Torchwood: Children of Earth

The immortal Captain Jack Harkness and his Torchwood team (well, the few that haven’t died yet) are back for a five-episode special, originally screened every night on BBC1. Doctor Who’s adult spin-off is a decidedly more intelligent affair this time around, as the writers seem to have finally realised that “adult” doesn’t necessarily mean “smutty”.

It’s taken until its third season, but Torchwood has finally hit its prime. The story: Earth (specifically, England) is contacted by an alien race known only as the 456. Said aliens communicate through the Earth’s children: cue several creepy scenes in which playgrounds full of children speak in union (“we are coming,” “we are coming tomorrow” and “we are here”). That the aliens don’t arrive until late into episode three speaks a lot for Torchwood’s new found restraint. Most of the series consists of Torchwood-on-the-run, as their underground base is blown up by the government, and Captain Jack (repeatedly) killed (not a spoiler). As the aliens reveal their sinister motives and Torchwood begins to fight back, it’s up to Jack, Gwen Cooper and Ianto Jones to save the day. Interspersed with much misery and suffering, Doctor Who this ain’t.

The action kicks off with the aliens making their first announcement via the world’s children. Understandably, this sets alarm bells ringing at Torchwood HQ (think the MIB base, set in a drippy basement) and Jack and the team investigate. As Captain Harkness (John Barrowman, making a rare TV appearance) uncovers something he shouldn’t have, he brings down a government cover-up on his and his team’s head. Jack is blown to smithereens, and Gwen (Eve Myles) and Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) are forced to go into hiding. So ends the first episode.

Jack being invincible, however, he stays dead for about five minutes. The second episode is the weakest and the stupidest, consisting of a number of plot-holes and too much of John Barrowman’s flabby arse. But don't give up yet, because:

Episode three is relatively action-light. We follow eminently stressed MP John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi – the best thing about the series) as he conducts the first of Earth’s face-to-face meetings with the 546. Old scabs are picked, leading to Jack coming out of things smelling less than rosy.

In episode four, things get really depressing. Ianto is murderified by the 456, who have demanded 10% of the Earth’s children (which, it is revealed, they use as drugs.

If episode four was depressing, then the finale is an all-out masterclass in sustained misery. Told that he must give up his children to save government face, Frobisher instead chooses to murder them. And his wife. And then commits suicide. And, just to rub salt in the wound, we get to see Jack (more or less) murder his own grandson. Torchwood has an impressively high child death rate for a BBC drama. This episode is complete with a nifty little Cloverfield-style prelude, in which Gwen hazards a guess as to why The Doctor chooses sometimes to ignore the Earth at times of peril (answer: totally disgusted, apparently).

On the flipside of the Tardis, however, a lot of the acting still stinks. The supporting staff are universally brilliant – especially, as mentioned earlier, Capaldi – but the lead duo of John Barrowman and Eve Myles frequently threaten to derail things (Barrowman’s gasp whenever he is revived from death is shockingly awful) and it’s probably amongst the show’s biggest weaknesses. Mind, Barrowman is improving, and does quite well in the darker moments.

Having said that, there’s a bunch of great character moments. Whilst Jack still doesn’t quite gel with the way he’s portrayed in Doctor Who (less flirty, if that’s possible), the writers have managed to give a sense of the inherent loneliness that might come with living forever. It’s also great to see Ianto being given more to actually do here (not bad, considering he spent the first season making tea) and his relationship with Jack is given a neat bit of poignancy and actual depth. And then – in perhaps the writers’ bravest move - they go and kill him off.

Frequently daft yet entertaining second episode aside (shit henchmen incapable of firing in a straight line, John Barrowman’s flabby arse/cock, lots of plotholes, stupid happenstance) Children of Earth is an impressively mature piece of British sci-fi. Each episode contains a surprising amount of scenes set in government boardrooms and meetings – so much so that it occasionally feels like a Spooks crossover (in a good way). True, the final episode can’t possibly match up to what has gone before, but it isn’t as much a dud as so many other Doctor Who/Torchwood series finales – and the emotional impact at the end of episode five completely makes up all of Children of Earth’s faults.

Following this excellent sort-of-third-series, a third season is sure to ensue. What with this, Psychoville and the recent Dead Set, it looks as if British genre TV is finally starting to grow up.

1 comment:

  1. Simply an excellent revieew, okay ordering the discs today.