One of the strengths of the BBC’s Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood has always been its ability to get right to the point, without sacrificing character development. By delivering the next installment of the show as a 5-part miniseries, they’ve attempted to go in the other direction. Rather than squeezing a two hour story into a forty-five minute episode, Torchwood: Children of the Earth feels like they squeezed a two hour story into forty-five minutes, and then stretched it out into a five hours.
As a result, Torchwood: Children of the Earth ends up being about a lot more than your usual Torchwood episode. The focus here isn’t really on the Torchwood team as much as it is on a series of new characters brought in to flesh out their extra running time. At times you’ll be left wondering when they’ll get to the point, but for the most part it works, if only because those new supporting characters are so good.
In particular there’s John Frobisher, a civil servant, the equivalent of government middle management. Late in the story we’re told by one of his loyal underlings: “John Frobisher was a good man. Always remember that.” And that’s the real tragedy of his story. He is a good man, a hard working man, a uniquely British man who puts his head down and simply tries to get done what needs to get done. But when the unthinkable happens he’s forced into a series of horrible, hopeless choices.
The unthinkable involves aliens and a terrifying choice involving the world’s children. To say more would be to tread into spoiler territory. Suffice to say everyone on the planet is dead unless we do what these recently landed aliens want. The aliens are particularly terrifying because they’re never fully seen. They land in Britain’s government center riding a beam of vicious fire and they’re contained inside a glass room where the atmosphere has been replaced with the murky poison they prefer to breath. In that deadly fog we see only horrible shapes and flailing claws. When they speak there’s a thrashing about and the splashing of some hideous fluid. It’s a brilliant piece of production design, suspenseful and frightening, all done on a modest budget.
While the government attempts to deal with the nightmare in their midst, in the background works what’s left of the Torchwood team. After two seasons they’re now down to three members; Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), and the immortal (literally) Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman); and someone wants them dead. Since it’s Torchwood, you know that means there’s a very good chance that by the time it’s over one or more of them really could be dead, which keeps the stakes high not only because of some vague threat to the world as a whole, but on a more intimate level for the people you’ve already come to know over two seasons of watching them on the show.
Yet because they’re trying not to end up as corpses, the Torchwood team is mostly left out of what’s happening with the whole alien invasion plot. They’re left working around the fringes while something bigger unfolds. It works, at times it’s even brilliant, but fans may be disappointed that Jack Harkness isn’t always in the thick of things. Still the cast is fantastic, especially Peter Capaldi as Frobisher. It’s compelling science fiction, full of suspense and terrifying truths. If there’s a problem, it’s only that the whole thing is a huge, huge downer. Remember that sickening ending to The Mist? Now imagine that emotional punch in the gut stretched over five hours and you’ll have some inkling of what Children of the Earth has in store for you. It’s a wrenching story, thoughtful and smart, but also dark and depressing.
There’s no light at the end of the tunnel in any episode of Torchwood. There never is. There’s only the choice between bad and even worse. If there’s hope, it’s found only in the people forced to make those choices, people who bear up under the worst life has to offer, put their head down, and keep on going as long as they can. It’s a uniquely British perspective and one that pays dividends in thoughtful, heart-wrenching science fiction like this.