Children of Earth

by Evan Sawdey

9 August 2009

It'll be hard for the show to ever be darker than Children of Earth, and even harder for it to ever be more compelling.

Your Patience, Your Understanding, and Your Faith

cover art

Torchwood: Children of Earth

US DVD: 28 Jul 2009

Note: this review contains spoilers specifically pertaining to the end of Torchwood: Season Two.

The DVD menu says it all.

On the previous DVD box sets for Torchwood‘s first two seasons, the DVD menu is designed to resemble one of the monitors located in the Torchwood Hub in Cardiff: all spinning 3D logos and a sleek, efficient, sci-fi motif as the desktop. It (in the most simple of terms) conveys the sense that you the viewer are yourself in the Hub, free to go poking around for files in the hard drives of this famed alien-monitoring outfit.

With the Children of Earth DVD set, however, things are different. Instead of featuring “the Hub” screen, we simply see a grainy recording of Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles). She says that all she wants to do is document how the world ended, just for posterity. There’s a genuine world-weary fear in her eyes. This footage is then cross-cut with shots of hundreds of children standing like statues, saying the same phrase over and over in unison: “We. Are. Coming.”

Welcome to the third season of Russell T. Davies’ Torchwood: five full-length episodes that explore some of the murkiest, darkest emotional terrain to be found this side of Battlestar Galactica. Over Children of Earth‘s four-plus hours, the show manages to open up deep discussions on sexual politics, mind control, class warfare, mortality, media manipulation, drug addictions, the depth and power of maternal instinct, political corruption, and—oh yeah—modern-day genocide. Science fiction is rarely as bleak—or as engaging—as this.

When Children of Earth opens, it’s been several months since the events that closed out Season Two (and even fewer since the Torchwood team’s relatively-pointless cameo at the end of Doctor Who: Series Four).  Then, core team members (and unrequited love interests) Owen and Toshiko both died remarkably painful deaths, their true feelings coming out only during their very final moments while over the phone, miles apart from each other.

Down now to the core team of immortal hero Captain Jack Harkness (Barrowman), servant/comic-relief Ianto Jones (David-Lloyd), and Gwen, the trio is doing what they can to function as a unit despite losing 40 percent of their staff. Gwen’s long-suffering husband Rhys (the fantastic Kai Owen) has become the unofficial fourth member of the team, largely due to the fact that Gwen refuses to wipe his memory clean, but also because he’s helped Torchwood out before, putting his own life on the line for the greater good and endearing himself to the team in the process.

Things open with Gwen simply making her way to the Hub, kissing her fingers and then tapping a photo of her recently deceased teammates before getting settled into her ever-demanding day job.  She even says “good morning” to the picture, the whole team coping by treating Owen and Toshiko’s picture in this manner.

Then the reports start coming in: there are traffic accidents happening all over Britain. In fact, they all happened at the exact same time (8:40AM). During that exact moment, in fact, traffic accidents happened all around the world (not as much in America as most of the country was asleep at the time), and all for the same reasons: children had just stopped moving. Dead in their tracks. Motionless. After a few minutes, however, the kids just snapped out of it and went back to playing and doing what they normally do.

A little over two hours later, every single child all over the world stops again. All of them let out a deafening scream, then followed by the repetition of the phrase “We. Are. Coming.” News agencies all over the world pick up on the fact that no matter what country the children are in, they are all speaking in English.

It’s then Rhys who notices that the events have been happening at times when children would be most visible (coming to school at 8:40AM, going to recess at 10:30AM), making the phenomenon decidedly British in origin. Completely helpless and clueless as to what’s going on, Jack decides that it’d be best to find a child to run some tests on. He and Ianto split up and visit places that Torchwood has never gone before: their respective families.

