Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth - Day Two

With the powerful and confident 'Day One' having proved a notable ratings success for BBC1 - remarkably growing its audience from 5.7 million at the start to 6.1 million for the last quarter - 'Day Two' has the trickier task of holding on to the audience who may have tuned in to the first episode out of curiosity (although the steady numbers for episode one - and my own empirical experiences during the day - suggest the audience was intrigued enough to stick with it) and persuading them to stay on board for the rest of the ride. 'Day Two', written by John Fay (best known for his work on 'Coronation Street' and ITV's thriller mini-series 'Mobile' a few years back), like its predecessor, is a restlessly-dramatic episode but with a few added big bangs and chases, a few cracking gags and...well, because this is Torchwood at the end of the day - enough eyebrow-raising silliness to require its audience to suspend its disbelief a bit more than it might have done during the rather straighter first episode.

We pick up where the thrilling cliffhanger from 'Day one' left off. Torchwood's subterranean Hub has been devastated by a bomb placed in Jack Harnkness' guts. Gwen and Ianto are clear of the debris but running for their lives as sinister snipers try to pick them off. Like most TV snipers in action thrillers they're a pretty lousy shot and miss their targets by several miles and before long the pair are regrouping. Gwen rushes home to rouse sleeping lummox husband Rhys before going on the run and Ianto turns to his sister and her family for help. Meanwhile the Government - particularly scapegoat policitian Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) are increasingly-edgy about the forthcoming arrival of the alien species designated The 456, who have been communicating their intent to the peoples of the world by taking over every child on the planet and forcing them to intone "We are coming" in spooky voices. Hopeless killsquad agent Johnson (Liz May Brice) and her goons have retrieved the blown-apart bits of Captain Jack's corpse from the rubble of the Hub and shipped it off for observation in a top secert facility in a quarry somewhere. Before long Johnson and her oafs are watching as something very strange appears to be going on in Jack's body bag...

'Day Two' is a bit of a marking-time episode, in many ways the Torchwood equivalent of the escape-capture-run-around-escape-capture third episode of old four-part Dr Who yarns. There's loads going on here and the pace never lets up and yet by the end of the episode the plot hasn't really advanced much; yes, they are coming (back) and Torchwood are in the thick of it, but we're inching forward where, perhaps, we should have been getting a bit more of a move on. As the episode progresses it becomes obvious that Torchwood is drifting back to its default 'hang about, this is a bit silly...' mode as plot contrivances thraten to twist the narrative right out of shape as it struggles to reunite the Torchwood team. It's a bold move for Torchwood to keep its main selling point - John Barrowman - off screen for forty minutes and then bury him in concrete for most of the rest of the episode the moment he appears but maybe JB was off recording a cheesy pop album and touring Nicaragua in a production of 'Mamma Mia' or something... But where Torchwood's inherent silliness used to scupper the series because it was coupled with truly clunky dialogue and uneven characterisation, 'Children of Earth' gets away with it because the scripts are much more confident, the characters far better defined and better performed and the whole production oozes a style and breadth of vision the show's not enjoyed before. So while we're watching as Gwen and Rhys infiltrate the least top secret top secret security facility ever seen on TV (under the watchful eye of a dumb security guard observing them in plain sight on a CCTV screen having already seen them in even plainer sight on CCTV in Cardiff and still not making the connection) and indulge in a gun battle with Johnson and her crackpot crack shots, Ianto rolls up in a forklift truck which he uses to demolish the wall and drag free the concrete cell into which Jack has been imbedded. We watch gobsmacked as Gwen, Rhys and Ianto easily outwit a particularly witless and hopeless bunch of gunmen and Ianto drops Jack's concrete block over the edge of a quarry so it can break into bits and Jack can re-emerge, blinking and dusty and with his bum out. It's monstrously ridiculous, it shatters the carefully-crafted sense of realism the show established in 'Day One' and yet, because the show's style is so massively improved, it's easy to forgive the slide into archness and just go with the flow.

The viewing figures for 'Day Two' are probably pretty vital in deciding Torchwood's future beyond 'Children of Earth' and I'd be surprised if they fall away much from the high start of 'Day One'. But considering all the other BBC dramas of recent months which have struggled to reach 4 million - high profile shows like Occupation, Casualty 1909, Hope Springs and even returning favourite Hotel Babylon - it's hard to imagine that the BBC would bring the axe down on a big show like Torchwood which can pull in so many more viewers at, apparently, the same cost. Beyond any considerations about the series' future, 'Children of Earth' remains big, adrenalised TV. 'Day Two' has so much to recommend it to distract from the sense that it's all really just 60 minutes of padding - a lovely performance from Kai Owen as Gwen's dumbo husband and some wonderful scenes between him and Gwen (the always-impressive Eve MNyles), a nice quick appearance from old favourite PC Andy, another nervy and understated turn from Peter Capaldi, Katy Wix (Daisy from 'Not Going Out') as Ianto's likeable sister and a very promsing debut from the wonderfully-named Cush Jumbo as new Government intern Lois Habiba who's having a very unusual first week in her new job. 'Day Two' is fun, fast and furious but I'm hoping 'Day Three' will see the show regain the more studied and considered slightly-creepy style of the first episode rather than the 'big pictures' comic strip of 'Day Two'. But 'Children of Earth' remains blisteringly-good stuff and is pretty much as essential as British TV gets right now.

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