“Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet, and turn away in shame.”
People love to hate on Torchwood – especially the earlier two seasons. But when a third series was announced, and it was confirmed it would be airing on the proper home of prestige drama, BBC One, people were concerned. Some worried what that show with all the sex aliens was doing on the main channel. But others were equally worried about what BBC One would do to their favourite alien sex show. On top of that, the series was cut down to five episodes instead of the usual 13, something seen at the time as a punishment. But despite all that, Torchwood: Children of Earth delivered something dark, intelligent, mature, and a story that will undoubtedly go down in history as an overall science fiction classic.
It begins in familiar territory. After the deaths of Owen and Tosh at the end of the previous series, Ianto, Jack, and Gwen are all that remains of Torchwood. They’re doing the usual mix of solving science-fiction mysteries/shagging/banter that we all know and love. But one day, the children of the world all stop. Wherever they are in the world, whatever they’re doing, they just stop in place. This escalates to them all talking in unison – in English – and eventually speaking the phrase “We are coming tomorrow.” Now this setup is interesting, but it’s also the sort of thing that The Doctor or the Torchwood gang would solve in about an hour. It’s a monster of a week story, or so it seems initially. Because things get a lot worse from there.
There’s a government conspiracy, going back to the 60s, when these creatures first turned up. When they reappear, anyone involved back then is wiped out. This includes Jack and, by extension, all of the members of Torchwood. This leaves our characters running from the authorities for the majority of the episodes. And it seems like a very conscious idea to strip them of their tech and alien gadgets, to throw them into a situation where there is no easy escape. It forces them to think outside the box and ensures that this enemy isn’t one that can be dispatched in a clean 45 minute episode.
On top of that, the aliens in question are terrifying. Upon their arrival, it becomes apparent that these creatures – known as “The 456” due to the frequency on which they communicate – have a particular fondness for earth’s children. They want them. In fact they want precisely ten percent of all of our children, or the earth will be obliterated. Now there is a lot going on in these five episodes, and it’s all fantastic. But it’s this central plot, the request of the 456, that delivers the most interesting moments. The government sits down and very rationally tries to decide what will be done. This leads to them arguing over what kids should be offered up – and it doesn’t take long for “kids” to become “units” whenever they speak.
It does what all great science fiction should do; it holds up a mirror to our own society. When deciding which children are less “essential”, the first place they end up is asylum-seeking children. It’s a heightened, exaggerated comment on the treatment of refugees in our own world, and comes across as frighteningly realistic. It’s the same when the government settles on the lower-achieving children, from schools at the bottom of the league tables. The callous way these officials talk about sacrificing a few to save a lot is almost blackly humorous, in a Black Mirror kind of way, if it wasn’t so realistic. The discussion over the children is not a million miles away from how our government has been dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Swap children for the elderly, and we’re still dealing with the government sacrificing the vulnerable.
The government is given an almost sympathetic face in the midst of the horror, in the form of Peter Capaldi’s John Frobisher. He’s the lackey that gets thrust into the middle of it when the higher-ups want nothing to do with it. He’s a fall guy. Like Jack, he makes some despicable choices but you can’t hate him for it. And Capaldi is just so very, very good. Proving himself yet again as a downright national treasure, you quickly forget he went on to play The Doctor himself a few years later. Here he’s bleary-eyed and frail. A shell of a man that has been forced into an unwinnable position. His last scene in the series is without a doubt the darkest place the Whoniverse has ever gone to.
You kind of expect these five episodes to let up, to get easier as they go on. But that’s not the case. It begins as difficult to watch, and gets worse from there. In episode four, Ianto famously bites the bullet, in a move which devastated fans. And he goes out after a plan fails. It’s not heroic. It’s just sad. But that is the appeal of this series. It’s taking all of these moments, tropes we’ve seen a thousand times before where Captain Jack or The Doctor will magic up a miraculous way to save the day, and it turns them on their heads. There is no quick fix to these horrors. People will die, many of them children. Hard decisions will have to be made. And it’s not satisfying, it’s not nice. Could The Doctor have saved the day without the loss of life? Perhaps – but he/she’s not here.
I think Children of Earth is commonly agreed upon to be peak-Torchwood, and a near-perfect series of science fiction at that. I’d have to agree. As much as I enjoyed the first two series (and I really, really enjoyed them), this is on whole different level. A five-hour epic that never lets up and leaves you with a lingering feeling of darkness. A feeling that in the same circumstances, would our elected officials act any differently?
Go and watch this, even if you’ve always though that Torchwood wasn’t for you.