Revisiting Torchwood: Children Of Earth

Feature Andrew Blair 20 Dec 2012 - 07:31

Andrew's weekly Torchwood reappraisal comes to the show's crowning moment: Children Of Earth...

This feature contains spoilers.

It's more horrific the second time you watch it, because you know what and why. 

Children of Earth is rare: a prime-time sci-fi drama that capitalised and expanded on its audience. Viewing figures were consistently high in what was considered a graveyard slot. Critical and popular acclaim followed. This does not happen often. 

Russell T. Davies has been accused of colourful, sentimentalised television. Children of Earth is brutal, pessimistic, and a behind-the-scenes triumph. It was cut down to five episodes rather than thirteen due to licence fee and budgetary issues, and had to accomodate cast unavailability (Noel Clarke and Freema Agyeman's presence was set up in Journey's End, but they were unable to reprise their roles). Anyone who's read A Writer's Tale will know that it was a difficult process to write, but the script is incredibly tight, almost without flourishes. 

Director Euros Lyn plays a blinder. The whole production looks and sounds superb. Andy Pryor doesn't put a foot wrong with casting either, and there are a lot of dialogue heavy scenes. In fact, the Cobra meeting scenes in Day Four could be considered set pieces. The nearest the first episode has to action scenes consist of children standing still and intoning portentous messages, until we get to the last ten minutes.

That sudden segue into chaos is a brilliant dynamic. As the plot suddenly gets thicker, Owen Harper doesn't seem like so much of a dick of a Doctor anymore. Davies is better at character than plot, but that doesn't mean he's bad at the latter, especially when aided and abetted by Julie Gardner, John Fay and James Moran. The story ebbs and flows with triumphs and disasters, and the five hour format allows it to dabble in a bit of everything. 

We've got guns, explosions, and violence. We've got morally ambiguous characters and boo-hiss villains. We've got broad comic relief, pitch black one-liners and Gareth David-Lloyd at his most deadpan. There's a strange, ineffable alien power which uses children for the most banally evil reason yet seen in the series, and then there's a bunch of politicians and henchmen being forced into terrible situations. There's a political thriller aspect, espionage, revenge, family drama, romance, horror...it's a long list, and every element is done well. 

The format for Children of Earth - five hour long episodes broadcast over five consecutive evenings - is a key factor in its quality. To put it in perspective, the longest ever Doctor Who story was 1986's The Trial of a Timelord, clocking in at a little under six hours long. Five hour-long episodes gives each writer time to develop the individual episode while working to a larger goal. There's more time to develop characters, and a large scale story can be told at a slower pace. If I had one criticism of the series it's that perhaps the final episode finds itself slightly rushed as a result of this, but it's forgiven by the time the coda and fallout is on screen. 

It has to be a large-scale story to fill the timeslot. Imagine Children of Earth as an arc for a thirteen-episode run. It wouldn't be as good, the elements would be too disparate, too spread-out to achieve the same impact. So, as a result, a more focussed story idea came together with existing ideas (Russell T. Davies was already planning on blowing up the Hub) and developed into something else entirely. 

Having three or more people in the room throwing ideas around honed the basic concept into something action-packed, funny, macabre and lean. There is an optimism in there, buried beneath the darkness, but even the brief rally of the individual against the state in Day Five is quickly quashed. It's more subtle than a closing up 'I've learned something today' speech. Jack tries to give one of those in Day Four and then everyone in the building is killed. Torchwood are out of their depth to a much greater extent than ever before. 

From the starting point of a one-off story, the ideas were developed into something a lot grimmer than we'd seen before. Weevils and cannibals and big freaky insects are all well and good, but the really depressing scenes here come from a group of people being forced into a horrible situation, and their reaction to it. Politicians and civil servants act with self-interest, but when Torchwood marches in and demands control of the situation they make it effortlessly much worse. 

