During these Doctor Who free days, when fans are crying out for just a little decent science fiction, Russell T.Davies has done something extraordinary. In promoting the spin off series Torchwood to a week of prime time tv he has produced something of impressive quality. Torchwood: Children of Earth was excellent television, perhaps the best science fiction I have ever seen.
Although I enjoyed the previous two series of Torchwood I often found it uncomfortable viewing and the programme didn’t always achieve its brief to combine science fiction with adult themes. Children of Earth finally delivered this promise; a very dark drama that recalled the alien menace so memorable in Quatermass as well as working in some very real human themes. John Barrowman’s negligible acting talents were held together by an excellent supporting cast, in particular Peter Capaldi as a government scapegoat. A man born to play the nervy middleman, it will be a crime if Capaldi isn’t awarded at least one acting honour for this.
Rapidly promoted to BBC1, Torchwood managed to overcome the difficulty of introducing new viewers to its strange world, which to sketch out centres around modern day Cardiff, featuring mild swearing, sexual references and openly gay characters. At times, the fantasy is often relegated to second place, and top marks to Russell T. Davies for his groundbreaking work in introducing homosexuality so seamlessly to mainstream telly (Eastenders take note). Despite its grown up themes, Torchwood cannot escape its link to Doctor Who, an issue perhaps as this is not aimed at a similarly broad audience. Whilst the show owes its origin to the fact that Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) is one of the Doctor’s best loved companions, it finds it has to shrug off the Time Lord’s absence from the action in this darker world:
There’s one thing I always meant to ask Jack, back in the old days. I wanted to know about that Doctor of his. The man who appears out of nowhere and saves the world. Except sometimes he doesn’t. All those times in history when there was no sign of him, I wanted to know, why not? But I don’t need to ask anymore, I know the answer now. Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet, and turn away in shame.
And watching Children of Earth, I can kind of see why. The story has a very dark premise and runs with it to create some very thoughful and challenging drama. An alien entity, known only as the 456, threatens to destroy the Earth unless it surrenders 10% of its children. A chilling theme, made darker when it is revealed that not only have the 456 visited Earth before, but Captain Jack was instrumental in paying them off this first time. The five episodes unfolded the plot very well, revealing Jack’s involvement in events that began in 1965. Also revealed are his hitherto unseen family; a daughter who looks unsettlingly older than the immortal Harkness and a grandson. And there is a sobering reason for their introduction.
Most impressive was the political commentary that made you almost forget the fantastic storyline. Enter Capaldi as John Frobisher, the civil servant desperate to cover up the events of 1965. He’s also forced by the very oily Prime Minister (Nicholas Farrell) into the unenviable role of liaising with the aliens. As you might expect, the negotiations leave a sour taste in the mouth. The round-the-table discussions, however, form a very dark satire where it is eventually decided that the 10% can be made up of the lower classes, the council estates and the failing schools. Frobisher is forced into an ever tightening corner, and the outcome of events reminded me of the terrible demise of Dr David Kelly over the war in Iraq. No, I don’t think I’m going too far when I make this connection. Governments will make their scapegoats, the higher echelons will cover their backs. As in Children of Earth, they’ll often get caught at it.
But Torchwood is also about aliens, and the 456 were aliens of the very best. Extremely frightening, and as with all the most scary of monsters very little was actually seen of them. A glass tank full of toxic gas, a deep voice from within and something very, very disturbing inside. The effect was a combination of the best of The Silence of the Lambs and Alien. The 456 will stay in my mind for a very long time, especially the scene where some poor lackey has to go inside the tank with a camera. If you haven’t watched Children of Earth yet it’s useless me saying don’t look when you get to this part. Because you will.
In its brilliance this week Torchwood also stabbed itself in the back. Already two team members down after the last series, Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) was built into a much more three-dimensional character only to be killed off at the end of episode four. Captain Jack, tortured by the pain of a very heavy and emotional week, decides to quit Earth on Friday night. Left behind is Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), now heavily pregnant with aliens furthest from her mind. Oh, and I’d almost forgotten that The Hub, the Torchwood base camp, is destroyed. So it’s difficult to predict where things can go from here. And, if it does continue in some shape or form, how can it get any better than this?