REVIEW SUMMARY: Really brilliant, except when it’s really not.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: All across the world, all of the children are freezing and chanting. Over and over. “WE ARE COMING.” Something called the 456 is coming to Earth, and only Torchwood can stop it.
PROS: This really does contain some of the strongest, best writing that Torchwood’s had so far. Occasionally, it’s on-par with Doctor Who.
CONS: The same problems that have always plagued Torchwood surface here, too.
BOTTOM LINE: Like most good Torchwood , it’s powerful and exciting, and like most of Torchwood, it seems to foul up in the end stretch…
(WARNING: This is a spoiler-riffic sort of review. Depart, thee who dost not wish to know.)
I immediately became a rabid fan of Doctor Who when I finally got around to watching it. I had friends who watched it and talked to me about it, I had people like Neil Gaiman mentioning it. All the buzz was good. So my wife and I got some episodes via Netflix, watched, fell in love, and haven’t looked back. It tops both of our “favorite television shows” lists.
So naturally, the mania would spread, in our house, to the spin-off series. I knew vaguely about Torchwood, I heard some iffy things about the first season…but I really liked Captain Jack Harkness when he turned up on Doctor Who. So we got the DVDs and watched.
The first season was, frankly, dodgy. The problem was that Torchwood was supposed to be more adult than Doctor Who, but it rarely had the power of writing to support it. It was very odd. And the “adult” moments always seemed jammed in. As if the show had to stop so the writers could say “hem hem look how adult our show is hem hem!” That is to say, they almost never helped and almost always hindered.
When they weren’t having sex and swearing, what the Torchwood team mostly did was run, shout, and Be Very Sad. As Neil Gaiman put it, somewhere on his blog, he was composing lists in his head of “Why the people of Torchwood season one are too stupid to live.” It only took a few episodes to see what he meant.
We soldiered on. And series 2 got better. By the end of it, it was actually really good. It was powerful, it stood on its own, it was moving and we were actually fans of it in its own right.
(I am coming to series 3 in a moment, gentle reader; be patient)
The problems Torchwood always had were puzzling, and I put a lot of thought into them. Because this was a show made by Russell T. Davies, who frankly did stunning things with Doctor Who, I couldn’t understand why Torchwood had so many problems, why the writing hobbled along sometimes.
What eventually crossed my mind was…so much of Torchwood is, unfortunately, Doctor Who episodes but without The Doctor in them, in any way. And what’s interesting is how the same sort of stories really don’t quite work if you remove the Doctor. He’s a powerful character, a huge gravitational force of a character around which the story cannot help but spin, and if you remove him…it all gets a bit wobbly. You need the Doctor. Without him, the show couldn’t quite figure out what it wanted to be.
The other problem was also that Torchwood had to live in the shadow of the Doctor as a character. I was very aware, all throughout the first two series, that most of the problems Torchwood faced were things that the Doctor, if he showed up, could solve in the last five minutes. And in so many episodes, I would comment to my wife that they seemed to be building toward a really satisfying ending in which, as the problem reaches its worst, the TARDIS appears and the Doctor steps out, things click into high gear, and the problem is solved satisfyingly.
And of course, this never happened. And I don’t know if the endings resulted from this, or if it was a separate problem…but so often, Torchwood just seemed to trip over itself when heading for the ending.
(And I’ll confess that I always watched Torchwood just hoping that in some episode, the Doctor would appear, would cameo into the show, would do something. I liked Torchwood, but I was always looking for a Doctor Who fix.)
So. On to Torchwood: The Children of Earth
The story runs across five days, and aired on BBC America during one week, over five nights. And in the story, all the children of Earth began speaking in perfect unison. “WE ARE COMING.” That is what they say, over and over again. And as the episodes advance, they add: “WE ARE COMING…BACK.”
There are aliens, known only as the 456 coming to Earth. No one but a handful of people in the British government know that they’ve been here before. And indeed, in this five-part special, we get to see a great deal of British government officials. Some of them are likable. Many of them really aren’t.
We get to meet a low-level British government official named John Frobisher. And he is actually the most compelling and fascinating character in the show, in that he’s human, he’s terrified and scared of what he’s being made to do, and what he has to deal with, and he’s being used as an expendable pawn, and knows it. And his terror is made all the more potent, because he has two little girls at home who keep stopping and chanting “WE ARE COMING…” and there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s an amazing character, and he’s just heartbreaking to watch. As the show went on, he was the one I really, really cared about.
The actual characters who make up the Torchwood unit are…odd this time around. I could never quite connect with them. And what they were doing kept changing, and not for any useful reason that I could figure out, other than to fill time.
