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Hard Choices and Tipping Points: An Advance Review of BBC America's "Torchwood: Children of Earth"

When Torchwood started out, it was a darker and more adult version of the long-running British sci-fi series Doctor Who geared towards the post-watershed hour. It was violent, sexy, and provocative.

Two seasons later, Torchwood has established itself in its own right and made an indelible impression on its devoted audience, who gravitate towards its morally compromised characters, bleak storylines, and the lack of happy endings. Season Two ended with the death of two of the Torchwood team's members and, as the five-episode event Torchwood: Children of Earth begins, the team is still reeling from their deaths in their own ways.

Death has always been a part of Torchwood. It's a seductively dark series where everyone is painfully mortal. That is, except for the immortal Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who is fitfully unable to throw off his mortal coil, despite no lack of risk or danger. For Jack, death is a quotidian part of life, like the passing of the seasons. Even so, the loss of Tosh and Owen is like losing a limb for Jack and his Torchwood associates Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). The Hub, the team's Cardiff base of operations, is eerily silent, a monument to their lost comrades and to their enduring work. Which would be hard enough if the team weren't about to face their greatest challenge yet in Torchwood: Children of Earth, written by Russell T. Davies, John Fay, and James Moran and directed by Euros Lyn.

I had the opportunity to watch all five episodes of the gripping Torchwood: Children of Earth, which air Stateside on BBC America next Monday through Friday evenings, and was enthralled by a plot that's as heartbreaking as it is thought-provoking.

Spoiler-phobes, no worries. Because Torchwood: Children of Earth is a thriller in the very best sense of the word, I'm not going to go into too much detail here about the plot or give away any spoilers, it's really best enjoyed when you're truly in the dark about what's going to happen next.

So what's the basic set-up of Torchwood: Children of Earth? Jack, Gwen, and Ianto are still processing the aforementioned deaths of Tosh and Owen while they continue to go about their top-secret business of guarding the Rift and keeping Earth safe from extraterrestrial threats by any means necessary. (Wondering what happened to Freema Agyeman's Martha Jones, whom Jack wanted to leave UNIT and join the team in Doctor Who's "Journey's End"? We're told she's on her honeymoon but just who she married is a mystery for another day.)

At its weakest point, something happens that shakes Torchwood to its very core and may destroy the team altogether: the imminent arrival of an alien race, which appears to be speaking through every child on the planet. Just what do these aliens want? Why have they come to Earth and announced their presence in such a fashion? And how does it connect to a previous incursion on British soil by the so-called "456" in 1965? Can Torchwood stop them in time? And what secrets are several characters hiding?

The cast for Torchwood: Children of Earth is top-notch. Barrowman, Myles, and David-Lloyd anchor the five episode thriller with aplomb. Barrowman turns in the performance of his career to date, taking Captain Jack Harkness to some very dark, scary places and forcing Jack to deal with some unpleasant skeletons in his closet.

Myles in particular is sensational and it's fascinating to compare her strong and confident performance here with her first appearance on the series and see just how much Gwen has grown as a character while still providing the team's heart and soul. Of all of Torchwood's members, Gwen has managed to do something that the others have not: made both halves of her life complete. By bringing her husband Rhys (Kai Owen) into the circle of trust, she appears to be the only Torchwood member capable of having something resembling a normal life. Likewise, it's nice to see Owen's Rhys play a much bigger role here than in Torchwood itself; for a change, Rhys isn't a liability for Gwen but proves himself a valuable and capable member of the team and Owen ably demonstrates just why this powerful, sexy, and brainy woman would choose to spend her life with Rhys.

For Ianto, on the other hand, it's not so easy. He's dating--sort of--Captain Jack though it's clear that it's not all sunshine and roses in their relationship. For one thing, Ianto wants more than Jack is seemingly able to give and he's keenly aware of the fact that he will grow old and die while Jack will live on, young and handsome. Similarly, he can't bring himself to tell anyone the truth, keeping both the professional and personal sides of his life in the dark. He still hasn't told his sister Rhiannon (Katy Wix) the truth about his career or his sexuality... and hasn't actually told Torchwood anything about his past. David-Lloyd makes Ianto's situation painfully real and sympathetic, rendering suited coffee boy Ianto a tragic figure caught between duty and love.

The supporting cast assembled for Torchwood: Children of Earth is equally talented. Special kudos go out to Peter Capaldi's Machiavellian civil servant John Frobisher, a man whose duty is to protect the United Kingdom and its secrets and who proves himself early on only too willing to cross a number of moral boundaries to do so. Likewise, newcomer Cush Jumbo (Harley Street), who plays junior PA Lois Habiba is a real find; she manages to fit seemlessly into the plot and stand out among some of Britain's most talented actors. (Something tells me that we'll be seeing more of the deftly charismatic Jumbo in years to come.) Paul Copley turns in a jaw-dropping performance as Clement McDonald, one that's light years away from a previous turn as a cuckolded husband in BBC's seminal drama The Lakes. Lucy Cohu (Meadowlands) is fantastic as the enigmatic Alice Carter, who has a surprising link to Captain Jack; Liz May Brice is coolly menacing as ruthless MI-5 enforcer Agent Johnson; and Nicholas Farrell is terrifying as the self-serving Prime Minister Brian Green. (Hmmm, Gordon Brown and Brian Green. Coincidence?)

