I considered doing a review of Season Two of Torchwood, to follow up on my review of the first season, but that’s essentially more of the same, except that it gets steadily darker. However, “Season Three” (in quotes for reasons I will explain later), Children of Earth, is more than worth a look. (Warning: this review contains a couple of spoilers for the previous seasons.)
The Torchwood team is down to Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), and Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd); Gwen’s husband, Rhys Williams (Kai Owen) has become a de facto member of the team — he just knows too much to be excluded.
Suddenly, all the children on earth stop what they’re doing and repeat, in unison, and in English, “We are coming.” This happens several times, and parents, as might be expected, are becoming concerned — especially since the children have no memory of what they just did. However, the government knows what’s afoot, and isn’t about to let anyone else in on the secret. It seems that this is contact by aliens known as “Four Five Six,” after the wavelength on which they communicate, and this is not their first visit. In 1965, they showed up demanding twelve children, who were duly handed over — except for one, who escaped at the last minute. One of the four soldiers involved in the transaction was Capt. Jack Harkness, who immediately becomes a target for assassination: Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) has been handed the task of dealing with this whole thing (the Prime Minister realizes he is in desperate need of plausible deniability), and orders the elimination of everyone involved in the previous contact by a special squad under the command of Agent Johnson (Liz May Brice), who plants a bomb in Capt. Jack’s stomach and manages to take out the entire Torchwood Hub in Cardiff, although Gwen and Ianto escape. They manage to get in contact with Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo), who has recently started working for Frobisher and who has access to his secret files. They provide her with a set of “broadcast” contact lenses, so that they can monitor what she sees, which first leads them to where Capt. Jack is being held (encased in concrete, as if that would do any good).
The Four Five Six ambassador arrives with a new demand: 10% of all the children on Earth. Events play out as expected, but not without a few edgy moments along the way.
This sounds very complex, and is, but happily it’s much more neatly relayed through video than through words — and the above is pretty bare-bones.
First off, just to get it out of the way: Wow! This one packs a huge emotional punch on a lot of fronts, about which more below. It’s also a searing indictment of politicians in general, although not without moderation — the Prime Minister (Nicholas Farrell) is faced with an impossible situation, although it’s not to his credit that his first recourse is self-preservation. (Of course, he turns out to be a cold-blooded piece of bleep, so you were right not to have any sympathy for him.) Frobisher makes exactly the wrong decision by ordering the assassination of Capt. Jack, based as much on his limited perspective (read “imagination”) as on his desire to save his own neck.
It’s a strong story, but once again, it comes down to the actors, who are superb. The overriding emotional context is equal parts desperation and loss, which play a part in every character’s motivations. Nowhere does this come through so clearly as in Barrowman’s performance: we’ve had hints before in the series as to what kind of person Capt. Jack is — fast, decisive, used to making the hard decisions, he’s someone who has a broader view than his colleagues, sometimes seemingly ruthless, almost amoral, but finally, human. This season throws the doors — and windows — wide open. Capt. Jack is really the focus here, and Barrowman delivers: it’s a subtle, nuanced rendering, and what’s even more amazing, the rest of the cast turns in performances of equal caliber. As an example: There is a brief scene right at the end, after Jack has had to make a sacrifice that costs not only him but his daughter Alice (Lucy Cohu) heavily. Alice is leaving the site and pauses to give Jack a look, itself almost indescribable, but you know when she turns to go that she has just broken off all future contact with her father. It’s another one of those amazing little bits that fill in what otherwise would be gaps in the story.
The history is that Torchwood, although it had proven very popular in the first two seasons, was slated for cancellation. Children of Earth was produced as a filler and ran for five consecutive evenings in July, 2009 — widely considered a “graveyard slot.” The ratings broke records, which led to a fourth season and ultimately a fifth.
This is a tough one — there are a couple of scenes that are devastating to watch, and while I’m trying desperately to avoid spoilers, let me just say that Capt. Jack loses the man he loves in this one, and a “farewell” scene that could have been mawkishly sentimental turns out to be really tough. That’s really a characteristic, not only of Children of Earth, but the series as a whole.
Viewed on Netflix, where it is no longer available. It is available on DVD and online at several streaming services, including iTunes and Amazon.
(BBC Wales, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, BBC Worldwide Productions, 2009)