July 24th, 2009
As an experiment, I don’t really know how we’re supposed to qualify Children of Earth as a piece of television. Are we supposed to be judging it as if it were a season of Torchwood? If so, I can’t really offer an opinion on that subject, as my lack of experience with the show previously would make me an unfair judge. At the same time, is it really fair to consider the miniseries as a standalone piece of entertainment when it hinged so much on both past character associations and future ramifications? While I’m ready to sing its praises from that perspective, certainly entering into the upper echelon of television that I’ve seen this year, that probably doesn’t cover the entirety of the show’s success.
As such, all I can really do is say this: while “Day Four” struggled from moving too quickly, and “Day Five” inevitably struggled with the same pacing issues necessitated by the five-episode cycle, Torchwood: Children of Earth is nonetheless ending in a way that so few shows are able to. In this final part, emotional beats range from the disturbing to the tragic, the triumphant to the tragic, the climactic to the tragic, and…did I mention tragic? The series is all about that underlying element of tragedy, an unescapable sense that whatever is about to happen in these interactions with the 4-5-6 is just another drop in the water when it comes to society’s failings – “Day Four” evoked the idea that these children had already been failed by the government, so their use as bargaining chips with the 4-5-6 was just an extreme extension of that. It’s a horrifying and chilling notion, and one that the final episode of the miniseries drives home in a number of key tragedies.
Let’s just put it this way: if this is a happy ending, Russell T. Davies is truly (as Alan Sepinwall once noted) a bastard, although one who’s crafted a brilliantly compelling series of television.
If fans of Torchwood were most affected by Ianto’s death in “Day Four,” an event that certainly moved me, the most effective moments in “Day Five” were those that were driven more by the standalone storyline being told in these episodes. That, really, is an impressive feat: that they could in the span of four episodes craft enough of a complex political scenario whereby John Frobisher’s murder-suicide of himself, his wife and his two daughter can hit as hard as it does would be an inspiring piece of television plotting if it wasn’t also so damn tragic and depressing. At that point, one could attempt to choreograph that 10% of the world’s children weren’t going to be turned over to the 4-5-6, that someone would be able to figure out how to stop them, and yet for Frobisher it was going to be too late. When we leave this scenario, he and his family are casualties of not an alien attack, but the human compulsion to lie to a nation in order to cover up the nature of that attack. The political side of this storyline was always about the response to the 4-5-6, and yet only Frobisher and here a Colonel were able to actually correspond with the creature – that everyone who made the decisions sat in a board room separated from it, and largely had deliberations that were outside of the context of extra-terrestrial involvement, is just that much more damning.
While the darkness of Frobisher’s tragic end is certainly dark, Davies wasn’t done: Jack Harkness, having just faced the fact that a failed strategy resulted in his lover’s death, finds himself in a position where he is forced to murder his own grandson in order to save 10% of the children of the world. It’s an easy equation on one level, but that Jack is forced to go through with it (and listen to his daughter screaming for it all to stop) is an example of just how complex this happy ending really was. For Jack, who we learn already has baggage as it relates to this issue, to have to make another morally questionable decision that destroys his relationship with his daughter and betrays whatever trust has been placed on him by her (and perhaps others, if he extrapolates) is a punch to the gut that just amplifies the sense of tragedy. When Harkness leaves for another planet at series’ end, saying that there is yet more dirt to kick off his shoes and that the world’s status as one giant graveyard is beginning to wear him down, you feel as if these events are certainly going to last with him long after, in a way that those 11 Children back in 1965 did for some time before he eventually came to terms with it.