While Torchwood: Children of Earth functions on a surface level as a rip-roaring political thriller crossed with an alien invasion drama, it's actually a canny exploration of society today, asking tough questions about the worth of the individual. Captain Jack speaks about making hard choices and it holds true for each and every character in the five-episode third season, giving the event a weightiness and merit all its own.

Sacrifice is a major thematic component of Torchwood: Children of Earth and its influence snakes its way insidiously throughout the plot. In a crisis, such as the one that looms on the horizon in Torchwood: Children of Earth, which of us has value? Which ones of us are expendable? And who decides which moral lines in the sand we can--and should--cross when faced with unspeakable terror? Does the good of the many outweigh the good of the few and what would any of us do when faced with a decision that could have consequences for the fate of the human race?

Likewise, Torchwood: Children of Earth feels painfully contemporary, effortlessly capturing our primal human need for information and the proliferation of social media. In an age where no one can stop any signal, Torchwood: Children of Earth presciently captures the unease of the recent Iran elections and shows us a world where everything is recorded in one way or another. The pervasive use of various recordings throughout--and I won't reveal what or who is being recorded or why--not only drive the plot but also make us question the essential truth of what we're seeing with our own eyes. Is what we're told by our governments and media outlets true? Is there such a thing as off the record? Will the truth, like murder, always out?

Torchwood: Children of Earth could have coasted by on an alien invasion story and been entertaining popcorn television but, by skillfully layering in some meaty philosophical debate and social themes that affect all of us today, it transformed itself into one of the year's most important and controversial pieces of television making and proved once and for all that it need not hide in Doctor Who's shadow.

Torchwood: Children of Earth Trailer:

Torchwood: Children of Earth First Seven Minutes of Day One:

The five-night Torchwood: Children of Earth event begins Monday, July 20th at 9 pm ET/PT on BBC America and BBC America HD.


Samantha said…
Wow Jace, great article! I sadly do not get BBC America (darn Cablevision!), but have pre-ordered my copy and hope to avoid spoilers until the 28th!
Wes said…
Awesome review. Monday can't come fast enough!
Mazza said…
This was one of the best TV reviews I have read this year. Why BBC-A doesn't pay you to work for them is beyond me.

I was on the fence about T:COE as I haven't watched the show but your review has made me want to watch it next week! Will I be totally lost??? Do I need to know about Tosh and owen?
Heatherette said…
I've really been looking forward to this and your fantastic review has made me even more excited. Thank you!!!
Unknown said…
@Mazza, while S1 and 2 will provide useful backstory, I don't think you'll be completely lost without them. There will be references you won't get, but they're not critical to the story.

I love that Torchwood and the new seasons of Doctor Who make people think more. There are a number of philosophical and ethical questions in this season that may seem easy on the surface, but the characters clearly show they're not so.

These five eps serve only (well, okay, not "only") to make me lament all the more that there are only five this season. When will season four be out?!?
Unknown said…
In the Dr Who episode "Last of the Time Lords" (S03E13), Martha travels the planet in an attempt to stop The master. On her travels, she meets a young doctor named Thomas Milligan. he helps her, and sacrifices himself so that she could survive. Later, time is reversed a year, and when she leaves The Doctor, it is intimated that she going to go look for a different doctor, i.e. Thomas.

Later, in The Poison Sky, it is mentioned that she she got engaged to her boyfriend, Thomas Milligan, though he left Britain for a while to go to Africa.
The CineManiac said…
Thanks Roo, for some reason I thought she ended up with Mickey. I don't know why I was thinking that, but I was.
Jace this really is a brilliant write-up of the series. It's very in depth without giving anything away. I envy your writing ability.

As for COE, having only seen Day 1 I am already impressed and thought it was the best episode of the series to date, so I can't wait to see Days 2 through 5.

Also can't wait to see the next episode of Doctor Who, do we really have to wait until November?
Anonymous said…
US viewers are in for a treat. Loved Children of Earth and hope BBC commissions another series of Torchwood straightaway. Too good not to have another series.

Like that you made several points missed by reviewers here about the themes. Some criticised it for being popcorn but it's anything but that. I sobbed my eyes out by the end.
Taezar said…
We were lucky enough in Oz to see these eps hot off the satellite from the UK last week.
Jace's review is spot on.
The tension built in this mini-series is not just action based. One of my favourite nights - hardly any "action" actually happened, but the suspense was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
The journeys that each character takes is breathtaking, as are their performances. As Jace says, Rhys gets involved and it was so good see Rhys as something more than the whining Welshman.
This "season" is full of powerful and poignant moments, and RTD delivers each with the right amount of drama. One scene in particular when the aliens arrive is brilliant - no music - just stillness - which makes it all the more powerful.
One thing I did like was that each main character goes full circle. Nice sense of closure.
TerriblyTwisted said…
It's not a mystery who Martha Jones marries, we meet him in the finale of season 3 of Doctor Who and she mentions him in season 4. It's Tom Milligan.

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