Usually in retrospect you can tell when a short-run show has hit its moment of perfection.
Torchwood in its original incarnation hit that moment with series three, Children of Earth. Series one and two were gripping episodic television, to be sure, but with series three, Torchwood assumed a new worldwide scale, as five hour-long episodes built up to a climax of unparalleled disaster. By the time series four, Miracle Day came along, the moment had tipped into something twice as long and twice as flabby. Children of Earth is the pinnacle of Torchwood’s developmental arc.
And scary. Did I mention scary?
The scares in Children of Earth come from many directions. There’s the idea of an alien threat that’s better at delivering death than humans. The idea that our governments ultimately regard us as expendable. The horrifying, creepy visual and audio impact of lots of children saying the same thing at the same time. There’s the destruction of the cosy technological superiority of Torchwood and the death of a team favourite, as well as the shocking reality of what the aliens want, and the willingness of those in power to give it to them. But more than any of that, there’s the questioning of our dedication to our children – we like to think there’s nothing we won’t do for our children, and Children of Earth both shows that, and shows how shallow our rock solid certainties can be.
Now the aliens, known as the 456, are back, and this time they want more. They want ten percent of the children of Earth, or they’ll unleash another plague and destroy the whole species. So the question is: do we love our children enough to die out with them? Or do we sacrifice them to the aliens, and live to look ourselves in the eye another day?
What would you choose?
Government forces, in the person of Permanent Secretary to the Home Office John Frobisher – played here as fraught and exhausted by Peter Capaldi - think they know what Torchwood would choose, and decide it can’t be allowed to interfere.
Like all great dystopias, Children of Earth begins quietly, in the world we recognize. Then one morning, for a matter of minutes, children just stop moving. Speaking. Playing. But the silence breaks, and the children return to normal, and life goes on.
Except then it happens again – that eerie stillness.
‘We. We. We are. We are. We are coming. We are coming. We are…’
For all people talk about Steven Moffat as the master of creepy chills, you’d have to go pretty darned far to beat that moment from Russell T Davies. There’s something inherently creepy about lots of children saying the same thing at the same time, their consciousness corrupted by a single, powerful entity. It’s still one of the most unnerving moments in Torchwood history, delivered with aplomb by director Euros Lyn.
Torchwood begins to investigate, and Frobisher orders them killed. The Hub is blown to smithereens. This is a world away from the ‘Find it, solve it’ routine we’re used to – this is Torchwood on the run, marked for death, and out to save the children of Earth from both the alien and the political forces ranged against them.
The quest to find out what’s going on leads Gwen to Clement MacDonald, an old man who chants along with the children, (and who also tells her she’s pregnant), and Lois Habiba, a brand new temp in Frobisher’s office – and both of them help the team discover what they’re facing. Lois in particular is crucial, recording the meetings Frobisher has with the 456, the Cabinet, and later with representatives from some of the United Nations.
When the 456 representative arrives, it offers only the diplomacy of the bully. It wants the children, and the decision is made no easier when the 456 reveal that they don’t need the children for anything in any way wonderful. No – they use them to get high, sucking chemicals out of their pre-pubescent bodies for the rush, and keeping them young and enslaved indefinitely.
Surrender ten percent of the world’s children up to enslaving abusers – or everyone dies.
Still sure what you’d choose?
What if the ten percent included your child? Could you look them in the eye and send them off?
What follows is a handful of episodes that get grimmer and grimmer in tone – we learn about Ianto’s family, and we meet Jack’s daughter and grandson. Meeting them should tell us that something horrible’s about to happen.
In fact, several horrible somethings.
First, we see the decision-makers at work, deciding that a random lottery is impractical, and in a masterstroke of screenwriting, what sounds like a plea for compassion by minister Deborah Findlay turns in subtle, sickening degrees into a plan to cull only the ‘least productive’ ten percent of each nation’s children – the future occupants of dole queues and prisons. When asked if anyone wants to speak against the plan, you wait for someone to rail about the equal value of human beings. But the voice never comes, and the plan is put into action.
Torchwood fights back, and Jack and Ianto confront the 456, Jack very much ‘being the Doctor’ – if only to salve his conscience because in 1965, it was Jack who made the trade with the 456. When he and Ianto declare the 456 will get not one child more, it’s a declaration of war, but any air-punching is quickly cut off as the aliens seal the building and release the plague, killing almost everyone inside. As the plague roams, Ianto - strange, clever, funny, impeccably tailored Ianto - dies in Jack’s arms, a horrible playing out of the truth that ‘standing up to bullies’ often doesn’t work. Often, it just means they hurt you more. Often, standing up to abusers fails.
There appears to be no fighting the 456, and the army is sent to round up the children of Earth prior to sacrificing them. Reborn though, Jack realizes there’s a way of hurting the 456, of killing them or sending them packing.
But it costs.
Oh how it costs. The only way to beat them is to fire a constructive signal back at them, in the same way they first established contact – by using the children. And now there’s only one child at hand to be the centre of the resonance – Jack’s grandson, Steven.
Meanwhile Frobisher cannot escape his actions. The Prime Minister tells him that his two daughters will be part of the cull, as in the aftermath, the government needs to be seen as victims of the 456’s duplicity, rather than as culpable.
What would you choose?
Frobisher knows there’s no way out for his family. He requisitions a pistol, goes home to his wife and daughters, shoots them all dead, then kills himself.
Jack, unable to speak to the grandson he loves, plugs Steven into the circuit, and the boy becomes the focal point for transmitting to the 456. Children everywhere turn skyward once more, the scream of the signal tearing out of them, and Steven dies, horribly, in front of his mother and grandfather. Jack, the anti-Abraham, sacrifices his beloved grandson not in obedience to a voice from the sky, but in defiance of it. The 456 ambassador explodes, and the rest of them flee.
Bridget Spears, Lois Habiba’s boss and Frobisher’s right hand woman, takes over Lois’s quest, and ensures the government won’t survive the 456.
Neither, it seems, will Jack. Children of Earth ends six months later. Jack’s been travelling, but the planet is too small for him, and everywhere there are children. Everywhere there are parents. He cannot look them in the eye. A by-now heavily pregnant Gwen and Rhys see him off, as he runs away off-world, sickened at what he’s become in his efforts to channel the Doctor.
Of all the chills in this chilliest of Torchwood series, perhaps the coldest and most terrifying though is the 456’s rationale, the thing that convinces them the humans will give up their children.
‘Every three seconds, a child dies. The human response is to accept, and adapt,’ it reminds us. While seen in close-up, we’ll do anything for our children, from a distance, our record is far less impressive. When Gwen says ‘sometimes, the Doctor must look at the human race, and turn away in shame,’ she’s vocalizing what message there might be in Children of Earth – until all children are viewed as our children, until our governments worry about all children, the high horse of our worship of the children of Earth looks terribly, horribly hollow.
Revisiting Torchwood Series 1
Revisiting Torchwood Series 2
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk