Torchwood Children of Earth: In Perspective
Guest contributor Mark McCullough takes a look back at the 2009 series.
It is difficult to believe that it has almost been five years now since Torchwood: Children of Earth first graced our television screens. Budget cuts had necessitated a change from the traditional ‘story of the week’ format, with creator Russell T Davies instead opting for a single narrative drawn out over five episodes. This allowed for the series to be more character driven with the aliens predominately taking a back seat. This was a risk given that in the finale of the previous series, the main cast was cut to sixty percent of its usual value. With the departing cast members not being replaced, we were left with just Jack, Ianto and Gwen. This had its advantages however as it allowed the story to develop several interesting supporting characters, including development for Rhys.
This shift of emphasis allowed a large part of the narrative to be played out within the political world. This gave rise to intriguing storylines focusing on secrets and the natures of those in charge of our country. This makes for thrilling, edge of the seat viewing. Another interesting change in the dynamic is the destruction of the Torchwood hub during the first episode. This forces the team out of their comfort zone and emphasises the use intellect, instead of relying solely on an excessive array of gadgets. The risk in changing the format of the show paid back enormous dividends producing a television masterpiece.
What really stands out about Children of Earth and leaves a lasting impression in the mind of the audience is its horror. It excels by taking the most common aspect of humanity and turning it into something terrifying. Childhood is something we have all experienced, and I’m sure we all have been exposed to a child at some point. The maternal and paternal bonds are some of the strongest in nature, and not just in humans. For a parent their child means the world to them, if this bond is broken the consequences are disastrous. One needs only to look at a grieving parent to see this first hand. Even for those who are not parents themselves, there is a feeling that it is unnatural for something to happen to a child. It is this human instinct which Children of Earth exploits to achieve its scares.
The concept of having an alien race able to control children and use them to transmit a message to humanity is spine chilling on so many levels. As an idea, it is a complete stroke of genius by Davies and his fellow writers. The political setting allows for another layer of terror and complexity to be added to the situation. The government, a group of people elected by the public to serve in their best interests, should be an institute of trust. This makes their decisions in Children of Earth all the more incomprehensible. Self-preservation is fundamental aspect of human nature; we are inherently a selfish species. The narrative exemplifies this by showing the politicians make decisions based on their interests rather than those of the public.
It shouldn’t be shocking, yet the writing and timing of developments make it so. Where Children of Earth shines is in its realism. The writing is so intelligent that you could actually see it happening, should such a situation arise. The scenes in the meeting where the action plan as to which children are selected is being discussed, ideas are offered which I am sure the vast majority of viewers were thinking at the back of their minds.
With a smaller Torchwood team; the writers had the opportunity to flesh out the remaining characters. They made use of this using family as a centre of focus. For Gwen and Rhys, it was her pregnancy and the prospect of starting a family of their own. This is consistent with Gwen’s characterisation and the development of her relationship with Rhys throughout the previous series. Gwen who started out as the unfaithful partner, developed into a loving devoted wife. It was only logical for the next step to be pregnancy. Gwen’s pregnancy provides a focus for the discussion of a few ethical issues, namely the idea of having a child into the world depicted in the series. Rhys becomes almost the fourth member of the Torchwood team and fits into the role with relative ease.
The development for both Jack and Ianto involves the introduction of new family members. For Ianto it is his sister who is a pleasant and relatable character. She gives an insight into Ianto’s personal life and is there for him when he needs her most. Jack’s family is revealed as him having a daughter and a grandson, whom he has kept hidden. The relationship between them feels strange and unnatural, yet it is obvious that they care for each other in some way. Jack’s family is introduced more as a potential plot point, first becoming a pressure point for Jack before playing a large part in the resolution to the series.
The antagonists of the story are the enigmatic 456, named only after the wavelength upon which they broadcast communications. Their motives are unique within the Whoniverse and take on a darker adult theme. The issue of drugs and substance abuse is one which has a real prominence within the world we live. It is a problem which doesn’t go away, so it is nice to see Torchwood raise awareness albeit in an unconventional way. The idea of an alien race using Earth for drugs is frightening enough, but to include the fact that their drug of choice is human children, it becomes incomprehensively terrifying.
The supporting cast in this series is one of the strongest Torchwood has ever had. Of these, the standout character has to be Peter Capaldi’s John Frobisher. In a world of corrupt politicians, Frobisher stands out as a good man. Devoted to his job, he finds himself on the frontline of the 456 situation as the fall guy. When he is betrayed by the prime minister, his passion to both his family and his job leaves him with only one option. He makes a heroic decision to save his children from the 456. This moment is made all the more poignant by the fact that due to Jack’s actions defeating the 456, it was unnecessary.
The rest of the cast offer a strong performance too: Bridget Spears (Susan Brown) is an intelligent woman, and the only true friend to Frobisher. She stands by him throughout the series and helps him when he needs her most. Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo) acts as an audience surrogate, she is likeable, empathetic, and honest. She does what she can to help Torchwood regardless of the personal implications it may pose. Rupesh Patanjali (Rik Makarem) was a great tease by the writers and a twist which I did not see coming. I can’t help but feel the idea of a spy within Torchwood was too good an idea to end as early as it was terminated. Agent Johnson (Liz May Brice) is excellent in the villain role throughout the series. She is motivated, driven and focused on delivering what her country needs of her. She is cold impersonal and ruthless, but recognises what is in the best interest for the people in the end. The Prime Minister (Nicholas Farrell) gives a cold and intelligent performance, and perfectly sets himself up for his eventual fall. There are other strong supporting characters too: Mr Dekker (Ian Gelder), Clement MacDonald (Paul Copley), and Denise Riley (Deborah Findlay).
The events towards the end of Day Four are perhaps some of the saddest within the Whoniverse. I am of course talking about Ianto’s death. This came as a real surprise, given that the cast had already been reduced, I doubt anyone was expecting another character to be killed off. Ianto was always a likeable character and his relationship with Jack proved to be one of the highlights within Torchwood. So it is understandable that the fans were heartbroken at his death, this lead to a lot of emotional backlash and the formation of the ‘Bring Back Ianto Jones Campaign’. The timing of Ianto’s death was unusual, in that the death of a main character occurred in the middle of a story. This worked well however as it prevented the moment from being overshadowed by the dramatic conclusion to the series.
Day Five opened with a chilling monologue delivered by Gwen. This gives the viewer cause to think about the Doctor’s motives and if humanity really deserves his help. This foreshadows the events of the episode as those in power make shameful decisions which offer a poor reflection of humanity. In the dénouement to the series however, it is Jack who makes the most human decision of them all. A decision based on common sense; the life of one, to save the lives of the majority. It was a commendable choice, but also one which bore an immense personal cost for Jack. In the instant of saving the children of Earth, Jack ensured the relationship with his daughter was destroyed beyond repair. To save the world at such a cost is the hallmark of a true hero, and with Jack he also shows the qualities of a good man. His internal conflict and guilt over his actions show who he truly is.
Children of Earth was Torchwood at its best. Taking the characters and furthering their development, whilst introducing new memorable characters. The story was simple, yet dark gritty and typical of a tone we have come to associate with Torchwood. If we are lucky enough to ever have another series of the show, I would hope for something like this. I feel the format was just right, not too long, but a bigger story which was heavily invested in by its viewers. A true masterpiece!