Torchwood – Who are the monsters? (Er, Children of Earth) review, spoilers

I loathe Torchwood. It is the Slitheen of the Doctor Who universe… oh, wait, the Slitheen are the Slitheen of the Doctor Who universe. In that case, Torchwood are the fart jokes of the Doctor Who universe – crude, boorish and juvenile. (While, at the same time, attempting to be all grown-up. “See, I can tell fart jokes, I’m an adult!”)

A program so awful that, after series 2, episode 1, I just gave up, and apart from a few clips here and there that I’ve seen on TV or online, I banished it from consideration of watching ever again.

…and then along came the reviews of Torchwood: Children of Earth. Reviews so positive and glowing, from blogs I generally trust to be reasonably compatible with my viewpoint, that it seemed impossible to reconcile with the train wreck that was Torchwood, series 1 and 2.

Well, I just had to see for myself.

Torchwood: Children of Earth is more of a mini-series than a normal year’s worth of episodes. It is one single story, aired (and told in five parts) over 5 consecutive days.

Brief Synopsis without a lot of the details

Nasty aliens come to Earth. They’ve been here before in the 1960’s and the British government gave in to blackmail back then and gave them 12 orphaned children to make them go away. Now the aliens are back and have announced themselves by “stopping” every child on Earth and speaking the words, “We are coming back.”

The first order of business: The British government must find a way to cover up what they did back in 1965, that begins with killing everyone that might talk. One of them, the man who actually handed the children over, was Captain Jack Harkness of Torchwood. Torchwood, being what it is, an organization that investigates alien threats, must also be eliminated.

Captain Jack, being immortal, cannot be killed. Or can he?

A bomb is planted in his stomach (they have to kill him twice to get the bomb in him) and then he, and Torchwood’s HQ are blown into tiny parts. Ianto, Gwen and her husband Rhys go on the run from the assassins.

The aliens arrive and demand 10% of all children on the planet Earth. The alternative: the total extinction of the human species.

Jack pulls himself together (literally), so they encase him in cement, but Ianto and Co. rescue him.

The governments of the world reluctantly agree to the aliens’ terms and begin planning how to deliver 10% of the children to the aliens. Meanwhile, Torchwood uses the last of their Torchwood technology to record what’s being discussed regarding the plans. They use this information to blackmail the British into letting them fight the aliens.

Jack takes a valiant stand in front of the aliens, telling them that we’ll not give them our children and that we’ll fight. They aliens respond by killing the entire human race. Or they would have done if Thames House (where the aliens are represented) hadn’t been a bio-hazard lockable building. Instead of killing the whole world, they just kill everyone in the building, including Jack and Ianto.

Jack gets better. Ianto doesn’t.

Beaten and depleted, Torchwood gives up, and the government begins a campaign to round up 10% of the children, who will not be killed or eaten by the aliens, but will be permanently attached to the aliens’ bodies as a form of narcotic, where they will live as possibly still-sentient children indefinitely.

The round ups begin, and Gwen and Rhys try to save Ianto’s niece and nephew and several other neighborhood children from the cull. Meanwhile Jack’s daughter convinces the one-time assassin who was trying to kill Jack that he is the only one who can save the world. They spring him from prison and he hits upon an idea that could kill the aliens, but it will require a sacrifice. He send a signal back at the aliens using the brain of a child and the only child available is his grandson.

He saves the children of Earth by using his grandson and kills him in the process.

The story ends with Jack leaving the Earth, perhaps forever.

Analysis

Here’s a series that is saved – no, lifted up – by some truly awesome performances.

The supporting cast in this story, particularly the members of the British government, are exceptional. I can’t think of a better word for it. They are deep and nuanced in a way that has for decades set British acting above the rest in the world. Not the performances of the one-dimension heroes, but the performances of the “ordinary” people caught in extra-ordinary circumstances. Director Euros Lyn has also provided them a tight, dramatic canvas to work within and it comes off perfectly.

If there’s a weak spot, it’s the story logic, but even that isn’t bad and it’s punctuated with moments of real, human dialog that rings so real as you might think it was surreptitiously recorded from strangers rather than scripted.

Let’s get a couple things out of the way first before we get into the big questions. This series should not be set in the Doctor Who universe. This has become a major problem with the Doctor Who spin-offs. We can forgive the Doctor for not showing up for every Earth destructing event, but where was Martha Jones? Answer: on her honeymoon and Jack is forbidden to call her by Gwen. I must say, Martha’s husband’s “technique” must be mightily overwhelming that he was able to keep her totally oblivious to all the children on the whole planet stopping and chanting over the period of five days! For cryin’ out loud, didn’t those two at least stop to eat meals? Surely long enough to make a quick phone call to the Doctor. (I told you that damn inter-time, inter-universe cell phone was a stupid plot device that would kick them in the ass later, didn’t I?)

