Thursday, August 20, 2009

TV Review: Torchwood: Children of Earth

Warning: this review contains spoilers. Of course, that's only a bad thing if you're the kind of person who wants to die in your sleep.

I was introduced to Torchwood the same way as everyone else: someone paid me to watch it. So back when Season One was just coming out in America, I sat down and carefully studied each episode and character and soon reached an inescapable conclusion: these people were all complete douchebags. Well, not main character Gwen Cooper, but the rest of the team were a bunch of insufferable wankers; thanks to Russell T. Davies and his decision to create a more “adult” counterpart to Doctor Who, the show devolved into pointless and downright dumbass sex which on most occasions seemed to be purposely as out of character as possible. The more adult it was supposed to be, the more juvenile it instead became.

Based on this I had no intentions of watching season two, but again, money talks. And I discovered a funny thing: season two was actually really good. The stories were more compelling. The adult content was more adult and actually had a narrative purpose. And the wankers wanked less, with most of them redeeming themselves through compelling character arcs. All in all, Season Two of Torchwood was a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

So I was particularly interested to see what happened in the abbreviated Season Three, which is better known as the five part mini-series Children of Earth. Designed as an event to mark Torchwood’s move to the big leagues (they moved from, like BBC 8 to BBC 3 or something. Some British nonsense.), the series picks up soon after the end of Season Two and poses an interesting question: when faced with an untenable situation (in this case, the threat of attack from aliens with overwhelmingly superior technology), do you hold on to your morality or do you compromise your beliefs to survive? And just how far are you willing to go?

The final answer is, in some ways, compelling. The problem is that before we get to that final answer we have to slog through some complete and utter nonsense. Seriously, get out your hip waders, because by the end of episode two you’ll be neck deep in bullcrap.

The series starts off well enough; the first episode is a fast paced, tense and interesting introduction to the central mystery (i.e., what happened between the aliens and the government 45 years ago?) and it throws us some serious curves with the introduction of a doctor who seems destined to be Torchwood’s newest member.

But then, as they say, the series goes totally pear shaped. And here’s the real problem: all the parts that are silly are about Torchwood, and every time they are off screen, it becomes compelling again. For a series called “Torchwood”, that’s not optimal. The gang spends the middle three episodes indulging in one of the dumbest and most poorly thought out schemes since Market Garden (hey, just trying to keep it British here). With Earth mere hours away from total annihilation or… something… via synchronized whining, Torchwood decides to spend all its time rescuing Captain Jack Trenchcoat from the prison he’s stuck in. This is so he can use his expertise to deal with the aliens. We are assured over and over again that only Torchwood and Captain Jack have the know how and expertise to deal with this explosive situation; the powers that be are making a terrible mistake. Eventually Torchwood does rescue him and Jack finally (and I really mean finally here, it takes three whole episodes) gets to deal with them, it turns out his entire plan is to just tell them to leave. Or else. That’s it, that’s the whole plan.

So of course, the aliens have the expected response, which is to say “you and whose army” and then proceed to kill Ianto and everyone else in the building while Jack literally says “I take it back”.

Seriously, Jack, that’s your damn master plan? That’s what your vaunted expertise came up with? Now I have a lot more sympathy for the government in their efforts to get rid of Torchwood, because honestly, that’s just effing stupid.

Once this is done with, though, we get to the final episode and some serious stuff clicks back into gear, leading to a downright chilling sequence where we learn just how flexible Jack’s ethics are and what being immortal can do to your sense of morality and humanity. It’s almost enough to redeem the series. Almost, but not quite, because what we end up with is a great beginning, a great ending and a middle that undermines the story, the character, the entire Torchwood series and any remaining faith in humanity itself that ou might have clung to.

So overall, yeah, I have to say that this was a bit of a let down, but in a very weird and specific way: half of the series was brilliant and the other half was annoying nonsense. Which in a way fits right in with the rest of the Torchwood oeuvre; just as season one was terribad, season two was awesome, so it makes sense that season three would perfectly mesh elements of both. And that’s pretty much the only thing about Children of Earth that made any sense.

My Grades: The Torchwood sections get a D+, which is too bad because Eve Myles is my secret TV girlfriend; the non-Torchwood sections get an A. So I think that adds up to a B-.

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Hi Scott

One thing I would point out, regarding Jack's rather silly 'leave or else' ultimatum was that it is exactly what The Doctor does, every time. Stand, look impressive, shout something about the Shadow Proclamation and then watch the aliens crap their knickers. Jack does not equal The Doctor, however, and that scene hammered that home.

A lot of the political narrative through CoE was driven by the political situation in the country at the moment. We've just had a massive political expenses scandal (which in any other country would be a storm in a teacup but thats a story for another day) and the goodwill towards politicians is about zero at the moment. Having the scenes where the cabinet decided which kids lived and died based on school league tables and voting patterns etc. was just how politicians are being portrayed at the moment and perfect to push a lot of buttons.

In fact, if I could generalise, when I have read reviews of the series as a whole, they have seemed to be more positive from the UK than the rest of the world and I wonder if that might be one of the reasons for it.

Take care
Neil Gow

Your note about Jack compared to the Doctor is a good one. I do think that part of the reason Torchwood looked so ineffectual in this story is that Davies wanted to point out that there are some menaces beyond them. But really, it's still a ridiculously dumb plan.

I really liked all the politician stuff. In fact, even though they are kind of slimy and underhanded and you end up hating most of them, I still sort of agreed with their decisions. I mean, when you're dealing with aliens that can obliterate the whole Earth (assuming you think they can; I actually think Jack's bluff could have worked had he spent eight seconds thinking through the fact that the aliens wouldn't ever destroy humanity if they need these kids so much) what else can you do, really? Maybe those scenes resonated differently in Britain -- I did feel like it was sort of a commentary on appeasement, for instance -- but I had some sympathy for the decisions the cabinet had to make, even if they maybe wouldn't have been in the situation to being with if they hadn't been such douchebags in the 1960's.