Torchwood: Children of Earth: "SciFi gay slash fan fic comes into its own"? Well no, actually ...

Some informal remarks towards a calculus of modular culture or,

Torchwood: Children of Earth considered as a helix of semi-precious shows

God said to Abraham kill me a son
Abe said man, you must be putting me on
God said no — Abe said what?
God said you can do what you want Abe, but,
Next time you see me coming you better run.
Abe said where'd you want this killing done?
God said out on highway 61

Bob Dylan

It was probably the simply embarassing post-script to the third Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, that first really taught me there is usually an inverse relationship between hype and reality. (And of course, this year's utter travesty of an end to the sometimes brilliant Battlestar Galactica was a superb reminder.)

Torchwood: Children of Earth screen-cap; copyright 2009 BBC

While most of North America's children and geeks are making hits out of Star Trek or (god help us) of Transformers: Something-or-other, Great Britain's BBC has provided us with something a little different. A five-hour "special event", a mini-series broadcast (in the UK) on Monday through Friday of the week of the 6th called Torchwood: Children of Earth (it's airing starting tomorrow on BBC America in the States, but I haven't been able to pin down when it will show up in Canada).

And for a change, the work pretty much lives up to the hype.

Truth to tell, until now Torchwood has been mostly a guilty pleasure for me. A Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood was and was meant to be a grittier, more "adult" version of the long-running children's show. The violence was more graphic, there was sex (male/female, female/female and male/male as well as "miscellaneous" — these people dealt with aliens, after all) along with near-nudity and swearing, including the F-word, at least during the first season.

By the end of the second, four of the seven original members of the "team" had died violent deaths, leaving fans to wonder whether this year's edition would introduce new characters. As it turns out, long-time fans will have more grieving to do — but I'll say no more along those lines.

For more, along with some (though — I hope — not too many) spoilers, please click the "read more" link below. Otherwise, book-mark and return once you've watched it — and then we can argue!

John Barrowman
John Barrowman

(For non-fans wondering what all the noise is about, here's what you need to know. The Torchwood Institute was founded by Queen Victoria herself in order to protect the British Empire from alien menaces. It is a small organization — "Outside the government, beyond the police" — not always well-run or on the "right" side of things, but getting better under the leadership its polymorphously perverse leader, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) a man from the future who can't be permanently killed by any means tried thus far. Also he has settled into a serious relationship with Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) as his suprised-to-be-in-a-relationship-with-a-man partner.)

As the program opens, something is making children — all children, everywhere in the world — simply stop, for perhaps a minute. This being Torchwood, long-time viewers can be pretty certain that there is some sort of alien plot behind it and I'm not giving much away in confirming that.

When children next "stop", they also speak (in unison and in English, no matter where they are), saying, "We are ... coming," and it's clear that something very creepy is going on. And Torchwood starts to investigate.

Children as possessed monsters and children in peril are two pretty common tropes in genre fiction (usually horror or SF, though I'm told Steven Speilberg is very fond of it as well). Happily, and tellingly, though Davies uses the trope he never plays it cheaply. It soon becomes clear the children are being used as messengers by the aliens ("the 4-5-6"), that they are in genuine danger and that there are more monsters to deal with than the effectively creepy (in part because they are never fully seen) extra-terrestrials.

Children of Earth is about an awful lot more than heroes dealing with alien invaders.

We learn fairly early on that the 4-5-6 have had dealings with the British government before, in the 1960s. At that time, in exchange for a flu vaccine that saved millions of lives, the British government rounded up a dozen orphans and "gave" them to the aliens, purposes unknown. Now that they (the aliens) are back, they're not looking for another dozen, but for fully 10 percent of all the "children of Earth". The alternative is the threatened extinction of the entire human race.

Yes, if you're not a fan of this kind of SF (I'm old-school about the terminology; I can't stand sci fi and, though I've given up the battle as lost, I still try not to use that "hideous (not-so) neologism), the plot sounds ludicrous, but if you can suspend your disbelief, what follows is a drama of politics and philosophy of a pretty high order.

Much of the program is centered on career bureaucrat John Frobisher (under-played very well by Peter Capaldi) who liaises between the 4-5-6 and the British Government. And it is during the scenes set in the British Cabinet room that the meat of Davies' philosophical agenda slowly becomes clear.

In hopes of not giving too much away, I'll say simply that there were more than a few moments when I felt I was witness to the deliberations at the Wannsee Conference, with the exception that Davies is smart enough a story-teller make me empathize with the duly-elected war criminals rather than presenting them as either "evil" monsters or mechanical technocrats. The government is dealing what truly seems like a no-win situation, the individual decision-makers are not happy about their options — but they also harbor the all-too-human desire to make the best of a bad situation, no matter how dire.

Torchwood: Children of Earth screen-cap; copyright 2009 BBC
"We're from the government, and we're here to help you."

In the world according to Russell T Davies (and a believable world it so often is), no politician worth his (or her) salt can look a crisis in the eye without casting about for an opportunity. If you accept that the aliens who have just shown up and threatened to exterminate the human race can and would do so, what options do you have beyond arguing over the criteria for triage?

Children of Earth is no feel-good, humans-kick-aliens-in-the-ass summer block-buster. Though I'm giving nothing away in telling you that the earth doesn't, in the end, surrender ten percent of its children to the 4-5-6, getting to that point has costs to which adventure fiction will very seldom admit (though good science fiction will).

Children of Earth is bleak and cynical without (quite) giving way to nihilism. Society, Davies seems to be saying, is a mess, but we can (maybe) do better.

From a North American's viewpoint, it's also extremely refreshing to see issues of class not only explicitly addressed, but shown, as part of the larger narrative. Some of the eugenic-style arguments made during the Cabinet meetings felt at once bitterly satyrical and yet utterly plausible.

And finally (I said I didn't want to give away too much of the plot!), from a fan's perspective, this show hurts. Though one can (and already I've seen that a lot of people have — here, for instance) poke a few holes in the plot and the resolution has definite echoes of Doctor Who's much-loved (and much derided) "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" tech-babble, non of that damages the emotional power of the climax nor stops the viewer from believing in the damage done to the surviving characters.

This is a first-rate piece of drama, a five-hour movie that I'm betting will prove to have been better than any "block-buster" to hit the big screen this summer — and probably next.

Torchwood: Children of Earth screen-cap; copyright 2009 BBC

Spread the word!