Torchwood: Children of Earth – an account of horrid classism
While Doctor Who is slowly establishing itself as a source for decent science fiction stories in America, its spin-off, Torchwood, is still an obscure property over here. Given the pop culture sensibilities of this country, it should have been an easy sell. Torchwood is Doctor Who‘s shadow. Torchwood shows a dark and gritty world of sex, swearing and pessimism while Doctor Who promises the romantic notion of clean fun while bringing out the best in everyone. Torchwood should be an easy sell because the first two series of its run are mature in the same way that R-rated movies and M-rated games are mature. Who doesn’t like violence, unnecessary swearing, and strong sexuality?
Then came Torchwood: Children of Earth. This third series can be considered an experiment by the producers, mostly because the BBC had to cut the budget and thus the entire run. Instead of 12 episodes, they received 5. Instead of the usual late Sunday night time slot, it was shown on five consecutive nights during the week. This is what television stations do to a show when they expect it to fail and just want to get it out of their system. Children of Earth should have floundered but was an absolute success. Focusing on five consecutive episodes forced the writers in a position to make a strong yet concise tale about human pessimism and survival.
The plot has been (somehow) compared to The Midwich Cuckoos because it features children in the present day becoming simultaneously possessed and delivering messages to the world around them. An alien species has come into orbit, threatening humanity unless they offer up 10% of their children. This race, called the 4-5-6 because of wave frequencies they have used to communicate, is said to have immeasurable strength. The worst thing is that they previously visited London in 1956 and made a similar threat – and were offered 12 children. They have come back because they know they can bully humanity for more.
Instead of focusing completely on the regular characters of Captain Jack Harkness, Ianto Jones, Gwen Cooper, and Rhys Williams, the series expands to offer a view of the London government, UNIT (the agency developed to combat alien threat), and members of the United States military. It is in these scenes that a horrid view of the world is displayed. The London government kept the first incident with the 4-5-6 under wraps, and now they are considering giving up to save themselves. A war against the aliens would destroy the world, so give them 10% of the children of Earth. Then viewers get to watch a meeting in which they discuss how the 10% will be determined. Obviously, none of the children of people in power will be affected. Also, none of the children in good schools and good areas. Give the aliens the undesirables, the ones least likely to succeed. They will just grow up living off of the government’s dollar anyway.
These scenes work so well because the viewers can say, “This is just fiction,” but then reflect on reality. Crises rarely affect those in power as much as they affect everyone else. Constant mention of the economy is made, partially as a dig at funding cuts that impacted the show but also to contextualize the affair. When national incidents occur, who pays? When solutions are realized, who pays? People of means rarely suffer the same indignities. Children of Earth smartly narrows in on those who suffer the most – the children. In reality we have yet to turn over kids to aliens who want them because they make them “feel good.” (Yes, pre-adolescents are used by the 4-5-6 as drugs, and the government agencies still move forward with their plan of child abduction,which is horrifying.) We just remove funding from schools, kill off jobs, offer jobs that require more travel and time away from children, depreciate teachers to the point of job dissatisfaction, but ultimately make sure that the bottom line remains the same for those in power (who, notable, do not reinvest in the country). It really is not that much different.
The main cast plays an important role in the series in their humanization of the issue. They visit their families during their investigation, they hide children after the executive decision, and they discuss the price that is always paid. Jack was present during the incident in 1956, as he was ordered to deliver the 12 children back then. Now he fears for the life of his grandchild. (Note: Jack Harkness is an immortal who never ages. He got to watch his wife die. His daughter now appears older than he, and they lie to the grandson about “Uncle Jack”.)
What really hammers in the whole spectacle is the horrid sacrifice viewers see in the finale and the amazing performance by Jack Barrowman as Jack Harkness. The viewer can tell that he is reflecting on everything he ever sacrificed in his 2000+ years living (he spent most of that buried alive, though). In Barrowman’s gaze the viewer can see loves lost, friends lost, families destroyed, children sacrificed, and the realization that he’ll always be there. It will always be his fault. This haunting moment in the end made Children of Earth known as the most depressing week ever on British television.
Absent from this particular series was excessive swearing, violence, and sexuality. Instead we got a moral drama, a love story (which I didn’t discuss because that element absolutely exploded in England), and an overall powerful story. It always makes me happy to find that actual mature content sometimes finds its way into science fiction.
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Torchwood: Children of Earth can be streamed in its entirety through Netflix, and later this year Torchwood will continue in Torchwood: Miracle Day in both Britain and American thanks to its being co-produced by the BBC and Stars.