Preview: A Television Event
July 20th, 2009
As a television-producing nation, Britain was very much at the forefront of the short-run series. While American networks tend to focus on syndication, with cable series being the one notable exception, British series like The Office and Extra (amongst others, of course) were amongst the first to eschew the “more is more” principle and embrace the concise, focused and effective season.
However, Torchwood: Children of Earth is a really intriguing little experiment. A fairly successful BBC series in its own right, the Doctor Who spinoff went from thirteen episode seasons in its first two years to a five-part, five night miniseries that aired as a week-long event a few weeks ago on the BBC, and airs this week on BBC America and Space in North America starting this evening. The miniseries is certainly more prevalent in Britain than it is in America: look at how American producers turned successful miniseries like The Eleventh Hour or State of Play into either television shows or movies as opposed to maintaining the format.
If I had to offer a theory as to why the miniseries has been predominantly ignored stateside, I’d suggest that it’s due to shifting perceptions of event television. Tracing back to the phenomenon of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (which coincidentally returns next month), the rise of reality television has shifted the concept of event television. While there are still shared television experiences that can bring people together, the simplicity of reality television has changed both the context and volume of such events. There is an event every few months, American Idol leading to America’s Got Talent leading to the next series that in its emphasis on viewer democracy creates an event. I can’t remember the last legitimately successful miniseries, and the presence of only two Miniseries in this year’s Emmy category (and the fact that Generation Kill was realistically more of a short-order series than a miniseries) would seem to indicate that the form is on its last legs.
What makes Torchwood: Children of Earth so interesting is that it was a huge hit in Great Britain, and the only thing legitimately standing in its way of being a big hit in North America is its accessibility through less than legal channels. It emerges as a piece of event television that may not be a third season in the way that some fans expected, and that certainly appeals more to fans of science fiction than to the kind of people who obsessed over Susan Boyle, but that in its deft use of plotting and sly combination of both continuity and exposition hooks the viewer in.
Children of Earth tells the story of Torchwood, an organization designed to protect Britain from extraterrestrial life forms, and in particular their response to a very strange scenario. At 8:40 in the morning, every single child around the world stops dead in their tracks, responding to no one and creating a series of accidents and more than a few red flags. The miniseries follows Torchwood’s efforts to respond to this crisis, as well as the government response. In both instances, there are a number of twists and turns more at home in a political thriller than your typical piece of science fiction, and yet at the core of everything is the unquestionable existence of extraterrestrial life.
I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say that despite my very minimal experience with Doctor Who and zero experience with Torchwood, I was thoroughly transfixed by tonight’s opening episode. I’ve never quite watched a piece of television that’s operated in this fashion, developing an intelligent serialized science fiction suspense thriller that in many ways offers the scripted equivalent to the game show event: by leaving you hanging at the end of the first night, desperate to discover what the uncertain future episodes will bring, and then actually delivering the following evening, it captured me in a way that a traditional series wouldn’t be able to. Children of Earth left this non-fan not only dying to move onto the next episode but also most interested in returning to the show’s first two seasons, which seems to me to be its ultimate goal.
And that’s the kind of event television that feels like a breath of fresh air during the summer television season. Torchwood: Children of Earth starts tonight on BBC America at 9/8c, and at 10pm EDT on Space Channel in Canada. I’ll be back later tonight with my thoughts on Part One; In the meantime, you can check out reviews from fellow relative Torchwood neophytes Dan Fienberg and James Poniewozik, as well as some more seasoned perspectives from Alan Sepinwall and Maureen Ryan.