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Torchwood: Children of Earth (Friday)

M’learned colleague Mr Hazeldine is unfortunately unavailable this Friday evening, although rumours that he’s zapped himself off up into a spaceship somewhere to avoid having to pull together a reaction to Day Five have yet to be confirmed. So I’m afraid you’re left with me to somehow figure out what to say on the final day of our week-long Torchwood extravaganza…

Day Five

Amusing captions only really seem relevant when you can still describe the programme as “entertainment”, don’t they?

Remember during the first series of Torchwood (and, to an extent, some of the second) when we said it was far too frivolous, and how it had confused “adult” with “adolescent”, and how it needed to nail down a consistent tone and just stop pissing about and instead try and tell mature, intelligent drama of a specific sort that Who couldn’t?

There is such a thing as overcompensating, you know.

I mean yes, okay - Children of Earth has been an unqualified success. It’s gripping, conspiratorial drama that happens to be about aliens. In terms of scale and threat, it’s a blockbuster Who story - but the reactions to the threat, from government level to individual characters, are ones we’ve never seen explored in this universe before. But the thing is, I’m not quite sure that the extremes to which this story went really needed to be here. Death is a part of Doctor Who, of course, but there’s still one rule that holds firm (even in a post-Time War universe), as brilliantly put by Lance Parkin once - the Doctor never loses. But the Doctor isn’t here - and while the children of the Earth are saved, Jack loses so very much. A part of his humanity, even. And while you could argue that by turning him into a lonely, wandering rogue with a dark secret in his past, Russell is essentially placing him right back where he was when we first met him, ready for Moffat to play with once more - it’s undeniable that the character we’ve known for the past few years, the slightly irritating and wooden figure of series one and two who still caused big smiles to crack everywhere when he showed up in “Utopia” and became brilliant again - is essentially dead. And you simply wonder why everything we’ve seen since Russell first announced a spinoff show was leading up to this. And this is why, as great as it is to see a Nigel-Kneale-meets-State-of-Play alien invasion conspiracy drama on BBC1 - and doing so bloody well in the process - I’m just not sure that this show needed to be Torchwood, or part of the Whoniverse at all.

Because as strong and relevant as some of the themes in the story are, they’re not in line with the themes of a show that is traditionally about adventure, and hope, and exploration, and endeavour, and spirit. Children of Earth is about the human race, and particularly its governing figures, at their worst. Okay, so the Doctor’s been at odds with authority before, but we’ve never had a government that actively lies, and betrays its people, and tries to cover its own arse, before. There’s anger in Russell’s pen, here (it also feels like his portrayal of brutal, unquestioning army grunts rounding up children was a deliberate counterpoint to he and Gareth Roberts having come off as pro-military in Planet of the Dead), and it feels like something that’s built up and up over a long time until only now he’s been able to express it. But again - is this the place for it? We may have complained about the over-ludicrousness of some of early Torchwood (and actually, there are still lingering threads of it here - the reason for the aliens’ “use” of the children threatening to undermine the credibility and seriousness of the whole thing), and there was some pretty grisly material in series two - but nothing can have prepared anyone, surely, for the tragic closing moments of John Frobisher.

Not that such scenes aren’t brilliant - and indeed, perhaps it’s this aspect of the show that we should concentrate on in the immediate aftermath, rather than the to-be-dissected-at-length question of where this really fits in the escapist world of Doctor Who. Although it has to be said that where episodes three and four were damned near perfect in just about every note that they struck - I was actually slightly moved by Ianto’s death scene, for crying out loud; I should have been laughing on the day Ianto finally got killed off - day five almost buckles at times under the weight of what it’s trying to do. The usually capable hands of Euros Lyn seem to falter at times, with the climactic scenes involving Stephen simply failing to convince either in the bizarre effect employed, or in the earlier performance of Lucy Cohu upon discovering Jack’s Plan - although perhaps my opinion of these scenes was coloured by, at this point, believing that the plot really was going one step too far in its destruction of Jack’s character. Or maybe it’s simply that Day Five suffers from only having Peter Capaldi for half of its duration, thus losing the immovable centre of classiness that had run through the serial to date.

