Children of Earth

Torchwood posterThere are times when Russell T Davies’ work — and for all that John Fay and James Moran have writing credits on the middle episodes of Torchwood: Children of Earth, the finished product does feel very much like Russell T Davies’ work — seems to be the work of a man obsessively iterating a set of concerns that deserve the attention, and times when it just feels repetitive. Which side of the line any given story falls on, of course, depends on the execution, and partly it’s about the reappearance of themes, rather than devices. By the time you get to Doctor Who‘s season four finale, an army of metallic aliens invading Earth from some kind of Elsewhere starts to feel somewhat familiar, for instance. “Planet of the Dead”, earlier this year, appeared for all the world to be an attempt to see how many previous plot points could be repeated in the course of a single story. But I think Children of Earth works, much more than not, despite the fact that Who did an aliens-want-children plot barely six months ago, despite the fact that the questions it asks have been asked before, because it found a new angle from which to approach those questions.

Most obviously Children of Earth is “Midnight” — that story about the worst self-destructive tendencies of humanity, and for my money, the best episode of Who‘s fourth season — retold as an epic. In both stories, the assistance of an outside agent who could assist humanity is rejected (the parallel between Jack and the Doctor is unavoidable by the end of Children of Earth, I think); and we are shown what happens when humanity stands alone. They are the flipside of The Second Coming, which asserted the ability and necessity of humanity to stand on its own two feet, without (in that case) God. To frame Children of Earth as drawing its core concerns from this strand of Davies’ work is perhaps merely to observe what much commentary on the series has observed, that it is not Torchwood as we know it (depending on your perspective, for better or worse; on the latter, see also comments here, and if you want to depress yourself, Moran’s description of feedback he has received here). And there is also the fact that the crass camp of the first two seasons, which seemed at the time to be part of the point of the show, is very noticeable by its absence. Yet Children of Earth also more fully expresses ideas that have been central to Torchwood from the start, and only relatively lightly touched on in Who, most notably the consequences of Captain Jack’s ambiguous Angel-like past, and the costs of putting regular humans on the front line in a fight against alien threats.

What Children of Earth is most memorable for, perhaps, is changing the focus of that last question slightly, to ask who decides where the front lines are. That means, on one level, Jack Harkness, and to what extent he is responsible for the vulnerable humans he recruits to fight alongside him; and it means, on a rather bigger level, those at the top of governmental and military organizations. Much is made, throughout the series, of questions of expediency and expendability. We are told that the Civil Service, as personified by Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher (a really excellent turn from Peter Capaldi), are the middlemen of British government, and they are here used by the Prime Minister in an attempt to keep his hands clean: but, under no illusions what this means, he tells Frobisher directly that “all I’ve done is put you on the front line”. The cost for Frobisher is, ultimately, as high as that implies; it is nearly as high for his temp assistant, Lois Habiba, and for Torchwood, on the front lines in a different sense, it appears to mean the end of the line entirely.

Torchwood itself, I would suggest, is acknowledged here to be the tin-pot personal outfit it has been since after the battle of Canary Wharf. “What do you think Torchwood is now?” Frobisher asks, in “Day Five”. “Do you think you’re still players?” Whatever institutional power it had in the past, it strikes me that the incarnation of Torchwood that we have seen through these three seasons is held together pretty much by Jack Harkness’ bare hands, out of a belief in its necessity. Children of Earth is where his grip slips, where his cavalier choices bite him. The undercutting of his heroic “I’m back” in episode three, having replaced his totemic coat – followed by the undercutting of the Doctor-ish trope of “let’s go stand up to them”, rushing in to confront the aliens — is one of the most savage, and satisfying, progressions in the series. And back at the top of the ladder, the scenes in “Day Four” in which the COBRA team talk themselves not just into capitulating to the 456’s horrific demands, but into seeing a political opportunity in that capitulation, are some of the most chilling, not because they are “realistic” — they are not — but because the characters in the scene embody a kind of twisted, prejudicial realism that is all too common.

