Torchwood: Children of Earth,
considered as a helix of semi-precious shows
God said to Abraham kill me a son
Abe said man, you must be putting me on
God said no — Abe said what?
God said you can do what you want Abe, but,
Next time you see me coming you better run.
Abe said where'd you want this killing done?
God said out on highway 61
— Bob Dylan
It was probably the simply embarassing post-script to the third Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, that first really made me realize the often inverse relationship between hype and reality. (And of course, this year's utter travesty of an end to the sometimes brilliant Battlestar Galactica to remind me that getting my hopes up is always risky business.)
While most of North America's children and geeks are making hits out of Star Trek and even more (god help us) out of Transformers: Something-or-other, Great Britain's BBC has provided us with something a little different. A five-hour "special event", a mini-series broadcast (in the UK) on Monday through Friday of the week of the 6th called Torchwood: Children of Earth (it's airing this coming week starting tomorrow on BBC America, but I haven't been able to pin down when it will show up in Canada). For once, the work actually lived up to the hype.
Truth to tell, until now Torchwood has been more of a guilty pleasure for me than anything else. A Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood was, and was meant to be, a grittier, more "adult" version of the alien monster-battling children's show. The violence was more graphic, there was sex (male/female, female/female and male/male as well as "miscellaneous" — these people dealt with aliens, after all) along with near-nudity and swearing, including the F-word, at least during the first season.
By the end of the second season, four of the seven original members of the "team" had died violent deaths, leaving fans to wonder whether this year's edition would introduce new characters. As it turns out, long-time fans will have more grieving to do — but I'll say no more along those lines.
(For those of you unfamiliar with the show, the Torchwood Institute was founded by Queen Victoria herself in order to protect the British Empire from alien menaces. Over the first two seasons, I got the sense that creator Russell T Davies wasn't quite sure what to do with it. Was it just X-Files with sex and swearing, was it a soap-opera or was it serious science fiction/social commentary? At any rate, though I watched it and quite enjoyed some of the episodes, it managed to stretch my not inconsiderable ability to suspend my disbelief beyond the breaking point on more than a few occasions.
(But I digress. If you've never seen it, all you need to know is this. Torchwood is a small organization — "Beyond the government, outside the police" — that fought (mostly) alien threats every week, and that it's leader, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman can't be permanently killed by any means tried thus far. Also, though he is notoriously polymorphously perverse, he has settled into a serious relationship with Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd as his suprised-to-be-in-a-relationship-with-a-m
As the programme opens, something is making children — all children, everywhere in the world — simply stop, for perhaps a minute. This being Torchwood, long-time viewers can be pretty certain that there is some sort of alien plot behind it and I'm not giving much away in confirming that.
When, during (what I believe was) the second time the world's children stopped, they also spoke (in unison), saying, "We are ... coming," it's clear that something very creepy is going on. And Torchwood starts to investigate.
Children as possessed monsters/children in peril are two tropes of genre fiction (usually horror or SF, though I'm told Steven Speilberg is very fond of it as well). Happily, and tellingly, though Davies uses the trope he never plays it cheaply. It soon becomes clear the children are being used as messengers by the aliens ("the 4-5-6"), that they are in genuine danger and that there are more monsters to deal with than the effectively creepy (in part because they are never fully seen) extra-terrestrials.
Because Children of Earth is about an awful lot more that heroes dealing with alien invaders. And to discuss why, I'm going to have to risk giving away some spoilers. If you're already a fan, I'd suggest waiting until you've seen the show to read more; if you're a new-comer to Torchwood, I don't think what follows will spoil many of the important plot-turns. But proceed at your own risk.
We learn fairly early on that the 4-5-6 have had dealings with the British government before, in the 1960s. At that time, in exchange for a flu vaccine that saved millions of lives, the British government rounded up a dozen orphans and "gave" them to the aliens, purposes unknown. Now that they're back, they're not looking for another dozen, but for fully 10 percent of all the "children of Earth". The alternative is the threatened extinction of the entire human race.
Yes, if you're not a fan of this kind of SF (yes, I'm old-school about the terminology; I can't stand sci fi, though I've given up that battle as lost), the plot sounds ludicrous, but if you can suspend your disbelief, what follows is a drama of politics and philosophy on a pretty high level.
Much of the programme is centered on career bureaucrat John Frobisher (under-played very well by Peter Capaldi) who liaises between the 4-5-6 and the British Government. And it is during the scenes set in the British Cabinet room that the meat of Davies' philosophical agenda slowly becomes clear.
In hopes of not giving too much away, I'll say simply that there were more than a few moments when I felt I was witness to the deliberations at the Wannsee Conference, with the exception that Davies is smart enough a story-teller make me empathize with the duly-elected war criminals.
In the world according to Russell T Davies (and a believable world it so often is), no politician worth his (or her) salt can look a crisis in the eye without casting about for an opportunity. If you accept that the aliens who have just shown up and threatened to exterminate the human race can and would do so, what options do you have beyond arguing over the criteria for triage?
Children of Earth is no feel-good, human-kicks-alien-ass summer block-buster. Though I'm giving nothing away in telling you that the earth doesn't, in the end, surrender ten percent of its children to the 4-5-6, getting to that point has costs to which adventure fiction will very seldom admit (though good science fiction will).
Children of Earth is bleak and cynical without (quite) giving way to nihilism. Society, Davies seems to be saying, is a mess, but we can (maybe) do better.
From a North American's viewpoint, it's also extremely refreshing to see issues of class not only explicitly addressed, but shown, as part of the larger narrative. Some of the eugenic-style arguments made during the Cabinet meetings felt at once bitterly satyrical and yet utterly plausible.
And finally (I said I didn't want to give away too much of the plot!), from a fan's perspective, this show hurts. Though one can (and already I've seen that a lot of people have, here and no doubt in all sorts of other places) pretty easily find plot-holes here and there (something that seems to happen a lot in Davies' work), most of them are things you'll notice until you've had a chance to sit back and contemplate and none of them (to me) spoiled my pleasure in a really first-rate piece of drama, a five-hour movie that I'm betting will prove to have been better than any "block-buster" to hit the big screen this summer — and probably next.
Originally posted at Edifice Rex Online.