Torchwood: Children of Earth [Series 3] (Apr 4 - Apr 8)

April 4: Children of Earth: "Day One"
April 5: Children of Earth: "Day Two"
April 6: Children of Earth: "Day Three"
April 7: Children of Earth: "Day Four"
April 8: Children of Earth: "Day Five"

April 4: Children of Earth: "Day One"

Now we've moved on to July 2009, and the start of a special Torchwood miniseries, Children of Earth -- a five-day event devoted to a single story.  (Why five episodes instead of a full series?  Because the BBC is dealing with budget cuts, that's why.)  Each episode takes place over the course of a day -- and so that's why we get a second episode of Torchwood called "Day One".  Russell T Davies takes the helm of the show he created and delivers a surprisingly tense conspiracy thriller -- surprising because although Torchwood has improved tremendously, "conspiracy thriller" hasn't really been in the mix up to this point.  But Davies and director Euros Lyn definitely deliver.

One of the ways this opening installment succeeds at this is by having the British government seeming to know more about this strange occurrence than Torchwood.  This puts Jack, Gwen, and Ianto on the back foot somewhat; although they're very good at putting the pieces together, they seem to lack the knowledge that the Home Office, as personified by a man named Frobisher206, already have.

All the children on Earth start screaming. (Children of
: "Day One") ©BBC
And look, it's Peter Capaldi again as Frobisher -- so that's two appearances in the franchise before being cast as the twelfth Doctor.  Here he's a civil servant who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it becomes his responsibility to deal with what they'd previously called the Four Five Six, after the frequency that had been used the last time, in 1965.  And while they're trying to deal with the reappearance of the 456 -- working with UNIT, it seems -- Torchwood is also trying to figure out what made every child on Earth suddenly stop, and then stop again and start saying "We are coming" in unison.  It's a creepy and effective move from Davies, temporarily possessing all the children, and it really does make you curious as to what's going on.

The other interesting thing is that this affects every child on Earth -- and one elderly man, who Gwen learns was there in Scotland the last time the 456 appeared. "I was a kid," he says.  "... They took us out.  In the night, in the dark.  Isn't it, isn't it?  They told us, they said we were going to a new home. ... They drove us away for miles and miles.  They were there in the sky. ... Light.  The light took them. ... I ran.  There was something, there was people, there was. ... But they're coming back.  I've been smelling them for months.  In the air.  Long time coming."  So someone else remembers the last time, even if it appears to have traumatized him for life.

And we also get a couple family revelations; not only do we find out that Gwen is pregnant, but we learn that Jack is a father (and a grandfather!), as he goes to visit his daughter Alice -- although he has an ulterior motive, as he wants to examine a child, to see why only children were affected.  But still, it's something new that we've learned about Jack.

And then Davies really cranks up the conspiracy aspect in the last few minutes of the show.  Frobisher issues a "blank page" regarding the 456, which seems to involve destroying all the evidence of their previous visit -- including the people who were there.  And that seems to include one Captain Jack Harkness.  So an unidentified female soldier (from UNIT?) lures him into a trap (and good move, making the bait the nice young doctor Torchwood has been considering hiring all episode -- that really ups the paranoia factor), kills him, sticks a bomb in his stomach, and sets it off when he's back in Torchwood.  It's only a chance discovery that lets Gwen and Ianto get clear -- but the Hub and Jack both appear to be obliterated in the explosion.

And if that weren't enough, the children are possessed again.  "We are coming back," they say this time.  So now the whole world knows this isn't the first time that whatever is causing the children to behave this way (aka the 456) have been here...

April 5: Children of Earth: "Day Two"

After all the crazy stuff going on in "Day One", "Day Two" is in something of a holding pattern.  We don't learn too much more about the 456, other than that they sent instructions to have something specific built for them, and that they seemingly only sent these instructions to Britain.  Oh, and that "we are coming tomorrow".  So it seems we'll have to wait until tomorrow for more on that front.

No, what "Day Two" does is focus squarely on the aftereffects of the Government's attempt to take out Torchwood.  So there's a huge smoking hole in Roald Dahl Plass, which is apparently being blamed as a terrorist attack perpetrated by Gwen, Ianto, and Jack.  It's an interesting move to put these three on the run, as it increases the tension and paranoia as they try to work out what's going on and why the government wants them dead.  And man did they do a great casting job with the main officer, Johnson -- Liz May Brice looks so hard and angry in every scene she's in that you can't help but root against her, and that's exactly what you want.

