Children of Earth: Day One
Children of Earth: Day Two
Children of Earth: Day Three
Children of Earth

Story No. 27-31 We. Are. Coming.
Production Code Series Three
Dates July 6-10, 2009

With John Barrowman, Eve Myles and Gareth David-Lloyd.
Written by Russell T Davies Directed by Euros Lyn
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.

Synopsis: All the children of Earth speak in unison at the exact moment: We. Are. Coming.


A Review by Matthew Harris 12/1/10

Exit Music

Blimey, that was depressing.

I've always kind of liked Torchwood, albeit occasionally out of pity. The first series had some excellent science-fiction drama, hampered by a complete inability to judge its own tone, know where it was going, or know who on earth it was aiming at. It often came across like the Sarah Jane Adventures with fucking. The word as well as the action. Series two saw it finally get a grip; compare and contrast both seasons' arguable low points, Cyberwoman - an overwrought cheesecake melodrama, which a more established and confident series might have got away with but in this case felt faintly like Michael Bay hallucinating bits of new season two onto the screen - and A From Out of the Rain - which stubbornly refused to let the audience in on its own plot (as if we expected anything else from PJ Hammond) but still managed to succeed in terms of atmosphere and its straightforwardly creepy, even if we had no idea who he was or what he was doing, central villain.

The brave, downbeat ending to series two, and the team (and hub)'s cameo in Stolen Earth/Journey's End sufficiently convinced me that yes, this was a worthy skerry in the Doctor Who archipelago. Then came the announcement that series three wouldn't be "series three" at all but a miniseries, entitled Children of Earth, going out daily across five weeks. On BBC-1. It was hyped to the moon and back. Mouths duly watered. A huge television audience tuned in.

And I thought the ending to series two was downbeat. Children of Earth is positively monstrous, with one extended scene in part four that had me visibly flinching. And all it consisted of was a few people around a table. But even that was nothing compared to the final episode, which redefined "downbeat" and headed past "hopeless" and "miserable" before settling on "painfully bleak". Watching Children of Earth is an exercise in increasing despair. Part five was like lying in a coffin with a mouthful of dirt staring at an engraving of a weeping child while listening to Nico's "Desertshore" and "The Marble Index" on constant loop.

Well, it was for me. This is the closest you're going to get to a televised Jim Mortimore novel. It's a hopeless, horrific situation which builds over five days and from which, not to spoil, there is literally no way out.

It's also brilliant, the best Torchwood episode (or series, or whatever) yet.

For a start, it's shocking how much difference the reduced cast makes. I had nothing against Tosh and Owen - although the former was severely underused, she was still worthwhile as a character if for no other reason than Naoko Mori's sweet performance - but pared down to three (eventually four as Rhys comes into the story more) the whole show is that much tighter. It's the difference between the season 19 TARDIS crew and the season 21 one, except now I think of it the Who writers couldn't even cope with just the two back in 1984, leaving Turlough locked up or wandering aimlessly on his own for most of his stories, but you get the idea even if I've completely forgotten by this stage what it was, if anything.

There's no status-quo buildup - the aliens are working from the very first shot, the first scene being a teriffic gambit - regulars and soon-to-be regulars go about their daily business, only slowly becoming aware that something is wrong, ie every kid on earth is inert. Reality and unreality crash into each other from episode 1, scene 1. We're given no chance to relax. It's a subtle thing but it works.

(I'm in something of a bind at this point - loath to discuss the plot because a) it hasn't been broadcast elsewhere yet and b) it should be allowed to unfold at its own pace, but also desperate to discuss certain points. Since I have little or no confidence you can understand a word I'm burbling now anyway, I'll just discuss them obliquely)

With the stakes, the pace and the atmosphere amped up from frame one, the regulars had to raise their game to match, and they do. This might be John Barrowman's best performance as Jack, as it had to be; he's put through the wringer like Cwej in Dead Romance, with the monstrous last fifteen minutes of episode five a particular challenge: it's a tricky balancing act, something like that; too much ham and it would have made the audience laugh instead of wince, and the whole show falls down like a house of cards. (Perhaps to make up for this, the BBC let him get his arse out in part two).

Gareth David-Lloyd is given a lot more to work with in CofE. He gains a family, for a start, specifically a sister and brother-in-law (who act as a grounding rod for the whole story), and his relationship with Jack deepens, progresses and becomes that bit more complicated.

Eve Myles is lovely, of course.

Peter Garibaldi-Biscuit is clearly the most important guest star; he barely interacts with Torchwood, but he drives the plot. He's practically the central character for about half of the show. His character, John Frobisher (I kept expecting him to turn into a penguin but alas no) is a mirror-universe version of his foul-mouthed civil servant from The Thick Of It; more buttoned-up, less demonstrative, certainly less sweary. (This has actually given me a thought: imagine Malcolm Tucker in that role. It's actually impossible.) His final scene is brilliant, wrenching and disturbing, all the more because of the intercut narration. We know what's going to happen, and - despite the fact that Capaldi's done some terrible things - we don't want it to, and we watch it slowly building, all the pieces being put in place, waiting and hoping for the other shoe to drop...and it never does. A still shot and a repeated sound effect.

