There are times when Russell T Davies’ work — and for all that John Fay and James Moran have writing credits on the middle episodes of Torchwood: Children of Earth, the finished product does feel very much like Russell T Davies’ work — seems to be the work of a man obsessively iterating a set of concerns that deserve the attention, and times when it just feels repetitive. Which side of the line any given story falls on, of course, depends on the execution, and partly it’s about the reappearance of themes, rather than devices. By the time you get to Doctor Who‘s season four finale, an army of metallic aliens invading Earth from some kind of Elsewhere starts to feel somewhat familiar, for instance. “Planet of the Dead”, earlier this year, appeared for all the world to be an attempt to see how many previous plot points could be repeated in the course of a single story. But I think Children of Earth works, much more than not, despite the fact that Who did an aliens-want-children plot barely six months ago, despite the fact that the questions it asks have been asked before, because it found a new angle from which to approach those questions.
Most obviously Children of Earth is “Midnight” — that story about the worst self-destructive tendencies of humanity, and for my money, the best episode of Who‘s fourth season — retold as an epic. In both stories, the assistance of an outside agent who could assist humanity is rejected (the parallel between Jack and the Doctor is unavoidable by the end of Children of Earth, I think); and we are shown what happens when humanity stands alone. They are the flipside of The Second Coming, which asserted the ability and necessity of humanity to stand on its own two feet, without (in that case) God. To frame Children of Earth as drawing its core concerns from this strand of Davies’ work is perhaps merely to observe what much commentary on the series has observed, that it is not Torchwood as we know it (depending on your perspective, for better or worse; on the latter, see also comments here, and if you want to depress yourself, Moran’s description of feedback he has received here). And there is also the fact that the crass camp of the first two seasons, which seemed at the time to be part of the point of the show, is very noticeable by its absence. Yet Children of Earth also more fully expresses ideas that have been central to Torchwood from the start, and only relatively lightly touched on in Who, most notably the consequences of Captain Jack’s ambiguous Angel-like past, and the costs of putting regular humans on the front line in a fight against alien threats.
What Children of Earth is most memorable for, perhaps, is changing the focus of that last question slightly, to ask who decides where the front lines are. That means, on one level, Jack Harkness, and to what extent he is responsible for the vulnerable humans he recruits to fight alongside him; and it means, on a rather bigger level, those at the top of governmental and military organizations. Much is made, throughout the series, of questions of expediency and expendability. We are told that the Civil Service, as personified by Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher (a really excellent turn from Peter Capaldi), are the middlemen of British government, and they are here used by the Prime Minister in an attempt to keep his hands clean: but, under no illusions what this means, he tells Frobisher directly that “all I’ve done is put you on the front line”. The cost for Frobisher is, ultimately, as high as that implies; it is nearly as high for his temp assistant, Lois Habiba, and for Torchwood, on the front lines in a different sense, it appears to mean the end of the line entirely.
Torchwood itself, I would suggest, is acknowledged here to be the tin-pot personal outfit it has been since after the battle of Canary Wharf. “What do you think Torchwood is now?” Frobisher asks, in “Day Five”. “Do you think you’re still players?” Whatever institutional power it had in the past, it strikes me that the incarnation of Torchwood that we have seen through these three seasons is held together pretty much by Jack Harkness’ bare hands, out of a belief in its necessity. Children of Earth is where his grip slips, where his cavalier choices bite him. The undercutting of his heroic “I’m back” in episode three, having replaced his totemic coat – followed by the undercutting of the Doctor-ish trope of “let’s go stand up to them”, rushing in to confront the aliens — is one of the most savage, and satisfying, progressions in the series. And back at the top of the ladder, the scenes in “Day Four” in which the COBRA team talk themselves not just into capitulating to the 456′s horrific demands, but into seeing a political opportunity in that capitulation, are some of the most chilling, not because they are “realistic” — they are not — but because the characters in the scene embody a kind of twisted, prejudicial realism that is all too common.
None of this, of course, would be worth talking about if Children of Earth showed the same lack of basic narrative and technical competency that so blighted earlier Torchwood. Fortunately, it’s a step up in those regards, as well; there are flaws, but none so terrible as to derail the whole enterprise. From “The End of the World” through “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Silence in the Library”, Euros Lyn has often been one of new Who’s more successful directors, and his work here is solid, giving many scenes — in particular those in the 456′s room — the space and framing they need to be effective. And I’ve already singled out Peter Capaldi for praise, but most of the rest of the guest cast are also very good: in particular, Cush Jumbo’s Lois Habiba pulls off “I’m a temp, it’s what I do” where Catherine Tate failed, Katy Wix is agreeably down-to-Earth as Ianto’s sister, and Nicholas Farrell is believably trapped and calculating as the PM. (This is not to say the regular cast are bad — Eve Myles is probably the best I’ve seen her — but they are, perhaps, outshone.) Nor was the pacing of the story bad. It could perhaps have been cut down to four episodes rather than five, given that episode two consisted mostly of characters running around in an attempt to get back to where they started, and that the “previously on” for that episode was arguably more effectively creepy than the whole of episode one, but the key scenes were given the time they needed to breath. I’m thinking here, of the extended first contact and negotiation scenes in “Day Three”; the COBRA scenes, again, in “Day Four”; the one-on-ones in “Day Five”; and a good number of the scenes involving Ianto’s family. All of these are leagues more involving than anything Torchwood has managed, or even attempted, in its previous incarnations. Of course, Murray Gold and Ben Foster’s score is still intrusive and garish, but you can’t have everything; and at least they did away with the music for the scene in “Day Five” in which the PM tells Frobisher his children will be inoculated.