So we get a bunch of scenes of Gwen and Rhys on the run, just barely outrunning Johnson and her soldiers as they head to London, while Ianto sticks around near Cardiff to work out where they've taken Jack's remains.  He's evidently quite good at staying under the radar, as he's able to watch the bomb site while Johnson and her men are excavating it, and he's able to contact his sister and then use her laptop and car to find out where Jack is being held and to head there.  He's very resourceful, is what I'm saying.  I also like how Gwen and Rhys go through an elaborate scheme to rescue Jack that goes awry, only for Ianto to crash in with a large sort of backhoe that completely removes Jack's cell; it's a nice touch.

John Frobisher, Bridget Spears, and Mr. Dekker regard the
structure the 456 have ordered them to build. (Children of Earth:
"Day Two") ©BBC
It's also interesting how Gwen and Rhys got their information from a woman named Lois Habiba, who just started in Frobisher's office and read up on Torchwood (illicitly) and can't work out why Frobisher wants them killed.  She figures that, since they're the alien experts, they should be able to help.  (Lois doesn't realize that the government is trying to cover up knowledge of the 456's last visit, and that Jack was apparently involved somehow -- "If he talks, we're in deep, deep shit," Frobisher tells Johnson after he learns that Jack has escaped.)  So she's willing to risk her career and possibly her life to help Torchwood.  "If you're the bad guys, why doesn't it say that on your file?" Lois asks Gwen.  "And if you're the good guys, who am I working for, and why do they want you dead?"

But yes, as I said, this is mainly a staging episode: we've established that the government wants Torchwood dead, and by the end we've seen both how far the government is willing to go and that Torchwood is able to regroup after rescuing Jack.  (Jack's slow healing after the bomb blast, from a bag of body parts to half a corpse to a screaming bloody body to his old self, really is quite gruesome, by the way.  Is there anything he couldn't ultimately walk away from?)  But it's a really well done staging episode; new-to-the-franchise writer John Fay does a good job of balancing all the plotlines while keeping them interesting, and Euros Lyn continues to keep things tense and compelling.  By the end of "Day Two", the gang is back together again.  And just in time; the 456 are coming tomorrow (presumably to the top of Thames House, the MI5 building), and it seems like Torchwood should maybe be ready -- if they can stay out of the reach of the government, that is...

April 6: Children of Earth: "Day Three"

The 456 descend on Thames House. (Children of Earth: "Day
Three") ©BBC
In terms of plot not much happens.  The 456 arrive ostentatiously, and Torchwood now have a person on the inside wearing their special contacts so they can see what's going on.  Oh, and Johnson takes Jack's daughter and grandson into custody.  That (and the cliffhanger, which I'll get to) about sums it up.

In story terms, however, "Day Three" continues to make Children of Earth required viewing.  There's a slight sense of breathing room for the Torchwood team, now that they're not actively trying to get their fellow members away from the government.  Johnson is still monitoring their phones and things (that's how they find out that Alice is Jack's daughter), but they do seem to be a bit safer than they were yesterday.  This means they can be a bit more proactive, as they spend much of the day stealing the things they need to help figure out what exactly is going on with the children around the world.  That gets them set up to get eyes inside the top floor of Thames House (where the 456 has landed), thanks to the help of Lois, who starts wearing the special contacts we saw in "Reset" so that Torchwood can see what's going on.  These scenes are by turns fun (as we get a montage of our heroes stealing things like credit cards and laptops and even a car) and tense (the negotiations between the 456 and humanity, as represented by Frobisher), but the common thread is that we're still completely invested in what's going on -- the 456 is as much a mystery to us as it is to the rest of the team.

Well, with the exception of Jack.  He didn't make the connection until Gwen mentioned how Clement McDonald -- the old man who was there the last time the 456 visited -- had had his experience in 1965 Scotland, but when the penny drops and he realizes what's going on he becomes far more proactive.  It's fascinating, watching him sneaking into Frobisher's home and grabbing Frobisher's wife's phone so that he can talk to Frobisher -- Jack feels like a dangerous man, even though he doesn't actually do anything more than call Frobisher.  "Frobisher, tell me, is it them?  Have they come back?" Jack asks.  After Frobisher affirms it, Jack replies, "I demand to talk to the 456 myself.  Think about it.  The fact that they've come back proves that they can't be trusted.  You need me."  But Frobisher won't budge, and Jack's threats to take Frobisher's wife and two daughters (after he learns the government has Alice and his grandson Steven) end up somewhat empty: "Well, how about I go back into that house right now and get your wife?  And your children?" Jack says.  "Except you won't, because you're a better man than me," Frobisher replies.  But while this scene comes to naught in terms of changing anything, it's one of the best moments of the episode, as we see Jack Barrowman and Peter Capaldi lock swords over this.  It's great, seeing these two go at it, and even just over a phone you get the sense of powerful men sparring with each other.