While I can’t say that every plot beat plays out as I would have liked, you have to at least admire Davies and his cohorts for having the courage of their convictions - absolutely nothing is chickened out of here. In this sense, this really is the point at which Torchwood has been allowed to come of age. This isn’t a smirking, wise-cracking, sex-and-swearing-fuelled piece of so-called “adult” escapism - this is dark, human drama, tailored to fit the slot to which it’s been moved and to stand up to comparison with this arena’s better examples. And in those dramas, nobody cheats, bad things happen to good people, and the villains aren’t so easily identifiable. These are the rules by which Torchwood has now decided to play - and while its position as part of a wider franchise suddenly looks harder to reconcile, and prospects for its future (from a plot point of view, that is) nigh-on inconceivable, there’s no denying that it’s finally made its mark as a genuinely great piece of television.

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[blockquote]the reason for the aliens’ “use” of the children threatening to undermine the credibility and seriousness of the whole thing[/blockquote]

I thought that was already done by the farcical stuff with the US general (who was pretty-much superfluous to the actual story). His bullishness made some sense when he originally appeared (even though the idea of the Americans sending a general - a soldier for goodness sakes - on a diplomatic mission when they’ve got a Secretary of State for that seemed silly) but when he started barking orders and the British cabinet let him take over despite him having no actual authority (what was he going to do if they refused exactly, declare war?) was beyond daft. It put a big dampener on what, up until them, had been some fairly believeable politics. Yes, the US have a great deal of influence over the UK but the idea that a jumped-up soldier could ever start issuing orders to the British cabinet on British soil in a world crisis situation where offending the Americans is (putting it mildly) a fairly minor issue, is stretching credibility beyond breaking point.

I also thought the thing with Frobisher’s kids was badly handled. What the Prime Minister was planning (and why) was perfectly believeable but he had no reason to tell Frobisher the truth - he could have just spun the “it’s for show” line that Frobisher originally thought it was and the poor man would be none the wiser until the dirty deed was done. Also, telling a man that you’re going to have his kids killed when you’re alone in a room with him is probably the most stupid thing ever.

The ending redeemed much of it, though, proper tragedy and proper moral drama that meant Jack’s fleeing back into space (in a nice little nod to “Hitchhikers”) made perfect sense.

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By Zagrebo
July 10, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

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Was put off Torchwood by the first two series, caught a radio play that seemed quite good so watched children of earth. So glad I did, best Torchwood ever, comes close to Who’s ‘don’t blink’. Dark, mean and desperate, and no happy ending, just the choice of least unhappy. If there is another series I will give it a fresh start.

By Marcus James
July 11, 2009 @ 12:08 am

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Overall I liked it. The resolution using the kid as a transmitter made very little sense though. I.e. they obviously have the signal on machine. And they’ve communicated with the aliens by that before. So they use the machine to transmit to the kid and the kid transmits… to other kids? And that somehow destroys the alien ambassador? They’d need to at least record the kids squealing and transmit that too long distance right? The amount of redundancy is quite boggling.

And how did they transfer the signal to the lad in the first place? I understand the 456 (or whatever they’re called) have the technology (or powers, I’m not sure how it works) to transmit messages through kids but what about at our end going the other way? Are they saying the signal in itself, transmitted near a child, is enough to turn him into a, erm transmitter?

Also, the fact the ambassador was beamed up suggests there are still others out there living (unless it was automatically triggered on it’s death.) What stops them sending down a virus and wiping out the entire planet?

Maybe I’m just being thick.

In the end though, I understand that this is a character story. And as such I think it worked. It was very bleak, possibly too much so, but it was very interesting and thought provoking. The comparison between Jack’s sacrifice and the Frobisher’s is interesting. As is the fact that there were no clear cut good and bad guys. Except perhaps the kid popping aliens.

Overall a success, I think. I think the last episode was perhaps the weakest but 1 out of 5 isn’t bad (and it wasn’t bad, just confused. For me anyway. Durrrr.)

By ChrisM
July 11, 2009 @ 12:29 am

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Jim Mortimore probably loved that.

By Applemask
July 11, 2009 @ 1:30 am

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I’ve never really bought the idea that the Doctor Who universe, everything should turn out basically OK. I don’t think that should necessarily apply to Doctor Who, let alone a post-watershed spin-off show. It feels fundamentally dramatically dishonest. You cannot have a show full of death but have everything turn out fine in the end every single time. Sometimes, you have to show that things don’t.

Loved the whole series. It’s great to see a programme have such enormous hairy balls. It’s obviously set up to be the end, if it isn’t re-commissioned… but I really hope we get something else. Although there’s no way it can go back to how it was.

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By John Hoare
July 11, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

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Oh - one thing that did worry me slightly was the whole “government lying about inoculations” stuff. With the whole MMR issue, is it really the right message to be sending out that “actually, maybe the government isn’t telling the truth”?

Unintentional, I’m sure, and maybe I’m over-reacting, but it made me feel very uncomfortable.