The flaws in the series, as so often in Russell T Davies’ work, seem to me (if not to others) to be primarily to do with a failure to stick the dismount. I should say, before I get into my reservations, that I still rate Children of Earth as good, and not even just good-for-Torchwood; I think it’s the most interesting, and most nearly successful, work that Davies has had a credited writer’s role in since The Second Coming. The ending, for example, is much better set up than in any of Davies’ Who finales — and hence its manipulativeness is much less distracting. The revelation that the 456 are drug addicts (presumably, given the observation that there are at least three life-forms in their box, they make a habit of sampling different species to get different highs) is not only astonishingly creepy in itself, but renders them satisfyingly banal, and neatly justifies their ham-fisted tactics, and their leaving what looks like an obvious backdoor into their brains lying around to be exploited. (The aliens are all-around better handled than they usually are on Who or Torchwood, I think; still monstrous, but mysteriously so, tantalizingly so.) So many of my objections are niggles. I didn’t like the use of the contact lens cameras in “Day Five”, for instance, because it was the result of a scene we didn’t see all of, a flourish that was only possible because Davies didn’t play fair with the viewers. There was perhaps too much focus on Ianto’s death, eliding the deaths of everyone else who was in Thames House at the time. I wasn’t convinced by Gwen’s final decision to keep her pregnancy; her cold “Is that right?” in response to Rhy’s insistence that “You’re not getting rid of it” had more credibility. And there are some elements that simply felt too clean, too neat: the rounding up of children in “Day Five” proceeded with too little effective resistance (and was perhaps too uniform); and at the end of “Day Four” I couldn’t help feeling that a virus which kills you that fast shouldn’t leave you looking that pretty.
My two more substantive criticisms, I think, have to do with the contract that appears to be made by the narrative. One is the treatment of children: this is a story in which children are, without exception, tokens, or “units” as COBRA euphemistically describes them. They are utterly at the mercy of, first, the 456, and second, the British government. This powerlessness is surely the point; the horror of the pathology that leads to exerting such control over children is surely the point. And yet it undermines the final emotional climax: how much more would Steven’s death have hurt, I found myself wondering, if we had a sense of him as a person, rather than just “Jack’s grandson”; if we had a sense of who was being lost, rather than what. (This is to say that I can’t quite read that absence of identity as increasing the horror of that specific scene, though it does increase the horror elsewhere in the series, so perhaps it is just a necessary trade-off.) My other problem is with the final resolution: it seems that, apparently, Torchwood never went public with their recordings of the COBRA meetings — either those recorded by Lois, or those recorded by Bridget — which strikes me as brushing consequences under the rug, rather. You can, indeed, construct reasons internal to the story why this choice might be made — it’s the best option for continued stability, for instance — but they are not articulated on-screen; which leaves it feeling like a decision made for reasons external to the story. That is: I understand why you might choose to write this ending for a spin-off series, because you don’t want Doctor Who to have to deal with a Britain, and indeed rest of the world, in which trust in the political system has entirely broken down, and very possibly resulted in violent unrest, but it doesn’t feel entirely natural to Children of Earth as told to that point.
As Saxon Bullock suggests, this is the first time that Torchwood has felt as though it matters; but I’m coming close, here, to arguing that Children of Earth would have worked better as a standalone story told in an independent universe; that it would have been better to divorce it from Torchwood entirely, rather than reshape Torchwood so that it could tell this story. Indeed at first I did think that. On reflection, there’s one significant reason why I’m glad they didn’t, which has to do with What Happens Next. (Because if ratings are any indication, there will be a next series, no matter how final it feels now.) Weighing together The Second Coming and the various messianic moments in new Who, there seems to me to be some ambivalence in Russell T Davies’ work about the relationship between baseline humanity (or children of Earth) and outside agents (be they God, or the Doctor, or simply immortal). And if Children of Earth is perhaps his most cynical exploration of that relationship to date, it seems to me that it sets up an opportunity: a story that is perhaps lower-key, but crucially only about contemporary humans confronting the alien. And while that is often, for Davies, a bleak prospect — witness Rupesh’s line in “Day One” about the doubling of the suicide rate since first contact, as humans struggle to come to terms with their small-ness and the universe’s big-ness — I don’t believe it is always, or necessarily bleak. The Second Coming is, after all, about humanity growing up. Future Torchwood could, from a different angle, be about that process, too; and in doing so within the Who universe, could continue to matter.