifice.”
Throughout the show, I kept thinking of Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In it, a utopian society’s wellbeing hinges upon the horrific suffering of one child. All citizens are required to view the child. Many rationalize the abuse they see, attached as they are to their own comforts, but some, as the title says, will “walk away” unable to remain in a society dependant upon the anguish of a child. The story calls into question the very nature of a seemingly Utopian society, and forces the reader to consider the various real-world abuses we so often sweep under the rug: child labor, famine, civilian death in war, and so on.
Children of Earth presents a horrific scenario. To appease the 456, the incredibly powerful alien invaders, the governments of Earth (focusing on the British) must sacrifice a tenth of the world’s children. There’s no use trying to prettify the situation: the kids aren’t going to a nice place. They’re going to be used, for decades, as a source of alien narcotic. And, as we see in the end, the only way to defeat them also involves sacrificing a child as well.
Russell T. Davies and the Doctor Who/Torchwood team have a knack for making kids creepy, and this skill reaches a whole new level in Children of Earth. The gas-mask boy in The Empty Child (which also gave us our first meeting with Jack Harkness), asking “Are you my mummy?” was bad enough; this time we’ve got a planet full of kids turning into human antennae for the 456. “We are coming. We are coming,” they repeat, mechanically, terrifyingly. And when this becomes “We are coming tomorrow” the tension heightens to a nearly unbearable level. Well done.
Captain Jack Harkness, in seasons one and two, is an ever-charming immortal boy wonder. Sure, he’s done dark things (like, say, lock his own brother away in indefinite cryogenic stasis) but we forgive him because, gosh, he’s Captain Jack! But when we learn that poor, traumatized Clem has suffered all his life because of the charismatic captain, Jack is revealed as far more cold-blooded than ever imagined before. And that’s nothing to what he does later. And then there’s Jack’s daughter, Alice. Is there any feeling worse than fearing your father while wanting closeness, only to find your fears were completely justified? Her story is tragic from one end to the other.
As the government officials discuss how to select which tenth of the British children to give up, the thinly veiled undercurrent of classicism and eugenics present in the ex-empire mindset. Even at their ugliest, it’s never hard to believe that, given the same dilemma, a real governmental body would come to precisely the same conclusion. Get rid of the underachievers, the poor. The “bad kids.” And while children with mental and physical disabilities are never directly mentioned, it’s no stretch to think they’d be the first to go.
The callous efficiency with which they choose which kids are to be served up to the invaders lays bare the most despicable and self-serving traits those in power can have. I found myself thinking, “Come on, Jack! Save the day! Go show those sons of bitches how it’s done!” But what is Jack, in the end, but a variation of the same villain? Granted, his actions were not based on class or perverted sense of Social Darwinism, but still, he decided the problem merited the death of a child, and one he cared for, at that. He ain’t about to win any “Father of the Year” awards.
But did he do the right thing?
Children of Earth gives no answers, only dark, dark, questions.
Whatever the future of Torchwood may be, Children of Earth guarantees it’ll never again be the show it once was. Not to say there will be no humor; Children of Earth had some real laughs. But you can’t go back to the “Horny X-Files of Cardiff” routine after this. I fully expect that there will be Torchwood fans who will feel betrayed by the hard turn the show has taken. Too much death, too much pain. As for me, I welcome the transformation. Children of Earth is as good as the best Doctor Who storiessomething I never thought I’d say.