Yes, Davies does ultimately offer something approximating a happy ending: to counteract the death, you have Gwen and Rhys about to have a baby, the bringing of life into the world in a time after this crisis, plus Ianto’s sister and all of the children she helped harbour. For them, this is certainly a victory, and yet we’ve seen so many ramifications that we can’t really focus on that. One thing that any serialized show (like 24, my most used comparison, or even The Wire) does is tend to leave a season on a note of closure while emphasizing those elements which are less than stable. Here, I think Davies hasn’t even bothered to strike a balance: while Gwen’s pregnancy is a quiet note of peace, and Bridget Spears’ triumphant use of Torchwood’s contact lenses to film everything ongoing in the board room does promise the ouster of the heartless Prime Minister, I can’t help but be left with an absolute sense of tragedy. The Wire’s series finale left me with a similar feeling, but the length of the series and its grounding in reality meant that you had a lot of evidence to go back to in terms of why some things happened and others did not. Here, precipitated by an alien invasion and complicated by the speed at which everything happened, Davies really does come off as a bastard who enjoys the human condition of wondering why the world is out to get them.
As far as “Part Five” goes, however, I do have one issue. I’m not entirely sure what good it did them, narratively speaking, to reveal that the 4-5-6 are using the children as a form of drug. It’s a disturbing image, don’t get me wrong, but it seemed like a bit of a non sequitor, a note that makes an all too simple parallel to traditional notions of trade but was then never mentioned again (and, in fact, never heard by anybody outside of that room). The 4-5-6 are an intriguing race, certainly, but once the reverse-signal that killed Clement MacDonald (glossed over somewhat, to be honest, in the rush to the finish line) was sent back to them they were going to disappear: if their purpose for the children was left a mystery, I’m not sure that it would have really hurt their credibility. It seemed like that knowledge was supposed to be another sign that what the aliens were going to do with the children was particularly disturbing, so as to make the Prime Minister more of a monster, and to make the necessity to give into them more morally reprehensible, but I don’t think that was necessary. It was a piece of shorthand that, while effective to some degree, wasn’t as organic as those which came before it.
Really, though, I don’t think I can stress enough just how much I enjoyed Children of Earth – coming with little to no background in this universe, the series moves briskly and features enough new additions to the franchise for it to be able to quite effectively construct a frame of reference for viewers like me and play on the allegiances of regular viewers simultaneously. Then, meanwhile, it just goes “balls to the wall” (if you’ll excuse the phrase), not stopping until its conclusion, at which point Jack Harkness is unable to stop with it, having to travel around in order to resituate his point of view. With the huge success of the series on BBC1 in the UK, and a lot of hype/support from critics (and maybe viewers, depending on the BBC America numbers) stateside, I have no doubts that Torchwood is going to live on.
As for how it’s going to live on, however, one can’t be entirely sure. Personally, I really like the event miniseries as a form for the show, but part of me is also interested to see how it differs from the show’s regular structure, and to what degree these miniseries would be intriguing sorts of “special events” between other seasons of the show rather than the show’s generalized format. It raises some really intriguing questions about seriality and whether this condensed form really support the show’s regular cast/concept, but from all evidence I’d consider Children of Earth a tragic, depressing but damn entertaining success, so either way I’m on the lookout for both what comes next and what came before.
Mission accomplished, I reckon.
- It’s not a new technique, but shooting the murder-suicide from outside the door was as chilling as it usually is – I knew I was waiting for four gunshots as soon as he started going up the stairs. I had been so hopeful that he would go out guns-blazing into the crowd of security outside of his house or do something else instead, but when he hit those stars I knew that this is where Davies was going. I got chills.
- Davies does love his triumphant moments, doesn’t he? I thought both Bridget’s use of the contact lenses and Alan the Police Officer throwing off his police vest to join in the riot were moments where these side characters really came into their own, something that I think any show like this ultimately needs. It was well executed in both instances, but I’m still left depressed about the whole thing.
- Maybe it’s just that almost all fictional depictions of British politics reminds me of The Queen, but this reminded me of The Queen in some regards. Part of me almost wishes that we could have gotten a broader image of how other countries were responding to the crisis, but at the same time I think diluting the focus on the British politics side would negate some of the stark investigation of human morality that the show wanted to display. Complicating that with a nationalist statement (made somewhat through the different responses to the revelation about London being the centre of everything in the various media reports, but never explicitly) is not something they realistically could have done. And, while the stuff with the United Nations and the American representative was interesting, I actually thought it was underdeveloped and never really presented a cohesive narrative focus.