Day 1 starts off really well, where it seems like we’re getting new members of Torchwood, we’re seeing everyone we know from the show, we’re getting to enjoy Ianto some more (always a funny delight). And then everything takes a sharp turn, and Captain Jack is, apparently, blown to smithereens, along with the Torchwood hub. Gwen and Ianto are on the run. The episode ends.
It’s exciting television! We were stunned and couldn’t wait for part 2, the next day
Day 2 was even better! The stories kept advancing. We had to rescue Captain Jack (who, of course, cannot die). We had wonderful scenes with Ianto and Gwen, wonderful characters popping up. Further political happenings as the British try to not only deal with the 456, but hide the fact that they’ve been here before, from the rest of the world. The children continue chanting, and it’s riveting, creepy, fantastic television.
Day 3 is more of the same. Except…except everything is starting to get a bit wobbly.
As the day continues on, increasingly it seems like the members of Torchwood are just sort of ambling around. Nothing really productive is being done by our heroes. The aliens arrive in a pillar of fire, and increasingly, we find ourselves caring about mentally-unstable Clem, who should have been abducted back in 1965, but wasn’t and has never been the same since.
All the old Torchwood problems rear their unpleasant heads.
Day 4 isn’t too bad, except for the sheer lack of anything interesting happening. Mostly, we watch as the British government talks to itself, and talks to the alien 456. And in the show, the Torchwood characters also sit around and watch these things, on a computer screen.
Mostly it’s boring. It begins to feel an awful lot like filler.
And randomly, Jack finally leverages his way in to seeing the 456, along with Ianto, where Jack sort of yells at them to go away. And then they say no, and kill everyone in the building, including Ianto. It felt very random, it was a very silly sort of thing for Jack to have done and really had no purpose at all. By Day 4 — and particularly by the end of Day 4 — you are very aware that the writers seem to be floundering an awful lot here. As if they’re continuing to write these scenes and hope like hell that some sort of ending appears that make it all make sense. Which, unfortunately, doesn’t happen.
Day 5. The concluding episode.
Torchwood trips over itself.
Everything that could go weird here…does. Jack is in jail, right up until he isn’t. Gwen and Rhys go back to Wales where they take some children and hide in a warehouse to stay away from the soldiers (who are collecting children to give them to the 456, to use as drugs). Gwen’s story resolves with her literally holding one little girl, running through a muddy field from a soldier. That’s it. She doesn’t save the day, she doesn’t do anything more but, in a field in Whales, run with a single child.
Jack, meanwhile, pulls something completely out of nowhere. He sets up a harmonic resonance using all the children of Earth to scream in such a way that causes the aliens to explode…but sacrifices his own grandson in the process. He thus feels guilty.
And then we jump, more or less, to Six Months Later, on a hill. Where Gwen (very pregnant) and Rhys say good-bye to Jack, who feels very guilty and hitch-hikes a ride off of Earth on an alien space ship. The End.
Also, the one character, the one really human and heart-breaking character we’ve cared about, John Frobisher, the one person we have watched struggle against a government that is behaving immorally and struggling to do whatever it takes to protect his children…the one character we have really rooted for…he gets a gun, goes home, kills his wife and daughters, and shoot himself.
The whole mini-series sort of shoots itself in the foot on the final lap. It ends unsatisfyingly, it ends unhappily. And looking back, you realize that actually, Torchwood did virtually nothing in the mini-series except sort of fumble around (and then mostly fail, because even though Jack stopped the aliens…Ianto died, and Gwen ran through a field, and Torchwood was still defunct). And furthermore, I found myself looking back and realizing that once again…it felt like a really good Doctor Who episode, a Special maybe, which fell apart because the Doctor wasn’t in it.
This is why I talked about all the problems of Torchwood at the top of this review. They’re all on display in this mini-series. It has a lot of good qualities too, and it’s worth watching…but it’s hard to invest in.
I went into this mini-series nervously, because I was aware that Torchwood didn’t exactly have the greatest history. It missed as often as it hit, possibly more often. I went in expecting the mini-series to really stink. I was stunned and delighted by how good the first two or three days were, I was let down by Day 4, and I was shaking my head and grumbling after I finished Day 5.
It’s still worth watching, if you ask me. If Torchwood reappeared for a fourth series after this (and Russell T. Davies apparently announced that he’s got another series ready to go, depending on how this one did), I’ll watch it. But I won’t watch it with the rabid enthusiasm that Doctor Who gets out of me. Just the cautious enthusiasm of knowing that it can be really good…except when it winds up being really bad.