Incredibly, I have gone for some... three months I think without watching Torchwood: Children of Earth. The 'I think' is because I had no idea when it was actually on to begin with, I just know that everyone else has brought it up over a looooong period and hasn't been able to believe the simple fact that I hadn't seen a single frame of it. And that somebody could promise to give me a copy and then forget for that long a period.
I wasn't fussed though, and it isn't because I dislike Torchwood, it's just that somehow it's difficult to care about. Even while watching the last season, which when all's said and done was undoubtedly better than the corresponding season of Doctor Who, it didn't seem as important. The taint of spin-off is upon it, and it will have to outgrow it - I think it did itself a hell of a lot of damage in the first season in this regard, as it endlessly wanted to remind the audience that we were watching the naughty bits of the Whoniverse with references about as subtle as a Goacher family euphemism. "Ooh, yes, all I want from a man is his juicy blue box, ffnar ffnar ffnar!" if you will.
Series two to me could not quite overhaul the damage - I haven't felt the need to rewatch any of the episodes, brilliant though they were, and I can't for the life of me remember what actually happened in the season finale. I know that Jack was buried alive and that Owen and Tosh died, but everything else is but a tabula rasa in my minds eye. I think it was entertaining. And I know PC Andy wasn't invited to Torchwood.
It's unfortunate then that Torchwood did not step up to the plate during the "RTD's got a headache" year, as I could have enjoyed it as a show on its own merits, rather than a dolled up but really-trying-to-hard companion piece of my actual true love that keeps shoving its tits in my face. Instead we get an odd five-specials-in-one-week format that is certainly innovative but just serves to push the Whoniverse further left of the radar. It seems especially a shame given that Torchwood has had big finales for each seasons but so far hasn't felt the need to threaten the Universe in larger ways each time and so would actually be sustainable as a series proper. But then, that would entail the EP of the series actually liking it on some level, and it's become ever increasingly clear that the show is RTD's ginger-headed stepson, the one that is locked in the cellar while DW and SJ play tetherball in the back yard laughing ever so gaily.
(I guess to complete the metaphor RTD is the widow of Verity Lambert, and he himself was her second husband after Sydney Newman who fathered the Torchwood child but named him The Troubleshooters. Terry Nation is the creepy uncle who liked to pretend he was married to his brothers wife, William Hartnell delivered the baby, Anthony Coburn was the drunken teacher who liked the cane too much, David Whittaker was like Kevin Klein in Dead Poets Society, John Nathan-Turner was the tail-gunner that DW stuck with in `Nam and Larry Miles is the insane next door neighbour who keeps leaving excrement in their mailbox)
Anyhow, now that I've actually seen four of the five episodes I think it's time to do something I don't do often enough: compliment RTD. Not really praise him, but he's probably earnt it from the script so far - if I could think of a verb between the two than that's what I'd be doing. It's almost as if the odd setup of the year has been designed for him to show of his not inconsiderable talents by not bothering to piss about with one-off episodes that don't allow for nearly enough exploration for this five-part spectacular serial that makes a lot of his other 'character pieces' look quite flat.
Perhaps what is most amazing about Children of Earth is the fact that it actually does what Torchwood is meant to. That is, it is an adult story in the Doctor Who universe that tells a story that Doctor Who could not. By adult, of course, I mean a story on an adult level, which is a rare definition these days - it is cerebral, thought-provoking, includes depth and grey morality. Adult. As opposed to being more juvenile than actual children's television yet including so much cock and bullet wounds you're sure that it can only be for grown-ups, even if they didn't write the bloody thing.
RTD isn't afraid to give us in-depth looks at characters who are unpleasant - Johnny is a selfish motherfucker you'd want to avoid (and you can see why Ianto wants to), Frobisher has all the hallmarks of the white-collar sociopath, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is, to the surprise of nobody who has followed this fictional universe, cuntdom personified. The thing that makes this great, though, is that it isn't all that simple. Johnny's warped heart is in the right place. Frobisher, amazingly, does care for his wife and family and there is a limit to what he could ever condone.
This stretches to the good guys as well. Captain Jack is deconstructed as, in his own way, similarly sociopathic to Frobisher due to the alienation his endless sojourn in meaningless time has given him - the incident with the children in the 1950s is a practically irrelevant aspect of his past. The bizarre children incidents don't even bring back the memories - only when seeing the faces does he make the connection. RTD ruthlessly portrays Jack as not much more than a conman who has simply elevated his skills and the stakes for which he plays - he is shown as being manipulative of Ianto and threatens to kidnap Frobisher's family. His role in the entire story, up to and very much including the fourth episode, is an ever escalating game of bluff that finishes as horribly as it is possible to do so - if you held that RTD's view of these characters is particularly grim the many, many horrors that Jack undergoes in this story (dying a lot more than usual, it has to be said) could be read as a lengthy penance for the hubris he has shown throughout the series so far and the number of innocent (or semi-innocent at least) lives that he has taken.
