Review: Torchwood: Children of Earth

The third season of the groundbreaking British science fiction television show Torchwood arrives as a five-part miniseries broadcast across five nights. It’s easily the best five episode bloc the show has ever put together, and just might be one of the best single seasons a science fiction show has given us in a long time.

All of the world’s children come to a standstill at the same time, chanting the ominous message, “we are coming.” When the Torchwood team­–Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles)–begin to investigate, they come up against a decades old conspiracy involving the British government.

The miniseries also deals with the romantic relationship between Jack and Ianto, Ianto’s relationship with his sister Rhiannon (Katy Wix), some surprising news for Gwen and her husband Rhys (Kai Owen), and secrets from Jack’s past coming back to haunt him.

Of course, prior to the events of this story, things have been rough for Torchwood. Two team members died at the end of the previous season, and the remaining team members played instrumental roles in the defeat of Davros and the Daleks at the end of the 2008 season of sister show Doctor Who.

Creator Russell T Davies wrote the first episode of season one, then handed the show over to handpicked showrunner Chris Chibnall for the next two seasons. With Chibnall moving on to Law & Order: UK, Davies returns to serve as the new showrunner, writing the miniseries with John Fay (a former Coronation Street staff writer) and John Moran (who’s previously written episodes of Torchwood, Doctor Who, and Primeval). The result is an intense, edge of the seat thriller with more emphasis on character than on action, although it has quite a bit of the latter, too.

This is Davies at the top of his game, reminiscent of his work on the 2005 season of Doctor Who. Once the story begins, it never looks back as it spins around some dramatic curves with the white-knuckled Davies gripping the steering wheel, only stopping after a heartbreaking, kick in the throat finale. Although there are some lighter moments early on, it eventually finds its way into the shadows of the human soul. It’s also explicitly political, touching on class, the power of bureaucracy, and the cost of blindly following orders. This is a tragedy writ large, and reminds us that science fiction at its best is about people and ideas not visual effects.

Director Euros Lyn, a veteran of Doctor Who, shows a strong hand with the material, as equally adept in thriller mode as in character-driven drama mode. He doesn’t take a single misstep. The mood of suspense and oncoming disaster he creates kept me on the edge of the seat from start to finish.

The quality acting in this miniseries is what makes it so easy to fall under the story’s spell. Although John Barrowman has never had great range as an actor, with this material and this director he delivers the most compelling performance I’ve seen from him. Gareth David-Lloyd, Eve Myles, and Kai Owen also stand out with their best work ever on the show. Paul Copley gives a moving performance as a mentally ill man connected to what’s happening to the world’s children.

Other performances of note include Peter Capaldi as Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher, Susan Brown as Frobisher’s personal assistant Bridget Spears, Cush Jumbo as Spears’ junior assistant Lois Habiba, Liz May Brice as the mysterious Agent Johnson, Katy Wix as Rhiannon, Rhodri Lewis as Rhiannon’s husband Johnny, Lucy Cohu as a woman named Alice with a connection to Captain Jack, Nicholas Farrell as the British Prime Minister, Charles Abomeli as Colonel Oduya of UNIT, Colin McFarlane as US Army General Pierce, Nicholas Briggs (best known for providing the voices of Daleks and Cybermen since 2005) as Rick Yates MP, Ian Gelder as civil servant Mr. Dekker, Rik Makarem as Dr. Rupesh Patanjali, and Tom Price as recurring character PC Andy.

British television has a tradition of great science fiction television going back to The Quatermass Experiment in 1953. It would be no stretch at all to include Torchwood: Children of Earth in that tradition. Simply outstanding.

3 thoughts on “Review: Torchwood: Children of Earth

  1. Amazing season, I must agree. I don’t think Torchwood (as fun as it has always been) has ever put me on the edge of my seat, had me chuckling, and brought me to misty tears all at the same time. Davies has really improved his game. And as much as people are complaining about the 5 episode season, I think it worked really well with this story by not needing to stretch things out.

    Great review! Oh, and your last paragraph reminded me of an io9 article from this morning that I think you’ll find interesting.

  2. Interesting article there. I can’t agree with the critic’s conclusions, though. I think the British have a strong tradition of serious science fiction shows, which this miniseries continues.

    As good as the new “Battlestar Galactica” was, “Blake’s 7” was the trailblazer for a serious and dark show set in space. If anything, American television has been the one to take the genre less than seriously and handle them more cautiously.

    While the British were producing “Blake’s 7” and the really good Tom Baker era of “Doctor Who”, America was producing the original “Battlestar Galactica” and “Buck Rogers”, which were both campy trifles.

    Today, while the British are producing genre shows like “Torchwood” that seriously deal with GLBT themes, American genre shows still seem stuck in a kind of adolescent heterosexuality.

  3. Oh yeah, I’m totally with you. The critic seems a little off his rocker and downright contradictory. He made me laugh.

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