None of this, of course, would be worth talking about if Children of Earth showed the same lack of basic narrative and technical competency that so blighted earlier Torchwood. Fortunately, it’s a step up in those regards, as well; there are flaws, but none so terrible as to derail the whole enterprise. From “The End of the World” through “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Silence in the Library”, Euros Lyn has often been one of new Who’s more successful directors, and his work here is solid, giving many scenes — in particular those in the 456’s room — the space and framing they need to be effective. And I’ve already singled out Peter Capaldi for praise, but most of the rest of the guest cast are also very good: in particular, Cush Jumbo’s Lois Habiba pulls off “I’m a temp, it’s what I do” where Catherine Tate failed, Katy Wix is agreeably down-to-Earth as Ianto’s sister, and Nicholas Farrell is believably trapped and calculating as the PM. (This is not to say the regular cast are bad — Eve Myles is probably the best I’ve seen her — but they are, perhaps, outshone.) Nor was the pacing of the story bad. It could perhaps have been cut down to four episodes rather than five, given that episode two consisted mostly of characters running around in an attempt to get back to where they started, and that the “previously on” for that episode was arguably more effectively creepy than the whole of episode one, but the key scenes were given the time they needed to breath. I’m thinking here, of the extended first contact and negotiation scenes in “Day Three”; the COBRA scenes, again, in “Day Four”; the one-on-ones in “Day Five”; and a good number of the scenes involving Ianto’s family. All of these are leagues more involving than anything Torchwood has managed, or even attempted, in its previous incarnations. Of course, Murray Gold and Ben Foster’s score is still intrusive and garish, but you can’t have everything; and at least they did away with the music for the scene in “Day Five” in which the PM tells Frobisher his children will be inoculated.

The flaws in the series, as so often in Russell T Davies’ work, seem to me (if not to others) to be primarily to do with a failure to stick the dismount. I should say, before I get into my reservations, that I still rate Children of Earth as good, and not even just good-for-Torchwood; I think it’s the most interesting, and most nearly successful, work that Davies has had a credited writer’s role in since The Second Coming. The ending, for example, is much better set up than in any of Davies’ Who finales — and hence its manipulativeness is much less distracting. The revelation that the 456 are drug addicts (presumably, given the observation that there are at least three life-forms in their box, they make a habit of sampling different species to get different highs) is not only astonishingly creepy in itself, but renders them satisfyingly banal, and neatly justifies their ham-fisted tactics, and their leaving what looks like an obvious backdoor into their brains lying around to be exploited. (The aliens are all-around better handled than they usually are on Who or Torchwood, I think; still monstrous, but mysteriously so, tantalizingly so.) So many of my objections are niggles. I didn’t like the use of the contact lens cameras in “Day Five”, for instance, because it was the result of a scene we didn’t see all of, a flourish that was only possible because Davies didn’t play fair with the viewers. There was perhaps too much focus on Ianto’s death, eliding the deaths of everyone else who was in Thames House at the time. I wasn’t convinced by Gwen’s final decision to keep her pregnancy; her cold “Is that right?” in response to Rhy’s insistence that “You’re not getting rid of it” had more credibility. And there are some elements that simply felt too clean, too neat: the rounding up of children in “Day Five” proceeded with too little effective resistance (and was perhaps too uniform); and at the end of “Day Four” I couldn’t help feeling that a virus which kills you that fast shouldn’t leave you looking that pretty.

My two more substantive criticisms, I think, have to do with the contract that appears to be made by the narrative. One is the treatment of children: this is a story in which children are, without exception, tokens, or “units” as COBRA euphemistically describes them. They are utterly at the mercy of, first, the 456, and second, the British government. This powerlessness is surely the point; the horror of the pathology that leads to exerting such control over children is surely the point. And yet it undermines the final emotional climax: how much more would Steven’s death have hurt, I found myself wondering, if we had a sense of him as a person, rather than just “Jack’s grandson”; if we had a sense of who was being lost, rather than what. (This is to say that I can’t quite read that absence of identity as increasing the horror of that specific scene, though it does increase the horror elsewhere in the series, so perhaps it is just a necessary trade-off.) My other problem is with the final resolution: it seems that, apparently, Torchwood never went public with their recordings of the COBRA meetings — either those recorded by Lois, or those recorded by Bridget — which strikes me as brushing consequences under the rug, rather. You can, indeed, construct reasons internal to the story why this choice might be made — it’s the best option for continued stability, for instance — but they are not articulated on-screen; which leaves it feeling like a decision made for reasons external to the story. That is: I understand why you might choose to write this ending for a spin-off series, because you don’t want Doctor Who to have to deal with a Britain, and indeed rest of the world, in which trust in the political system has entirely broken down, and very possibly resulted in violent unrest, but it doesn’t feel entirely natural to Children of Earth as told to that point.

