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REVIEW: Torchwood: Children of Earth

REVIEW SUMMARY: Really brilliant, except when it’s really not.

MY RATING:

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.

MY REVIEW:

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.

Day 4…

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.

About Peter Damien (33 Articles)
Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.

15 Comments on REVIEW: Torchwood: Children of Earth

  1. My 2 (spoilery) pennies.

    • I thought part 1 was a bit slow while they went through…each…and…every…characterization.  The other parts improved significantly.
    • I noticed that Torchwood (and Doctor Who and BBC shows in general) utilize dramatic music all the time (like, say, when characters are merely walking in the hall) whereas a U.S. show would just be silent.  This tactic works; it feels like something dramatic is happening.
    • The plot did rasie some questions if you thought about it too much.  Like:
    1. Once the government jig wa sup, why didn’t they finally rely on Torchwood to remove the threat?
    2. Why couldn’t the aliens, which such advanced technology, synthesize their own drugs?  Surely that would be less expensive than traipsing down to the corner Earth to pick up a six pack.
    3. Bravo to the writers for not being afraid to make serious cast changes.

     

    Overall, I’d give it a 4/5.  I loved it.

  2. Well, for me it was actually better than anything from the Whoniverse I’ve seen so far. And the unhappy ending is what I liked the most.

  3. 3/5 sounds about right.

    And yeah, the part were Frobisher shoots his family instead of trying some kind of flight really disappointed me. Loved how they tried to kill Jack and decided to bury him in cement instead though.

  4. ” And yeah, the part were Frobisher shoots his family instead of trying some kind of flight really disappointed me.”

    For me it’s actually the most powerful scene in the whole miniseries.

  5. Overall, I thought it was fantastic. But for me, the problem with the ending was that it hinged on a sudden Doctorish technofix that was completely out of place in this story. (It would have been even worse if the Doctor himself showed up.) I really think the only effective ending would have been for the 456 to get what they wanted and leave — for four out of five episodes, this was a story about powerlessness in the face of arbitrary forces, and that was what made it powerful.

  6. I’m going to second Ausir with the thought that the Frobisher story was for the most part an incredibly affecting story. The choices that he makes throughout the story are always about sacrificing someone else for the good of the nation and when that nation turns on him, asking him to sacrifice his own family, he is left in an untenable position.  Because he has spent his career and life deciding what’s best for other people, he naturally takes that position when faced with his family being at risk in an increasingly hostile world. The more I think about it, the more I see the killing of his family as a direct and logical outcome from his world-view. 

    In terms of Captain Jack’s rather ill-conceived confrontation with the 456, what I found fascinating is precisely just how Doctor Who-ish a moment that is and Captain Jack is just not good enough to cover all the angles, to think fast enough to save the people in the building. Yes it’s a grandiose and somewhat stupid move, but Captain Jack has always had a penchant for grandiose and stupid. 

    Ultimately, I think the questions about sacrifice, good vs. necessary, and right vs. survival, are put to the viewer in complex and dramatic ways that are all the more effective for Torchwood’s inability to save the day. Children of Earth is a morality play to be sure, and at times a bit over the top and inconsistent, but I definitely think it’s one of the more powerful works that Russel T. Davies has put on the screen.

  7. I guess I wasn’t really holding out for a HAPPY ending, so much as an APPROPRIATE ending. The ending we got just felt like Russel T. Davies going “Crap, we have to wrap this up!” and then wrapping it up really, really fast. It felt like those storylines that were hastily brought to a close just before the writer’s strike, in some shows I was watching.

    I don’t regret watching it, I just wish it had done more. I wish Torchwood hadn’t actually been irrelevant to the whole entire story (you could have taken out Torchwood, put John Frobisher in the spotlight, and had a powerful mini-series all by itself).

    And I like what you (this being the general “you lot before me in comments” you) point out, about how it was a very Doctor sort of solution, which Jack — NOT being the Doctor — didn’t pull off as well. That’s a very good way to look at it…and I wish they’d touched on it, because that would have been poignant and useful and a lovely continuation of what has been discussed with The Doctor all along…that mostly what seems to follow him, sadly, is destruction. And here we have Jack, doing a Doctor-solution and causing destruction…and not being as able to handle it as the Doctor can. that would’ve been a great thing to touch on .

    And the reaction to the 456 was just puzzling. These aliens were roughy 500% LESS-MENACING than the Daleks, or the Cybermen, or even that massive demon that Jack had to die fighting at the end of Torchwood series 1. So why did they just wimp out?

    It couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a political drama, or a Torchwood science fiction show.

    My problem with the ending of John Frobisher’s story was, all the way through he’s a bit player. He’s a little guy, treated like a little guy. Every conversation with him is to dismiss him or use him as a small dupe. And then, in the end, he just does himself, and his daughters, and his wife in. In other words, in his case, the system that was using him…won. He didn’t necessarily need to make a grand stance against the 456, like Jack did. And he didn’t even need to survive.

