Torchwood: Children of Earth
July 27, 2009

This five-episode special series serves as the third season of the dark British science fiction show Torchwood.

The beginning, where all the children of Britain freeze, is nicely spooky, but then we cut to Gwen (Eve Myles) getting back to work. Before this series, I didn’t really care for her, especially as a lead, but by the end, I had much more appreciation for her and her role, although I still miss many of the other characters. A whole group set up to fight aliens should have more than just her, the besuited Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), and Captain Jack (John Barrowman).

Torchwood cast

In spite of its origins in Doctor Who, a series for all ages, Torchwood is intended to be a more adult show, and it shows in the tone, which at the beginning is gloomy and depressing, and the plot, which focuses on political machinations as much as strange events. I miss a sense of wonder, an idea that marvelous things (even if sometimes dangerous) could be afoot in the universe. This shades closer to horror, what with all the possessed children acting in unison. (That’s a very powerful image, though, as it always is.)

I also got a little tired of the “oh, noes, they want the children!” approach by the end, although it’s a quick way to make the threat seem immensely menacing. That’s how they built a scenario where people are seriously considering trading one set of lives for a greater number, an intellectual horror with resonances of fascist dictatorships and condemnation of government decision-making. (Once you get past the emotion, there are holes in the plot, as pointed out in spoiler comments here.) The show is distinctly British in its approach, its fears, and its choices, as well as how elements are executed.

But my biggest gripe is that I dislike the series’ reliance on death for cheap drama and suspense. As with superhero comics, death is supposed to make events more powerful and meaningful, but they’ve gone to that well much too often. And then there’s the immortal, for contrast. I know it’s tough to deal with a lead character who can’t be permanently harmed, but some of what they do to him starts to approach torture porn (when they’re not being ever more unrealistic about regeneration). Much as I love looking at Barrowman, I’m not sure he’s always up to the unrealistic range asked of his character: ageless, jaded, morose, while still loving life. They’ve taken him too far from his original intergalactic con man, in my opinion. (Suddenly introducing family for him is another shortcut, since it’s hard to believe either he or the audience will care a great deal about those we’ve never seen or heard of before.)

Five hours is a lot of time for one story to carry, especially when it boils down to yet another alien invasion tale, and sometimes the pacing drags. The cliffhangers, at the end of each episode, are very good, even though they don’t matter as much when the series is taken as a whole. My favorite scenes were the family and domestic ones, where characters tried to connect with their relations in different ways. Showing daily life grounds the bigger threats in ways that feel more real.

Torchwood: Children of Earth cover
Torchwood: Children of Earth
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I did like seeing Gwen, her husband, and Ianto work together to save the day, especially since she got all the action bits. I think episode three was my favorite, when the gang is on their own and scrabbling, and events start feeling meaningful. After that, I was much more interested in the rest of the series, although it didn’t quite reach that peak again for me. (If I never see another montage of preparing to fight aliens in bureaucratic ways while moody choral music plays, I’ll be happy. Typing on keyboards is never that dramatic.)

Overall, Torchwood: Children of Earth is a good choice for summer viewing. Although it’s not particularly challenging, it’s well-done for what it is and familiar in many ways — reminiscent of The X-Files or CSI with aliens. While it’s approachable for those who haven’t previously watched Torchwood, I suspect fans will appreciate it more, since it is a definite high point so far for the series overall.

I do applaud the BBC and Warners for getting this out so promptly. It aired in the U.K. at the beginning of July, and the U.S. had it on BBC America by mid-month, with this DVD set following a week after. Even though a lot of fans watched it online as soon as it originally aired, it’s nice to see companies releasing things when people are still interested in them. I had some of the major events spoiled for me, since I waited to watch the DVD, but customers have likely already seen the series at least once. I’m not sure how many people will need to own this two-disc set, actually — I don’t know how rewatchable Children of Earth is, once you know the events, given its darkness.

There’s only one extra: Declassified, 30 minutes of behind-the-scenes glimpses. I wish they would have also included the Inside Look material that aired on TV, because that’s a friendlier backgrounder (and more introductory to the new or forgetful viewer). Declassified concentrates on special effects and how they filmed it, with appearances by director Euros Lyn; Inside Look is a clip show that has Myles, Barrowman, and other actors talking about the characters. Oh, and on the DVD, Barrowman’s bare butt isn’t pixellated, as it was on U.S. TV.

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