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.
8 thoughts on “Torchwood: Children of Earth”
For evil kiddiwinks antecedents, I offer the chilling “Midwich Cuckoos” by the unfairly neglected/forgotten John Wyndham, whose 50’s visions could be written tomorrow or next week.
I won’t see Torchwood#3 for months, if at all (it being on the bogan’s station here) but,here is a typically dyspeptic review from the contrarian-by-numbers site Spiked. Cultural cringe aside, it is less a review than a whinging child of thatcher pissed at being denied his trough time under NuLab.
British TV’s sci-fi inferiority complex Swearier, flashier, gayer and set in Cardiff, BBC’s Dr Who spin-off Torchwood shows UK sci-fi can’t take itself seriously.
Why are the British incapable of making decent television science fiction?
For a nation that has produced such esteemed sci-fi authors as HG Wells, Arthur C Clarke and Michael Moorcock, not to mention Jonathan Swift, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell (if you keep in mind that Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) are in essence sci-fi/fantasy works), you would think our national temperament would be suited to transferring weird tales to the small screen.
But whereas the US has given us Flash Gordon, The Twilight Zone, many incarnations of Star Trek, The X-Files, Quantum Leap, Futurama and, more recently, a re-vamped Battlestar Galactica, Britain’s principal contribution to the field can be summed up in two words: Dr Who. Granted, The Quatermass Experiment was popular back in the 1950s, and The Hitchiker’s Guide to The Galaxy was superb – but the latter was sci-fi parody, and inadvertently betrayed our timidity when it came to taking this genre seriously. It was also perhaps even an unconscious admission that our previous attempts to do so had been execrable.
Blake’s Seven was perhaps the nadir of British television sci-fi, closely followed by Space: 1999. I needn’t extrapolate here to British readers about feeble plots, unrealistic special effects and ‘cheap, wobbly sets’ because you’ve probably heard it all a thousand times in one of those I Love Nineteen-Seventy-Something programmes on Channel 4.
Still, Dr Who is held up as paragon of British sci-fi (see talking heads on said I Love Nineteen-Seventy-Something programmes regurgitating the routine cliche about ‘hiding behind the sofa’). Perhaps we like to think it was good because the Americans liked it. We Brits always seem to think that Americans liking something is a seal of approval. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Office, etc. This both exposes our inferiority complex, in that we are desperate to be loved by our bigger, better brother, but also reveals our snootiness and stereotyped view of Americans. This was especially true of Monty Python. ‘Wow!’ was the collective reaction. ‘Monty Python must be good because even the Americans, who are so stupid and so thick and utterly devoid of understanding of irony and surrealism, actually got the joke.’
Apart from the Tom Baker incarnation, Dr Who wasn’t really all that. The Jon Pertwee episodes are especially atrocious, all seemingly featuring him driving round in a Jeep in an open mine, accompanied by the army and being chased by actors in fancy dress pretending to be monsters. And all the Doctors after Baker were forced by the scriptwriters to inject an element of levity into the shows. This is not to say that levity is a bad thing. Where would the Die Hard or Lethal Weapon films be without it? But levity only works if the core, serious script is strong, if the special effects are believable, and if the jokes actually work. Dr Who remains largely bereft of all three. Flying Daleks? Give me a break. Dr Who thus remains correctly categorised as a ‘cult programme’. And as everyone knows, ‘cult programme’ is euphemism for ‘shit programme’.
The Dr Who spin-off, Torchwood, has been on our screens since 2005. It aspires to be an edgier version of that which spawned it, so it has swearing and more explosions, but is essentially just as silly. Even more stupidly, it is set in Cardiff. I’m not anti-Welsh in the slightest, but Cardiff does not conjure up images of aliens and the paranormal. Horrible football fans and pointless, parasitic Welsh Assembly members bullying everyone into becoming bi-lingual? Yes. But time-travelling monsters and aliens? No.
You can set sci-fi or horror stories in London or Edinburgh because they have Gothic appeal and heritage, just as crime stories work in Chicago, New York, Manchester or Glasgow, but can you imagine a similar TV show being located in Peterborough, or Des Moines, or Edmonton? Admittedly, HG Wells got away with having his alien invaders in War of The Worlds (1898) landing in Woking, but you didn’t suspect he was trying to make a point about Surrey, and the extra-terrestrials did eventually make it to London. With Torchwood you just get the impression that the BBC are trying to labour some post-devolutionary point here – namely, that weird and interesting stuff can actually happen outside London.
Torchwood: Children of Earth (1), which concludes tonight, has our undercover team of extra-terrestrial experts investigating the phenomenon of the entire world’s children being possessed by an unknown alien agency. And once again it betrayed that British combined sense of hubris and inferiority. It seems that the aliens specifically have chosen the UK as the country of first contact. Why us? Were these aliens contacted by the Iranian government, and have mistaken Britain for the most powerful country in the world? Apparently not. In Wednesday’s episode it was revealed that Britain was chosen because it was regarded as a useful ‘middleman’ (2). The inference here being that we are America’s lackeys. Or nice people you can do business with. Or both.
Of course, science fiction and fantasy are the ideal vehicles for conveying metaphor and satire. But only when it is done with an element of subtlety. Only the literal-minded would think Animal Farm (1945) was just a story about pigs and horses. You’d have to be stupid not to recognise that War of The Worlds is an allegorical attack on European imperialism in Africa, that Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) was taking umbrage at US militarism, or Lord of The Rings (1954-55) was subconsciously about the Bomb (despite its author’s protestations to the contrary).
But the latest Torchwood was not so subtle about Britain’s perverse superiority/inferiority complex, which is, in other words, a manifestation of narcissism. Admittedly, it was, as usual, well-acted by gay actor John Barrowman (as the immortal Jack Harkness), whose gay character you believe really does care; and by the pouting Eve Myles (as Gwen Cooper), whose character, I dread to say, solicits that word seemingly only applied to women with courage: she is ‘feisty’.
I look forward to it anyway. Science fiction, of no matter what quality, does make you think. In Torchwood‘s case, it makes you ponder as to what it’s really trying to say. Is its portrayal of possessed children a reflection of our paranoia about kids in hoodies, society’s hatred of children and general fear of ‘feral youths’? Or does it reflect our climate of what Frank Furedi calls ‘paranoid parenting’, in which we suspect our infant young ones to be vulnerable to all sorts of dangers, from cars to phone masts to paedophiles? Is the government really embroiled in some giant conspiracy, as Torchwood suggests, and many half-wit 9/11 and 7/7 conspiracy theorists believe? Is the UK the world’s proverbial ‘middle-man’ – a calm negotiator, or lap-dog to the US? In believing that Britain is a magnet for aliens, is Torchwood unwittingly propagating the perception that this island is the ultimate desired destination for all illegal asylum-seeking ‘aliens’? And can gays save the world? We wait and see (3).
Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist.
Oh my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thanks Nonetheless I’m experiencing difficulty with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anybody getting equivalent rss downside? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnkx
No else has commented on the RSS feed. I’ll take a look. Thanks.
Amaze?– that is really in depth, many thanks.