Torchwood: Children of Earth

Saturday, July 11, 2009 14:20 | Filed in Reviews, Science Fiction, TV/Film

Torchwood: Children of Earth saw the Doctor Who spin-off drama Torchwood, led by John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness transfer to BBC 1 for the first time. Rather than the standard one episode per week for thirteen weeks, this was one episode per night for five nights, seemingly stemming from a desire to do something different with the show.

John Barrowman didn’t seem happy about the move:

Cutting the new series of Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood to five shows from 13 felt like “we were being punished”, its star John Barrowman has said.BBC News: Torchwood cut ‘like punishment’

…and I can very much understand what he was saying. I missed the first few episodes of Torchwood series one (really didn’t think a Captain Jack spinoff would work) but from the moment I jumped into the Small Worlds episode I was hooked. It was like Doctor Who, Jim, but not as we know it. This was adult Doctor Who. Adult sci-fi drama. Much of it definitely not suitable for family viewing. It was top-notch, first-rate, cracking stuff.

So losing eight episodes of it felt like the viewers were being punished too: not just the cast.

However, the switch to every night for five nights and one single long story line: that most definitely did work. It made the show that much more intense — and with a plot which had you shuffling over to sit down next to out and out paranoia in the first place, it most definitely worked.

The story was grim. An overpowering, overwhelming alien force called the 456 (because of the frequency they broadcast on) turn up and make their demands of earth. They’ve been here once before, making similar demands, and Captain Jack was involved then too. Anyone wishing to read on beyond this point may be aware that there will be spoilers: so if you’ve not seen it, you might wish to look away now…

And of course, what the aliens wanted was 10% of the world’s human children. Handed over where they would be used almost as bio-grafts on to the aliens, so that these children would be trapped within the aliens’ bodies, producing some chemical which the aliens would get high on. 10% of the world’s children to be handed over, just like that, otherwise they’d wipe out the planet.

Last time they’d been here, it had just been 12 children that Jack Harkness had helped to hand over to the aliens: and they’d gone away for 40 years. Now they were back, wanting more “tribute”. And the government felt it necessary to silence Jack and anyone else who knew about it…

I’m not going to run through the plot much more, other than to say that the first four episodes were searingly brilliant; atmospheric, punchy, fast, tense, great sci-fi stuff. We got introduced to Jack’s daughter (now looking older than him) and his young grandson; we saw Jack blown up and then entombed in liquid concrete — which led to him spending most of an episode in the nudey, as Steve Pugh noticed. Darn. Why does that sort of thing never happen to Gwen Cooper?

Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Russell T Davies doesn’t do endings very well. Which is a shame, because he’s bloody brilliant at building stuff up: but the endings always feel a little rushed. Admittedly, we had possibly the most explosive piece of bureacratic dialogue I’ve heard in some time:

Give me a requisition 31!Peter Capaldi as John Frobisher

Obviously, when you find out what a requisition 31 entails, particularly in John Frobisher’s case, it changes the mood somewhat, but even so, this part of the story was extremely well done.

But then we get to the bits I’m not so sure about. There’s the the sacrifice of Captain Jack’s grandson. Precisely because the daughter was wary of him in episode one, you just knew that he was going to very badly let her down some way or other before the end of the series. I’m still undecided as to whether this was cliched and carried out clunkingly or whether the sacrifice was deliberately foreshadowed in the earlier episodes to try and make it more poignant when it occurred. Either way, it didn’t work. I never really believed that Jack Harkness actually felt the grief and sadness about his grandson: about Ianto, yes, but not the grandson: Captain Jack is simply too shallow for long term emotional attachments.

I’m possibly being a little picky in saying that the child’s head biografted onto the alien looked like some spare prop left over from the Toclafane — that’s actually fine if it was (after all, these things have to be made within a budget), but if it wasn’t, they ought to have put more effort into making it look more different.

And there’s Ianto. Did they forget what to do with him? Marching him into a room to try and shoot through a reinforced container? Why? Particularly when you know Jack is indestructible and Ianto isn’t. Had they just decided they wanted him out of the way by episode five, because there really was no good reason at all for him to go rushing in with Jack…

Oh, and while we’re on plot holes, if the aliens turned up once before in 1965, and after abducting them, discovered that they could use the children to provide chemical stimulants, why the hell did they want to abduct them in the first place in 1965? How could they have known that the kids would provide a drug for them? (Although I was quite happy to let this drop for the sake of the story, since I’m being critical, I’ll mention it).

The strongest part of episode 5 was probably Gwen and Rhys trying to keep the children safe: if you ignore the hammy to video ‘world-is-endings’ sequence from Gwen, anyway. The Bridget Spears sequences were also good (although I did guess what she was up to), and for the most part it was again another top quality episode. It’s just that the one little bit where it went wrong was pretty damn important.

There’s only a certain amount of times Russell can write the “how can we possibly defeat this alien? It’s so much stronger than us, oh, I know I’ve had an idea, yes, that works, the alien has gone, the end” without it looking shite. And that’s once.

The way in which to defeat the alien needed to be worked out — possibly surreptitiously tested — over a greater period of time. The idea that these ideas just “pop” into the head of the right person at the right moment and miraculously work first time (with twenty minutes to go in the final episode, you know an idea someone comes up with will work) seems to be RTD’s idea of an ending, but to me it’s the same deus ex machina time after time: this particular example nearly being as bad as the magic psychic Doctor force that defeated the Master at the end of Series 3…

Which really is a bloody shame because the rest of the episode, and the rest of the series, were of extremely high quality. I’m still hoping for a series four — and the sooner the better — but I hope by then Russell will let someone else have a go at the ending.

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17 Comments to Torchwood: Children of Earth

  1. John H says:

    July 11th, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    I agree absolutely – the first four parts were great but, sadly “deus ex machina” seems to be the phrase that now sums up RTD’s writing. It wasn’t one of his worst endings, but there was never the feeling that it grew out of the story – more just “I’ve got a good idea”. Although they didn’t all live happily ever after, the sacrifice of Jack’s grandson also seemed rushed and underwritten, completely ignoring the implications from the child’s viewpoint and reducing it all to “she’ll never speak to Jack again”.

  2. Steve says:

    July 11th, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    I’m still congratulating myself for guessing the ending.
    At least that Jack would have to sacrifice his grandson to save the day.
    It seemed to mr that RTD had decided this from the outset but then somewhat fudged the route to get there.
    Pulledall the right strings for me tho.

  3. Andy Mabbett says:

    July 11th, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    But isn’t “how can we possibly defeat this alien? It’s so much stronger than us, oh, I know I’ve had an idea, yes, that works, the alien has gone, the end” true of most popular sci-fi, from War of the Worlds to the various Star Trek franchises, via Alien?

  4. JackP says:

    July 11th, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    @Andy: it’s true of some, certainly (although I’d argue not Alien), but that doesn’t mean we should allow whatever does it to get away with it.

    If we want better quality sci-fi, then the fans need to be critical of the shit stuff: if sci-fi (or fantasy, or whatever) wants to be seen to have as much quality as “serious drama” than we have a duty to pull it up by the bootstraps where necessary…

  5. Seb Crump says:

    July 11th, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    I agree with all of your criticisms. I’d have forgiven some of the slight disappointments of the ending, however, if the last eight minutes were cut. However, those last scenes really messed everything up and totally betrayed the whole shebang (especially the 6 months later tosh). If it had ended with Captain H walking out of the doors into the light – I think I’d have thought, like you, OK slightly unconvincing but overall really good. The rest was just unravelled everything for me.

    Firstly, the female cabinet minister who thinks she’s going to take over – how to select the children holocaust style was her idea in the first place, so that was simply not credible with the evidence of that ready for release. Secondly, Jack “running away”, who’s going to deal with all the rift activity now with the whole team out of action? Is Torchwood critical to the security of the nation or not?

    It was almost as though RTD were commissioned to do a fantastic finale to deliberately kill off the entire franchise. I cannot see how it can come back with any credibility. Shame.

  6. Amanda says:

    July 13th, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    WHy couldn’t Jack use his watch, via some alien technology to allow him to focus the voice instead of through his nephew? or maybe the child inherited his Dad’s imortality? find out later -noone is really dead in scifi.

    but iAnto, bless him, I totally agree with you on that one. It was a copout, a pathetic way for him to go, RTD should be ashamed of that.
    I can safely say they have now upset most of the Target audience, women who like to watch a bit of man on man love grrr

    but ahem great review Mate thanks

  7. The Goldfish says:

    July 15th, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Finally watched it this afternoon – and then read your review, which I had held back on until now. But yeah, you’re right. The thing with Jack’s grandson was almost entirely unmoving, whereas it should have been the emotional climax – if indeed, it should have been done at all. But other bits, the fate of Mr Frobisher and Gwen’s attempts to save Ianto’s kids, were great drama.

  8. Annie says:

    July 21st, 2009 at 11:50 am

    I agree with all of the above. I hated the last two episodes and can’t see myself watching the programme again – despite having been an ardent fan since Episode 1 of the first series. I feel that there were a lot of storyline anomalies – like the woman who came up with the choice of which kids were to go, then trying to take over at the end. The one bit I thought was good – was where Jack has (I think) tried to justify his actions in 1965 by saying that ‘I was different then’ and then proving, when he sacrifices his grandson, that he is no different at all. He is still the same emotionless alien that he always was.

