TV EYE: Torching the Wood – ‘Children of Earth’ : Day Four & Five

Blimey. That is not what I expected at all.

The first three days of the Torchwood miniseries were, it’s safe to say, a rollercoaster – but it turns out that most of the meat of the drama was being left for the final two episodes. Day Four introduced the major moral quandry at the heart of the story, and it’s all so effectively portrayed that it almost manages to avoid the fact that dramatically speaking the heroes spend almost half an hour watching television in order to find out what’s going on. It’s a genuinely unsettling setup, particularly in the various government briefing scenes, and it’s doing a lot of the stuff that really good sci-fi – and really good drama – should be doing, asking difficult questions and not coming up with easy answers. While Nicholas Farrel’s PM remains pretty craven and hissable throughout, there’s enough character work in those scenes that it’s not simply a case of Evil Politicians Doing Us Wrong – yes, the moral choices and justifications they’re making are hideous, but they’re also stuck in a situation where they don’t have any other choice, and it’s very easy to understand the thinking behind it. It’s nice to see the show actually responding to this intelligently, and making the most of the disturbing moral grey areas, rather than reducing everything down to a cartoon – there are still a few absurd and overplayed moments, but the whole thing hangs together scarily well.

Unfortunately, Day Four does run into a bit of a problem once Torchwood finally swings into action, as the climactic sequence of the episode once again shows that these professional alien hunters very often don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Jack stomps dramatically into Thames House, giving all the impression that he’ll have this nonsense sorted out in five minutes flat… and proceeds to do nothing but give one of RTD’s speeches about how unstoppable humanity is. He doesn’t actually have a plan. He threatens with nothing to back it up – there’s no strategy, no forethought, and I was left thinking “Was that it?” And then, with the release of the virus, everything gets terribly tragic, and Jack’s lack of anything resembling a genuine plan (they don’t even check in advance to see whether the glass is bulletproof) ends up getting a whole building full of people killed. Torchwood in previous seasons have often caused far more problems than they solved, and this does feel worryingly close to another example.

Added to which there’s the death of Ianto… which while being nowhere near as hilariously melodramatic as the end of Tosh and Owen, didn’t really succeed in moving me – it just felt somewhat crowbarred in as a piece of tragedy to end episode 4, and the end of the episode fell somewhat flat.

But Day Five makes up for it – while there’s plenty of RTD-style emotional manipulation on show, there’s also a level of emotional intensity that’s kind of amazing, and a bleak, adult perspective that frankly makes this feel like a completely different show. There are a few storytelling issues – threatening the soldiers with having their families ‘innoculated’ is certainly a plan, but I still don’t believe that there wouldn’t have been serious military resistance (bordering on a Coup D’etat) – but the majority of the episode is very well executed, being one of the few points where the New Who-related team have handled action and a blockbuster-like scale at a level that’s quite impressive. There’s all sorts of tricky Holocaust-related imagery being put into play (along with the Biblical, Old Testament-style echoes in the threat of the 456 (aside from the fantastically creepy drugs reveal, of course)), and the episode builds and builds – with one of the best (and most upsetting) sequences being Peter Capaldi’s performance in John Frobisher’s final moments. Capaldi has been pretty bloody outstanding all the way through the story, and while it’s predictable, it’s still a shocking and impactful sequence.

The final resolution of the 456 problem is also fairly well handled – aspects of it are a bit quick and easy, but it’s an effective solution, and another point where I genuinely couldn’t believe exactly how dark the episode was going. It’s also one of the few points where despite my many problems with Barrowman’s performance, he actually delivered the goods here. Nothing felt melodramatic, nothing felt overplayed – it was dark, provocative and really nasty. As the flawed but very interesting New Who S4 episode ‘Midnight’ proved, when RTD goes dark he really doesn’t mess around, although, it does make me wonder about his absolute determination to make his heroes lonely noble sufferers – one thing I’m hoping is that Steven Moffatt can at least find a few extra notes to play in the Who universe once he takes the reins. The finale, with Jack warping away to voyage the stars, is certainly verging on melodramatic (and I suspect setting up a thread that may be payed off in one of the upcoming Who specials), and I’m slightly amazed that they’ve left the series in a situation where it’s going to have to reboot itself again – but on the whole, in spite of a number of stylistic, storytelling and execution-related wobbles, I have to count myself impressed and amazed.

It’s hard to believe it’s even the same show that was pulling the absurd JCB/Concrete Block/Naked Captain Jack nonsense three episodes ago, let alone the complete mess that inflicted the Disco Cyberwoman and the Friendly Welsh Cannibals on the viewing public three years ago. It took them three seasons, and they haven’t exactly sorted out all the issues that frequently annoy me, but they’ve finally turned Torchwood into the grown-up Who spin-off it was always supposed to be – something that feels like an adult-themed extension of the New Who ethos, rather than an embarrassing collection of Joss Whedon’s hand-me-downs. A show that previously felt like a broken, haphazard mess suddenly feels like it matters – I just hope that they don’t make the mistake of going back to self-contained episodes, or try to re-install the more horror-themed structure that never consistently worked. If they’re going to do a fourth season (and given the reception that Children of Earth has gotten, I’d be very surprised if they don’t), they should keep the same structure – one story, stripped over a week, a big scale, and keep the X-Files/Spooks vibe, because it’s made the show work. It hasn’t been perfect – but Children of Earth has been far and away the best material the Torchwood has generated, and actually makes the show look like it has a future.

I really can’t believe it. I’ve written a blog post that’s genuinely praising Torchwood. I now feel the need to lie down…

4 thoughts on “TV EYE: Torching the Wood – ‘Children of Earth’ : Day Four & Five

  1. I think it very much helped this mini-series that it was grounded in ordinary people and politics. That made it accessible to a mainstream audience but also served to defuse Torchwood’s natural tendency towards melodrama. It made the SF aspects feel more real and at the same time–because we’re viewing them from a mundane viewpoint–more alien.

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  2. Yes, I’m with you. On balance, I was impressed. Especially with the cabinet office scenes; a fine example of how people might react in such an impossible situation. I kind of like the fact that the writers aren’t afraid to kill the major characters, though as the really irritating ones were already dead, they didn’t need to take Ianto out.

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