...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, July 11, 2009



Crumbs! THAT was a bit of a DOWNER wasn’t it!

To avoid snuffles, I’ll just concentrate on the POSITIVE for a moment: stripping the drama across the week has returned Auntie Beeb ratings of around six MILLION viewers and actually picking up over the week – along with a high appreciation index too.

So, that’s the BBC’s top serious drama of the year so far and the leads were a gay couple and a pregnant woman. Welcome to Russell-world!

Plus… The War Games! Skip to the end, and Our Hero is stripped of his companions and goes into exile!

Sorry, I said I wasn’t doing that any more. Here’s Daddy’s final review; as always, spoiler-phobics (for Quatermass as well as Torchwood!) should wait ‘till AFTER they’ve seen the episode:
Did I mention Quatermass at all?

Our Hero uses what he’s learned about the aliens to drive them away by “stinging” them, but his grandchild dies. To really stretch the point, the series ends with Our Hero disappearing in a blaze of light.

The climax of Children of Earth isn’t quite as much of a downer as the atom-bomb-in-the-face ending of the Quatermass Conclusion, but it comes close. That’s fitting. There was no way that they could pull some happy everybody lives deus-ex-machina out of their bottoms without betraying the earlier episodes.

Now, that’s not to say that Torchwood hasn’t been know to do exactly that, so in many ways the triumph of Children of Earth is that it lived up to what Torchwood ought to have been from, er, Day One.

I’ve said before that recognising that actions have consequences has been the mark of the new series of “Doctor Who” under Russell Davies, and the marked lack of consequences has, time and again, been where Torchwood under Chris Chibnall fell short of the supposedly kiddie-oriented show.

Captain Jack does the one thing that the Prime Minister and the COBRA committee wouldn’t: he surrenders his own child.

This is blatantly contrasted with Mr Frobisher’s approach: he shoots his family and himself. Loyal Bridget Spears (a performance of quiet dignity from Susan Brown) insists to Lois that Frobisher was a good man. But he wasn’t. He doesn’t tell the truth to the media, he doesn’t try to save anybody else; he doesn’t even give his family a choice. His suicide, as is so often the case, is totally selfish.

What Jack does is still wrong, but he chooses the lesser of two evils, and he – unlike Prime Minister Brian Green – accepts that it was an evil, and that there is a price he has to pay.

(Incidentally, with Mr Green’s downfall, that’s the second time – after “Aliens of London” – that Russell has “killed” Tony Blair, and the second time he’s replaced him with a woman PM of dubious moral character.)

Equally, it feels right that the 456 are defeated by a radio frequency.

It’s the fate of all good Avengers villains to be defeated by their own weapons, and here it is the very Children of Earth that provide the “sting” for Captain Jack’s plan. It was perhaps a little convenient that the 456 provided the weapon by killing Clement. It’s churlish to demand even more development, but perhaps an explanation that his adult mind still being linked to them was an irritant, and that they squashed him like a bug – which is what appears to have happened – might have made it more clear that they didn’t even think that swatting him could have any comeback on them.

I’ve already suggested that Children of Earth deliberately begins with a “Day One” that overwrites the “Day One” of 2006. And if anything, the conclusion is even more of a rebuke to the earlier episode: a genuine “no, this is how you do it”. The motivation of the 456 is the same as the motivation of the gas-creature that arrives in “Day One”: to use humans as a drug. But Children of Earth shows that that isn’t something silly or titillating, it’s serious and horrible and grotesque.

And Torchwood even handles it better than Quatermass IV, where the aliens (perhaps) covet the young humans as “scent” or “savour”.

The 456’s response, on “Day Four” to Captain Jack was “but you’re letting children die every day; why would you mind this?” And that is exactly the sort of point that science fiction should be making.

“Day Five” challenges us to think about the consequences of the drugs trade, how it destroys the worlds of innocent, ordinary people just by the fact of it being done. Earth is some out-of-the-way backwater to the 456, the way that Columbia or Afghanistan were out of sight out of mind to us.

“Day Five” isn’t quite as strong as the two preceding episodes; taken as a whole, the outstanding moments of Children of Earth are clearly Frobisher’s twisty-turny negotiations with the 456 on “Day Three” and the abject moral failure at the COBRA committee on “Day Four”. “Day Five” slightly pushes itself too far by opening with Gwen’s version of Rose Tyler’s “this is how I died” speech from Bad Wolf Bay; this isn’t how the World ends; outside of a council estate in Wales, Civilisation doesn’t visibly totter, and that slightly makes Gwen look a little overwrought.

