Friday, 10 July 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth - Days Three and Four...

Torchwood’s ‘Children of Earth’ five-nighter has rattled along at such a pace and has become such a startling success – part four pulled in a record 6.24 million viewers, remarkable for the fourth episode of a five-part serial – that I barely had time to begin collating my thoughts on ‘Day Three’ than I was settling down to wallow in ‘Day Four’ But I think that’s probably been a good thing because it’s allowed the two episodes to soak in, and given me a chance to step back and look at the big, broad landscape of this outstanding new Torchwood mini-series and to rationalise it from the perspective of a show which has suddenly become a lot darker and a lot deeper than anyone ever really expected. At this stage I’ll just say that ‘Children of Earth’ has been a massive revelation, an absolute joy, providing a whole week of intelligent, shocking, thought-provoking TV. That’s just not something you can say too often about British television.

One of the greatest strengths of parent show Dr Who is that it can be anything. It can be a comedy, it can be a sci-fi romp, it can tell a horror story, it can do thrillers; it’s a blank canvas ready to be filled by the imagination of its writers who can take the Doctor anywhere in all Time and Space and do almost anything with him. One of Torchwood’s problems was that it didn’t have this format luxury; it was stuck resolutely in Cardiff and by its very nature it was a ‘nasty things come to us’ series and, by and large, Torchwood found themselves in Cardiff fighting...things which came to us. The show wriggled and squirmed to stretch its format by telling big sci-fi stories, horror stories, the odd comedy, deep emotional dramas...but the show always seemed a bit hidebound by its core format and it was never really comfortable in its TV skin. ‘Children of Earth’ seems to acknowledge this by punching the show right out of its format and heaving its audience – many of them new to the world of Torchwood – into something else entirely. This is why ‘Day Three’ in particular was such a jolt. Running directly after the more comic book ‘Day Two’ with its concrete coffins, shoot-outs and forklift truck rescues, ‘Day Three’ turned the show and its viewers on their heads by becoming virtually a Cold War sci-fi thriller full of political intrigue, conspiracy and, in its shocking finale, a stomach-churning revelation about its square-jawed leading man. More by luck than judgment Torchwood has managed to tap into the mood of the nation as far as those who lead us are concerned; after the mountain of revelations regarding Government expenses the British public are used to the duplicity and the self-serving nature of its politicians. ‘Day Three’, with sleazy PM Brian Green and his rabbit run civil servants scurrying about trying to cover up the past and deny the present, becomes more a contemporary document of our possible times rather a fanciful tale of space aliens threatening the human race.

‘Day Three’ kicks off with scenes which carry on the slightly larger-than-life style of ‘Day Two’ as Torchwood finds a new home in an old warehouse and the gang turn to petty theft and robbery to feed and fund themselves. In an unlikely twinkling of an eye they’ve booted up some impressive computer kit, bought some new clothes (Ianto finds Jack identical clothes to the ones he usually wears...well done, Ianto) and, despite the fact they’re on the run and hunted by gormless gunmen, set themselves the task of finding out what’s going on with the chanting children and who’s after their heads. Once these credibility-stretching sequences are done with, ‘Day Three’ goes a bit deeper. The 456 arrive in a pillar of fire and secrete themselves in a specially-prepared tank full of poison gas in a secure chamber at Thames House where the UK’s chosen representative, John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) falteringly welcomes them to the Earth and tries to find out exactly what they want. Like all the best SF monsters the 456 are best kept out of sight; what we see of them here is grim enough. A thrashing tentacle, something monstrous moving through the fog, green ichor spewed out across the protective glass....and that deep, measured, slightly-distorted voice. Gave me the creeps good and proper, I can tell you. I’ve seen the actual 456 creature now (courtesy of a BBC still up on the Torchwood gallery) and it’s a gruesome looking Hydra-like thing but, impressive as it is, things like this never really match up to what we think they might look like. Even so, ‘Torchwood’ has played the ‘Dalek’ card well here and ,just as Dr Who’s audience in 1963 was tantalised by a threateningly-wobbling sink plunger at the end of an episode,the audience here are kept waiting and wondering just what’s out there in the poison gas making veiled threats towards the human race.

Halfway through ‘Day Three’ several things occurred to me. I was watching a TV show which had suddenly slowed right down, becoming dialogue-heavy,with long, long talky scenes. The MP and his worried group, Gwen and Rhys meeting up with Lois, lots and lots of yak and not much action. But it really didn’t matter that Torchwood was not only sticking two fingers up at the ‘no long dialogue scenes’ unwritten rules of modern drama it was glorying in the fact it had the time to allow its dense plot to unfold slowly and languorously via word and not deed. It helped, of course, that Davies and co-writer James Moran pitched the thing beautifully via Davies’s trademark naturalistic, wry dialogue, not a word wasted, not a scene acting as padding. Also, in passing, how odd to be watching a prime time adult drama at around 9.30pm on a Wednesday where one of the main military characters is a member of a para-military organisation created in 1968 for one television story of a totally different series; it’s just odd to hear the name ‘UNIT’ tossed around so casually and a reminder of how discreetly Davies has recreated so many of Dr Who’s old tropes and somehow made them part of the national psyche, without people even realising it.

