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Posts Tagged ‘Children of Earth’

So, in the light of recent events I decided to revisit Torchwood: Children of Earth, almost entirely because of its Capaldi. I had watched it on its original broadcast in 2009 (I was meant to be working, but was fortuitously recuperating from what had briefly been suspected malaria but in fact turned out to be a combination of nervous exhaustion and burger-derived food poisoning instead) and vaguely recalled being impressed by certain elements, but my memory of it is mostly coloured by…

Well, look: I vividly recall turning to my family, with whom I was watching the closing stages of episode 4, and saying ‘Ructions on the internet over this.’ They asked why. ‘Because they’ve just killed off the most popular character on the show.’ Yup, the plight of poor dead Ianto, the wailing, rending of garments, setting up of shrines, posting of coffee beans, issuing of death threats, and so on, was really the big story when Children of Earth first appeared. For a long time I watched the doings of the dedicated followers of Coffee Boy with a sort of amused detachment, briefly attempted to engage with a few of them about it (needless to say this was not a situation in which reasoned argument had much sway) but on the whole just treated it as one of those things. Having watched Children of Earth again, though, I’m not sure that the Torchwoodites who complained about being betrayed and abused by the makers of the mini-series didn’t have a point, because while Children of Earth is brilliant – absolutely, indubitably, one of the best things on TV in the 21st century, better – it must be said – than most of the Doctor Who made since it was broadcast – it has virtually nothing in common with the original Torchwood TV series. Or, at least, there is a massive and fundamental difference between the two.

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At least the move to BBC1 stopped them posing quite so ridiculously.

The English critic Mark Lawson has said that TV programmes fall, broadly speaking, into two categories: ones which allow you a brief respite of escapism from the unpleasant minutiae and truths of life, and ones which ineluctably remind you of it. The news, for example, is pretty much invariably Reminder, while most game shows, sitcoms, dance competitions, and whatever, are Escapist. With drama it is less clear cut, of course, but one of things which is very clear about series Torchwood is that it is about as flamboyantly Escapist as you can get. There’s a piece to be written on how it is that The Sarah Jane Adventures manages to be an unofficial remake of The Tomorrow People, and succeeds brilliantly, while Torchwood clearly sets out to be a Cardiff-set riff on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and – to begin with at least – bogs it up quite spectacularly from a dramatic point of view. Virtually the only way in which series Torchwood is wholly successful is as pure escapism – most of the time, when the characters attempt to behave like real people the results are a bit excruciating to watch. It’s not hard to argue that series Torchwood’s utter detachment from reality as we know it is the attraction it held for its most devoted fans.

However, while series Torchwood is Escapist, the crucial thing about Children of Earth is that it sets out to be Reminder, and on the whole succeeds. This is no inconsiderable achievement: Reminder SF is, as you’d expect, hellishly difficult to pull off. The original Survivors managed it, on the whole, while one gets a sense that Blake’s 7 started off trying to be Reminder but quickly realised that Escapism really suited it much better. Rather horribly, Outcasts didn’t seem sure which one it was going to be and wound up being neither in any meaningful sense. Children of Earth, like nothing else from the Doctor Who franchise this century, sits easily in the grim and dystopian lineage of British SF that includes John Wyndham and the Quatermass serials. Doctor Who itself has stolen ideas from these sources but never really explored their spirit; this is because Doctor Who  is much, much more Escapist than Reminder.

Children of Earth is lots of things – it’s a piece of SF (though not especially hard SF, I’ll grant you), a political thriller, an unfolding series of personal tragedies. But it’s also a horror story, and an unstintingly grim one. Some of this comes from the 456 and their unpleasant peccadilloes, but let’s not forget that the aliens are vague, background shapes for most of the story – we learn next to nothing about them, after all. The real horror in the story comes from the gradual revelation that in the world of this story, nobody of any importance has the moral high ground, nobody gets away clean, and some people don’t get away at all. Escapist stories deal in terms of heroes, villains, and bystanders – the characters of Children of Earth could be described like that, but it doesn’t operate in those terms. Here we have politicians, middle-men, and pawns (or victims), with some overlap between the last two. Heroes fight on the front lines – and this is the one place nearly everyone in Children of Earth is desperately trying to avoid. When it comes to the crunch, the Prime Minister is happy to be a middle-man and thus avoid personal responsibility.

At first it looks like the only traditional heroes in the story are going to be the Torchwood team themselves, but even this impression is shaken early on, as both Jack and Ianto quite coldly attempt to avail themselves of their families’ children while pretending to be attentive relatives. Later we are informed of what a fundamentally compromised figure Jack himself is – but this is one of the areas where the story perhaps fails to completely hit home, quite simply because Jark Harkness is such an outlandlishly weird character in the first place.