As Saxon Bullock suggests, this is the first time that Torchwood has felt as though it matters; but I’m coming close, here, to arguing that Children of Earth would have worked better as a standalone story told in an independent universe; that it would have been better to divorce it from Torchwood entirely, rather than reshape Torchwood so that it could tell this story. Indeed at first I did think that. On reflection, there’s one significant reason why I’m glad they didn’t, which has to do with What Happens Next. (Because if ratings are any indication, there will be a next series, no matter how final it feels now.) Weighing together The Second Coming and the various messianic moments in new Who, there seems to me to be some ambivalence in Russell T Davies’ work about the relationship between baseline humanity (or children of Earth) and outside agents (be they God, or the Doctor, or simply immortal). And if Children of Earth is perhaps his most cynical exploration of that relationship to date, it seems to me that it sets up an opportunity: a story that is perhaps lower-key, but crucially only about contemporary humans confronting the alien. And while that is often, for Davies, a bleak prospect — witness Rupesh’s line in “Day One” about the doubling of the suicide rate since first contact, as humans struggle to come to terms with their small-ness and the universe’s big-ness — I don’t believe it is always, or necessarily bleak. The Second Coming is, after all, about humanity growing up. Future Torchwood could, from a different angle, be about that process, too; and in doing so within the Who universe, could continue to matter.

15 thoughts on “Children of Earth

  1. My view is that a lot of the problems with Children of Earth do come from the fact that it’s set in a wider continuity. Long-term Who watchers will wonder about the passive and supine role UNIT plays in the story (Pertwee-era UNIT would have taken over from the British and Americans midway through Day Four), which may create problems should Moffat want to use them in the main series.

    The name Torchwood may well be back, but it will be an entirely different series; Children of Earth pretty much tears down the show as it’s been known up to this point.

  2. I agree with Niall – which neither of us ever feel entirely comfortable about. The miniseries had its flaws, and the ending was predictably frenetic where much of the rest of the series (OK, not so much episode two – but of that in a tick) was earned. It was, much to my surprise, Quite Good.

    To go a bit deeper, it seems to me that the story is about a world – or at the least a mise en scene – in which decision-making has become debased. That is, Jack, ‘started to enjoy’ Torchwood, seeing it all as a lark in the way only a man who can’t day might; the government (even, it seems, UNIT) has lost sight of human value (isn’t that what the Doctor essentially always does – remind them of it?), and believes it can continue to get away with doing so, as it did in 1965; and almost everyone – not just Gwen – half expects some magic to come out of the sky and save them all (like it does every Christmas). No one – including the audience – can believe the consequences will actually happen, that the price will truly have to be paid; it’s what we’ve been taught to expect (and what the cringier bits of Episodes Two and Three in particular let us believe for just a little longer).

    To this extent, CoE couldn’t happen anywhere but in the Whoniverse – or at least, it couldn’t happen and still say the same things. It needs a weight of expectation, a universe in which we’re always saved at the last minute, and everybody lives. I know what Tony says about long-term Who watchers having trouble with this happening in their sandpit – but I rather think that’s part of the point. (And why I wouldn’t be surprised if Niall’s prediction about where Torchwood may go next proves to be accurate.)

  3. Dan makes some interesting points, especially about how the story has more impact in the Whoniverse. That does inevitably raise plot questions (e.g. why doesn’t anyone at least try to contact the Doctor?), but I can see the argument.

    (And those plot questions arising from the wider Whoniverse arguably distract from some of the plot holes intrinsic to the story. Why, for instance, does the PM condemn Frobisher’s children to the 456? I can see the point of making a public display in support of the inoculation programme – though even then an elected Cabinet member would have more impact – but they could then be spirited away. By sending Frobisher’s girls to the aliens, the PM breaks the promise he made to the people in the COBRA meeting, making all their children and grandchildren vulnerable. If Frobisher talks, then the PM’s dead in the water. So why do it, or if he’s going to do it, why explain clearly to Frobisher what will happen? This seems purely intended to set up Capaldi’s final scene, which is very affecting, but there’s no dramatic need for it.)

    As I’ve said elsewhere, Children of Earth is good television, better than Torchwood has ever been, and up there with the best of RTD’s Who. But … Telling your audience that the Whoniverse isn’t as safe and cosy as they thought is potentially dangerous if that safeness and cosiness is why the audience come to the Whoniverse in the first place. It remains to be seen if RTD has got away with this – ratings were good, but a lot of people were very angry after the last ten minutes of Day Five, and they may not come back.