Finally Jack seems to register what pain and sacrifice truly means after losing a man to whom he at last bound himself to in genuine love, and facing the danger of losing his child and grandchild, who mean more to him than he realised. Notably, the hundreds of others for whose death he is directly responsible are not even acknowledged. These scenes contrast him nicely with the Doctor, as Jack has made not the most cursory effort to establish the aliens' ability and pays the heaviest consequence possible - all his bluster is only the pinnacle of his leviathanic game of bluff, which the 456 call with cold relish.
I'm probably reading too much into it, but even so I am genuinely impressed. Props to RTD for doing a story in the style of how-people-like-to-remember-Quatermass, and doing it so very, very well. It takes confidence to do an alien-invasion story without ever really showing the aliens (there'll probably be a reveal in Episode 5 of course..) and although it's never seemed RTD was lacking in that particular commodity, he's delivered better than I expected to be sure. The resonance this story has had with me and the fact that the similarly dark and brilliant The Ambassadors of Death hovers endlessly on the fringe of my DW top ten are certainly not coincidence.
But enough coherency! On to my petty complaints!
The first thing I notice is that only fat Welsh guys get laid in Cardiff. No offense to Kai Owens. Indeed, Johnny really puts Kai's svelte figure and beguilingly classical good looks into the proper perspective.
Onto something significant to the plot of the story - one of the few truly weak points would have to be the odd subplot of Dr Rupesh Patanjali. It is nice to have yet another reminder that Gwen is entirely delusional of her own abilities, as she appoints herself to be the perfect recruiting officer and immediately picks out the bloke who is a secret traitor waiting to destroy Torchwood from within, but this is one of the few blemishes on the story from a script level view of the action. Yes, it certainly is a twist when the good doctor turns out to be a secret agent working on behalf of Cache 9 or whoever the fuck these unnamed inglorious bastards are, but it's a special sort of television twist you see used, where the reason the viewer doesn't guess is because it makes no sense whatsoever.
Put yourselves in the shoes of somebody wanting to destroy Torchwood forever. Who is not named Russell T. Davies. You decide you need a man on the inside. How do you arrange this? Well, apparently the answer is to get one of your many handy fully-qualified surgeons who moonlights as a shadowy agent with the ability to pistol whip men with centuries of military experience unconscious in the blink of an eye, get him a job in Cardiff emergency ward and... just wait until Torchwood show up. Then train to him to make no noticeable reaction when he recognises two of their agents and use his incredible acting skill to appear horrified by an appearance of an alien creature he already knew about, to stand around acting gormless after they reveal themselves for a set period of time, jog after them at a pace very nearly slow enough to miss them completely and show them your low-rated Torchwood fan script about necrophiliac aliens who've been having it off with Tosh.
Is this another measure of the opinion that Torchwood is held in - that they are so cack-handed they're bound to reveal themselves to anyone in Cardiff given a certain period of time, so all Rupesh has to do is just be in the general vicinity? Okay, certain bits of the canon support this view but they also border on suggesting that Torchwood is so publicly known (to the harmless old granny and PC Plod demographics) that nobody would even care about infiltrating them. But then continuity is probably TW's biggest setback so this probably doesn't even warrant conversation given the Hitler-like string of atrocities in this department it leaves behind it..
The point is I reeeeally didn't buy it.
Most of what prevented me from enjoying the first episode-and-a-bit of the story was production stuff, which I realise can't be helped. Clearly one of the germs of this idea stemmed from the old notion of something very simple also being very creepy - just as it was in Midnight with the childish game of repeating everything, so it is here with the idea of all the children in the world suddenly stopping. All you would need to film is a few schoolyards of children standing freakishly, eerily still. What could go wrong?
Well, it turns out that there are a few things that can go wrong, most of them related to the actual talent of the child actors you're relying on. For instance, almost all the extras you end up with may be complete rubbish at standing still. And the sheer logistics determine that you won't be able to portray the children as having been doing anything, giving the impression that all the children in the world were standing around looking in random directions blankly at the point the world froze. And then when you need them to speak in unison they're even worse, exacerbated by the fact the voice is added in post so absolutely none of them are in synch at all. And then the episode under-runs so ALL the embarassing bits from the rushes end up in the episode.