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By John Hoare
July 11, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

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Oh - one thing that did worry me slightly was the whole “government lying about inoculations” stuff. With the whole MMR issue, is it really the right message to be sending out that “actually, maybe the government isn’t telling the truth”?

That bothered me a little bit too but it wasn’t really the same situation (the government was being entirely dishonest in Torchwood whilst the anti-MMR line wasn’t that the jabs were a cover for something else but that they were trying to conceal a possible risk) and, besides, if we worry about every single aspect of TV drama not treading on our (or anyone elses) political toes then there’s the risk of ending up a bit oversensitive to the detriment of storytelling.

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By Zagrebo
July 13, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

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Talking of political toes (so to speak) what I really liked about “Children of Earth” was that the moral message of the series overall was that there’s not really any such thing as an easy “right” or “wrong” decision. The only villains were the 456, the “evil” acts that the British governments (and eventually Jack Harkness) carried out were merely the lesser evil of the two choices they faced and something they were forced into. It was a nice counterpoint to the often simplistic moralising of the Doctor.

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By Zagrebo
July 13, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

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>It was a nice counterpoint to the often simplistic moralising of the Doctor.

You say that, but who blew up his own planet and entire race of people for the greater good (twice, in fact, if you count the 8DAs)…?

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By Seb Patrick
July 13, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

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Doctor: I don’t have any excuses to make. I fight evil. I win.
Bernice: That isn’t enough.

-Love and War, by Paul Cornell

I suppose we should have seen this coming. Day Four saw Jack’s actions in 1965 come back to haunt him once- if he hadn’t been part of the ‘deal’ cut with the 456 in the sixties, they might have been more willing to believe the ultimatum he delivered. He lost Ianto as a result, and with hindsight it was obvious that the punishment was going to keep on coming.

As Seb said, the conclusion of CoE leads us with more profound questions about Russell T Davies’ handling of the Whoniverse than any other story. That’s not a criticism, just an acknowledgement of the radical nature of the episode we’ve seen. Day Five is the most unremittingly grim piece of television the writer has produced in his entire career. He’s gone on record about how both the darker direction for Torchwood and much of the content of the story represented long-held intentions, but that underplays the significance of what happens here. I slightly disagree with Seb in his view that CoE is a mashup of New Who stories- I see it as the distillation of ideas that have been haunting the writer, no longer diluted by the demands of the multi-million parent franchise. We saw the mutilated children in Last of the Timelords, the military targeted the Doctor as far back as Aliens of London, and we’ve been through more unsatisfactory prime ministers than we can shake a stick at.

It’s really a question of which is the means and which is the end. Did the writer create a nightmare inducing vision of humanity at its worse to provide a setting that could finally break Jack Harkness, or is the destruction of the Captain included merely to underline the dark fears the the writer has confided in the audience? In many ways, Torchwood punches above its weight for much of CoE, with the field team designed to snatch weevils fighting and thwarting the machinery of the state and an alien with near-infinite power. In the end, Gwen isn’t making the grand stand the episode was trailed as, but vainly fighting armed troops to try to save a dozen kids. It’s the cold-blooded pragmatist of Johnson that saves the day, together with Alice’s conviction of her father as a man who wins, no matter the cost. I don’t think that she was failing to forgive Jack during their last meeting, but failing to condemn him. She new what he would do if it meant keeping humanity intact, and she let this demon out of his cell.

The question of whether Day Five is entertainment is an interesting one. The humour and changes of pace vanish completely from CoE with the death of Ianto. Once RTD passes the point where he has to lure the audience in for the next night’s viewing, there’s a shift in tone to bleakness which boarders on nihilism. As I said in the site’s review of Day Four, Torchwood completes the new Who universe, but there are some limits. Real-world horrors are beyond the pale, so the architect has introduced a fictional potential holocaust to weight the family of programmes’ integrity around. It’s the cold-bloodedness of the death of Jack’s grandson which separates Day Five. Where the Doctor’s mindwipe of melancholy left her with a life, albeit a lesser one, and Jack’s execution of Suzie was a last-ditch attempt to save Gwen, here the choice is a consciously decided one with total consequences. This story has given New Who the nightmares which were only hinted at before. And given that Jack will be back in time of the tenth Doctor’s final adventure, the desperate straights we’ve seen the world reduced to enrichen it enormously.

By Julian Hazeldine
July 13, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

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Would the ‘Six Months Later’ coda have worked better after the end credits?

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By Dave
November 19, 2009 @ 11:21 am

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