    I hated the last two episodes though and they will stop me watching any putative Series 4. I hate the sort of mind that can come up with this storyline. It was all far too close to home for me and made me very unhappy. Only a childless person could come up with this……RTD, step forward! Overall, not impressed.

  9. Sid Mouth says:

    August 15th, 2009 at 12:57 am

    Had some people at work talking very positively about the first three episodes, but only caught up with it at part 4 a few days back on a repeat. Actually thought that it wasn’t too bad and was intrigued enough to want to see the final episode.

    I must admit that I am not a fan. I really wanted to be, but I find I hate (hate, hate, hate) all the over emotional interplay that pads out and detracts from the the action elements of the stories. Unfortunately, this extends into new Doctor Who as well. Most of the stories I have seen have less plot and meat on them than one of the old 25 minute stories (they were far from perfect either, but I loved them). I got very bored with everyone shagging each other in Torchwood, to the extent that I had no desire to watch such base, populist trash which so irritatingly padded out each episode so it ran twice as long as was required. The last straw was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (I should have guessed from the title!) where I tuned in to see what interesting role had been given to James Masters (of whom I am a bit of a fan), and found that instead he was another sad, trendy, psychotic ex chum of Cardiff’s very own intergalactic star tart. Switched that one off after fifteen minutes and never looked back.

    So I was actually a little bit delighted that episode 4 of children of earth actually entertained me, and nearly convinced me that RTD and Co. had maybe shaken of the juvenile sex pest obsessions, and excruciately emotional East Enders quality melodrama, and started to write some decent stuff for the Captain and his crew to get their teeth into. OK, there was some really weak reasoning for the sake of a crashing (but sadly very cheep) dramatic moment, like the above mentioned Ianto dashing in where angels would have feared to tread. Didn’t the character deserve something more than such a cheep throwaway? Generally though, what I saw of it was a damn site better than my previous impression of the show, and I decided to check out episode 5.

    Well, cut out the crap, and it could have been a really exciting ten minute episode, but in the end, it was an excruciating pile of canker that I found nearly impossible to watch. I found myself forward winding through much of the emotional scenes, though I enjoyed the lads from the estate turning on the army!

    Where was the action, where was the confrontation, where was the heroism? That is what I used to watch Doctor Who for, and if it isn’t a part of Torchwood, then they shouldn’t advertise it as such. If Jack isn’t a hero, in that ridiculous coat, then what is he good for. Shagging and that’s about it really.

    Episode 5 was dreadful, and frankly I probably would have enjoyed it more if they had taken out the padding and soap opera and replaced it with a massed snog between Torchwood and special guest James Masters. And you’re right; why doesn’t Gwen get all nuddy – if RTD wants to introduce balance into the sexual ravings of the show, he should insist she get them out.

    And no, RTD cannot write endings. I’ll put money on it that there was at least one draft of the script that had someone point out that there are still a few people around that saw Quatermass in the 70s.

  10. Brie says:

    November 4th, 2009 at 7:01 am

    The amount of plot-holes was atrocious. How many times are they going to be able to use the “oh that character was conveniently indisposed at that point in time”. The Doctor, the man who refuses to let even one person die without throwing his whole self into saving them and finding there is absolutely no chance to save them, letting 10% of the Earth’s children be snorted by aliens??? I don’t think so. “Turning away in shame”. FICKLE STUPID EXCUSE. These spin-off’s just CANNOT employ global crisis and pull it off without destroying continuity. What about Sarah Jane? She has a super computer, surely Jack could’ve used THAT to focus is voice through? Martha Jones, oh, wait, don’t disturb her… she’s on her honeymoon. Right. Yeah. Okay.
    And since when is the only way to create a serious drama to kill of all of your characters?
    I have little hope for series 4. Gwen has a new child, Jack acted like a total arse in CoE and everyone else is dead. I’m really not interested in the Jack and Gwen show anyway. It just won’t be Torchwood.

  11. Anonymous says:

    April 14th, 2010 at 10:26 am

    It is pretty deus ex machina, as they were focusing more on the emotional than technical elements. I found it unlikely that they would have the technology to transmit through children. It would have been good if they had put about 10 more minutes into resolving the story convincingly.

    The reason the doctor or sarah jane didn’t help is that this is torchwood. It would have been ridiculous if they had turned up.

  12. Fridge says:

    July 27th, 2011 at 8:05 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed this apart from the parts previously mentioned which was just a cheap and dishonorable way of making something happen. Overall very good. Also just after watching the first two of miracle day I am completely hooked

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