WARNING: Major spoilers if you have not already watched ‘Children of Earth’
Created by Russell T Davies
Written by Russell T Davies (‘Day One’ and ‘Day Five’), John Fay (‘Day Two’ and ‘Day Four’), Russell T Davies and James Moran (‘Day Three’)
Directed by Euros Lyn
Starring John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones), Kai Owen (Rhys Williams), Peter Capaldi (John Frobisher), Nicholas Farrell (Brian Green PM), Cush Jumbo (Lois Habiba), Paul Copley (Clem MacDonald), Susan Brown (Bridget Spears), Liz May Brice (Johnson), Ian Gelder (Mr Dekker), Lucy Cohu (Alice Carter), Katy Wix (Rhiannon Davies), Rhodri Lewis (Johnny Davies), Charles Abomeli (Colonel Oduya), Colin McFarlane (General Pierce), Deborah Findlay (Denise Riley), Nicholas Briggs (Rick Yates), Tom Price (PC Andy Davidson) and Rik Makarem (Dr Rupesh Patanjali)
The Torchwood Institute is a secret organisation, based in an underground facility beneath the centre of Cardiff, first set up over a century earlier on the orders of Queen Victoria to investigate reports of alien encounters, following her own encounter with the Doctor. The deaths of two of its operatives, Toshiko Sato and Owen Harper has reduced Torchwood to three active members, Captain Jack Harkness, an alien of indiscriminate age who is unable to die, Gwen Cooper, a former police officer, and Ianto Jones, the institute’s general administrative officer and also the lover of Captain Jack.
Children all over the world freeze on the spot for one minute and then come back to life as if nothing had happened. One hour and forty minutes later they do exactly the same thing, only this time they let out a high-pitched scream and repeat in unison, “We are coming.” Torchwood investigates and Gwen learns of a middle-aged man with mental health problems who has behaved in exactly the same way. She travels from Cardiff across the Severn Bridge into England to visit him, discovering that his real name is Clem MacDonald and that, as an eleven-year-old child in 1965, he had apparently escaped a mass alien abduction of children in Scotland.
The Torchwood headquarters is destroyed in a massive explosion in an attempt to assassinate Captain Jack, on the orders of a senior British civil servant called John Frobisher, driving Jack, Gwen and Ianto underground, together with Gwen’s partner Rhys Williams. An alien life form known as the 456 comes to Earth demanding that ten-percent of the children of the world be given to them and it becomes clear that they have visited once before; that the British government was involved in a huge cover-up and that Captain Jack knows more about it than he has been letting on.
‘Torchwood’ was created by Russell T Davies and began life as a spin-off from the revived Doctor Who as a vehicle for the space adventurer character Captain Jack Harkness, who had made a dramatic and memorable entrance in the season one Doctor Who episode ‘The Empty Child’. The groundwork was laid for ‘Torchwood’ in the season two Doctor Who episode ‘Tooth and Claw’, which was set in Scotland during the reign of Queen Victoria and describes how she came to order the setting up of the “Torchwood Institute”.
Season one of ‘Torchwood’, which is set in the present day, was broadcast between October 2006 and January 2007 on BBC3, attracting a record-breaking 2.51 million viewers for the first episode and averaging in excess of one million viewers per episode across all thirteen episodes. This success led to the second season being moved to BBC2. Broadcast between January and April 2008, the thirteen episodes attracted viewing figures in excess of three million and as high as 4.22 million.
I liked the first season and I was particularly impressed by the performance of Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper, a character who may or may not have some connection to ‘Gwyneth’, a character Myles’ played in the season one Doctor Who episode ‘The Unquiet Dead’, set in Cardiff on Christmas Eve, 1869. The second season, which featured ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ actor James Marsters in three episodes, was widely considered to have smoothed out some of the perceived problems of season one, but the changes didn’t work for me and I really didn’t like it very much. I stopped watching after a few episodes.
Now comes season three, a single story told across five 60-minute episodes, each one covering a single day and broadcast on BBC1 on five consecutive nights. John Barrowman has bemoaned the fact the series has been reduced to such a small number of episodes this time around, saying it was like being punished, but Russell T Davies has played up the fact that the way in which it was broadcast made it a major event and the move to BBC1 is a huge step up for the show.
Two of the main characters from the first two seasons, Owen Harper (played by Burn Gorman) and Toshiko Sato (played by Naoko Mori), had been killed off at the end of season two, meaning that the lead characters had now been reduced to a core of three, Captain Jack, Gwen and Ianto, plus Rhys Williams, another character who had been featured in the series from the start. These are, for me, the most watchable characters, although Toshiko and Owen had been the focus of two of my favourite season one episodes, ‘Greeks Bearing Gifts’ and ‘Out of Time’.
