Tue
Jul 21 2009 12:29pm

Torchwood: Children of Earth

 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?

Did anyone?

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 stories—something I never thought I’d say.

20 comments
Irene Gallo
1. Irene
Without having read the post to avoid spoilers: Can a non-Wooder jump into the series at this point, or should I start at the beginning?
(I keep gearing murmurings about this set of episodes.)
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger
I think you can watch this series on its own, but it wouldn't quite have the same impact. Plot-wise it's relatively free-standing, but from a character development stance, you'd miss out. It's like watching Serenity without seeing Firefly, in a way.
Black -
3. Black -
Would it have killed you to wait another four days? Sheesh... I also skipped reading this to avoid spoilers since I'm only one episode in...

@Irene - BBC America was showing a special "Inside the Hub" last night that probably would be a good primer for you to get up to speed on who everyone is and what Torchwood is about. They might show it again (if you are American and can find it), or there are usually other ways to find such things. Having only seen episode one, I think you would probably be okay but might have some wtf moments, especially if you come in knowing nothing.
adrian bellis
4. Nilrem
Irene, Without any spoilers, yes you can probably jump into it relatively cold, you just have to know that the doctor (who doesn't appear in this) saves the earth on a regular basis, whilst Torchwood were set up a few hundred years ago to effectively save Great Britain from aliens when the Doc isn't around.

I watched the series over the space of one day (the BBC's Iplayer is great for that), and loved it.

The first two series of Torchwood were nothing really special (the second was miles better than the first), but this series was really quite good, the main concern now I think is if it'll get a new series (although apparently it gained viewers as the week went on so hopefully).

Possible spoilers below.
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As to the actual story I really liked it, very dark, with a few elements of humour that worked well to make the rest of it seem darker.
The underlying commentary also worked pretty well, although the end did feel a little rushed (but certainly showed more about the Jack's mindset/willingness to do things).

The worrying thing is, that I can quite see the government making the kinds of decisions seen in TW, in real life (obviously not including the aliens I suspect), and they seem to have captured the mindset of the current generation of politicians very well* (spin everything, it's not their fault when something goes wrong, and they should be exempt from the consequences of their decisions).

As the article says it doesn't give many answers, but rather raises some interesting questions.


*At least UK ones.
Lena Vogelmann
5. kalafudra
When I watched Children of the Earth, I started crying about 15 minutes in and didn't stop until the end.

I completely agree with your assessment, but I really wonder where they are going to take the show from here... The ending of Children of Earth seems like the (depressing) end of Torchwood itself. I can't imagine how they're going to pick up the pieces.

Nevertheless, I'm glad they went into this dark corner - it proved the strength of this show .

I'm still kind of speechless about it, I have to admit.
Black -
6. Ben Frey
This turned out to be the best TV i've seen in a couple of years, if not several. Seriously, I would rather watch this as a single 5 hour movie than almost any movie that's been released in the last 5 years. It's an amazing event. Since I watched torchwood on HDNET and they don't have the rights to this season, and i don't have BBC America, I had to get it through other means. It was worth it.
Mitchell Downs
7. Beamish
Thanks to "alternate" means of viewing I already watched the series and your review is spot on.

For many fans of the "sex and silliness" of the first two seasons this will be a rough trip. But if you loved the final episodes of Season 2 (and the character fates there-in) then you will really appreciate this series and the end.

I think this story puts paid to the entire Torchwood series. They cannot bring it back with Captain jack without the entire series being dedicated to dealing with the fallout from this series. Maybe they can re-cast the show and just retain Gwen as the only link to the past and she can fill the damaged and haunted role of Captain Jack while new characters can bring back the fun and sex but it would be a very hard sell.

This really was one of the most brutal SciFi stories I have ever seen from any mainstream media outlet. That alone makes it an exceptional production.
Karen Walters
8. Wrenza
Torchwood has always been a bit darker than Dr Who. Dr Who has shown glimpses that the Dr is not just good, but has a darker side. Children of Earth took that further. I sat and watched it with my children who were totally absorbed by it. It is a shift towards more 3 dimensional characters and appreciated for that.

I'm not sure I want there to be another Torchwood series. It was so brilliantly written and acted it would take a lot to surpass it.
David Goldfarb
9. David_Goldfarb
I have to dissent a bit here: I thought there were several things about the story that were disappointing.

Here's one: Why murder the people who were in on the 1965 child exchange? It's not like they had opposed it and were likely to blow the whistle -- they were all (including Captain Jack) complicit in it. It really seemed to me like a case of "Russell T Davies likes to blow things up and is willing to commit idiot plot to do so."

Quite a bit of the story seemed padded, especially episode three. When talking with the 456 alien, why all the pregnant pauses? Why the spitting on the walls? That was hardly necessary.

It seemed very unclear exactly what was the nature of the alien threat -- was it just one rogue drug pusher, or was it the whole race? How could we be sure at the end that they wouldn't return?

Overall I thought that the setup was creepy and interesting, but the overall plotting ranged from muddled to just poor.
Jason Henninger
10. jasonhenninger
@9

Point #1. Fair question. Upon reflection I think it was just to add tension rather than as a necessity of plot. Or to blow stuff up, as you said.