What about Sarah Jane Smith. She’s got a kid in that age group, she hangs out with kids in that age group. Didn’t she notice? Where was Mr. Smith identifying the aliens, or at least the location of their ships or just finding ways to block their signal?

No, this story needed to be isolated to convey the full menace of the situation and it wasn’t sufficiently. Further, by bringing up the Doctor once or twice, they reaffirm the interconnectedness of the whole thing.

From this point forward, I’m going to grant them their isolation and pretend the rest of the Doctor Who universe doesn’t exist.

A lot of the commentary I’ve read about this story revolves around the question of, “Who are the monsters?” That’s what I want to concentrate on mostly.

The argument goes that the British government (and presumably the other governments of the world, too) are the monsters in this story, because of their machinations or perhaps Jack is for killing his own grandson. I want to be very clear on this point – The aliens are the monsters.

The aliens come to Earth, threaten to kill everyone and demand blackmail. For the sake of this story, we have to take it as read that the alien threat is credible and that there is no doubt that they would follow-through. Also, we have to recognize that there is no time to craft an adequate defense plan. In the five days since the beginning of the incident, the knowledge of the aliens obtained is virtually nil. We don’t know where they’re from, how many there are, what the total of the defensive and offensive military might be. There’s no one to fight, no time to fight them, nothing to fight them with and no second chance.  Given that premise, what would you do?

It’s all well and good to say, “Yeah, I’d fight back.” Jack started to do that, and it was foolhardy and stupid. What was he going to do? Pose until the aliens we awed by his movie-star good looks?

Sometimes in this world you’re beaten and the phrase, “He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day,” is never more relevant. Sometimes capitulation is the only option.

To give up 10% of the children to be used in what promises to be a horribly agonizing not-quite-death is distasteful (putting it mildly) but is that worse than condemning those same children to certain death, along with the other 90% and along with the rest of the planet?

It’s not a simple economic equation but, to Russell T. Davies’ credit, that’s the point of the whole story. People making very difficult decisions makes for good drama. And when the difficult decisions have no good answer, the drama can be even more intense. This choice between 10% of the kids and the entire species isn’t reality. It’s an absurd exaggeration that allows writers to explore human nature. That is, at its best, what Science Fiction is all about – the ability to play out scenarios that simply cannot happen and deconstruct the human element.

The discussion around the cabinet table about how to choose the children was the high point of the show. It rang so very real and, given the lack of time, I probably would have come to a similar solution. Given more time, other solutions (whole or partial) might come to mind – children dying in hospital, families with many children who really are on the dole, starving children in third-world countries. Again, nothing tasteful, but recognizing the reality of the situation and trying to minimize the overall damage as much as possible.

All that is to the writers’ credit (and what’s up with a single story being written in parts by different people?) for using the medium of Science Fiction to its potential.

But… Why did the aliens go about things the way they did? Did that really make sense? They can make the kids all stop and talk and point. It seems reasonable that they could make them walk. We know that have some level of granularity over their control because they can make different nations’ children speak different numbers. Why did they need to go through the ambassadorial rigamarole? Why not just walk the kids to collection points and hoover them up before anybody could even figure out what they were doing?

And, assuming they had some reason to go to the government, why establish quotas for each one? Why not go to India or China and force them to turn over 50% of their kids?

I think the answer is that this is just a contrived convenience to try to tell the story about the British government (oh, ahh, that’s obvious.)   

Obvious though that may be, it does make the alien threat seem more implausible. Rather than just do the job themselves, the aliens are forcing all the governments to do the dirty work, despite the fact that the approach would be inefficient and unlikely to achieve their goals in the shortest length of time, What if one single government refused or failed? Would they kill the whole human race? Would another government cough up additional children to make up the difference to avoid annihilation? Would that be more wrong than turning over the 10%? Does that then raise the issue of “not my kids” as was raised at the cabinet?

No, I’ll argue that the solution that the cabinet came up with does not make them monsters. What was monstrous was the attempts to cover it up. Oh, I don’t mean the false inoculation program, obviously the had to lie in order to get the children, but the unwillingness to stand behind their decisions, difficult though they were, made the Prime Minister, in particular, abhorrent.

So let’s turn, finally, to Captain Jack Harkness – immortal man.

One of my complaints about Torchwood is that Jack is… wrong. I don’t mean wrong in the same way a Time Lord just feels he’s wrong, but wrong in the sense that he isn’t portrayed accurately. This is not an indictment of John Barrowman.

Consider: As the series has progressed, we know more and more about how old Jack really is. I gather he was buried under Cardiff for a thousand years or so, but I’m not sure if he was conscious, but at the very least Jack has 150+ years of consciousness, and he’s used to seeing everyone die around him. It’s hard to imagine that Jack would behave recognizably like a human at all. The fact that he does act, for the most part, normal, leaves a deceptively false sense of familiarity.