For immortal, bisexual Jack, we are greeted with the revelation that Jack has a daughter; the now middle-aged Alice (Lucy Chou), who has a son of her own named Steven. She’s purposely been keeping her distance from Jack, and notes how on the one day that he decides to “pop in” is the one day that every child on Earth is being controlled by a force more powerful than anyone could ever imagine. Jack has kept his offspring secret from everyone else, just as how Ianto has kept his sexuality secret from his sister Rhiannon (Katy Wix).

Though he hasn’t caught up with his slightly-frumpy sister ever since the death of her father, one of her friends caught him out on what appeared to be a date with a handsome man (Jack). In what is perhaps one of best character reveals the show has ever had, Rhiannon asks Ianto point-blank “are you a bender?”, to which he replies with the truth: he’s gay, but only for one man, and only because of that one man.

Since Jack and Ianto are the only males on the Torchwood staff now, their intimacy is now forced, not something that they can “choose” as before. Ianto gets excited anytime that someone refers to him and Jack as “a couple”, but Jack keeps his emotional distance: he has too much on his mind, particularly in regards to the fact that events that he took part in some 44 years ago may have had some effect on what’s going on with the children of the world today—something that the UK government knows much about, and is part of the reason why it wants every single member of Torchwood exterminated.

Without revealing too much, the power behind this worldwide disturbance is called simply “the 4-5-6”, and has been kept under wraps by the government for some time. When high-ranking civil servant John Frobisher (an excellent Peter Capaldi) is put in charge of the government’s reaction to this crisis (essentially getting passed the buck by the Prime Minister), he’s faced with dealing with some of the hardest decisions anyone could possibly face, ultimately having to try and “spin” what can only be described as genocide to the public en masse.

It is here that we get to the most terrifying scenes in all of Children of Men, scenes that don’t involve numerous explosions, reanimated corpses, or vomit-spewing, poison-breathing aliens. When government and military officials are gathered around a conference table during Day Four of this crisis, the leaders of the country begin discussing, in simple terms, just how much of the world population can be considered “expendable”.

The discussion is heated, and it’s not too long before people with moral qualms about this issue are shouted down. The enormity of this crisis escapes no one: this is a time when tough decisions have to be made, some so extreme that elaborate cover stories must be devised to “sell” it to the voting public. In short, the UK government wants to appear to be the victim should anything go wrong, looking righteous and noble despite making numerous back-room deals that effect millions of lives.

Though Torchwood has always been billed as the darker, more “mature” spinoff of Doctor Who, never has the series been as nihilistic as it is here. During a moment in Day Five, Gwen—upon making her video document of how the world ends—notes how Jack keeps talking about a “Doctor” who comes in to save the day, solving all of our problems. Then she notes how she “gets it” now, why he isn’t coming to save the human race this time out. She says that there are times when this Doctor must look at this planet, look at the human race, and simply turn away, ashamed at how humans behaving amongst themselves, holding such little regard for the preservation of their own kind.

Children of Earth is pessimistic simply because it needs to be: when faced with a conflict of this magnitude, how can we survive without first seeing the very worst in ourselves, our government, and even our own friends and family? As if the crew of Torchwood hadn’t already suffered enough, they again suffer some more this time out, the (slightly rushed) conclusion to this mini-season showing that not everyone can escape the pains of the world completely unscathed.

Our own children are used against us, our favorite characters are forced to answer difficult, ugly questions about their own personal lives, and our government endlessly debates the best way to sacrifice its own population for the greater good. No, this isn’t feel-good television, but it’s still thrilling, adrenaline-packed, and character-driven. It’s shrouded in mystery but ripe with moral ambiguity.

It’s hard to fully discuss and analyze every event in here without spoiling many of the shocking surprises that lie in store for you, the viewer (especially with what happens at the end of Day Four). Yet that’s what’s made Torchwood so compelling from the get-go: even as a ragtag group of alien hunters, the show has always shown us the darker sides of our own species. It’ll be hard for the show to ever be darker than Children of Earth, and it’ll be even harder for it to ever be more compelling.

Torchwood: Children of Earth


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