Ianto dies, Captain Jack's grandson dies, and John Frobisher's entire family dies. The last episode is particularly harrowing for its implication that good people trying to do the right thing can lose more than the amoral, self-preservating characters. I found myself thinking 'No Peter Capaldi. Don't do it!' very loudly indeed. 

Technically, using Peter Capaldi should be considered cheating. It makes me wonder, as a purely hypothetical scenario, what on earth it would be like if John Barrowman turned up in The Thick of It. We will probably never know. Barrowman, incidentally, is brilliant throughout Children of Earth, with David-Lloyd bringing out the best in him with their enjoyably straight-faced banter. Eve Myles is as good as ever. Her consistency makes it hard to praise her sufficiently. 

Children of Earth feeds back into the rest of the Doctor Who universe most explicitly when Gwen mentions the Doctor in Day Five. In many ways, Children of Earth is Turn Left turned up to eleven. The Doctor is not here, and this is what happens. This is another reason why Doctor Who can't be like this too often, because the Doctor's presence usually prevents this with a wave of the sonic screwdriver. Torchwood can't save the day like that, so they have to resort to more desperate means.  This manages to raise the stakes for Doctor Who as well, by showing that - if his fun, madcap adventures don't happen - things could be incredibly grim. 

While Children of Earth is undoubtedly the most popular series of Torchwood, it's format is not one that is easy to replicate. Doctor Who could experiment with it, but would always come back to its Saturday evening family-viewing slot. The Daleks' Master Plan is not the norm, but when ten episodes need to be filled quickly the writers come up with the suitably significant threats posed in The War Games. Steve Moffat's recent arcs suggest a five episode serial broadcast weekly could actually work, rather than an ongoing arc over thirteen or more episodes. 

A new show to coming into this format - something like Outcasts perhaps -wouldn't have the backstory and existing audience and could be considered more of a risk (and Outcasts may well have put programmers off expensive post-watershed sci-fi for a while). 

It is likely that series three of Torchwood will remain unique, a gem thrown up by hard luck, hard work and serendipity. When you consider the sheer number of people involved in making a television show, it's amazing you ever get moments where nobody is off their game. It is rare in television that everything goes so well, and moments such as Children of Earth should be cherished for their scarcity.

Read more of Andrew's Revisiting Torchwood features, here.

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Agreed. This is an outstanding piece of proper science fiction. REALLY good story telling. Something worth buying on blu-ray even if you don't own (or like!) the rest of Torchwood. A true stand alone piece.

It's the only Torchwood I did enjoy, but the ending really irritated me, it was all so forced. Jacks sacrifice, Frobishers, they were all... Frobisher had other avenues to explore first, and I know he was built up as a quiet man who sat and take it but it was absurd for the prime minister to tell him about his children in advance, and absurd for Frobisher not to use the requisitioned gun on the PM. It was absurd that ANY father would sarcrifice their own child NO MATTER the consequences, that just smelled of being written by someone without children.

So a lot of awful flaws with the final episode, but a grand piece of fiction apart from that.

I just rewatched this the other day, and although it's an incredibly well-made series, one detail struck me as very off: The minister (can't remember her name) who suggests selecting all "less valuable" children to be sacrificed. I thought this was one of the most horrific suggestions in that whole stomach-churning who-do-we-sacrifice scene, even though of course it doesn't particularly stand out among the other remarks made by the cabinet in that scene. What bugs me though is that it seems as if this is actually treated as the most humane solution - it is the one the cabinet settles on, preferring it over a random selection, and then in the end, the minister in question is even rewarded by the implication that she would be taking over as Prime Minister. If you ask me, you have some serious moral questions that need answering when the aftermath of your plot basically counts among the "nice" people someone who advocates *euthanasia* - because let's face it, even though they only talk about underachievers, wouldn't the logical next step be to also target disabled kids?

i still can't bear to watch it a second time

Thanks for throwing in a Looper spoiler in a Torchwood article. Thanks a bloody bunch.