Jack’s solution to the alien 456 is to destructively use his grandson as a weapon. Is that morally different from being willing to sacrifice 10%? Jack wasn’t willing to give up the 10% to save the others, but he was willing to kill one. The moral dilemma is the same, but his choice is the opposite. What changed his mind? Recognition of the futility of his earlier position? Revenge for the death of Ianto? Or a different perspective on death? Does he see a moral difference because in both cases he chose to fight? If he could have poisoned the 10% of the children so that they would have killed the 456, would he have gone along with that?

Heroically, I have no doubt that Jack would have laid down his life (such as it is) to save the children. I’m sure Gwen or Ianto, or perhaps even Froebisher would have laid down their lives too.

But that wasn’t the choice available to any of them.

Does the immortal Jack Harkness even comprehend death as we do? A mortal man could easily imagine that, in the normal course of life, his children or grandchildren will outlive him. Not so with Jack. He knows that it is just a matter of time before the boy dies anyway. Does that perspective change the morality of his decision?

In this, ultimately, the writers of Torchwood: Children of Earth have left us with more questions than answers and they have given us the chance to look, briefly, into the depths of the human mind.

For that reason, I recommend this series as an exceptional throwback to the days Nigel Kneale and John Wyndham.

But whatever you do… Don’t watch Torchwood series one or two!

6 thoughts on “Torchwood – Who are the monsters? (Er, Children of Earth) review, spoilers”

  1. I’m relieved you didn’t totally hate it after I recommended it.

    Great review. I’ll disagree, though the Doctor Who universe. It doesn’t add anything, but it doesn’t lose anything, either, I think.

    It’s unlike anything else we’ve seen there, but then Doctor Who is always doing new and different things. It regenerates in different forms; its to that it owes its longevity. The reason I don’t think it matters is because the Doctor encounters trouble wherever he goes; but trouble doesn’t always encounter the Doctor. Magnitude of trouble > time available even to a Time Lord, in short.

    As for Martha Jones, she’s important to us, but not to the Torchwood team. Sure they give her a call, in case she’s available, but most of the time they’ve got far more pressing priorities. It didn’t matter to me, either, once Jack had hung up. If I’d thought about it I could have imagined that she’d leapt on a plane to London or been hunting through Cardiff for Jack or in the middle of the desert with no radio or telephone; but this wasn’t her story.

    Same goes for Sarah Jane Smith; probably hiding Luke somewhere anyway. It wasn’t her story either. I’m sure her response would have been brave, ingenious, and different; but it’s perfectly plausible that it didn’t involve Torchwood and it was they whom this story was about.

    For those not familiar with Who, SJA or even Torchwood I don’t think the minor throwaway references mattered in the least.

    Jack as immortal has been problematic I think, but in this his extra-humanity was at the core of the story (after they’d had a little fun with it). As you suggest, his morality must influenced by his extreme age. Age affects us all, so multiply that by however much longer he’s lived. I’d have found it hard to believe anyone else would have made the decision he did. I think that as we ask ourselves the questions you pose it helps us to separate those very personal emotions from the ethical dimensions; Jack alienates us a little bit, and it makes the drama work.

    And the monsters? I though the 456 were incredibly scary. I loved the fact that they were not mechanoids or carbon-based humanoid bipeds; the way they had their fish tank constructed was genius and for me their dependence on a gas poisonous to humans seemed a sufficient reason to me as to why they didn’t go and collect the children themselves.

    The real monsters? I don’t know. Denise “What are league tables for” Riley scares the hell out of me. I don’t think I agree that you can justify the actions of the politicians, however fine the actors portraying them.

    Ultimately, as you say, it’s the way the questions left to us that made this such compelling drama. How can I justify what Jack did and not make the same allowance for the cabinet? Of course there were subtle differences, but do they really count? It’s a challenge, because I like to think they do, but the writers force me to examine every assumption and cosy belief I hold important; the easy answers are not available to us which is exactly what made it so upsetting and so brilliant.

  2. I’m relieved you didn’t totally hate it after I recommended it.

    Great review. I’ll disagree, though the Doctor Who universe. It doesn’t add anything, but it doesn’t lose anything, either, I think.

    It’s unlike anything else we’ve seen there, but then Doctor Who is always doing new and different things. It regenerates in different forms; its to that it owes its longevity. The reason I don’t think it matters is because the Doctor encounters trouble wherever he goes; but trouble doesn’t always encounter the Doctor. Magnitude of trouble > time available even to a Time Lord, in short.