This is followed up by an oh-so-close moment in the start of Episode 2, where he cut between Gwen's POV and the second camera - all foley effects either vanishing or becoming massively distorted when we are seeing the former. This could be great - except there's bucketloads of needless brass over the top of it! Stop the orchestra for a moment! Are they meant to be playing nearby so we're illustrating Gwen can't hear them or something? It ruins the effect. I find it sad that it's apparently so inconceivable that you can have a big moment in a drama series without drowning it in OTT soundtrack these days..
Mind you, I've been watching a lot of Rumpole of the Bailey lately, which is undoubtedly a factor. That show doesn't have ANY incidental music!
For me, the killer piece of entertainment in this episode was seeing the typical POWER WALK that our heroes engage in whenever faced with bad guys somewhere at the end of a series of long corridors, the heroes in this case being Ianto and Jack, Ianto in his full pink-silk-shirt Battle Butler regaylia. Naturally Murray Gold provides his usual London Symphony Orchestra / techno beats medley timed along with their strutting to give it all the right level of bombasticity (just below overdose levels).
You may wonder why I liked this, as it's the sort of squee-bait that I am generally entirely unphased by. Well, for the simple reason that for plot reasons, in this jolly "Hey fangirls, check out our buns" romp, the plot necessitates that Mr Decker goes to the top floor with Jack and Ianto. And so, we're treated to seeing an old bloke in forty-year old glasses frames and a coat that looks like one of Del Boy's hand me downs trying to his best Power Walk with the real heroes.
There are certain times when the bounds of all normality are transcended, and nothing but glory is beyond. This... is champagne drama.
In contrast, there was a bit clearly designed to make me cry. Well, not me personally - I'm not the target demographic personified, per se, though like all fans I wish I were. But any way.. I was meant to be very upset. I'm referring to Ianto's untimely demise, which I couldn't find any care in my being for.
For me, the issue is that Ianto's characterisation has been so massively inconsistent over the run of the show that he became more of a prop than any sort character to me. Even in series 2, there didn't seem to be complete certainty over whether he was some sort protypical Generation-X emo, a deadpan snarky wasp, a bisexual, a homosexual, an upbeat character or a complete killjoy, the teams moral compass or just the bloke who handles tea and pizza. I realise a big part of this is the fact he wasn't even meant to live past Episode 4, but just because he was the victim of a troubled production doesn't make the character any less coherent.
Full credit to RTD for giving the character 100% consistent characterisation in this story (even if it's slightly different than some of what's come before - his butling abilities in this story now reach freakishly towards Jeeves-grade..) and writing a poignant death scene for him. I'm a big hang-up bloke when it comes to continuity though, so for me it just seemed like the latest in a long string of similar-yet-different characters played by Gareth David Lloyd had died.
During the first two episodes I was honestly so underwhelmed that when I realised On a Day Like This by Elbow was playing in the scene where Gwen first meets Lois that was my personal highlight.
One of the factors in that was a contrived piece of writing - Frobisher shows the lady with the face a folder that contains a blank piece of paper. She then sends an email to an assassin named "Blank page" (or something like that, I watched it weeks ago now..). But... the effectiveness of this codeword is immediately undermined by the fact that she writes in the email (In an office where all emails are obviously going to be backed up and stored, what's more) that these are people to be killed. What's the use of a code word if the person on the other end isn't aware of what it means, and if she is, why put it in writing!
Yes, it's so Lois (and thus the audience) can see it and then be directly alleviated of the burden of having to use logic for a moment, but the thing is it becomes clear in such a short period of time that people are setting out to kill Jack anyway, why should you bother? The audience finds out somebody's been sent to kill Jack because they're sent, and Lois finds out because the next day they say Captain Jack's dead.
I know, the rest of the script assumes intelligence but I wish it was 100% across the board. I'm a pedantic dick like that..
Speaking of Lois, there are some contrived moments in her subplot aren't there? I was wondering if she was some cousin of the army-sized Jones brood, such was her talent for getting a top job and instantly embroiled in alien-conspiracy-intrigue on her first day. Not only does she get her first position in such an important and top-secret sector, the woman with the highest clearance gives her her password to use for the day, which is also identical to her email log-on.
It's one of those things where I have no idea whether they're meant to be grossly incompetent as some sort of deliberate in-joke, especially when she does the whole "Mr Frobisher likes me to wear short skirts and giggle and now he wants me to follow him everywhere even into the men's bathrooms *tee-hee-hee*" performance and it works. And then Frobisher goes on to never question her presence in the many, many, MANY very sensitive events she is present at thereafter.
