July 20th, 2009
The trope of creepy children is not exactly new . Not only have there been numerous horror films that have utilized the form, but there have also been numerous parodies – I may have never seen Children of the Corn or Village of the Damned, for example, but I have seen The Simpsons’ parody of them when Springfield’s youth sneak into a late night showing of The Bloodening. A quick check of TV Tropes (which, if you haven’t discovered it before, is a wonderful way to waste hours of your time) indicates that this is not exactly something new, which could indicate that Torchwood: Children of Earth is at risk of being derivative.
However, like any good piece of science fiction, Children of Earth is about the reaction to a particularly strange phenomenon rather than the event itself, and where the miniseries sets itself apart is in the diversity of responses. By focusing on two very different agencies at the heart of Britain’s response to this crisis, and by introducing a combination of characters who will become more important as the series goes on as well as hints that there is more than meets the eye to this conflict, one realizes that the creepy children are an entrance point.
What emerges in “Day One” of this special Torchwood event is the way in which these creepy children are a uniting force. There’s a scene where Frobisher, a civil servant, asks a colleague whether or not he has any children of his own, and he responds that he simply didn’t have the time. However, while it may initially seem like an uncanny introduction to a broader conflict, the use of children as a central theme provides a connective thread for all of the series’ characters: all are in some way effected by children, and the result is a sense that the stakes are not only political or extraterrestrial (this is science fiction) but also personal.
With all of that out of the way, meanwhile, the show can get to blowing things up – there’s plenty of excitement to join its more subtle points of development.
I don’t normally watch Torchwood, but I did know two things going in: first off, that Captain Jack Harkness was bisexual, and second that the show dealt with aliens. That isn’t a whole lot of context, but I thought the miniseries did a good job of introducing just what Torchwood is. It’s an agency designed to deal with extra-terrestrial affairs, hopefully keeping them out of the hair of the government: there’s a point where Frobisher indicates that Torchwood is a pain in the ass (Harkness is certainly not particularly pleasant to deal with), but that they are an effective tool for assisting in matters that are somewhat outside of the jurisdiction of the civil service. From what I’ve seen, they have (or, well, had) a lot of cool technology, and they utilize it to interact with extraterrestrial lifeforms – Gwen’s discussion with Clement MacDonald indicate that this is quite a common occurence, and the miniseries establishes this well.
It also establishes that this is not just any normal threat. The manifestation within children is one thing, but the government’s response is particularly intriguing. They don’t quite know how to handle this, and the 456 (which appears to be a code-name for an alien race that the government dealt with in the past) upends their entire hierarchy. While it’s certainly a bit choreographed, I like having Lois in the midst of the government office, observing first hand the madness at hand before (I presume) eventually integrating into the central mystery. There’s a lot of political complexity at play, including implications that Britain is in some way responsible for the 456’s general anger – it remains unclear just what happened to Clement’s friends from the Cherry Hill orphanage back in 1968, but the government’s culpability would explain the necessity for a number of key figures (including Harkness) to be eliminated.
The plot side of things really handles itself here: creepy children are always effective (especially the whole screaming thing, that was more than a bit uncanny), and government scrambling to handle crisis is a pretty safe bet. Where the series really shines is how it uses these events to handle character development that balances (I presume) the need for new viewers like me to get to know them and for older viewers to see a new side of them. Captain Harkness’ immortality is something I’ve been somewhat aware of, but it was very clearly demonstrated when he, you know, got shot and came back to life (twice). That entire sequence, with the less than pleasant government assasin of sorts at the helm, was effectively disarming whether I’ve ever met her character before, which says something about the way Harkness’ immortality was utilized.
The same goes for both Ianto’s decision to come “out” to his sister (if you can call his “It’s not Men, it’s just Jack” as coming out) as well as Gwen’s smell-driven discovery that she is three weeks pregnant. The former point offers some sense of the team’s dynamic, while the latter point gives Gwen her own reason to be particularly concerned with the fate of small children. There’s a strong scene at the very end of the first part where Frobisher, Harkness’ daughter (which is just weird, but whatever), and a number of other parental figures react to the children again beginning their call of “We are coming.” You begin to understand that we’ve met these people not because they have children (which is admittedly why Jack and Ianto visit them) but because the children allow us an excuse to view more sides of this event. Science fiction is always about the reactions, and by giving us a glimpse into various perspectives (government, shady government, Torchwood, Parents, an insane person) the miniseries has set itself up to only grow more in the episodes to come.
Ultimately, “Part One” did precisely what it needed to do, controlling every question I ended up asking. Instead of being confused about what I’ve missed, I was concerned exclusively with what would happen in the future. There’s a forward momentum to the series that never really lets up, and in many ways the pacing reminded me of the way 24 operates. However, while that show is tied to its real time format and can often spend too much time caught up in bureaucracy, this series has a far more interesting setup and a much tighter narrative drive, the kinds of things which very quickly got me caught up in the show’s narrative, fan or no fan.
- I haven’t actually recognized any of the actors in the miniseries, although some of them look incredibly familiar: this, I feel, is definitive proof that there are too many good, middle-aged British actors working today. Gosh darn them and their endless pool of talented individuals.
- The one tidbit I’ll drop here having moved onto “Day Two” already – the series poses questions about why children are speaking English all around the world, and why they would ignore the plurality Mandarin-speaking global population if analyzing Earth. What I realized after the fact was that the answer was actually in this episode, I just didn’t put two and two together.