I think the writer makes the point in the article that the amoral people seem to gain the most at the end and the moral people lose the most.

I interpreted that as referring to the Prime Minister. My point is that the minister who suggests euthanasia is never really shown as amoral, especially when she is juxtaposed with the Prime Minister, whom the audience is clearly supposed to see as the most amoral character.

I do wonder if Children of Earth actually achieved its goals a bit too well. It's a fantastic bit of television, a great story and they didn't shy away from having characters make hard and often horrific choices. It's also something I never want to see again. There's no joy in it, nothing to encourage a repeat viewing (or, for that matter, a purchase) once you've experienced it the first time. I also can't help but feel it forced them down a certain road for miracle day in an attempt to replicate the critical success of CoE that... let's be nice and say didn't really pay off.

The thing about that scene, with New Labour in power, was that it was SO utterly believable. If that woman wasnt modelled after Harrient Harman ill eat my trousers.

Children of Earth was quite sensational, one of the best dramas of the last decade IMHO.

I've only watched the 3rd series once long ago (I didn't think I could emotionally make it through another go). The thing that never sat right with me is I really wanted someone - anyone - to step up and suggest no sacrifices at all. A race of people that doesn't consider the option of letting the whole planet die rather than sacrifice any percentage of its children doesn't seem like a people worth saving. Is my memory correct that this concept was never considered or explored?

I think it's implied that this would be Jack Harkness' choice, but no, none of the cabinet members consider it.

One of my favourite series of television ever. It had everything.

Perhaps it's to do with the immense moral greyness and uncertainty of the whole thing. Or perhaps it is a slip in writing, as you seem to feel. However, I haven't noticed it as my sheer love for the rest of the five episodes probably allowed me to gloss over it. I'll look out for it next time, though. :)

Actually, I'd have preferred it a lot more without the Torchwood bits. They just kind of felt shoved in to me, and I found them much more annoying than interesting. Having seen the first two series of TW, I also think the TW characters in COE were acting out of character quite a bit (since we had 26 episodes building the characters.)

One of the reasons I *didn't* buy the COE DVD was because I found the TW bits to be so annoyingly intrusive.

This is one of the most realistic details, because it is how we actually think, and what we would absolutely do. In fact we already do it. Our society routinely sacrifices the least "valuable" children. It gives them poor housing, poor schools, inferior health care, no future, and then blames it on their lack of intelligence, ability, entrepreneurialism etc. (Chris Woodhead actually advocated not schooling working class children past 14 because if they self evidently came from inferior, because unsuccessful, stock.) In practice, we do this every day just by tolerating and even approving the inequality that relegates most people to second class existances. And anyone who has been in a geriatric ward at a hospital or a warehouse for older people (laughingly called a care home) knows how euthanasia is constructively practised - not that the rich and powerful would ever find themselves in such places. This week the point is especially valid, when we mourn the blood, blue eyed children of middle class white Americans in Newtown, and coolly ignore the deaths of Afghan and Palestinian and Pakistani children, dismissed as "collateral damage" while the oh so superior west bombards villages in remote parts of the world. Obviously, brown skinned kids don't even deserve to a name when they are obliterated by drone strikes.

As I recall, the Germans refused to comply with the demands.

It would have been far more believable with Cameron and Clegg in power.

I remember enjoying the first few episodes but getting more disapointed with the story as the series went on. It seemed clear that the plot was being forcedinto a particular direction rather than being allowed to unfold logically.
I loved the destruction of the hub forcing them into the real world. the very logical way of dealing with Captain Jack the only way to deal with an indestructable man and Yanto's rescue.

But it all falls apart in the final few episodes
Some of the plotlines simply do not make sense and it ruins the feel of the show. the blank piece of paper such a terrible idea what if you took your letter out of the envelope the wrong way.
Oh and the name the 456 i'm more scared becuase 7 8 9!
A great event piece of television but that ending maybe i'll watch it again some day but there are far better things to watch that don't leave you soo depressed.