Incidentally, it's interesting that Frobisher's wife is a lot more attractive than the secretary with whom he once had an affair. But then those days may have been before his wedding. (Peter Capaldi isn't an oil painting himself, I guess...)
I was driven batshit insane trying to work out where the hell I'd seen Prime Minister Green before - at first I thought it was Geoffrey Palmer again... but no... scrabble, scrabble, scrabble blindly through my brain trying to find the answer whilst ignoring all his dialogue until I realise that it's Nicholas Farrell, the bloke who played arguably the most despicable upper-class villain in Sharpe, Lord Fenner, Secretary of the State at War, in Sharpe's Regiment.
You know..? That guy who goes "I have become death!" Who has his own live-in prostitute he's blackmailed and is hinted at beating regularly? Who attempts to destroy the South Essex regiment and makes thousands of pound from in the meantime? Who's best mates with Michael Cochrane?
No? Ah, well, he's an arsehole in that. And in this! I guess when you have a voice like that type-casting sets in...
Earlier I mentioned Ianto's butler abilities having grown ridiculously. I stand by this, as in this story he seems to have taken on the role of Deus Ex Machina to an extent, which may be the true reason for why he had to die, like K9 before him. Jack is in a solid chunk of concrete PLUS Rhys and Gwen are going to be shot! Oh, never fear, Ianto has gotten through a barbed wire fence with patrols of armed guards, hotwired a massive forklift-crane thing, stolen a council vest and hardhat for purely aesthetic reasons, worked out the controls and then found the patch of wall he needs to steal in the space of about ten minutes. Off screen.
He then goes on to find an exact replica of Jack's clothing, in the right size in an army surplus shop WHILE buying groceries WITHIN his very humble budget! As Ewen points out, it isn't out of character at all for Ianto to try but... seriously, this is outside the realms of plausibility. Yes, this is a show about aliens but come on, I have SOME standards.
The thing is, this could have been even better if Ianto had failed. Just imagine if he'd only been able to find a WWII commodore outfit instead - and Jack would hate it but he'd have to wear it so Ianto wouldn't be disappointed and put up with a heap of 'hello sailor!' cracks, etcetera. Sigh, the possibilities.
On an unrelated note, why did they hide out in an old Torchwood holding facility as opposed to any number of other abandoned warehouses in London where the badguys wouldn't think of looking?
What the hell is with the PM's argument that it will look better if Sir Humphrey Appleby and the secret service handle negotiations? It seems a bit contrived. I can kind of understand the logic, but the thought of the Americans accepting that is far fetched. At the least I'd have expected them to demand some of their own unelected agents be present...
Clem McDonald's hyper-olfactory powers are really, really cool. Plus I liked the unusual degree of realism when he smelt Ianto was gay, referred to him as a 'queer', and Gwen and Rhys were more taken aback by Ianto's angry response than Clem's passive discrimination. Furthermore, Clem's next line almost seems to suggest he uses the term without any hate, just not knowing how else to refer to a gay man. That could be all due to Paul Copley’s brilliant performance, naturally, but it's still very nice to see in a TV world where the attitude seems to be in the past there was a) people like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mocking Bird or b) Evil motherfuckers who mistreated everyone and were responsible for all discrimination.
It's a pet peeve of mine that came up when I read somebody saying that former PM George Reid didn't deserve a Federal seat named after him because he voted for a law that effectively banned Aboriginals from public schooling in the NSW State parliament. This person was seemingly unaware that when the issue of giving Aboriginals the vote was table before the Federation convention, including as every schoolboy should know the luminaries and future PMs Alfred Deakin and Edmund Barton among several others, there wasn't even any discussion on the issue at all.
Perspective is important, and we cannot judge people in the past by the standards of today.
The BBC sadly makes their ability to stage action scenes look a little limited, as when Female Mercenary Bitch corners first Gwen and Rhys and later Jack's daughter, the blocking is near identical. I got a little deja vu when I watched it.
Finally, one of the moments that really rankled me was when Ianto asks Jack "Where are we going to get a kid?" The answer seems to be "From the scriptwriters!"
Fair enough, Jack having a daughter and grandchild we've never seen before is completely plausible in every possible way. But Ianto... I have some trouble accepting his family who have never ever been so much as referenced before but with whom he is apparently quite familiar with, and who also live in Cardiff - although the suggestion seemed to be that he lived in London.
I guess it's another case of "Jenna teaches kindergarten in between smuggling raids"...
Well enough of my mad ranting, I'll be watching the final episode today!