And, as Alex remarks, all that “he turns away in shame” is the most blatant “The Doctor is god” since, oooh, 1989.

Don’t get me wrong, the way that the civilians took on the soldiers to protect their children – and thank goodness PC Andy finally picked which side he was on! – was an outstanding moment of hope: that was the real face of humanity, willing to fight for what was right. But it was also a bit like the Auton Invasion of One Shopping Centre in “Rose”; it made the scale of events small instead of global.

And one really cheap shot – the digital duplication of the children at the army base collection point was a bit obvious.

Children of Earth has been Torchwood’s finest (five) hours. This is what it always could have been, and always should have been. It’s not a British X-Files, there’s none of that shilly-shallying about whether the aliens are real, and Captain Jack never denies that he wants to snog his Scully.

This is Quatermass V. There is no higher praise.

Next Time…?Is this the end of Torchwood? It’s certainly very much put together that way, and perhaps appropriately as Russell is marking the ending of his association with the parent series too. And yet, the bigwigs at the BBC wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t look at ratings success. Torchwood Children of Earth pulled in comparable ratings to hit weeknight series such as “Spooks” and “Hustle” and quite a bit better than the channel’s first attempt at “stripping” a series across a week “Criminal Justice”, and it did it in the traditional ratings Death Zone of July.

So, where would you go from here? The Hub’s destroyed, the team split up, Jack is gone… and yet, Agent Johnson and her team are left at the end in charge of a secret base with access, thanks to Jack, to the old Torchwood software. And super-temp Lois Habiba got to read all of those secret Government background files. And way, way back in “Everything Changes”, our Russell seeded another mystery that’s never been examined.

A new alien menace. Agent Johnston or Lois or both arrive on Gwen’s door and recruit her to find the lost institute. Series Four: “Torchwood IV”.

You know you want to.



Onlinefocus Team said...

First of all, thanks for all your posts this week - I've enjoyed them.

There were some marvellous performances, especially from the 'guest stars'. But it was the bleakest piece of SF I've seen since "Threads" - about half-way through episode 5 I thought that just maybe the aliens were actually going to get away with this.

Some thoughts of my own :

- I was troubled by seeing the British troops rounding out children - I guess we were meant to be distressed by that, but I really don't think 'our' army would have done that. You would have thought that some element in the forces would have argued.... or some of the squaddies would have refused to harm Britain's own children. Can't see the Brigadier or Colonel Mace acting like that, anyway.....

- Harriet Jones' policy on firing on aliens was finally justified last night. Earth clearly couldn't rely on the Doctor. I suspect the Doctor wasn't turning away in shame of Earth, he was feeling ashamed himself for getting rid of the wrong prime minister.

- how did that guy get such a good sense of smell?

- Didn't someone say at one point that there were three different species inside that tank. Two different aliens in there? Was this an official alien government mission or a multi-species criminal gang?

- and why didn't someone try saying to the aliens. "You think human children give you a high, we've hundreds of other mammal species you could try instead. Would you like 10% of the world's baby rats?"

But overall it was tremendous piece of adult science fiction. Maybe next time we could have some SF that's quite separate from the Who/ Torchwood story.

Nick Campbell said...

Thanks for such a comprehensive review, Richard. I was absolutely amazed by Torchwood last week, and I wouldn't have thought I'd ever say that.

Chris (hello, by the way), I think the 'three life forms' referred to the 456 Alien, the schoolchild, and the Government agent sent in to film them. But I agree there was a sour note struck by the depiction of British soldiers as mindless automatons. It could at least have been better established what they thought they were doing, and why. Admittedly, none was shown physically harming any of the children.

And the fifth episode did have a slightly over-obvious structure built in to guarantee the happy/unhappy ending. I mean, Jack isn't the Doctor, he's not a technical genius. Releasing him shouldn't be an immediate solution the way that releasing yer usual captive Time Lord. We have to make the assumption in episode four that the government have the choice between a hopeless defeat and a dodgy deal. If Frobisher suspects even a little bit (as Lois and the audience do) that Jack could make the defeat less inevitable, now that his role in the original exchange has come out, why continue to keep him captive?

Oh, witter witter witter. Must get back to work.