We’re shown lots of different Jack Harknesses across the franchise – the smoothly amoral con-man, the self-assured and righteous adventurer, the wisecracking hedonist, the broken self-recriminator – and while it might be possible for a single performance to tie them all together into a single convincing character, John Barrowman does not seem to be capable of delivering it. His performance, here as elsewhere in the series, is all glitz and no depth, and the mini-series at times seems to be struggling to know what to do with him: he spends most of the second episode either as paste or embedded in concrete (the series’ realistic exploration of what you’d actually do to get rid of someone literally indestructible is a lot of fun), and is largely sidelined for much of the closing installment.

Not that you miss him much, for this is a story stuffed with memorable and realistic characters, most of whom have the opportunity to develop and suggest enough detail to really convince as people. Hazel Spears, Frobisher, the Prime Minister, Dekker, Johnson, even a minor character like Yates – it’s easy to imagine a backstory and a wider existence for any of them, and one has to wonder just how much of this is thanks to fact that this story has time in which to properly develop itself. At five hours or so, this is challenging for the position of the longest continuous narrative in the history of the Doctor Who franchise, and it doesn’t feel overextended either. At a time when the parent show more often than not feels cramped by the demands of 45-minute storytelling, this mini-series is an important reminder that big stories can really work.

In a way it’s a shame that one knows going in to Children of Earth that it’s a five hour series, because – if it was following the rules of standard Escapist fiction – it would obviously finish after the first four. This is how it’s set up: the self-serving politicians have done their best to get rid of our Torchwood heroes, and now they’re making horrific plans to collaborate with a ravening, hostile alien presence. But now Torchwood have turned the tables on them, and it’s time for the final showdown with the evil 456, which will conclude with the aliens in full retreat and Torchwood’s moral stand vindicated. But, as should have become clear long ago to anyone paying attention, this is not that kind of story and it does not follow those rules. Jack plays by the rules of a hero, running to confront the 456 face to face (ish), waving a gun at it and making a big speech about morality. And the result is total defeat, and a building filled with corpses (Jack himself only survives due to his little ontological quirk).

Were it not for Jack’s Escapist origins, Children of Earth would finish nightmarishly, with society collapsing and the Earth in thrall to the 456. But of course he comes back from the dead, and when he takes on the 456 again it is as a politician rather than a hero: not face-to-face, not nobly, and not with honour or distinction. He has to make a horrible choice and live with the consequences of it – the only thing, really, which distinguishes him from the suits in the cabinet room is that he is honest and open about his own moral responsibility for what he has done. But this at least keeps us on his side.

Children of Earth itself raises the issue of why it is that the Doctor doesn’t put in an appearance to save the day at some point in proceedings, and as a follower of the parent show one inevitably wonders this. It’s probably pushing it a bit to suggest that Children of Earth is intended as a demonstration of what happens when aliens threaten the Earth and the Doctor doesn’t show up (nasty, grubby, self-serving humans make a mess of everything), but you can certainly interpret it that way. It’s rather facile to wonder what the Doctor would have done differently in Jack’s place – quickly knocked up a cure for any 456 viruses and come up with a neater version of the same solution, without the collateral damage, probably – for this is a different kind of story.

Ghidorah had let himself go after the Godzilla movies finished.

Ghidorah had let himself go after the Godzilla movies finished.

One can see this simply from the presentation of the 456 – like most Torchwood aliens, it doesn’t have an ‘alien name’ (think of Weevils, Butterfly People, the Cash Cow), but beyond this it is a being from a different tradition than most Doctor Who aliens. Most Doctor Who monsters ultimately derive from HG Wells’ Martians, one way or another: they have more advanced technology and a different physiognomy, but they are by and large comprehensible. The 456 are more HP Lovecraft than HG Wells, with proper indistinguishable-from-magic faculties and a very different sort of presence. One couldn’t imagine the 456 taking part in the Pandorica alliance, for instance, but then one couldn’t imagine any existing race of Doctor Who monsters successfully being swapped in for them here. Quite how the 456 figure in the wider fictional universe is never explored; but then Children of Earth quite rightly doesn’t care about such things.

It would have been very neat if Children of Earth had turned out to be the very final gasp of Torchwood on TV – all the people who like it could declare the show went out at its absolute peak, all the fans could point to proof that killing Ianto killed the show (it’s amusing that ‘people who like it’ and ‘hardcore fans’ should be polar opposites in this case). One is inevitably drawn to contemplate the possibilities of a return to the series format with a new team (the line-up of Jack, Gwen, Lois, Johnson and Dekker surely radiates potential), I’m not sure this was ever on the cards. And probably the best thing one can say about Miracle Day is that it attempts, sometimes successfully, to replicate the scale, scope, and lacerating political cynicism of Children of Earth: but its lacks its pace, conviction, and sheer darkness. At least it doesn’t actively diminish the achievement of Children of Earth, which I think is very considerable. For me this is the only part of this spin-off which lives up to its promise – Doctor Who for adults, Doctor Who without the Doctor. If the result is something so unremittingly grim and dark, then so be it; perhaps that in itself tells us something important about the parent show.

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