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Torchwood: Children Of Earth (2009)
Director: Euros Lyn

review by J.C. Hartley
SPOILER ALERT!
A week long five-parter in lieu of a full third series, series star John Barrowman expressed his dismay in the Radio Times, perhaps fearing that the creators feel they have done as much with the concept as they can. The ending to this mini-series, and the slew of character 'deaths', suggest that the writing may indeed be on the wall, and with Russell T. Davies handing over the reins to Doctor Who perhaps Torchwood is to finish. Barrowman may fear for his TV ubiquity with only high-concept song and dance 'reality' shows to keep him in view of the public, but he makes the point that the BBC's North American partners are unhappy with a show that comes out anywhere shy of 13 episodes; a situation that has long existed when selling UK TV abroad, hence 30 years ago Patrick McGoohan having to up his original six or seven episode concept for The Prisoner at the canny insistence of Lew Grade in order to sell the show in the USA.

I've only ever dipped into Torchwood but the notion of a Monday to Friday single story, and the intriguing trailers, lured me in to watch Children Of Earth, so a successful piece of marketing there. This review is based on the broadcast mini-series but the BBC has wasted no time in rushing the DVD into the shops as soon as the series finished.

In 1965 a bus-load of children disembark on a lonely road and disappear into a bright light - shades of the American TV series The 4400. In the present day children all over the world are arrested in their daily activity, scream, and then intone "we are coming." A British civil servant John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) is approached by Mr Dekker, a Home Office technical expert, who reveals that monitoring equipment that has been silent since 1965 has burst into life on the old wavelength of 456. Clearly whatever took children in 1965 is returning. Frobisher is put in charge of the emergency by smooth British PM Brian Green (Nicholas Farrell). What is slightly disconcerting about the situation is that there is an inference that Frobisher had experience of the original 'event' in 1965 when he is clearly too young to have held any kind of office then. His PA, Bridget Spears (Susan Brown), later reveals he joined the department in the 1970s. It seems that Frobisher has inherited knowledge of the 1965 event, and holds responsibility for it, as the PM seeks to avoid any suggestion that he was aware of what has clearly been a major cover-up of something potentially shameful for the British government.

Captain Jack Harkness (Barrowman) and his partner in Torchwood, and in a relationship, Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), retrieve a 'hitchhiker', a kind of alien symbiote, from a corpse at a nearby A&E, which brings them into contact with Dr Rupesh Patanjali (Rik Makarem) who identifies them to be members of Torchwood. The team decide to groom Patanjali as a potential medical officer for the team, and Torchwood operative Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) interviews him in a sequence made particularly off-putting by what seem to be extreme close-ups of the admittedly bonny Miss Myles.

A mentally disturbed man in care Clem Macdonald (Paul Copley) manifests the same behaviour as the world's children and Gwen in a visit to him ascertains he was part of the batch of children surrendered to the aliens in 1965 but escaped. His hyper-sensitive sense of smell, which is never explained, convinces him of Gwen's veracity but also alerts him to the fact that she is pregnant.

A young woman, Lois Habiba (the spectacularly named Cush Jumbo), starts work in John Frobisher's office and stumbles on the details of the alien emergency. Intrigued by details of Torchwood and Jack Harkness on computer files she is horrified when she realises that an order has gone out to kill Harkness. Harkness is shot by Dr Rupesh Patanjali who is a government operative attempting to infiltrate Torchwood and he is himself shot by Johnson (Liz May Brice) the leader of a government special forces team. Harkness has become "a fixed point in time," since his extermination by the Daleks, and subsequent resurrection by Rose Tyler suffused with the power of the time vortex, and consequently cannot be killed. Everyone connected with the original alien event of 1965 is being terminated. Harkness returns to Torchwood HQ believing his and Patanjali's shootings to be the work of an unknown assailant, Gwen Cooper is using Torchwood technology to scan herself to confirm her pregnancy and the scan also reveals that a bomb has been secreted in Harkness' abdomen. Harkness ushers Gwen and Ianto from the building and the bomb explodes.

The power of this opening episode was cleverly reinforced by an almost subliminal layering of themes. The presence of the symbiote retrieved from a deceased member of the public by Harkness and Jones serves to introduce Dr Patanjali who seeks to infiltrate Torchwood, Gwen Cooper is revealed to be carrying a child by a scan which identifies a foreign body, a bomb, in Harkness' own abdomen. The oppositions of parasitic and symbiotic relationships will have relevance in the eventual revelation of the alien's purpose, as well as serving as a metaphor in the later bitterly satirical sequences dealing with the processes of government and the relationship between a government and its civil service.