The part that iritated me at the time was the ending. When it became clear that the only way to resolve the problem was by using Jack's grandson they should have given him the choice. That would have been much more powerful ending a message of self sacrifice but he didn't even seem to be asked. So it became captain Jack's choice even though there were so mny other unexplored alternatives
It al

Unfortunately most murder suicides are commited by Fathers who feel they have the right to decide the fate of their Families, that part with Frobisher seemed very realistic

Steven on the other hand was no surprise since we only found out about Jack's family here but having Alice push Johnson to get Jack involved was the surprise for me , she wanted the solution without paying the price for it

As good as this was for a Torchwood review you seemed to have left out the bits that made it un- Torchwood like. Why aside from Ianto has to die to make Jack sad have Gwen and Ianto swapped jobs, it's always been Gwen's job to go in with Jack and Ianto completely took over Tosh job on the computers which we learned was happening in Season 1 that Tosh was teaching Ianto but not here plus it's not a very Ianto way of thinking to march straight in once again Jack and Gwen are the front door type of people in Torchwood , Ianto was always thinking about the back door demonstrated in Day 2 perfectly when they rescue Jack. Sorry but your review read more like you loved the story and the Torchwood part didn't matter, hard to be the highlight Season of a show when you change who the characters are just to suit the premise

I agree that bit was like Ianto dying, just there to add to Jack's guilt, why not ask Steven if he wanted to save all the kids, why not explore a child who was already dying and give them the choice to be a hero. Jack seemed to be going that way in Day One but then it all became about Jack's past meaning Jack guilt again and we had already finished off Season 2 like that but unfortunately that seems to be the only story Torchwood tells now with Miracle day being exactly the same Jack's past , Jack sacrifice, Jack's guilt and look another team member dead

I so agree... I think that if this story was not shoehorned in Torchwood I could like it (even if the story was too much filled with shock effects) but as a Torchwood fan I still hate this "season". Every thing I loved aboutl this show got destroyed or killed and at the end there was no joy, only emptiness....And all of this to get MD after....I still hate COE with passion...

Those 2 cretins dont have the balls to make that sort of hard nosed decision.

I watched it first time and thought it was okay especially the first 3 episodes-the politics were a bit cliche and over done and I never believed for one moment that the strange little man had time to run and put on protection gear when everyone else who inhaled the virus died so so quickly.
Second time I quicky became bored with all the children chanting,news casts etc Once you know what happens it does not really hold your attention as well. I disliked Gwen's monologue first time around second was equally as boring and obvious. I disliked the way the developed Gwen.It was so unrealistic and i just rolled my eyes through most of her gun and fight scenes .Towards the end it just becomes so messy that your emotional response is diluted but that was true of alot of his writing on WHO especially the specials.The master began to annOy me after a while.Nothing to do with John Simms who is a good actor, the charactor arc was just not that well wtitten.The ever increasing body count meant that by the time CJ kills his grandson I did not really care do not care that much either that or John Barrowman man did not pull the ending off for me anyway. I do think killing Iant was a mistake becuase his death took away form the emotional impact of the end.Ultimately his death had more impact nad was more memorable than the ending of the series.Thsi ws acomplete contrat to Tosh and Owens which ended series two with a sharp focus a huge emotional impact .
The original premis was good even if the ending was weak,to rushed and oversimplified.Peter Capaldi was excellant as was CJ's daughter and in many ways actors they brought in out acted the original cast but I suspect this was down to scripting and not a reflection on the original cast.
And yes I have read his book but it did nothing to make me think that the writing in COE was all that visionary.I did not understood why he did not work with any of the original writers who had made the show a success and why he felt the need to give it a makeover.

I don't think i could watch it again, too painful.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - Children of Earth should have been the end of Torchwood. It was the perfect ending to the series.. and then it would have gone out on a bang rather than the pathetic whimper that was Miracle Day.

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