    As for Martha Jones, she’s important to us, but not to the Torchwood team. Sure they give her a call, in case she’s available, but most of the time they’ve got far more pressing priorities. It didn’t matter to me, either, once Jack had hung up. If I’d thought about it I could have imagined that she’d leapt on a plane to London or been hunting through Cardiff for Jack or in the middle of the desert with no radio or telephone; but this wasn’t her story.

    Same goes for Sarah Jane Smith; probably hiding Luke somewhere anyway. It wasn’t her story either. I’m sure her response would have been brave, ingenious, and different; but it’s perfectly plausible that it didn’t involve Torchwood and it was they whom this story was about.

    For those not familiar with Who, SJA or even Torchwood I don’t think the minor throwaway references mattered in the least.

    Jack as immortal has been problematic I think, but in this his extra-humanity was at the core of the story (after they’d had a little fun with it). As you suggest, his morality must influenced by his extreme age. Age affects us all, so multiply that by however much longer he’s lived. I’d have found it hard to believe anyone else would have made the decision he did. I think that as we ask ourselves the questions you pose it helps us to separate those very personal emotions from the ethical dimensions; Jack alienates us a little bit, and it makes the drama work.

    And the monsters? I though the 456 were incredibly scary. I loved the fact that they were not mechanoids or carbon-based humanoid bipeds; the way they had their fish tank constructed was genius and for me their dependence on a gas poisonous to humans seemed a sufficient reason to me as to why they didn’t go and collect the children themselves.

    The real monsters? I don’t know. Denise “What are league tables for” Riley scares the hell out of me. I don’t think I agree that you can justify the actions of the politicians, however fine the actors portraying them.

    Ultimately, as you say, it’s the way the questions left to us that made this such compelling drama. How can I justify what Jack did and not make the same allowance for the cabinet? Of course there were subtle differences, but do they really count? It’s a challenge, because I like to think they do, but the writers force me to examine every assumption and cosy belief I hold important; the easy answers are not available to us which is exactly what made it so upsetting and so brilliant.

  3. I didn’t mean to imply that Martha or Sarah Jane should have been in this story, but with an epic of planetary proportions, that fact that they’re somewhere on the Earth and they have avenues open to them mean that Torchwood wasn’t the last, sole glimmer of hope on the planet – but in this story, Torchwood had to be that last hope.

    It’s rather like that episode of Star Trek where they use the transporter to disperse an alien into space. In subsequent episodes, they never use that again even when it’s a brilliant solution to their problem. (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the Genesis device for a perfect example.)

    It’s a question of having extra lifelines that are ignored.

    I even wonder… if this story would have been better if it weren’t saddled with Torchwood? Did Jack’s immortality play that big a part in the story? Did the Torchwood backstory bring much to this except the super-duper contact lenses? I almost think Torchwood actually detracted from a fine standalone story.

    I also really, really wonder if Jack hadn’t saved the day, had all the other countries managed to round up their kids? What kinds of cover stories did they use? Did any invade their neighbors to take their children? There are about 195 countries in the world. DId they all get a quota, or just the ones at the top of the UN “league table”? :-)

    Still, all these questions, and it barely detracts from the experience overall. It was excellent work, all around.

    I haven’t had that much fun reviewing something in a long time, not even my two-months in-the-making review of the new Star Trek film, which I’m going to have to go back and see again before I finish it.

  4. I didn’t mean to imply that Martha or Sarah Jane should have been in this story, but with an epic of planetary proportions, that fact that they’re somewhere on the Earth and they have avenues open to them mean that Torchwood wasn’t the last, sole glimmer of hope on the planet – but in this story, Torchwood had to be that last hope.

    It’s rather like that episode of Star Trek where they use the transporter to disperse an alien into space. In subsequent episodes, they never use that again even when it’s a brilliant solution to their problem. (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the Genesis device for a perfect example.)

    It’s a question of having extra lifelines that are ignored.

    I even wonder… if this story would have been better if it weren’t saddled with Torchwood? Did Jack’s immortality play that big a part in the story? Did the Torchwood backstory bring much to this except the super-duper contact lenses? I almost think Torchwood actually detracted from a fine standalone story.

    I also really, really wonder if Jack hadn’t saved the day, had all the other countries managed to round up their kids? What kinds of cover stories did they use? Did any invade their neighbors to take their children? There are about 195 countries in the world. DId they all get a quota, or just the ones at the top of the UN “league table”? :-)

    Still, all these questions, and it barely detracts from the experience overall. It was excellent work, all around.

    I haven’t had that much fun reviewing something in a long time, not even my two-months in-the-making review of the new Star Trek film, which I’m going to have to go back and see again before I finish it.

  5. Torchwood – Brilliant
    New Star Trek film – Rubbish – don’t fool yourself – save Star Trek from the Abrams brood…

  6. Torchwood – Brilliant
    New Star Trek film – Rubbish – don’t fool yourself – save Star Trek from the Abrams brood…

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