Saturday, July 25, 2009
Torchwood: Children of Earth
My relationship with TORCHWOOD is a troubled one. On the one hand, as DOCTOR WHO’s “adult” cousin, it reflects a trend I hate about TV drama: the need to be dark, and grim, and existentialist, and to kill familiar characters to “raise the stakes”. (I’ve long since given up any hope of the Empire Strikes Back Fallacy gaining any memetic traction, but I haven’t looked up the TVTropes equivalent yet so I don’t know what to call it.) The show’s always vacillated between camp and Serious Drama, with varying results on either end. On the other, the characters are strangely likable no matter what they do and the ramshackle nature of Torchwood itself has a charm of its own. I barely if ever rewatch episodes, but it’s been good enough to catch now and again.
CHILDREN OF EARTH is the show’s abbreviated-even-by-British-standards third series, aired over five nights early this month in the UK and now in the US, arriving on R1 DVD this coming Tuesday. It’s been hailed as the show at its best, and I agree; forced to stick to one plotline for five hours, showrunner Russel T. Davies and company have come up with an intense science fiction thriller that works as gritty drama without completely sacrificing that special quirkiness that made the inconsistent earlier years worth watching. There’s the odd bit here and there that doesn’t work, but what does is brilliant.
The plot revolves around the return of an alien force, known only as the 456, who announce that they are coming back through the world’s children, making them stand in place and repeat the message over and over, to the distress of millions and millions of parents. As the 456’s arrival draws nearer, forces within the government move to take out Torchwood, destroying the Hub and blowing Captain Jack to smithereens, though that just sort of inconveniences him. As it happens, the 456’s last visit ended with them abducting 12 children in exchange for a flu cure; now, they want 10% of the children of Earth (hey, title!) and don’t really promise anything in return. Afraid of the big scary alien force they know nothing about, the government doesn’t want to risk anything pissing them off, which is partly why Torchwood is under fire, but also because Jack helped make the original bargain.
CHILDREN OF EARTH is really not about the aliens (who are barely seen and talk sparingly), but humanity’s reaction to their presence and to the devil’s bargain they propose. Part of that reaction is a lot of black ops/conspiracy business involving teams of men with guns running around under the supervision of an enigmatic agent (Liz May Brice), going after Torchwood and anyone who knows them, including Jack’s now-grown daughter and young grandson. At times the espionage business threatens to get repetitive, padding out the story when what we want to know more about is what the 456 are and want. The actual revelation of what the aliens are after is almost comical, but it also makes perfect sense.
Back to the people. At heart, the ethical questions raised by the story involve the sacrifices we are willing to ask of others. When the bargain is raised, the Prime Minister’s cabinet debates how they would choose the 10%. Of course, those with children won’t dare risk a random system, and suggest instead taking from the asylum seekers, the lowest performing schools, and others that “won’t be missed.” It’s a devastating scene that argues that, as much lip service as we give to the concept of all human beings having equal rights, there is still a hierarchy. It also taps into the fundamental selfishness that parents are obligated to feel- they must prioritize their children over others, but at what point is that no longer morally defensible? The actions ultimately taken by the characters are the kind of brutal hard choices that we’re always promised when a show is promoted as gritty drama, and though one character mysteriously escapes any kind of retribution or consequence for no reason that makes sense within the plot, otherwise it’s satisfying.
When this show has worked, it’s been because of its characters, and in the context of a solid story they resonate stronger than ever. In the past, Eve Myles as Gwen had a tendency to overplay the dramatic moments, but she honestly doesn’t miss a beat here, and her banter with husband Rhys (Kai Owen) is often endearing, providing much needed humor in the midst of the grimdark. John Barrowman as Captain Jack, similarly, is stronger than he usually is, and similarly his relationship with Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) is effectively played. That said, the show is nearly completely stolen by Peter Capaldi as John Frobisher, the civil servant drafted to be on the front lines of this close encounter and thus responsible for the Torchwood pogrom as well. He is never wholly unsympathetic despite doing unspeakable things, and Capaldi’s performance is beautifully textured. Cush Jumbo makes a strong impression as secretary Lois Habiba, who may be in the running for a series regular if/when the next season comes along.
The arc is not completely without its flaws; parts of the story seem stretched to fill five hours, but the climactic action seems to come along too quickly, and while it’s dramatically appropriate it’s not really clear why nobody thought of this before. As for the one decision that has the Internet in an uproar... well, like I said, I’m not a big fan of that particular approach to storytelling (in serial fiction, anyway), but it’s become the way TORCHWOOD works and it’s handled well. And accusing Russel T. Davies of homophobia when he introduced pop culture’s first openly pansexual space hero AND put a gay relationship close to front-and-center of this very series (for the sake of argument we can leave out his own being a homosexual) seems a bit much. This is simply a show where nothing lasts very long, and though that can make it hard to stick with, that I think adds to the accomplishment when the drama is compelling enough to pull one along anyway.
And that’s what CHILDREN OF EARTH does. It’s a very compelling story that kept me glued to the TV for five nights almost against my will (one of the few blessings of summer reruns is that you have less to keep up with), and after last season I was genuinely uncertain that I’d have any interest in TORCHWOOD. (I still miss Tosh, okay?) It’s well worth seeing, though I have yet to make up my mind as to whether I’d ever want to see it again.
Written by Russel T. Davies, John Fay, and James Moran
Directed by Euros Lyn