Children of Earth: the final verdict, part 2: how Torchwood stopped sucking

Last night, in what was initially going to be a review of Children of Earth, I found myself instead writing a long, semi-coherent rant about everything that was wrong with Torchwood in its first two series.

But the point is, it all came right in series 3.

How did that happen?

I wrote positively about the first three episodes a few days ago, and highlighted some of the important reasons why those episodes were so much better than those of the first two series:

  • They are “adult” in a non-trivial sense;
  • The acting is better, largely due to the cast changes;
  • Fewer special effects — more is implied;
  • The five-episode format allows time to breathe.

Having now seen all five episodes, I stand firmly by that assessment, and I want to look a bit more closely at all these aspects.

Maturity

Without question, the most astonishing turnaround between series 2 and 3 was complete difference in tone.  Gone were all the single-entendres, the gratuitous swearing, the Snogging ‘n’ Shagging for the sake of S ‘n’ S, the endless parade of dumb manoeuvres that come and go without consequences.  [Note: I am not saying that the S ‘n’ S wasn’t there; I am saying that this time, it was there for a reason.]

In place of all the usual adolescent flippancy was an uncompromisingly bleak and unrelenting portrait of a truly adult world: difficult situations to be faced (not merely shouted at), and most of all, heartbreakingly difficult choices to be made.  I really admired how unflinchingly we were shown the cabinet’s deliberations after being presented with the 456’s ultimatum: in a situation where there is no right answer, good people crossed a line into evil; even as they made choices that were hard to disagree with objectively, we were left loathing them.  In that context, the cold dead eyes of Home Secretary Denise Riley were among the more terrifying sights in the whole five episodes.  Back when we were talking about Victory of the Daleks, I noted the lengths we will go to, or depths we will sink to, when facing such an implacable foe as the Nazis, that we would even recruit evil aliens; in Children of Earth, the implacable foe is the aliens, and we supply our own evil allies.

So this is what “dark” television looks like, done right.  Those scenes could have been overplayed all too easily — made into melodrama, with the politicians painted as pantomime villians.  The way it was played was much more effective: fundamentally decent people sliding slowly into an ethically horrifying position, wholly unable to arrest the momentum; pragmatism made vile.

If one prong of adulthood is making difficult choices, the other is living with the consequences of those choices.  So one of the parts of CoE that I most admired came at the end of episode 4.  To my disappointment, Jack had gone in, all metaphorical guns blazing, to talk to the aliens, and rather than meaningfully attempt a negotiation, just threatened — and eventually declared war on the 456.  At that stage, it looked like a reversion to the ill-founded posturing of Torchwood Classic.  Instead, Jack’s childish approach was shown up in all its inadequacy.  He had no plan, only bluster.  And so the 456 called him on it, with terrible and irrevocable consequences.  In this Torchwood, when people die they stay dead.  (Er, apart from Jack, of course.)

So to me, this scene stood as an explicit repudiation of the Torchwood of old, a rebuke to Jack with his Threaten First, Think Later approach, and a sort of a promise to have him (and the others) do a bit of actual thinking in future.  (And now of course I am scared to watch Miracle Day in case it totally fails to fulfil that promise.)

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I am using the word “consequences” a lot.  (Three times so far in this article, four times in the previous one.)  It’s a bit of an obsession of mine, because life is mostly made up of consequences.  One of the things I love most about Buffy is the remorseless sense that every choice, every action, has a result that follows inevitably from it.  No-one in that show gets away with anything.  On the whole Doctor Who has been pretty good about that (although The End of Time completely failed to follow through on Ten’s meltdown at the end of Waters of Mars), but Torchwood has been terrible.  Seeing this change was the most promising sign that the series can save itself.

The big question is, where did all this maturity suddenly come from?  Children of Earth was written primarily by Russell T. Davies, who originally created the series, presumably just as he wanted it to be.  It is astonishing that the man behind Torchwood Classic should have also given us CoE, which feels like a completely different series.  How is it possible?

Part way through watching episode 4, it occurred to me: could it be that CoE was not originally intended to be a Torchwood story?  Was it first conceived as a standalone sci-fi mini-series and then shoehorned into the Torchwood format?  The more I thought about this, the more sure I became that it must be true — it explained the complete change of tone, and how the Captain Jack parts of episode 2 felt so tacked on to the main plot.  I was pretty confident that, when I went to the Wikipedia page, I would read exactly that; but it seems I was wrong (or at least that, if I was right, it’s not public knowledge.)

