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July 11, 2009

Function at the Junction.

Torchwood: Children of Earth: Day Five.

 Well, I’m spent.

ChrisI have a standing rule when it comes to films and to an extent television programmes which I suspect most people also have in their heart of hearts.  If a synopsis/preview features the words “harrowing”, “nihilistic”, “unremitting” or “Adam Sandler” I don’t go/watch/spend a few hours of my life watching.  This isn’t because I want to try and convince myself that we all live in a bubblegum world were everything is pink and fluffy and people are nice to each other and everyone listens to ABBA all day because the world isn’t like that.  Plus there are exceptions.  Sandler made The Wedding Singer and Punch Drunk Love.

It’s simply that with everything which is going on in the real world, watching a fiction in which a wrongly accused prisoner whose wife and child have ironically been murdered being man raped whilst on death row with no possibility of parole, forced to eat liver due to government cutbacks isn’t the kind of thing you can relax with.  That film doesn’t exist (yet) but you can bet the art house cinema which block books it for the rest of eternity would still be selling popcorn at the commissary.

But sometimes, just sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to avoid it because without warning something you have a vested interest in goes to the dark place without warning and you’re left to pick up the emotional pieces.  Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s The Body is just such an example or the John Travolta film Phenomenum whose trailer gave the impression that we were going to be watching a Capraesque comedy about man with special powers then delivered a gut punching twist that left me depressed for a week.  Now Torchwood has done the same.

Needless to say, I'm not in a particularly funny mood.

About the most harrowing, nihilistic, depressing unremitting and to add the most obvious adjective brilliant hours of television this year and potentially ever in the Doctor Who universe (though it has to be said I’ve not read most of the Virgin New Adventures and I’ve heard some of those hug the Brown Bunny), Torchwood: Day Five offered some moments of levity (PC Andy getting stuck in, the country acquiring yet another Prime Minister) but in the main, despite stopping short at actually giving the 456 a win and letting them take the children, began on a dark note (he's still dead) and then kept going.  

The skill with which this was accomplished was best expressed in the scene between the anti-Tucker and the Prime Minister.  There have been similar summits throughout the week, a confident Capaldi happily taking orders from a determined Farrell, which however characterful have largely been about imparting exposition and moving the governmental subplot forward.  Yet we know from the moment the middle-man walks through the door, that his boss, because he doesn't look up and regards his employee with contempt is going to suggest something extraordinary and in the following tense moments we find out what it is.

Tuck In the older Torchwood such a moment would have been blasted with music telling us what to think, how to feel.  Instead, the conversation is punctuated by the sound of PM’s pen, probably signing the necessary orders for the upcoming doom, the horror of what is being proposed to Capaldi about his children turned into a function of the process, the scratch of the nib across the papers a reminder that we’re witnessing is simply this newly constructed public relations bureaucracy doing its wicked worst.  Just when you think you’ve seen the best scene on tv this year, the show throws in another one.

That the episode was then comfortable enough in its skin to spend the next five excruciating minutes showing us the suicidal results demonstrates a confidence from Davies that we’re all curious about how far humanity needs to be pushed to do terrible things, the "good day to bury bad news" email made fiction.  And the civil servant’s desperate, some might say cowardly act (I happen to think that all life is precious and there is always hope) was mirrored at the close of the episode in Jack’s (and his daughter’s) sacrifice, the only real difference being that Frobisher’s act was an attempt to save his family from future pain (see what I mean) whereas Jack’s was to save the world.

Oh how we laughed during Day Two.  Little did we know that the series would conclude with the nullification of the one innocuous child’s synaptic pathways as his grandfather looked on hopelessly.  Arguably this solution was just as much of a deus ex machina as we’ve seen in countless other stories in other corners of the franchise brought about by a hitherto unnoticed element, but the imagery, the implications, the performances, lifted it outside of that, as Jack, with Alice and Johnson standing as opposite ends of his conscience. finally became what we’d always suspected he was, the anti-Doctor.  