As for padding, that certainly wasn't my feeling. Seemed very tight to me. Spitting on the walls was purely for gross-out-alien points, for sure.

As for the vagueness of the size of the threat, I think that added to the tension. The decision makers were in the dark about a whole lot.
Black -
11. Brit Mandelo
My problem was how Davies gleefully told fans that this was going to be a great season for the relationship between Jack and Ianto, which I've always enjoyed for its humor and its strange, dysfunctional sweetness.

Yeah. Well. We all know what happened in the actual series, and it wasn't a "great season" for them, and damn. That was just mean. I would probably have enjoyed it on an artistic level were it not for that little shenanigan.

Oh, and Gwen-the-perpetual-perfect, who somehow always gets to just walk away relatively unscathed to her normal life and normal dreams. It just increased some of my problems with the characterizations in Torchwood and how the drama plays out. Though, the realistic side of Jack was nice.
Justin Adair
12. Hobbyns
While I enjoyed the show for the first four eps, I was shocked that they ended it that way.

The first four episodes could have easily been three, allowing the endgame to take up the final two episodes. Not cramming in a shoddy conclusion at the last possible second. Poor pacing abounds.
Mitchell Downs
13. Beamish
@12 - I absolutely have to agree about the pacing. The last episode was far too hurried considering the events of the first 4 episodes.

I think they locked themselves into the whole 5 Episodes - 5 Days schtick but could not develop enough story for the middle three days leaving it a bit thin, then jammed two hours worth of story into the last hour.

The resolution - while deliciously horrific - was extraordinarily sudden. However that is a classic Doctor Who trope, so I am used to it; and it was rather necessary - if they had any more time then Jack would not have been forced to make the choice he made.
Tudza White
14. tudzax1
Jack has a history of giving up children to save our asses apparently. Remember the evil fairies episode?

I believe they were killing off the people from the last 456 transaction to keep the real story from the public. They were already preparing to give up more kids and they didn't want people around telling everyone "Didn't work last time."

I liked the weird pauses in the conversation with the alien. "Why can't these aliens speak English like everyone else?" well, 'cause they're aliens. Another interpretation that came to mind after learning their true purpose was, "Damn, that alien is stoned out of it's mind."

Guessed the ending, roughly, although I rather expected it to involve sending up a nuke with a bunch of kids.
Luis Milan
15. LuisMilan
#14
(Bit of a spoiler below)

I didn't see the alien as being stoned... more like going through some seriously heavy drug withdrawal symptoms.
Black -
16. clovis
Best bit of British TVSF since the glory days of Quatermass. A genuinely scary and thought-provoking bit of story-telling and three cheers to the BBC for having the nerve to show it. Yes, there were plot holes, yes it moved away from previous Torchwood sex 'n' swearing but here RTD showed he can, in fact, write adult SF.
Black -
17. Elle Cee
I loved the mini series....the first four nights anyway. I thing the visuals at the..uh end...were too much...too disturbing.

I expected Steven to "truly" be Jack's grandson. This could be a plotline for the next Torchwood. (if there is one). An adult Steven out to get Jack for his involvement and Gwyn...actually her daughter, being in the mix. Of course, Jack's daughter commits suicide and this fuels Steven's anger. And Jack has no idea about Steven.....

I dunno, just a thought.
Black -
18. Grovecat
It was not really clear what organisation was trying to destroy Torchwood itself and for what reason. However, I do agree that it was a great series and certainly posed some trick moral dilemmas.

Now that Captain Jack has gone off somewhere in space, only Gwyn of the original crew is left. So will Torchwood as a series be continued?
Black -
19. Grovecat
Of course I meant tricky moral questions, not trick ones.
Jack Flynn
20. JackofMidworld
Not that anybody else will see this, so long after the original post (I started at the end of the articles and have been killing downtime by working my way back to the Now)...

My wife and I had canceled cable when this show came out on BBC America but I'd seen commercials so, when it came out on Netflix, my wife and I sat down on Saturday evening and watched the first one...then the second one...then the third one. At some point after 2:00 am, we finished up the entire season. We woke up the next morning and looked for TW Season One.

About half-way through that season, I found out that there was this other show called Doctor Who that had introduced Jack. Why is that familiar...oh, yeah, I remember that show from when my dad watched it when I was a kid, I muttered to myself. It'd be pretty cool to check out his intro. Hey, who's that guy with the funny ears and the big nose and why is he hanging out with that cute blond? And why are they in the London Blitz? Hmmmm....

Lo and behold, the next weekend was All Who-niverse, All The Time and, even without cable, it continues. I've even been able to bond with my teenage daughter over Matt Smith episodes (tho she's still not quite into Captain Jack and his merry/not-so-merry crew).

I will say that after watching TW 1 & 2, I rewatched Children of Earth and certain deaths were soooooo much more...well, just MORE, after knowing the backstories involved.

Moral of this story? If you stumble across this post and haven't seen Children of Earth yet...it's definitely something you should rectify.

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