Torchwood: Children of Earth


Torchwood, the adult spin-off from Doctor Who, has had its ups and downs.  Some excellent episodes and some truly awful ones, and a steady progress from its beginnings on BBC3 to last week’s special storyline in prime time on BBC1.  A week-long series, one episode per night, which told a five-hour storyline which is surely the show’s best output yet, but may also be its last.  Yes, I enjoyed it an awful lot, and yes, spoilers follow below.

So, what was this story, ‘Children of Earth’, about?  It was about a government cover-up.  It was about moral dilemmas.  It was about people refusing to let their elected representatives do something terrible, and suffering awful consequences for their refusal.  It was about what people can be driven to in stressful situations.  It was about how we feel about our children.  Oh, and there was an alien in it, along with a man who can’t die.

In other words, this story did what the best science fiction does – it used the devices of the genre to tell a very human story, used an alien menace to create and explore drama on a magnified scale.  There was quite a bit of running around, shooting things and blowing things up, there was a half-glimpsed alien creature, there was a man who survived being blown up, shot, poisoned and encased in concrete.  But at the heart of it there were people, decisions and emotions.  When science fiction is done well, with good writing and (crucially) excellent acting, then it can be more powerful than any kitchen sink drama.  If the characters react in a believable way, then the extraordinary events somehow become believable within the world of the story.  In this case, the quality of writing did vary somewhat, but the performances of key actors were absolutely riveting.  Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto Jones has been one of the series’ biggest assets since day one, and he continued his brilliance here – as I remarked half way through episode 4, you can really see what he’s thinking and follow his thoughts without him necessarily having to say a word.  Peter Capaldi is predictably convincing as John Frobisher, a civil servant who is utterly devoted to his job but ultimately put in a terrible position.  And Susan Brown deserves special mention as Frobisher’s personal assistant Bridget Spears.  The subtlety of her acting is amazing.  Although the character is utterly controlled, extraordinarily calm, she included tiny moments that showed how this woman truly felt.

So, the acting was sublime – how was the story?  The story was horrific, in the truest sense of the word – there were moments that made me feel sick.  It wasn’t the physicality of the alien being, which we only glimpsed, that provided the horror, but the nature of its demands and the way in which the politicians reacted that were the source of horror.  It demanded 10 per cent of Earth’s children, because children produce chemicals that make its race feel good – they get high on children.  This was a horrible enough revelation, but then the fictional cabinet began to discuss how to meet its demands – which children should be taken?  I thought that the discussion of this question would be the height of the horror, but when children began to be bussed away, and when one character was ordered to sacrifice his own family, episode 5 became almost unbearably horrible.  I can’t begin to imagine how hard that must have been to watch for parents of young children.  The idea that the government could sanction such actions, and the nagging thought that perhaps they were right to do so, was much more horrific than any chainsaw-wielding maniac or rampaging vampire could ever be.

On a personal note, I was very sad to see the end of Ianto Jones.  A great character, played by a very talented actor.  For me, Ianto was the heart of Torchwood, not Gwen Cooper.  His dry one-liners, the way he cared about his coffee and his immaculate wardrobe were aspects of a character that felt very real.  This story even hinted at further depths that we will never get to see, with various suggestions about his past and personality coming through in scenes with his previously unseen sister.  His death was utterly unnecessary and not at all heroic, which is how death really tends to be.  It moved me, and I’m not really a very easy person to move.

The ideas of this story, and specifics of it, will stay with me for quite some time.  The moment when the sweet but stupid PC Andy joined the fight against the army in a futile heroic gesture.  Frobisher’s children demanding a pony.  Rhys finding out about Gwen’s pregnancy.  But most of all, those scenes where a group of cabinet ministers work out how to select 325,000 children to be turned into long-lived narcotics.  Brilliant, but horrible.  Awful and amazing.

Will they continue with Torchwood?  It seems rather difficult.  Having killed off two main characters at the end of the last series and another in this storyline. they are left with only two survivors.  One, having lost his lover and been forced to sacrifice his own grandchild, has left Earth.  The other is heavily pregnant.  Of course, they can recruit more, and their fictional universe already contains some likely candidates, but would they want to?  And do I want them to?  Part of me wants to see more Torchwood, but part of me wants them to leave things as they are, on a high note.  If they leave things now, they end on a triumph, with a story that showed the best of what science fiction can do, and showed that ‘adult’ means more than sex, violence and four-letter words.  Whichever decision they make, the BBC should be proud of ‘Children of Earth’ as a brilliant bit of television.

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  1. I agree. It was brilliant but horrible. A great series. I, too, am not sure whether or not I really want to see more Torchwood. It would be good in one way, but, as you say, this series has been so good I’m not sure if another one could live up to it.

  2. You were right. I have a toddler and couldn’t watch. I left the room when Frobisher shot his family and went and cried in another room. It was scary how easily the Cabinet were able to decide what to do. What if something similar (not aliens) were to arise for real? Would the population fight back or just abide with ‘orders’? My child is the most precious thing in the world and I would instantly protect him with my life- without a seconds thought. SWD

    • I was unnerved on the way to work this morning when I spotted a bunch of kids in a particular school uniform and thought ‘I bet they’d have been in the 10 per cent’. I’d like to think that the population would fight back. We would…wouldn’t we?

  3. A brilliant post that expressed everything I was thinking over the weekend as I watched the 5 parter. It was horrific in its truest sense and I was appalled and fascinated by turn. I too would like to think the public would rise up and not accept it. The alternative is too awful to contemplate.

  4. I was actually very disappointed. I thought the plotting was very uneven, and the ending a real cop out. Part of me was expecting The Doctor to suddenly turn up (given Gwen’s long monologue to camera in the last episode about how he sometimes appears and sometimes doesnt) and somehow save the day.

    I also thought that the ending was extremely odd – Captain Jack quite literally “ran away”, leaving him as a fairly unsympathetic character.

  5. I actually liked the fact that the day wasn’t really saved, that the leaders of Earth would have t live with their decisions, that Jack couldn’t face what he’d done and ran away. When we first met him, he was a con man, and although he’s grown a great deal since then, he’s far from perfect. To be honest, I think anyone who’d been through that series of events (lost two colleagues due to my brother’s betrayal, then lost my lover and found myself having to kill my grandchild), would want to run away. I felt that this story put Torchwood into a category with Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 etc – science fiction where events actually have consequences.

    The method of defeating the aliens was at least set up in episode 4. In Russell T Davies episodes of Doctor Who, we often get a deus ex machina that is not set up in any way – it just happens, the end, hurrah, where shall the Doctor go next? Perhaps I was prepared to overlook the “reverse the polarity” nature of this ending because it wasn’t quite so tacked on as they often are? The one question that did really strike me, though, was “why didn’t the 456 just *take* the children?”

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