Often in the mother series (or should we say sister now?) the timelord inspires the morally ambiguous to make the supreme sacrifice as a way of salving their conscience; instead here we saw the morally ambiguous not asking the innocent to do same.  ‘Twas forever thus in Torchwood – Jack has made, it has to be said, many questionable decisions during these thirty-odd episodes but his arc in Children of Earth finally becomes apparent – the road to understanding that Torchwood was just an organisation that did stuff and has only ever been a smoke screen to explain the dark, inhuman, incapable figure he’s always been.

Would he have made the same decision if Gwen had been there?  Another well thought out decision was to send Gwen and Rhys back into their home territory to defend the kids on a one by one basis.  From a budgetary point of view it meant we could see the civil unrest but without having to hash in some G20 footage, but it also offered a witness to show that the world was aware of the revenge being wrought on the 456 by their channel of communication, by characters that we know and care about instead of (as I said the other day) random ex-soap actors in the street.  

Jo It goes without saying (but I will anyway) that the performances were universally superb, with special mention to Liz May Brice who brought colour to the otherwise blankly antagonistic Johnson, unable to compute the schism between the authority she was pledged to defend and what it was capable of.  Ben Foster's music was bassy and epic and layered with allusary themes, now than then recalling Murray Gold's Who music but twisting it slightly perhaps as way of expressing the impression the whole series was making that this is the darker end of the Whoniverse.  And Euros Lynn's superbly judged direction which knew when to draw out the tension of  moment and when to fire off an action sequence, the flight of the children from the estate recalling  The Birds (without Tippi Hedren looking deliberately vacant)

Yet, if the comments at Twitter and elsewhere are anything to go by, some people aren’t happy with this conclusion (compared to what? End of Days? Giant demon stomping all over Cardiff?).  Some hoped Ianto would be resurrected.  Some considered it too easily resolved, that the 456 should have won having taken the kids leading to the world collapsing and this version of Earth presumably plunging into a Children of Men inspired dystopian state.  Some were even disappointed that the Doctor didn’t turn up as rumoured (my own fantasy version of that encounter amounting to Tennant tiggerishly bouncing out of the TARDIS all “I would have got hear soon but I was stuck a big nebula” and Barrowman punching him brutally in the face asking where fuck he’d got to).

The first would have been cheap.  The second would have caused a fair few problems for The Sarah Jane Adventures (which can probably quiet comfortably totter along without referring to this since the actual reason for the global child’s choir has been nicely covered up.  Again.) and for the next production team since they still need to be able to tell stories on this planet going forward.  And as for the third – apart from the series being called Torchwood and it needing to stand on its own feet (Gwen’s glorious speech notwithstanding) Russell has categorically stated the Doctor would never appear in Torchwood since it would draw younger kids towards material not necessarily suitable for them.

Instead, Torchwood: Children of Earth presented us with a conclusion that was true to itself, tied up all of the more interesting loose ends, because as Hitchcock says (I’m paraphrasing) only dull people want everything explained to them, and left us gasping for more.  Debatably, after a series in which the alien presence has both been central to the story yet also a mcguffin, the sudden influx of cosmos jarred slightly.  But for Gwen to meet Jack on what looked suspiciously like Wilf’s hill and for him (as I expected) take her to the new Torchwood HQ would have tonally jarred even more.  

Jack After all of that, the last thing that was required was another reset, another slow crane shot through an HQ.  There wasn’t actually anything in there to indicate that a Jackless Torchwood Cardiff has already begun operation – the wrist band having been found in the ruins next to the corpse of the Pterodactyl.  But unlike this review, as well as everything else I’ve listed over the past week, this series has been about knowing when to stop, when enough is enough.  And Jack listing all of the people he’s hurt was certainly sufficient.  More than.  And suddenly name-checking Suzie was nice present for the fans.

Where next?  RTD says a fourth series is already in the planning stages awaiting the green light and given the ratings I think we can already start to speculate about what the new team will look like and who will be there.  I’d like to see Johnson and Lois in there and strangely Dekker – Alice looks unlikely now, but you never know. There’s nothing even to say that they won’t use the Skins approach and dump everyone including Jack and Gwen.  At this point we don’t even know if it will still be set in Cardiff though it seems unlikely that BBC Cymru would let such an obvious tourist advert slip out of the area.  Which points to why this has been the perfect ending.  We simply don’t know.

I'm going to bed.

Next:  Not a bloody clue.

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