The return of Russell T Davies as a writer is a major boost and his trademark writing style is apparent everywhere, even in the two episodes written by John Fay, whose previous work included several years on the writing staff of the hugely popular long-running television soap opera ‘Coronation Street’. One of the main strengths of Davies is his ability to write ordinary people. A big part of the reason why the revived Doctor Who was such a huge success was the character Rose Tyler, the Doctor’s companion, her mother Jackie, her boyfriend Mickey – and her dead father Pete. This family unit was beautifully written and gave the series a very powerful emotional core. Something similar was achieved in season four of the show with the casting of the wonderful Bernard Cribbins as the grandfather of Donna Noble, the Doctor’s companion at that time. In ‘Children of Earth’ we are introduced to Rhiannon Davies, the sister of Ianto Jones, and her husband Johnny, amongst others. Although these are peripheral characters, they add another layer to the story and give it a heart.
‘Children of Earth’, quite simply, is brilliant. This is the best work Davies has done since the first two seasons of the revived Doctor Who and is comparable to his best pre-Who work, such as the excellent two-part drama ‘The Second Coming’.
The story can certainly be interpreted as an indictment of the failings of the current Government and that is how I view it. Children are referred to as “units”. When John Frobisher (a tremendous performance by Peter Capaldi) is told to try to reach a compromise with the 456 it is decided that the children of “failed asylum seekers” should be handed over to them. Later on, it is agreed in Cabinet that no children of those in the room or of their wider family members should be given up. It is then decided that only children from the less privileged areas of society, the socially deprived, should be sacrificed. The decision is taken to target “failing schools”, with the comment made that this will give further justification to the Government’s reliance on “league tables”. A great deal is made of the extent to which highly sophisticated surveillance techniques are employed to track down the members of Torchwood, which is surely a commentary about New Labour’s seemingly paranoid obsession with trying to keep constant tabs on the movements and activities of the general populace.
It is not, though, two-dimensional in its approach. The discussion in Cabinet about how to choose the children to give up to the aliens allows us to ponder on this impossible decision that has to be made. Added weight is given to this by the presence of John Frobisher, who is not involved in the decision making, but merely a silent presence, chosen to be on the front line as the negotiator because he is “expendable”. We have already seen glimpses of his family life and his two young daughters. Calling the children “units” is a way of de-personalising them, not just for cold and calculating political objectives, but to make the decisions that have to be made easier to contemplate. However, all the while, we are reminded that the British government was complicit in a huge and terrible conspiracy in the past and continues to act out of self interest. Ultimately, it is seen, through the actions of the Prime Minister, Brian Green, to be utterly self-serving – morally and ethically bankrupt. Given recent history and the legacy of Tony Blair, this seems all too familiar.
John Frobisher is betrayed by the people he serves, with tragic consequences. The actions of Captain Jack, his part in the original 1965 conspiracy and what he now does to his own grandson, add their own layers to this – layers that complicate and blur the lines between what is right and wrong, what is good and bad.
The story unfolds at a breakneck pace and like Doctor Who it involves a lot of frenetic running around. There are explosions aplenty, gunfire and chases. The music, written by Ben Foster, does, initially, sometimes become intrusive, something that has also increasingly blighted Doctor Who. However, this seemed to become less of a problem after the first episode, although perhaps this was simply because I began to become more invested in the story and therefore no longer noticed it quite so much when my attention was focused elsewhere.
The lengths to which the government will go to silence Captain Jack are revealed when an explosive device is inserted inside his stomach to blow him up and the Torchwood headquarters with him. His few remaining body parts are taken to a secret location and when these regenerate into the complete living person again the cell in which he is being held is filled from floor to ceiling with concrete. This creates memorable imagery, because we see the aftermath rather than the occurrence. It is the aftermath of the explosion and the devastation caused to Torchwood that we witness, with one particularly memorable moment when Ianto watches from a rooftop as a rescue team carries a stretcher with the few remaining covered body parts to a waiting military ambulance. Equally, when Gwen and Rhys are able to gain entry into the facility where Captain Jack has been taken and finally locate his cell, they unlock and open the door, only to be faced by a wall of hardened concrete. We had already witnessed the excruciating agonies that Jack went through as his body regenerated.
‘Children of Earth’ ends on a bittersweet note, not one of triumph or euphoria. It is not clear where the story can go to now. Russell T Davies has stated that a fourth season is ready to go, although this is dependent on the ratings for this short third season, which brought in more or less six million viewers per episode, making it the second or third most watched programme on each day and giving BBC1 more than double the audience of ITV1, its main competitor, for the duration of the programme. Its audience share was around 25-27%.
Review posted 11 July 2009