I’ve said some not-so-nice things about British writer Russel T Davies. The man who brought Dr Who to a 21st century audience, and who then created its “more mature”s spin-off, Torchwood, has a tendency to write over-the-top scenarios that that tend to resolve with head-slapping deus-ex-machina endings.
I’ve also said some unfriendly things about Torchwood, a show that began clumsily and that seemed to misjudge what “adult” should mean in the sci-fi milieu. Torchwood‘s sci-fi has been of the ridiculous glowing-gizmo and technobabble variety, and its adultness of the random sex, 4-letter word and annoying MTV-style flash-cut direction variety. Throw in the atrociously overacting John Barrowman in the lead as Captain Jack Harness, and you can see how I might not tend to take the show seriously.
But something miraculous has happened with this third season of Torchwood. First, the show has been moved to a new BBC network, meaning its sexual content has been toned down. Second, the BBC is treating Torchwood and Dr Who very carefully this year, affording each only a handful of episodes this season. In fact, Torchwood‘s full allotment of episodes is a mere 5 installments, broadcast in subsequent days as a miniseries titled, “Children of Earth”. Lastly, Torchwood is coming off of a very strong season 2 ender in which two of the main characters were tragically killed off.
I am very pleased to report that Torchwood: Children of Earth is very near to a modern British television science fiction masterpiece. Davies’ forte is clearly the long form, as he has addressed and improved every one of his traditional criticisms. For any thinking sci-fi fan, I cannot recommend this miniseries more enthusiastically. It is smart, adventure-filled, scary, saddening, well directed and well acted.
The action begins with children around the world stopping en masse. That’s right, every human child simultaneously stops what he is doing and remains still for minutes. The behaviour repeats itself some hours later. And later still, it is repeated again, but this time with the children speaking in one voice, delivering to the world a very creepy extraterrestrial message.
(I must remember one day to write about British cinema’s weird fascination with zombies. Pretty much every Dr Who episode, most episodes of Torchwood and every notable British sci-fi movie of the past 20 years has featured some form of zombie-ism, whether it be deer-eyed children or drooling undead. I don’t get it.)
Enter the Torchwood crew to investigate. For those not in the know, the Torchwood Institute was established by Queen Victoria to prepare Great Britain against extraterrestrial threats, after Her Majesty was spooked by none other than the Doctor himself. Indeed, “Torchwood” is an anagram for “Doctor Who”. The current Torchwood crew is led by Jack Harkness, the Doctor’s former companion, a 51st century time-traveling rake who is –conveniently– immortal and indestructible.
“Children of Earth” manages to fully explore the emotional implications of Jack’s immortality. It even does a splendid job of treating Jack’s homosexual relationship with co-worker Ianto with remarkable respect and sensitivity. But the real characterization triumph is with Torchwood’s ostensible second-in-command Gwen, who shines in this miniseries as an action hero for a new world. It is she, not Jack, who is the true star of Torchwood.
Where writer Davies really redeems himself, though, is with both the ethical discussions implicit in the miniseries’ premise and with the sheer creepyiness of its setup. Sadly, I cannot say more without revealing some critical plot twists. But I will say that heroes turn villain, villains turn hero, antiheroes seek some form of redemption, death abounds, and in the end a horrible thing is done in the name of goodness.
This is not a show for the weak of spirit or for those seeking a forgettable mindless action distraction. “Children of Earth” will both linger and disturb. Well done, Mr Davies. Well done indeed.