Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009)

Creator/Writer: Russell T. Davies

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

For anyone who has been wondering where I’ve been all week, the explanation is that the hubby and I have all but eschewed movies in favor of a nightly rendezvous with BBC America to watch a five-part miniseries of one of our favorite TV series: Torchwood. Two years ago, the series disappeared. How could the BBC cancel such a winning show? We despaired of it ever returning. Thankfully, creator Russell Davies and the remaining regular cast members, John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Gareth David-Lloyd, and Kai Owen, were given a chance to come back and end the series properly (despite hints that it could return, I don’t expect it to this time).

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Torchwood is a spin-off from Doctor Who, television’s longest-running science fiction series. The Doctor, played by various actors since the series premiered in 1963, is a time lord who recognizes the central character in Torchwood, Captain Jack Harkness (Barrowman), as something that shouldn’t exist—a fixed point in time and space. Harkness started life in the 51th century, but because he is a constant, he cannot die. The Doctor has facilitated his travels through time. A couple of centuries before the present, Harkness became involved with Torchwood, a secret branch of the British government based in Cardiff, Wales, where a rift in space/time allows aliens from other times and worlds to enter Earth’s space. Harkness now leads the Torchwood team. In the second season, two series regulars, physician Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) and math genius Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), were killed. Children of Earth finds the remaining Torchwood team of Harkness, former cop Gwen Cooper (Myles), and Ianto Jones (David-Lloyd), grieving their loss and continuing the business of capturing straying aliens and returning them to wherever they rightfully belong.

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The series starts benignly enough, with Ianto and Jack pretending to be neighbors of a recently deceased man without family. A sympathetic doctor at the hospital, Rupesh Patanjali (Rik Makarem), allows them to spend a few moments alone with the body, whereupon they make a laser incision in the body and extract an alien symbiote with some forceps. Patanjali walks in on them as they scurry away. He knows they’re Torchwood, an open secret in Cardiff, and alerts them to some strange goings-on in the hospital. Soon, he is contacted by Gwen as a possible recruit to replace Owen.

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At about this time, all of the children on Earth stop dead in their tracks, frozen in position. Then they start on again as though nothing has happened. Later, they all speak in unison, in English, repeating the phrase, “We are coming,” then resume life again. There’s no doubt to viewers of the show and the Torchwood team that aliens are using the children to communicate. A very select group of people in the British government know exactly who these aliens are because in 1965, 12 children were turned over to them in exchange for a life-saving antidote to a virus that would have killed perhaps 30 million people worldwide. Prime Minister Brian Green (Nicholas Farrell) decides that Britain’s previous dealings with the aliens, called the 456 for the wavelength on which they communicated, be covered up. He orders lowly bureaucrat John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) to see to the elimination of anyone with knowledge of the 456—including Jack Harkness—and construct a device the 456 will occupy when they return to Earth.

To say much more about the plot would ruin the suspense the miniseries builds with admirable dexterity. The series breaks no ground in suggesting that the 456 are a nasty piece of work, characterizing them as arachnoid giants who breathe toxic air, explode suddenly with fountains of acidic sputum, and think nothing of turning the world’s children into temporary zombie-puppets for their own purposes. They are also politically shrewd, accepting private terms put forward from the PM by Frobisher to keep the 1965 visit secret from the world that will be party to this new negotiation. Their mission to Earth, moreover, is shown to be absolutely craven, having nothing to do with the usual scifi staples of preserving their dying species or colonizing Earth because their planet is dying. They are very forthcoming about their frivilous purpose, and that only fills us with more disgust.

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What matters in Torchwood is not the monster of the day, but the very human relationships that the cast bring to life in minute and touching detail. Gwen and trucker Rhys (Owen) are married; Rhys is kept in the dark about what Gwen does until she can no longer take the secrecy Jack demands of her. Rhys becomes an unofficial member of Torchwood, helping out when needed, keeping Gwen grounded in the real world, adding both comic and romantically touching moments throughout the series, and running afoul of harm more than once. In Children of Earth, Gwen learns she’s pregnant, with Jack and Ianto learning about it before Rhys. Jack predicts, correctly, that Rhys will hit the ceiling when he finds out he’s third in line of discovery. Yet, the moment Gwen tells him is classic Torchwood—hiding in the back of a truck hauling potatoes, she talks ruefully about rehearsing moments for big announcements long before they happen, and how the best laid plans go awry. One look at her broadening, impish smile tells Rhys all he needs to know. Owen and Myles are terrifically likeable actors, and their chemistry makes the relationship the diamond at the core of the Torchwood story.

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Ianto and Jack are lovers. Jack, who has lived for centuries, doesn’t think twice about behaving as part of a gay couple, but Ianto, who never had a male lover before Jack, is still feeling around the edges of their love. When he reveals all to his sister Rhiannon (Katy Wix), she squeals incredulously, a loving and teasing sibling wondering how she could have missed that her brother was gay. Ianto says he wasn’t interested in other men, “Just him.”

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A trio of tragic figures emerges: Clem McDonald (Paul Copely), the only child from 1965 to have escaped abduction; Frobisher, a dedicated civil servant being set up to take the fall because he’s entirely expendable; and Jack himself. Clem, a scruffy, pathetic man confined to an insane asylum for years, is still linked to the 456. His instinct for survival is as keen as it was in 1965, as he senses the aliens’ approach all along the way and runs from them. Kind-hearted Gwen takes him in and tries to comfort him that he is safe with Torchwood, a claim she forces herself to believe after the Cardiff headquarters have been blown to bits by a bomb planted inside Jack. Copely infuses this potentially annoying character with a pathos and native intelligence that make us feel the deep tragedy of this boy who never really grew up because he was made a pawn in a devil’s bargain.