Acting

But I did find something in Wikipedia that horrified me:

Having been set up to do so by the conclusion of their storylines in “Journey’s End”, Doctor Who Alumni Freema Agyeman and Noel Clarke were due to reprise their roles as Martha Jones and Mickey Smith respectively, but were unable to participate due to “scheduling issues”.  […]  In response, Davies created the character of Lois Habiba, played by Cush Jumbo, to be a “kind of a Martha figure”, one with added innocence who is out of her depth.

In fact, Lois is not a Martha figure at all — the only thing the two characters have in common is that they are both black.  Children of Earth really dodged a bullet here: Martha was a reasonable guest-star in series 2 of Torchwood, because her default setting is a perfect match for the tone of that series: randomly switching between facetious incompetence, overwrought melodrama and oh-look-at-me-I’m-so-pretty.  But in something as substantial and tightly wound as Children of Earth, she would have been a disaster, and Cush Jumbo’s wide-eyed performance as Lois Habiba, an innocent out of her depth, is a much better fit.

Elsewhere, the acting in episodes 4 and 5 was much as we expected after the first three: much better than in Torchwood Classic, but still not quite what we might hope for, especially when Jack is required to carry scenes.  It’s good to see that, when the writing and direction are right, he is capable of more than mugging to the camera; yet, even at his best, he’s just not good enough to really sell the big emotional moments — one at the end of episode 4 and two more at the end of episode 5.  In the end, Jack remains a one-shot character who has been prolonged far past the end of his natural life, not by Bad Wolf Pixie Dust but by his good looks.  Chuck him out and get Nick Cutter in, I say!

Special effects

Not much to add here beyond what I said last time.  It was great that we never really got a good look at the 456, though more of them was glimpsed as the series progressed.  Oh, and speaking of 456 reveals: the initially rather opaque reason why they were making their demand was truly chilling — the dawning realisation a moment that will long haunt me.  Y’see, Russell, this is what’s scary — not CGI kaiju.

I would estimate that, across the whole five-episode series, Children of Earth had fewer effects shots than a single typical episode of Torchwood Classic; and it was all the better for it.  Not a single Weird Glowy Thing in evidence at any point, and no-one’s eyes lit up when they were possessed.

Series length

I am now increasingly of the opinion that five episodes or so is the perfect length for a Torchwood story.  Longer and it would drag; shorter and there would not be time to let the pressure build properly.  Again, it seems the series was the beneficiary of happenstance: no-one wanted a five-episode series, but it was imposed due to budget limitations.  Happy day.

My guess is that Steven Moffat may have had the success of Children of Earth in mind when he decided to split the current series of Doctor Who in half.  A series of seven and a series of six might be more manageable than a series of thirteen.  Well — that is an idea that makes sense in theory, but perhaps not: after all, Doctor Who really doesn’t have the luxury of putting people through four consecutive episodes with no closure until the fifth.

Conclusion

For the first time, I have seen the Torchwood that I’d always hoped we’d get when the series was announced: harder edged than Who, tougher, posing harder questions, presenting more unpalatable alternatives, and not allowing such neat endings.  In short, Torchwood has always had the potential to go places Doctor Who can’t go; finally, it’s gone to some of them.

Yes, there are still plenty of things to quibble about: the process of meeting the 456’s demands is made to look very much like it’s the business of the UK alone; and the actual resolution, despite the sacrifice that it entails, is rather too neat.  It comes out of a clear blue sky — you’d think that with five whole episodes to play with they could have taken same time to set up the bit of technobabble that eventually proves so important.

But they are quibbles.  The mere fact that I am mentioning them shows just how very much better Children of Earth was any all the rest of Torchwood put together.

A final word of advice to people wondering whether to watch CoE.  I suffered through all of the first two series — 26 episodes of almost unrelieved crud — to get the full context for CoE.  It turns out that that was not necessary — CoE is very much standalone.  So my advice to anyone who has tried and not liked Torchwood is: skip all of series 1 and 2, and jump straight in with Children of Earth Day One.

11 responses to “Children of Earth: the final verdict, part 2: how Torchwood stopped sucking

  1. Erik Anderson

    At the risk of being thrown to the wolves, I’ve had a similar opinion of Star Trek: TNG – the first two seasons were hard to watch although they did have their moments (Tasha Yar’s death, the sultry Minuet in “11001001”, Data as Sherlock Holmes. It wasn’t until the third season that TNG really started to hit its stride.

  2. Skip series 1 and 2 is precisely what I did, and I’m really glad for it. I wanted to have some background before watching Miracle Day, so I decided to watch CoE first, and I was rewarded with perhaps the most compelling sci-fi television I’ve ever seen. So far, Miracle Day is not disappointing either; though it’s a little less heavy, it seems to be maintaining that “adult” means more than the four S’s.