Up to the introduction of Johnson and the special forces team, the opening episode was developing a nicely claustrophobic atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy which the gung-ho shoot-'em-up elements served rather to dissipate. Fortunately their role in subsequent episodes became acceptable, although the black-clad, thigh-booted, Johnson, while impeccably played with menace tinged with some late developing sympathy by Liz May Brice did appear as some kind of S&M cliché.

A container is constructed for the arrival of the alien now referred to by the contact wavelength 456. It becomes apparent that England is to be the venue for this 'first contact' although by now we know that the country first encountered the aliens in 1965. Gwen Cooper liberates Clem Macdonald who in a confrontation with the resurrected Jack Harkness identifies him as the person tasked with the transfer of the children to the 456 in 1965. Harkness reveals that the children were gifted to the aliens in exchange for an anti-virus against a virulent flu pandemic threatening 25 million people; subsequent events suggest that the aliens may have been behind the pandemic.

Jack's daughter and grandson are abducted by Agent Johnson to ensure Harkness does not interfere in negotiations with the 456. Lois Habiba has been co-opted into Torchwood and with the use of web-cam contact lenses films the 456 demanding 10 percent of the world's children or they will exterminate the entire human race. Lois gains access to the cabinet planning rooms where the PM and his ministers determine the process for selecting the 10 percent. The PM promises that the children of everyone in the room will be excluded from selection. An initial figure is achieved by considering the children held in custody awaiting repatriation after failing immigration procedures, and then Home Secretary Denise Riley (Deborah Finlay) expresses what she claims everyone is thinking, that the children of failing schools should be targeted otherwise "what are league tables for?" Frobisher observes proceedings with growing incredulity. Lois reveals that the proceedings have been filmed and that Torchwood will reveal the discussions to the general public unless Harkness is allowed to confront the 456.

Harkness threatens to reveal the plans of the 456 to the world which will result in total war against the aliens, singularly unimpressed by this rather pathetic gambit the 456 releases a virus which kills everyone in the building, including Ianto Jones, although Harkness promises he takes it back about the total war thing. Clem is also killed sonically.

A cameraman allowed into the 456 container reveals that one of the children from 1965 is alive hooked up to the 456, asked what the 456 use the children for it is revealed that they produce chemicals that make the 456 'feel good'; the horror of this revelation is somewhat diminished by the PM's rather bland observation "you mean they're drug-dealers." The seeds of symbiosis and its dark opposite parasitism, suggested in the first episode, here bear fruition.

Agent Johnson releases Harkness from custody and together with Mr Dekker, who survived the 456 viral attack, he determines that the 456 contact wavelength is destructive to the aliens, and can be projected back by using the children as transmitters, unfortunately they need to use his own grandson as the initial transmitter, a process that proves deadly.

The PM's attempts to secure his position are sabotaged by Frobisher's PA Bridget Spears who uses Lois' contact lenses to film damning admissions. Denise Riley anticipates taking over in a Harriet Harman/ Hazel Blears style putsch despite her own clear culpability. Six months later, a heavily pregnant Gwen Cooper and her husband rendezvous with Harkness on a hillside overlooking Cardiff. Wracked with guilt Harkness uses a vortex manipulator to contact and hitch a ride with a space freighter and leaves Earth.

This mini-series was successful on many levels and considerably edified by outstanding performances; Susan Brown's PA, Cush Jumbo as a temp out of her depth but trying to do the right thing, Paul Copley's tormented victim, and particularly Peter Capaldi. John Frobisher is a career civil servant who exists at the whim of his masters. PM Brian Green is prepared to sacrifice Frobisher's children to the 456 to pretend that even those in the corridors of power have been targeted, reminiscent of the appalling John Selwyn-Gummer trying to force his four-year old daughter to eat a BSE-burger on national TV. His weasel life is hinted at by the obviously strained relations with his wife and daughters and the suggestion of a temporary respite through tawdry affairs; when Lois suggests that there is something between them in order to gain access to the cabinet room, Bridget Spears remarks, "don't think that you're the first."

What was a real treat for fans was the subtle referencing of classic SF of the past, never mind the Independence Day bolt signifying the arrival of the 456. The frozen chanting children recalled the blonde changelings of The Midwich Cuckoos/ Village Of The Damned, the building of a structure to house the arriving alien suggested Quatermass 2, the harvesting of the young for recreational chemicals sampled The Quatermass Conclusion.

An exceptional blend of science fiction, with a 'monster' made more effective by largely being left to the imagination, first-rate political satire, and superior soap-style pathos in the portrayal of personal relationships, made this a thoroughly entertaining TV event.

The DVD presentation contains the usual behind-the-scenes featurette, Torchwood: Declassified, and an audio clip In The Shadows read by Eve Myles.

Torchwood: Children of Earth



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