    I have this nagging feeling that Children of Earth is a Doctor Who spin-off for people who don’t really like Doctor Who spin-offs, in much the same way that JJ Abrams’ recent film is arguably a Star Trek film for people who don’t like Star Trek films. And I find myself thinking, all very well, but what’s the point?

  4. “(presumably, given the observation that there are at least three life-forms in their box, they make a habit of sampling different species to get different highs)”

    I’m not going to say that they don’t make a habit of sampling different species, but the evidence presented doesn’t support that conclusion. Namely, unless I’m very much mistaken, the three life-forms can be accounted for like this.

    1) The alien.
    2) The child it is getting high on.
    3) The bloke sent in to film the alien close-up.

    (Further comments may follow after I’ve mulled over the rest of the post some more.)

  5. Hmm, I thought the three-heartbeats thing came before the guy got in there, as part of the “what on Earth is he going to find” buildup. I may well be misremembering, though.

    Dan: as you say, I feel uncomfortable too.


    I have this nagging feeling that Children of Earth is a Doctor Who spin-off for people who don’t really like Doctor Who spin-offs, in much the same way that JJ Abrams’ recent film is arguably a Star Trek film for people who don’t like Star Trek films.

    Ouch. Guilty as charged, possibly.

  6. On Tony’s point of contacting the Doctor – how? UNIT have been (most recently in ‘Planet of the Dead’) shown to consider the Doctor some sort of legendary figure they expect never actually to meet; the government have no direct line to him; and Torchwood’s been blown up. I suppose you might say they could have tried to use Sarah Jane’s computer wotsit.

    On the PM’s final betrayal of Frobisher – Frobisher is not a member of COBRA. The fact that, when the PM says ‘the children of everyone in this room are exempt’ he was unthinkingly not including the guests (Frobisher, Habiba, Spears) works for me on both a character and a thematic level.

    I cannot believe I am sticking up for Torchwood. That bit with the digger was shitcakes, wasn’t it?

  7. I cannot believe I am sticking up for Torchwood. That bit with the digger was shitcakes, wasn’t it?

    Indeed. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? God knows Children of Earth isn’t perfect; but it’s got such a clear force of purpose behind it, and so many of the individual bits are good, that it earns a lot of good will. Even my attack on its “narrative contract” is, to an extent, carping, because it follows through on its premises to a greater extent than most TV I can think of.

    I am interested in debates about whether this is really Torchwood or not to the extent that I’m intrigued by the question of whether this is what the production team were aiming for when they came up with the idea of the spinoff — and it just took them this long to get it right — or whether they decided that what they originally aimed for wasn’t working, and changed their focus.

  8. I cannot believe I am sticking up for Torchwood.

    The number of times I’ve had to say that these past few days you wouldn’t believe. It may have its faults, but, for once, they’re overshadowed by the fact that they are minor, and that so much else is so good.

  9. Dan, Martha called the Doctor up to come and help UNIT in Season 4, so a conduit to try to get hold of him exists. Of course, for story purposes they can’t have him turn up, but the story never tries to address this.

    I still don’t understand the betrayal of Frobisher – why do it? What could the PM gain from this? The kids weren’t meant to go into the 10% otherwise, and at this point the PM surely has more to gain from keeping Frobisher on board, and throwing him to the lions when he’ll need a scapegoat later. It jars for me – it looks like a point where the desire to have the neat death scene, and to show politicians as evil betrayers, pulls the story out of shape.

    But I agree that Childfren of Earth is an impressive piece of work. But what interests me is the way in which it goes into very risky areas, which could potentially (and indeed have) alienate a lot of the core audience. How far away for the core values can you take a spin-off of an originally upbeat and optimistic show? And what point are you simply keeping the franchise alive for the sake of it? Deep Space Nine pushed the envelope Trek franchise, but without, for me, bursting it. The Mission: Impossible films, on the other hand, have so little to do with the TV series that it’s hardly worth calling them Mission: Impossible. And I’m really not sure where Children of Earth fits between those examples.

  10. Tony: the story never tries to address this.

    I may be mis-remembering, but I’m sure at one point early on, there was mention that Martha was on holiday. I think that comment was supposed to pre-empt any criticism along the lines you go. It rather a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment, though.

