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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