Did I mention this wasn't very cheery?

The second major guest star is Paul Copley, best known (at least in my head) for two northern dads: the one in Spare Parts and Andrew Lincoln's in This Life. Here he plays someone who I can't even describe without spoilers, wearing a straggly grey beard and looking twice as haggard as a man who just walked the Hindu Kush backwards. He's Children of Earth's heart in many ways.

Third on the list is Princess Margaret, ie Lucy Cohu, as Alice, another character who I'm loath to actually explain. She enters the plot a little late, but by the end... Cohu has to play a very difficult and heavy set of emotions during fifteen of the most painful minutes on British genre television since Edge of Darkness maybe, or Sarah Greene getting killed in a cupboard in Ghostwatch. It's harder than it looks to act the part of... watch and see. Too much would have made us laugh, too little wouldn't have let us in. As it is, we're right there with her. And she's right. Unfortunately, so's Jack.

The other roles are well cast. Katie Wix and Rhodri Davies are likeable as our ground-level characters. Liz May Brice is hard and cold as the agent charged with wiping Torchwood out, although precisely why isn't ever made clear (in retrospect it's obvious, but it just seems like another plot thread thrown in for its own sake at the time). The ludicrously named Cush Jumbo makes a decent Freema substitute as Lois Habiba. Nicholas Farrell is a right bastard as PM Brian Green (get it?). And Susan Brown does sterling work in an unflashy but important and - though you don't realise at first - multi-faceted role as Bridget.

Time to discuss the story. The first two episodes actually have relatively little, being basically concerned with simultaneously setting up the oncoming storm and knocking Torchwood down - which is important. It's not giving too much away to reveal that by the third episode Torchwood is reduced to four semi-competent people standing in a warehouse. To be sure, they get to keep some of their toys, but mostly they're on the run and on their own, which makes them much easier to give a care about. (Oh, and I'd like to address the concerns of certain people complaining that their toys are implausible: duh.)

The aliens are interesting. This being (arguably for the first time in the Doctor Who universe) truly adult science fiction, they're not softened up. They're not cute like the Slitheen or sleek like the Daleks and Cybermen or even action-movie monsters like Mark Gatiss in The Lazarus Experiment. They're genuinely alien. Most of part two is occupied with building a tank full of toxic gas just so they can sit in the same room as Peter Capaldi. Very little is actualy revealed about them: never mind where they came from, we never even find out what they're called, or even quite what they look like (are those heads or claws?). We do, however, know what they want, and eventually we find out why. On the way, these aliens do some absolutely terrible things, not least of which is the last ten minutes of episode three. Worst of all might be their motivation, as revealed in the last episode. Whoever these guys are, they're absolutely loathsome and I found myself actively wishing there was some way the human race could smack 'em down.

And yet, they have strong opposition for the title of worst creature in the episode. Part four involves a top-secret cabinet meeting which at times is barely watchable and reminded me heavily of the TV movie "Conspiracy", about the Wannsee Conference. Yes, you heard me. Or read me. And Godwin isn't in it. I felt like having a bath after that scene.

Episode five is practically a wake, with misery piled upon misery piled upon inevitable despair piled upon no hope whatsoever. And then comes the final scene, which is an utterly horrible and intensely dispiriting zero-sum game which Jim Mortimore probably loved. The one problem with it is that it comes out of almost nowhere in the last twenty minutes or so; yes, it's yet another Russell T Davies Magic Lever. However, the only one of those that didn't work for me was in Doomsday. All the others have basic dramatic justification: Parting of the Ways was the culmination of a season-long character arc. Last of the Time Lords one largely symbolic, and besides the means was set up in the previous episode. (Oh, and while I'm here, the time-reversal thing was also perfectly justified as a) the Whoniverse couldn't sustain a destroyed Earth and b) it only affected the world outside the main characters. For the Doctor, the Master, Martha and her family, that year still happened, and that's what matters.) And the one in Journey's End had just enough setup during the episode. Just.

This one's justified too, because it's not about the magic lever, it's about the impossible decision. You wouldn't ask your worst enemy to choose whether or not to (metaphorically) press this (metaphorical) button. This is really the most remarkable thing about Children of Earth: the ending sticks to its guns. I watched and watched, again expecting another shoe to drop, for lovable, cuddlesome Russell T Davies to wave his magic wand. Nada. The ending stares you in the eye and you blink first.

Overall, Children of Earth is a triumph of mood and atmosphere if not plotting. Sorting through it in your head you could probably find any amount of holes, but there is no denying its power. The massive success of Children of Earth surely makes a fourth series inevitable. Now Torchwood finally knows what it's doing, who its characters are and where it's aiming, it's probably even worth looking forward to it.