    And, in any case, I’ve never been a great fan of having a plot device that lets the Doctor be called up for help every time there’s a menace of some kind, so I thought it was good to see the Earth go it alone this time, so to speak.

    As for how far you can take a spin-off show away from the core values of the original show, given that Torchwood was touted as grown-up spin-off from Doctor Who, I think the level it reached in Children of Earth is the level it should have aimed for in the first place. And while I’m not 100% sure about the viewing figures (I haven’t looked up ones for past series’ yet), the word-of-mouth impression I get from people who’d never seen Torchwood before is that they really enjoyed it. Which, by the way, makes me feel sad that if they go back and watch earlier episodes of Torchwood they’ll find themselves *horribly* disappointed.

  11. Nick, Martha is indeed established right at the beginning to be on her honeymoon, which is why she can’t be reached by Jack at that point, and I agree, the viewer is probably meant to take that as the reason for Martha’s complete absence. But it’s not a good reason. Global crises tend to result in the cancellation of holiday and the return to duty of people in the military, so the on-screen reason is a bit thin.

    I’m not arguing the the Doctor should have turned up – I wouldn’t have wanted CoE to turn into a big team-up like the end of Who Series 4. But long-term Who fans will ask questions such as why are UNIT being so passive, and meekly accepting orders from the British and US governments, to neither of whom they are responsible? Why does no-one at least ask if there’s any way of contacting the Doctor, or say they’re keeping a watch out in case he does appear, as he tends to in these situations? And what will the governments do if he does appear, since he’s not going to go along with handing over the children? Why don’t Torchwood try to contact UNIT when they find out that the government has betrayed them? What’s Sarah Jane Smith doing, since her helpers presumably are also affected by what’s happening to all the other children? These are questions that aren’t really addressed, or if they are, not adequately.

    Of course, the programme wants to avoid getting too tied into Whoniversal continuity, because that might put off a wider audience. As your anecdotal evidence seems to indicate, it worked much better for people who weren’t particularly fans of the continuity. Now, I don’t want to see a programme that’s entirely made for obsessive fans – that’s what ruined a lot of late ’80s Who. On the other hand, there’s a balance to be struck between kowtowing needlessly to the fans and slapping them in the face, and I am undecided if CoE gets that balance right.

    None of the above carping, I’ll repeat, means that CoE was bad television. But it is possible for something to be good in many ways, but still be problematic in terms of its wider continuity (to revert to an earlier example, Brian de Palma’s Mission: Impossible is a good action thriller, but it’s a bollocks Mission: Impossible movie). And it’s that problematic nature which I think lies behind a lot of the negative reaction.

  12. Tony, my memory is that Martha got in touch with the Doctor via their personal line. Not quite an official UNIT channel, then. But at this point we rapidly reach the moment when you’re right – in the sense that I care less about Who continuity than you and are therefore part of the problem. :P I think, though, that ‘upbeat and optimistic’ is a good description of the Doctor and his influence on the show – and yet, like Jack, the Doctor cannot die where humans can. There’s a tension there, especially when those immortal heroes are rendered either absent or helpless, which I’m glad CoE explored, regardless of the absence of Sarah Jane Smith. :P

    On the Frobisher front, we might assume his name was already in the papers as the civil servant ‘responsible’; allowing his own children to for innoculation would be a publicity coup. A short-sighted political decision, yes, but then Green is shown time and again to be just that sort of politician – tactics, not strategy. (Remind you of anyone?)

  13. I agree entirely that there is gain in having Frobisher be seen to send his children for inoculation. But I don’t see why it’s then necessary to actually send them to the pick-up points, rather than send them off to a safe house afterwards. Same publicity coup, without pissing off an important official whom Green still needs.

  14. Frobisher’s children need to actually go, because when it turns out that all the children sent for inoculation have actually been abducted by aliens ONOES WE DINT EXPECT THAT HONEST, if his kids then pop up out of the safe house, the press will spot them and the government will be caught in an obvious lie. Whereas, instead the government can point at Frobisher and say “If we knew what was going to happen, do you really think the man in charge of negotations would have sent his own children?”.

    As for the Martha/Doctor thing, Jack didn’t contact Martha at the start due to honeymoon, and then didn’t have much of an opportunity to contact her after that due to being on the run and everything. UNIT didn’t have a channel other than Martha, but we don’t see enough of UNIT’s actions to know what else they may or may not have done off-screen.

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