But as I said, it comes to naught, and so we're left with just watching what's happening in the special room, as Jack comes back to Torchwood's temporary base, where Clement recognizes him as the man from 1965, and Jack reveals that they had given the 456 twelve children as a "gift" then -- and meanwhile, the 456 have announced that they want 10% of the world's children as another gift...

April 7: Children of Earth: "Day Four"

Man, if you thought the first three episodes were good, that's nothing compared to what "Day Four" brings -- not only do we get the same character drama as before, but we also get some terrible decisions being made as the plot advances.  The combination of this sends the audience on one hell of an emotional ride over the course of this hour, as Children of Earth continues to excel.

So the 456 want 10% of the children of the world.  That's a lot more than the twelve they wanted 44 years ago (oh, and hey, Rhys specifically mentions 44 years, so therefore this takes place in 2009 -- useful if you're the sort of person who wants to work out the dates of all the franchise shows of this era).  The flashbacks we get are interesting; it suggests that the 456 were offering a cure to a new strain of flu in exchange for those twelve kids.  That was a deal Britain was willing to make: the lives of twelve in exchange for saving twenty-five million.  It's interesting because here we get no such offer: it's "give us ten percent or we will wipe out your entire species."  As Gwen points out to Jack, it's essentially a protection racket, and now the 456 are leaning on the human race.

It's also quite disturbing to see what they've done to the children they were given; it's not clear why exactly they were needed, but seeing one of them connected up to the 456, still young and apparently conscious is really creepy.  "We do not harm the children.  They feel no pain.  They live long beyond their years," the 456 state.  "Oh well, that's OK then," Gwen replies sarcastically.  We know that, at the very least, the children aren't going to be treated well by our standards.  Yet, it seems the 456's threat has backed humanity into a corner.

As such, the most disturbing scenes in "Day Four" aren't those of the child hooked up to the 456 inside that tank, or the 456 spewing green bile all over the cameraman, but are instead those of the British government, trying to decide the best way to select 10% of the nation's children to give to the 456.  It's rather horrifying to watch them start from suggesting a purely random selection to eventually advocating a form of eugenics based on test scores:
Now look, on the one hand you've got the good schools.  And I don't just mean those producing graduates, I mean the pupils who will go on to staff our hospitals, our offices, our factories.  The workforce of the future.  We need them.  Accepted, yes?  So, set against that you've got the failing schools, full of the less able, the less socially useful.  Those destined to spend a lifetime on benefits, occupying places on the dole queue and, frankly, the prisons.  Now look, should we treat them equally?  God knows, we've tried, and we've failed.  And now the time has come to choose.  And if we can't identify the lowest achieving ten percent of this country's children, then what are the school league tables for?
The only upside to this (well, other than a chance to finally see Dalek-and-more voice artist Nicholas Briggs in front of the camera, as Rick Yates) is that Torchwood has been recording all of this (thanks to Lois), and they finally have enough material that they can use as leverage to get inside Thames House and confront the 456.  It really is something of a punch-the-air moment, as Lois stands up and slowly but with increasing confidence tells the assembled Cabinet that the meeting has been recorded and that Torchwood must be given access to the 456 or else all these meetings will be made public.  It really is a great moment.

Jack kisses Ianto goodbye. (Children of Earth: "Day Four") ©BBC
It's a shame that it goes south so quickly, though.  It's really great to see Jack and Ianto make a stand against the 456, to tell them what will happen if the 456 try to take the children -- "When people find out the truth, you will have over six billion angry human beings taking up arms to fight you," Jack tells them.  "That might be a fight you think you can win, but at the end of it, the human race in defence of its children will fight to the death.  And if I have to lead them into battle, then I will" -- but the consequences of that action are dire, as the 456 seal off Thames House and release a virus that kills everyone inside.  Tragically, this means that Ianto dies as well, with a very poignant death scene as he wonders if Jack will even remember him in a thousand years' time.  So goodbye to Ianto Jones, who became easily one of the best characters on Torchwood.

But now we see that the 456 have called Jack's bluff -- and it seems the British government has no choice but to comply with their terms.  "Two choices," Yates says.  "Either we go to war against an enemy we can't beat, or we go to war against our own people for their own good."  "An injury to one is not an injury to all," says Denise Riley, the engineer of the "lowest 10%" plan, explicitly refuting what Jack told the 456.  "We have to surrender."  "Thirty five million children," says the Prime Minister.  "Or six point seven billion people," Riley replies.  And so the stage is set for the final episode of Children of Earth...