‘Day Three’ continues at its own pace, a fascinating and coruscating condemnation of modern behind-closed-doors politics where the man in the street is the last to know what’s really going on and the politicians themselves will do whatever they can to save their own necks. This is a theme the series returns to to devastating, eye-opening effect in ‘Day Four’. As the episode rattles towards its conclusion the strands of the plot start to come together; we start to see that there’s a very real connection between the 456 and the children beyond the fact they sue them for communication and the final reveal of Jack’s part in the 1965 abduction tears the rug out from under us in terms of what we know and what we thought we knew about Captain Jack Harkness.
‘Day Four’, similarly-paced but with a real ‘24’ vibe in its last arc, ramps up the tension and the drama to a degree which is honestly almost unbearable. We finally discover that the 456 have been here before and that, with the collusion of Jack Harkness, they abducted – for purposes of their own – twelve British children in exchange for a cure to a virus which would otherwise cause chaos and panic all over the world. Now they’re back and this time it’s a bald ultimatum; 10% of the children of the Earth or the world is destroyed. This is the real drama at the heart of this episode in particular as we watch, appalled, as the Government conspires to yet again hide the truth from those who elected it by battling to find a way to sacrifice the nation’s children without the public noticing or being aware of the atrocity they’ve committed. It’s a surreal, impossible dilemma but over the years – and especially more recently – we’ve come to realise that there seem to be no lows our elected representatives won’t stoop to. The dilemma facing the UK Government here is a very real and awful one and it’s really not so difficult to image their real-world counterparts doing something very similar and very underhand if and when faced with an impacable threat whose power they can't even begin to imagine. Watching all this from the new secret base are Gwen, Ianto and Rhys courtesy of super sci-fi contact lenses worn by their new best friend Lois (no convenient gadget this, Martha Jones used the same device back in series two). It’s impossible to convey in words the raw drama of the scenes on the Fifth Floor at Thames House as Frobisher struggles to negotiate with the restless 456 whilst Torchwood watch from afar, impotent and helpless and with all their guns and toys long gone. Eventually though the tables start to turn and it looks as if our heroes have started to get the upper hand on the Government at least, threatening to expose and destroy them by releasing their video recordings of their discussions to the wider world. Meanwhile Jack and Ianto infiltrate Thames House and confront the 456...who, in a devastating display of terrifying alien power, demonstrate just why they are such a terrible threat. They lock down Thames House and unleash a deadly airborne virus which kills every living being in the building.


So Torchwood suffers its latest casualty as Ianto Jones succumbs to the virus and dies in the arms of Captain Jack. Once again Davies (through episode writer John Fay) reminds us that Torchwood isn’t the sort of organisation that hands out long service medals and, whilst Ianto was never the strongest or most interesting of the team (although at least this series has fleshed him out a bit) his death scene is as heart-rending and evocative as the deaths of his colleagues Tosh and Owen at the end of series two. A touching coda too as Gwen grimly visits the makeshift morgue where the dead of the attack are laid out; Jack, being Jack, returns to life. Ianto enjoys no such miracle. As ‘Day Four’ fades we’re left exhausted, drained and probably a little bit depressed.

Under Russell T Davies’s stewardship Dr Who has, despite all the death and destruction, very clearly and very determinedly championed the triumph of the human spirit and the joy of just being alive. In the gravest of situations there’s always been hope, there’s always been humanity. Torchwood now has none of this. ‘Children of Earth’ is as bleak as TV gets. The human race, Davies seems to be saying here, is utterly contemptable and beyond redemption. We deserve all we get. It’s bizarre indeed that, given its moral judgements on us all, Torchwood has found favour with such a huge audience at such an audience-unfriendly time of the year. Put it down to good writing, good acting and the very simple fact that Torchwood is good, original, thoughtful drama. Yes, it’s about an omni-sexual immortal time-traveller,yes it’s about grisly aliens and mind control, it’s got guns and explosions and all the stuff we tend not to get in our dramas over here in the UK. But all this is the dressing around a compelling, enthralling, genuinely frightening and oddly-believable story about what Man will become when he finally faces up to the fact that he’s not alone in the Universe – and if and when it turns out that the aliens are just about as hostile as we could ever have imagined. On top of all this, says Torchwood, we ourselves are, in our own way, just as monstrous as the aliens. That’s the real story here, I think, that’s the drama that has enthralled over 6 million people this week.

On the strength of the first four episodes ‘Torchwood: Children of Earth’ is easily – easily – the best thing we’ve seen on British Tv this year. Easily. This is a show that’s earned its spurs, found its feet and, where once it might have been a “Do you remember that silly Dr Who spin-off they did...?” footnote in the history of British TV and British sci-fi, it now deserves a chapter of its very own. Torchwood is walking with the giants now – it’s become one of the finest television series ever made.

There. Said it.

Coming soon: Day Five...and what next – if anything – for Torchwood?

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