    @Erik: No wolves, but season 2 of Next Gen is one of my favorites. It’s a little rough – the writing and characters haven’t quite found themselves yet, but so many of the stories are really good. Though most people hated Diane Muldar’s Pulaski, I think she brought a bit of edge and tension to the cast that made it a lot more interesting than the “one big happy space family” approach.

  3. Spaceman Spiff

    [WARNING from Mike: SPOILERS in this comment]

    I loved the reactions when it became apparent that the 456 were just a bunch of drug dealers, harvesting endorphins or whatever from their young victims. Then Jack has to sacrifice his own son to bring them down. Dark is putting it mildly… I really liked the ending – Jack taking off for parts unknown in order to find a dark corner to cry in.

  4. The problem with the first two series of Torchwood is that Davies was barely involved. He wrote the first episode, then more or less left the show to its fate. He thought about coming back in series two to supervise, but there was a quote somewhere in his Writer’s Tale book about how he wasn’t interested in fixing something that someone else broke.

  5. Actually, after series two of Torchwood, the original showrunner and production team basically left to do Law & Order UK. If you ever choose to watch that show (which features Freema Agyeman), it plays out as basically Torchwood without the monsters.

    It’s also a bizarre interpretation of the US show. They copy repeating themes and concepts in the original episodes without thinking through why they were there in the first place. So you know how in Law & Order the cops are always buying hot dogs from street vendors and walking and talking, to hammer home the New York setting? In the UK show, you’ll see detectives suddenly walking in the middle of nowhere, holding plates of curry and discussing the plot.

    This is the level of narrative comprehension at work by this creative team.

  6. Interesting perspective. I admit I was surprised when I checked how many actual episodes of Torchwood Davies had written, to find that before Series 3 it was only that very first one. But having read The Writer’s Tale (see elsewhere on this site) I am sure he never said anything there about others having broken it — in fact, I don’t recall ever reading anything from RTD that indicated less than wholehearted enthusiasm for how it was working. (Of course that doesn’t mean he never said it.)

    I said a while back that, now he no longer has to carry the whole weight of Doctor Who and produce scripts at such a crazy rate, I’d be interested to see what he could do if invited to write a one-off (or two-parter) for the Moffat-helmed Who. Having seen CoE I am now even more interested to see how that might work out.

  7. Like I said before. COE is the best thing Davies has EVER written IMHO. However, Miracle Day is becoming disappointing. Hopefully he can turn it around in the coming episodes.

    I didn’t realize until thinking about this post how much I really hated Owen’s character. I also hated the technical girl character, apparently so much I forgot her name.

    I think what really helped COE is that it was pretty much all about Jack, Gwen, and Ianto. Rhys has also been a brilliant bit character.

    Looking at Miracle Day, perhaps Torchwood is better with fewer main characters….

  8. You’ve said most of what I thought about the series, including the first part of how incredibly absurd the first two series were, though I must say I don’t think CoE is when Torchwood produced something worth writing home about. The episode I’m referring to is series two’s “Adrift”.
    I. Loved. This. Episode.
    Just like CoE, it relied heavily on a more character-driven approach rather than appalling CGI. It highlighted why Gwen was such an important character. She knows she shouldn’t interfere with the mystery of the dissapearence, but her humanity (from her life outside torchwood) tells her otherwise. It was believable. It was human. Rhys was also given some wonderful moments to shine, reminding Gwen of who she is and why she is such an important figure.
    Above all, the episode showed, just like CoE, the consequences of the actions of the Torchwood team.
    Aside from the awkward Ianto/Jack shag scene, it was a near perfect hour of science fiction television.
    Rest of the series sucked though.
    Anyway, just wanted to lay down my thoughts. Hope to see your “A good man…” review soon and maybe some first impressions of Miracle Day (if you do find yourself watching it.)

  9. Interesting perspective on Adrift. I thought it was one of the less abject Series 2 episodes, but still pretty bad overall. It made moves in the direction of something more substantial, but in the end it was still an Idiot Plot: it depended on Jack keeping a secret for no story-internal reason whatsoever. But, yes, in retrospect it was at least a pointer towards the direction that CoE would take the show, and for that it deserves some respect.

  10. “fundamentally decent people sliding slowly into an ethically horrifying position, wholly unable to arrest the momentum; pragmatism made vile.”

    sounds familiar…

  11. Ouch. How hideous. You’re dead right, of course.

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