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July 21, 2009

Sweet Child o' Earth

Torchwood: Children of Earth: Day Five

Shortly before Day One aired, two weeks ago now, I was wondering what my final review of Torchwood: Children of Earth would be like. I had decided that my first four reviews were going to be quickly-produced and sort of insubstantial, with a more thoughtful and interesting review to follow the fifth and final episode, that would function not only as a review of Day Five but as a general wrap-up.

I was thinking I'd probably spend the bulk of the review talking about whether the five-episode, one-week format had worked.

Poorkid Now, as I finally slink back to sheepishly post a review while the rest of the world has stopped talking about Torchwood and started ogling Karen GIllan in costume (and that guy with the bow tie, also), I don't think that anymore.

In light of what I saw during those five days, any commentary on something so inconsequential as the story's format seems so utterly inane that I don't think I can possibly offer an opinion on the matter.

On that Monday, I assumed that even if Torchwood had improved to the point of enjoyability, it would still be more or less inconsequential, both to me and to the Whoniverse. By Friday, that preconception had shattered. The program reached through the screen and grabbed onto something deep within my being and shook it. Hard. And kept on shaking it. And even when I was certain it would stop, it did not. The credits rolled and even then it would not relent. It still continues, even now. If you haven't seen Children of Earth, that will seem melodramatic. But if you're reading this, then you probably have, and you understand that this is no hyperbole. This shit affects you. That's probably why this review is over a week late (sure, I'll go with that).

It's a far cry from "have you ever came so hard you forgot where you were?" The first two seasons were an "adult" take on the Whoniverse only in the sense that Conker's Bad Fur Day was a "Mature" take on platform games featuring anthropomorphic animals. If maturity and adulthood are defined by gratuitous sex, violence, and swearing, as well as an overall lack of subtlety, then Torchwood series one and two were mature and adult. Which is, of course, ludicrous. Children of Earth is characterized by actual maturity and adulthood, the sort that excludes children not through crassness of content and coarseness of language but instead through brutal, emotional, psychological intensity and harshness of the kind that children are ill-equipped to deal with.

It's not that I think children would be excessively haunted by Children of Earth, though some may be. More the opposite: the vast majority of children probably wouldn't really have any response to it at all. It's simply too complex.

At the end of Day Four, I was shocked by the death of Ianto, who had long been the best thing about Torchwood as far as I was concerned, and in my maelstrom of mixed feelings I was simultaneously hoping and dreading that he would somehow return, even briefly, in Day Five. This suspicion came from my assumption that the show would follow a sort of Doctor Who storytelling logic, as it has always done in the past. It's the family-friendly fantasy of Who which allows us to suspend our disbelief in the irreversible nature of death and hope for a last minute reversal of fortune, or at the very least a voice from beyond the grave to give an encouraging word. Inheriting this from Doctor Who was one of the myriad mistakes made during the first season of Torchwood, and finally shedding it here was one of the things that allowed Torchwood to come into its own. Isn't it the point of Torchwood that the institute screws you up, prevents you from having a life, and finally kills you, unless you're Jack? It was Jack's hope in the beginning that somehow, Gwen would avoid that fate. The fact that she ultimately does is the real emotional victory for Jack, but it comes at a cost, as he becomes the most screwed up of all, and has to leave Gwen for it to work. Bad as you feel for the dead and damaged in Jack's wake, you have to feel bad for the man himself.

Jackgwen Sometimes Jack reminds me of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like Spike, Jack is a popular character that the writers have simply never known what to do with. Shortly after seeing Children of Earth, I happened to be watching The Empty Child, which featured a version of Jack that would be near-unrecognizable to someone who only knew him from Torchwood. While that Jack is just charming and fun, the Jack of Children of Earth is dark and complex, far more so than ever before. It's an interesting choice for the writers, and it really makes this series work, but I can't help but wonder about the implications in the long-term. I don't think this is the last we'll see of Jack. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if he turned up later this year in Doctor Who. But even though he's more interesting and complex than he ever was before, I don't know I want to see him again. Could he really be involved in Doctor Who without his character seriously damaging the tone of the show, or vice versa? And even if Torchwood, if it should happen to return in who-knows-what form, I'd prefer it to be without Jack. It's  going to be a while before I'm comfortable with him as a hero again.

But regardless whether we ever see Torchwood or Jack again, Children of Earth has had a massive impact on the Whoniverse. Even if Doctor Who refrains from ever mentioning the 456 crisis (which would be difficult to justify, but doesn't seem particularly unlikely), the way I view this universe has been fundamentally altered. It's a darker, more sinister place, where victory has a higher cost than ever before. And while I don't buy Gwen's justification of the Doctor's absence (it's easy to forget that the Doctor doesn't make a habit of deliberately visiting Earth to deal with a crisis), Its still a chilling thought that will have a lasting effect on my perception of the parent show.

I was absolutely floored by some of the phenomenal performances during Children of Earth and Day Five in particular, with Capaldi being the standout among a cast of pitch-perfect government types. Euros Lyn's direction gives the piece a cinematic feel that takes a chilling and creepy script and sells it so fully that you forget he's not a seasoned feature film director. But that's all been said so many times by now that I fear my ticking of all the boxes will be so banal as to belittle the excellent achievement that is Children of Earth. Suffice it to say that pretty much everyone involved outdid themselves to produce one of the greatest pieces of science fiction of the decade.

Which it undoubtedly is, and that's where I have to leave off. Perhaps I'm a bit too late to be topical to those in the UK, but Torchwood: Children of Earth is just about to be unleashed unto a (probably mostly unsuspecting) American and Canadian audience tonight.


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