This is the first time I’ve felt compelled to write a review about a Torchwood story. That’s because Torchwood: Children of Earth was utterly astounding. It is easily the best thing to come out of the Torchwood franchise (that I’ve seen), and quite possibly the best thing to come out of the post-2005 Doctor Who revival. This, readers, is how to do sci-fi drama. Perhaps it was the condensing of Series 3 of Torchwood into 5 episodes that allowed them to pull off this feat of a screen production, something that was, at the time, seen as a “punishment” for Torchwood, but I’d much rather have these five amazing episodes than the usual 13 episodes of mediocrity interspersed with the odd triumph (sorry, but, at least for Series 1 and 2, it’s true).
In terms of plot, Children of Earth started slowly — as to be expected when a single story is spread over 5 hours — but not so slowly as not to seriously pique my interest. The moment when the children first stood still, as if in a collective trance, and in freaky unison spoke “We are coming”, was genuinely chilling. Jack’s recovery from being ripped to shreds by the detonation of a bomb inside him was also quite awesome. The real action didn’t start until episode 3, however, when the 456 arrived in London. I have to admit, for the last three episodes (I watched episodes 3-5 in one sitting), I felt quite sick in the stomach. Children of Earth took a truly dark turn upon the arrival of the 456, wading into bleak waters both exhilarating and disturbing. The revelation of what the 456 wanted, and for what purpose, was truly horrifying — as was the gruesome vision of the husk of a child connected to the beast. Thus the uneasy feeling in my bowel region. Perhaps just as nauseating was the willingness of the government to comply with the 456’s repulsive demand, a comment, perhaps, on the kind of people who are able to rise to such positions of power. It was all carried out perfectly, inducing exactly the response — disgust and outrage — in the audience that it was going for. It was truly fluent and effective writing, acting and production all-round.
A number of significant themes are discussed in Children of Earth. As already stated, there is the commentary on power and those who hold it. To watch the discussions in the Cabinet room, to watch these people po-facedly discuss the best way to round up and give away 325,000 children into, effectively, perpetual slavery, is to think one is witnessing a nightmare. The comment is that these people are not like you and I. They’re the kind of people who will give the order to wrest hundreds of thousands of children from their mothers’ and fathers’ arms in order to give them into slavery. They’re the kind of people who rule us. Also commented upon was the possible, and quite probable, reality of alien contact with Earth. In Children of Earth, the 456 came to Earth not to trade with humanity, or enlighten it, or learn from it, or co-operate with it, but to viciously exploit it. Such is a comment on the fact that, if and when alien contact with Earth happens, it might be more like Children of Earth than we’d want to imagine. It’s easy to forget that the system of morality we in the West take for granted is essentially a legacy of Judaeo-Christian culture, and Christianity in particular, and that outside this historical culture things as simple as seeing your fellow man, not just your family, as deserving of the rights and dignity of a fellow human being, are alien — thus the prevalence of slavery throughout human history, including in the “enlightened” civilisations of Greece and Rome. It is quite probable that, if and when contact is made with an alien civilisation, it will want to exploit us, not co-operate with us — the point made disturbingly in Children of Earth.
It was a fair question for Gwen to ask, “Where is the Doctor?” The answer she satisfied herself with, that the Doctor must look away with shame at humanity, given its actions in this crisis, is sufficient, one supposes (I’d be interested in seeing this incident mentioned in Doctor Who). I’m not critiquing the resolution to this epic story, which contributed to some profound character development, and revelation, on Jack’s part. However, I think a more effective ending might have been to involve the Doctor in a very subtle way. Just let me indulge my offensively presumptuous “I think I could do better than the writer” impulse for a moment. I think it might have been more effective, with humanity at its knees, caught between total extermination and giving one tenth of its children into slavery, for their salvation to be delivered by the Doctor: millions of children across the world are about to be taken, but the 456 suddenly disappear with an almighty screech and a blast, the dark clouds clear, and Jack looks into the skies to see a blue box fading away… The dust settling, humanity would be at the same time overjoyed at their sudden salvation, but also horrified upon reflecting on what they almost did. Or whatever; criticise away.
I want to put in a final word of praise for Peter Capaldi as Frobisher. The part of Frobisher was superlatively written, and superbly played by Capaldi. As Frobisher (never mind as the Doctor), Capaldi really shows himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. It was gut-wrenching to see Frobisher’s reaction as he realised what the Prime Minister was asking him to do in the final episode: a really heartbreaking moral dilemma one would never, ever want to be placed in. Frobisher’s resolution was entirely understandable. It really was brilliant writing and moving acting.
In sum, an absolute triumph.