    I wanted an appropriate ending, not a happy one. And I didn’t get either, it seemed.

    Also, frankly, that bit we all saw in the commercials with Gwen talking to a video camera saying why the world had ended…was really shoe-horned into the series. That was so silly. And I guess I didn’t get the point of complaining about The Doctor. Not randomly for two seconds. Make it a theme all the way through (in which case, it resonates off Jack’s character very well, because he has a Doctor Complex) or else, leave it out.

    I do go on and on, don’t I? 🙂

  8. “I wanted an appropriate ending, not a happy one.”

    Well, for me the ending was very appropriate. Without the tragedy of Frobisher and Jack’s sacrifice, if Torchwood just saved the day the way the Doctor does, I’d actually feel cheated. It would just have been too easy of a way out.

  9. “It couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a political drama, or a Torchwood science fiction show.”

    I agree that maybe it would actually be better if RTD hadn’t made it a Torchwood story (or even a Whoniverse story in general). But I don’t see how “political drama” and “science fiction” are mutually exclusive.

  10. I agree, actually. the way The Doctor saves the day is very Doctor-specific. I didn’t want that.

    I thought JACK’S sacrifice worked very well, actually. The actual techno-save was a bit goofy and spur-of-the-moment, but the sacrificial element was great, because it’s pointing out that…he’s not like everyone else. And he is more ruthless, even if he hates it about himself. I liked that part.

    As for Frobisher, I have mixed feelings. The way they carried it off didn’t satisfy me. But how would *I* have done it differently that *would* have satisfied me? I’m not sure.

    Torchwood muddles me up. I REALLY like it, and get REALLY exasperated when it trips up and really dislike when it does that. And wind up waffling in-between. Even when it leaves me grumbling around the house for days…I’d still tune in happily if something new was about to happen.

    I am also aware that the only reason it actually exasperates me is that I do like it quite a lot. If it were just bad and didn’t have an effect on me, I’d grumble and get on with my life. I only get exasperated and complain when something I like trips.

    I know what I REALLY liked, and that was having a brand-new installment of it every single night for a week. That was terrific. I wish I got more television in that set-up. That’d be a really interesting way to do something longer and more expansive than a TV movie, but shorter and more streamlined than a full TV season.

  11. By the way, what I actually disliked about Children of Earth were the over the top action scenes with highly trained MI5 people being of course subject to the stormtrooper effect, and the crappy data security in the Home Office (the way Lois gets the password too damn easily).

    Although the latter resulted from last-minute rewrites when Freema Agyeman turned out not to be available.

  12. And “political drama” and “science fiction” aren’t mutually exclusive at all. In this case, I think they were two seperate things, but they were hardly exclusive. They just weren’t fitting together very well.

    If it had left out Torchwood, and we’d had aliens in a mist-filled box making demands, and then we’d just had all the characters BUT Torchwood having to deal with it…I think that would’ve been fascinating. All the best bits were outside of the Torchwood characters.

    (Like the chilling moment when the woman in the meeting very, very logically explains why the kids we’ll have to give up…are the poor. And the criminal. And the not-doing-very-well. That whole scene, when she worked that out…that was stunning. That floored me, because it was perfectly logical, and so, so horrible.)

  13. “If it had left out Torchwood, and we’d had aliens in a mist-filled box making demands, and then we’d just had all the characters BUT Torchwood having to deal with it…I think that would’ve been fascinating. All the best bits were outside of the Torchwood characters.”

    Well, I’m not that much of a Torchwood/Who fan (sure, I like some episodes, but hate others), so I often feel that some episodes would have been better without the Doctor or Torchwood, actually.

  14. By the way, I wonder what cast we’ll see in Torchwood season 4, given how there’s only 2 people left from Torchwood proper, one pregnant and one in outer space.

  15. I enjoyed the show and the ending.  Jack isn’t the Doctor so he can’t fix things like him.  I did half expect someone to call the doctor and the doctor would come and save the day, but thinking about it that would have been a cheat.  Instead you have Gwen trying to explain why the doctor doesn’t come every time the Earth is in danger.  I like that they had the guts to kill off lead characters, a lot of stories don’t do that…and they killed off 3.  I like that he had to make the judgement to either kill his grandson or let everything go to hell.  I like that Frobisher felt so used and beaten by his own government that was so loyal to ordered him to sacrifice his own children that he felt the only way to make piece was to kill his family and himself.  He did that because if he didn’t his kids would be made into drugs and he would never have been able to live that down.  If he didn’t and hid his kids his family would have had to run.  He felt this was the only way out and in a way it was a big middle finger to the government.

    Torchwood does its best to save the Earth when the Doctor can’t.  This is why Jack doesn’t travel with the Doctor because he knows he can do better if he stays on Earth. 

     

    I love Doctor Who and I also love Torchwood.   The BBC is coming out with some really good shows.  I hope they keep up the good work.  Now if only we can get the rest of the series of MI5 (Spooks) on BBC America.

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