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Frobisher, likewise, is tasked with negotiating with the 456 and meeting their demands after a show of force convinces the various governments of the world that they are no match for the aliens. In another black bargain, the men in charge pussyfoot around making decisions. Three women close to the hub of power—cabinet minister Alice Carter (Lucy Cohu), assistant to Frobisher Bridget Spears (Susan Brown), and brand-new office hire Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo)—make the difficult choices, show courage and loyalty, and dare to challenge the status quo. Indeed, in Torchwood, a perhaps idealized view of the superiority of women’s judgment is at the forefront. Men can be brave, loyal, and true, but they are frequently shown to be foolish, narrow-focused, naive, and cynical.

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The most morally ambiguous character, and the most classically tragic character of the lot, is Jack. What hasn’t a man who will never die seen? What bargains hasn’t he made that he has learned to regret—or regretted the moment he made them? What must it be like for a man to see those he loves grow old and die—or die in the prime of life? Torchwood is certainly well named for the bright lights that blaze and burn out young. Only Jack has nothing to fear mortally, but his conscience in some sense may be seen as the conscience of the divine: seeing the world and despairing at creation and the misery that has attended it. Gwen herself voices this moral dilemma, wondering why The Doctor shows up sometimes to save the day and is absent at other times. “The Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame.” Gwen stands for facing each day, no matter what; Jack has learned that running away is not only acceptable, but also the only choice in some circumstances. Bravery means nothing to him; learning to live with what he’s seen and knows is his life’s great task.

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Torchwood: Children of Earth deals dramatically with how those in power exempt themselves from sacrifice, force sacrifice on those they consider expendable, and dissemble even to their allies. It takes up the question of bargaining with terrorists, and whether such bargains can ever be trusted to hold. It looks at the appetites we all have—for pleasure, power, security—and places them against the cost to others. It shows what is best and worst in humanity, and how people choose their loyalties. In Torchwood, loyalty to the personal almost always outweighs loyalty to country, even though Torchwood exists to serve the British state.

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The script for this miniseries takes in these big questions almost effortlessly, and the cast infuse their parts with nuance and charisma. There are a few “conveniences,” particularly in wrapping the story up. For example, how does Lois go from her first day of work to sitting in on the negotiations with the 456? In reality, it wouldn’t happen, but given the crisis that has thrown apart normal operations, we can see how someone no one knows could slip into high-level meetings as almost a piece of furniture. We accept certain plot devices, because like all good scifi, the series largely maintains its own internal logic. And when we’ve spent five or so hours gripped in a ripping yarn that engages our minds, we can only wish that it would go on forever.

  • tdraicer spoke:
    3rd/08/2009 to 12:05 am

    Having a multi-region player I watched this in two days on UK dvd and I completely agree with your review. Stunning stuff, and evidence that some of the best drama around is being done in genre tv, both here (Dollhouse, BSG) and in Britain (Torchwood, Dr. Who, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes).
    My dream (or fantasy) is to see Joss Whedon and RTD combine their great talents on a future show.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/08/2009 to 6:09 am

    Davies and Whedon certainly are evidence that TV is a great place to make great drama and not to be overlooked. I’m not sure their styles would mesh, but it’s an interesting idea to consider.

  • Marianne Seggerman spoke:
    10th/08/2009 to 8:22 am

    You are seriously in the minority finding Rhys/Gwen the most compelling and meaningful couple in Torchwood. At least judging by the fan sites, it’s all about Janto (the nickname for Jack/Ianto). Gwen and Rhys’s relationship is touching, to be sure, and few if any American television shows give an adult couple such respect and air time. It’s the two men which has captured the imagination and hearts of the fans. It’s the rarity of it all.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/08/2009 to 8:28 am

    From where I sit, Jack and Ianto’s relationship was awkward and lacking heat in “Children of Earth.” Perhaps the novelty of it is what has captured people’s attention, not the way it actually plays onscreen.

  • Arthur spoke:
    15th/11/2011 to 11:55 pm

    Have to disagree with Marilyn, even if her comment is over two years old. There is nothing awkward about Jack and Ianto’s relationship. Ianto brought out a side to Jack that we didn’t get to see with anyone else. They were incredibly good for each other, and it’s tragic and unnecessary that Ianto was killed.

    As far as lacking heat – there really wasn’t an appropriate place for “heat” in the plot during COE, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t meaningful or beautiful. The two actors have incredible chemistry and watching them develop the relationship slowly over three series’ just made it for me. I’m a bloke, and Day Four had me absolutely sobbing. Ianto was taken far too early, when there was so much more to look forward to in their relationship.

    I absolutely think Ianto was Jack’s last chance for love. Real, consuming love. And I think losing him will probably be the last straw as far Jack opening his heart up to anyone, since he’ll always lose them. He seemed broken and miserable in Miracle Day (which is a series that never should have happened in the first place), and the fact that he brought Ianto up at Angelo’s deathbed is very, very telling and proves how special Ianto was to him.

    I don’t think I’ll ever forgive RTD for killing Ianto.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/11/2011 to 7:29 am

    Arthur – I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. About Miracle Day, however, I’m with you all the way – that series was dreadful.

  • Arthur spoke:
    13th/12/2011 to 6:59 am

    Well, I didn’t find anything novel about Jack and Ianto’s relationship – just moving, heart-breaking, and had so much potential. I’m glad that most people agree with me, at least. Torchwood isn’t Torchwood and Jack isn’t Jack without everyone’s favorite teaboy.

    But yes, Miracle Day was utterly dreadful. COE should have been the end of it, and I actually hope they don’t do a fifth series, because it can only go downhill from MD.

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