April 8: Children of Earth: "Day Five"

"Day Five" sees things at their lowest and darkest point; Torchwood has failed, with their stand against the 456 resulting in Ianto's death and little more, and the only thing the world can do, it seems, is comply with the 456's demands in a way that doesn't make all the parents of the world suspicious until it's too late.

It's really terrible to watch the British government enact this plan to sacrifice children to appease an alien mobster (because that's how the 456 seem), and it's even worse when we learn why the 456 want the children: as sources of drugs.  "The hit," the 456 respond, after Colonel Oduya of UNIT asks them why.  "They create chemicals.  The chemicals are good. ... We feel good."  So this really does make the 456 seem like bullying pushers -- but it seems there's nothing we can do to stop them.

So we get a number of depressing scenes, as troops are mobilized to collect the selected 10% of the children under a pretense of receiving inoculations against being controlled by the 456.  Children being herded onto buses as parents and teachers voice their protests, while troops start breaking into homes to round up the remaining kids, are chilling moments, but it's the sight of John Frobisher slowly walking into his home, rounding up his family, and shooting them all and then himself so that they won't be handed over to the 456 (as Prime Minister Green has elected that Frobisher be the government's symbol that all is well with the "inoculations"), that is one of the most disturbing parts of the episode.  This tells us that there is no hope, and that the government will even betray its own to save itself.

Jack prepares to sacrifice his grandson to save the world.
(Children of Earth: "Day Five") ©BBC
The only reason we ultimately get out of this is because Johnson (of all people), when confronted with the truth of what the government is doing (thanks to those Torchwood recordings), breaks Captain Jack out of jail so that he can stop the 456 before it's too late.  And the only solution they have involves sacrificing a child in order to save the rest -- and the only child on hand is Jack's grandson Steven.  Jack, it seems, has no choice but to use Steven to send out a "constructive wave" along the 456 wavelength to hurt them.  It works (with a spectacular explosion inside the 456's tank before they head back to wherever they came from), but it kills Steven in the process -- an act which Alice seems unable to forgive her father for.  Not that Jack seems any happier about it.  So in the end the 456 are stopped, but it feels like a hollow victory.  (Although it seems Prime Minister Green is going to receive his comeuppance for being so politically manipulative -- Bridget Spears will see to that.  Which means that Britain's run through three prime ministers in as many years, it seems...)  So many people have died and Jack feels responsible for them, and he's tired of it.  So he runs away, out into the stars, leaving Gwen and Rhys behind.

Thus Children of Earth comes to an end.  It's been a tense, incredibly watchable thriller, and even when things seemed to be going down the tubes for the characters it remained compelling television.  This is a combination of good scripts from Russell T Davies, John Fay, and James Moran, and superb direction from Euros Lyn.  In many ways this series is pushing even further away from its parent show -- Doctor Who tends to go for triumphant endings, but Children of Earth is a depressing one.  It's really well done, but it's still as bleak as hell.  There are no easy answers here, and no Doctor to come in and save us.  As Gwen says in this episode,
There's one thing I always meant to ask Jack.  Back in the old days I wanted to know about that Doctor of his.  All those times in history when there's no sign of him, I wanted to know why not.  But I don't need to ask any more.  I know the answer now.  Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame.
Children of Earth is a miniseries designed to examine the darker side of humanity, the one that makes selfish bargains to save ourselves -- the side that explicitly doesn't believe that "an injury to one is an injury to all".  It's not a pretty side, and ultimately the heroes come from unexpected places -- such as Johnson, who puts the actual welfare of the nation over what she's been told is best, or Bridget Spears, who's willing to bring down a government in the name of justice, disgusted by what she witnessed in those meetings (although the implication that Denise Riley is going to be the one taking over is hardly reassuring).  And even the victors have to make bargains with the devil to succeed.

It's not the easiest five hours of television to watch.  But Children of Earth is incredibly compelling, and probably the best Torchwood they've put on screen.  It ends on a note of finality: "Are you ever coming back, Jack?" Gwen asks at the end.  "What for?" Jack replies, and nothing Gwen can say will stop him.  It's a show that's run the gamut from awful to amazing, but Torchwood, it seems, ends on a high note.

(Which makes it even more surprising that they ended up with a fourth season -- but that's still in the future...)


206 Presumably not the shape-shifting penguin who traveled with various Doctors in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip.