Torchwood: Children of Earth (review)

Everything Changes…

no spoilers! my episode-by-episode spoiler-laden discussion starts here

They told us, way back when, that Torchwood was gonna be Doctor Who but darker and sexier, more intense and more adult. I’d been pretty satisfied that that promise had been fulfilled before I ever saw Children of Earth: I mean, an alien who feeds on human orgasms? Tee-hee!
Now… I watched all five hours of CoE in one big rush, in one sitting that I couldn’t have torn myself away from if I’d wanted to. I can’t imagine how I’d have endured having to wait 24 hours between each installment, and yet I readily concede that it probably wasn’t good for my head to consume it all at once like that. Because it’s… dark. And sexy. And intense. And adult. And it’s all those things in no easy way, no cheap way, no obvious way. It’s — on a grand scale — about need and fear and terrible, terrible secrets and terrible, terrible burdens. It’s about the extremes we go to in order to protect those we love, and in order to protect ourselves. It’s about the very sinister authority we grant — even if we don’t realize we do — to those we ask to protect us.

CoE is haunting me, and I mean that literally, in a lying-awake-in-the-dark-of-night, staring-at-the-dark-ceiling, unable-to-sleep kind of way. Because my head is full of all the awful conundrums and evils and necessary evils this astonishing and magnificent story weaves, and they keep knocking around in there and asking questions I can’t answer, like: Are the deeply appalling things that some people do here, in fact, the wrong things for them to have done?

Look: This is a tale of alien contact that isn’t like anything Doctor Who — or even Torchwood prior to this — could ever have conceived. It’s masterpiece-for-the-ages stuff, in the best tradition of classic British science fiction like Day of the Triffids or Village of the Damned, imbued with all that British post-WWII dread of invasion, of nightmares marching into the town square and occupying one’s very homes. And now it’s infiltrated, too, by post-9/11 — and, for the U.K., post-7/7 — trepidations about attacks from within and government conspiracies to keep the truth from us even as it attempts to control and corral the citizenry like never before.

Aliens are coming, they tell us through our children: every single child on Earth, briefly taken over and used as one singular mouthpiece. Some in the British government have other, prior information about these aliens, and are using that information to make certain preparations for the physical arrival on the planet of, we guess, some sort of ambassador or spokesbeing. UNIT — which, for the really uninitiated, is a sort of rival agency to Torchwood in the secret fight against alien influence that’s been happening on Earth for at least a century and a half ; the Doctor’s been deeply involved with them, actually, much more so than with Torchwood — UNIT appears to have a finger in things. But Torchwood won’t be allowed in this fight, because that same factor of the British government that already knows about the aliens thinks Torchwood is a threat: to the government? to the aliens? to the secrecy? We just don’t know, at first, and it’s chilling, and maybe the most startlingly plausible depiction of governmental nefariousness I’ve ever seen.

If I thought the promise of Torchwood had been fulfilled, only to be proven wrong here, then the same is true of the extraordinary character of Captain Jack Harkness, who’d fallen into bit of a caricature in the last season. All the layers of cartoonish that had accrued around Jack are stripped away here, and violently, leaving a new Jack that I can’t see any coming back from. If Torchwood returns after CoE — and I haven’t heard any rumors one way or the other if it will or not — it is going to be a radically different show. It’s gonna have to be.

I wondered, through much of CoE, whether anyone would even make a reference to the Doctor, because here’s his favorite planet in the throes of one of its worst crises ever, and he’s nowhere in sight. It’s exactly the kind of situation he should be around to help fix… except CoE is so brutal that I almost couldn’t see even our new powerful and passionate Doctor coping with it. And then Gwen, our Gwen Cooper, at the lowest of low points, notes, very sadly, that the reason he probably isn’t showing his face is that he’s seen how badly humanity is coming off during these events… and he’s ashamed of us.

And that’s probably exactly right. God, this is a nightmare.

In a good way, of course, since it’s fiction. Thank God it’s fiction. It’s probably not too far off, in it tenor, unfortunately, from how we really would react.


(please, no spoilers in comments! the spoiler-laden discussion starts here)

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Fri, Jul 17, 2009 9:00pm

I’m not one to overstate things, but when I saw those five episodes I just kept saying “wow, perfect TV, right here, right now.” And I just couldn’t believe I was saying it about this show because oh man oh man oh man I was so ambivalent about the first season. Of course I fell in love during the stronger second season, but even with that I couldn’t have dreamed up these past 5 episodes.

And you’re right MaryAnn, if Torchwood ever does come back it HAS to be radically different. Not just because of the various things that has changed on the surface level, but because the heart of Torchwood has suddenly grown dark and bloody and with thorns.

Finally, when I heard about this miniseries, I was very upset that we wouldn’t have more than five episode, but after the fourth (hell after the first!) episode I was wiped out. Heck, I still feel like I’m digesting it all a week or so later. Just brilliant.

Fri, Jul 17, 2009 11:42pm

I chose to watch each episode after it aired. Man, waiting 24 hrs between eps was painful. I can see why John Barrowman felt that the shortened season was punishment. Can you imagine a 13 episode season with script writing that tight, directing so precise and producing so imaginative…

I agree that “IF” Torchwood returns, it will be a whole new ball game… (without spoilers) it would have to be. Literally, everything changes.

I am also still digesting all the pieces, a week later. Some scenes are burned in my mind, my dreams are filled with “what if’s”. I have had intense conversations with friends online and in person about some of the issues brought up in COE. Brilliant, heartbreaking, emotional, thought provoking television. A great combo of drama, comedy, action.. this is not just Sci-fi.

I am also thrilled to see advertizing the heck out of this mini-series, showing more respect to Torchwood and Doctor Who than CBC ever did.

Looking forward to the episode by episode review.

Sat, Jul 18, 2009 1:10am

Yes. Waiting 24 hours for each instalment was absolute torture but it was eased by being able to discuss it with lots of people.

And that’s the thing I’ve taken away from CoE, it’s not just something that the mainstream watches and forgets, it’s something the mainstream watched and digested and wanted to discuss.

Sat, Jul 18, 2009 1:24am

When I started watching CoE, my first thought was, “I bet MaryAnn (or any decent Who/TW fan) will watch the whole thing in one sitting, given the chance.” Waiting 24 hours between episodes was pretty frustrating. After watching an episode or two, I did seriously think about waiting until I had the chance to watch the rest all at once, but of course I didn’t. Made for a long week.

The thought of watching it all in one sitting, thinking back, does seem like a pretty daunting task. Having to wait a day between episodes gave me the chance to digest each one before the next. From what MaryAnn says about being haunted by it, sounds like watching it all at once gives the viewer a more post-traumatic stress type reaction; a bit too much to process too quickly.

I too am looking forward to the episode reviews. I haven’t really had a chance to discuss it with anyone since I saw it.

Sat, Jul 18, 2009 4:49am

I was glad I only had to wait a day between each episode – I felt like I needed to find out what happened next (especially after Day 4).

I went to the London HMV DVD signing yesterday, and was glad I had a chance to say thanks to the three leads for what I thought was extraordinary television.

Sat, Jul 18, 2009 6:31am

That was astonishing TV. I don’t remember the last time I’d been so utterly involved in a programme to the point of actually feeling fear. It was all so incredibly plausable. None of the actions taken by the characters felt out of place or couldn’t be understood, even when committing the most sickening acts.

Some of the scenes in part five, particularly those on Ianto’s sister’s estate, were gut-wrenching. So much so I don’t think I can bear to watch it again.

Sat, Jul 18, 2009 11:32am

I hope Torchwood continues, but if that was it, it was as great ending. Out with a bang, unlike some like the Sarah Conner Chronicles… (grrr)

One of the things I love about British TV, and dislike about American, is that on British TV the characters can dramatically change, and die, and leave (Blakes’s 7!), instead of always returning the characters to their default at the end of the episode.

Seriously creepy aliens. ++

*sigh* A few month’s wait for “Waters of Mars.” Why did TWO of the three series take short seasons this year! Arghghgh!

Sat, Jul 18, 2009 11:48am

Why did TWO of the three series take short seasons this year! Arghghgh!

Money. The BBC was cutting back on expenses, and these must be among its most expensive shows to produce.

Stuart Ian Burns
Sat, Jul 18, 2009 5:36pm

“That’s just a rumour. Nobody involved has said it was to do with money.”

Well no. But glance around the internet and anyone who’s friends of someone who’s friends with someone related to the production has said that the reason for the lower number of episodes this year across the franchise is so that they could create all three using one crew instead of two crews working simultaneously which is what usually happens.

Sat, Jul 18, 2009 6:27pm

I said to a friend who won’t be able to watch it until it’s on DVD, I said, I have no idea who’s going to be back in the next series (I believe it’s already been given the green light due to its popularity) or what they’ll be like, because CoE, good gods.

My husband and I were completely and utterly drained after each episode – to the point where we couldn’t watch two eps in a row. And the things that happened…in some ways it reminded me of [redacted], horrific and creepy and, in some respects, utterly plausible. Choices were made which will reverberate throughout lifetimes,

I thought Torchwood was dark after the ending of season 2, but CoE brings it to a whole new level.

Sat, Jul 18, 2009 11:36pm

I watched them all in one sitting too.

I’m not even sure I managed to feel everything that I should have felt. Maybe I was stunned? I kept thinking “this is scifi, it’ll be undone!” Only nothing was undone.

Really, as much as I enjoyed Torchwood, I think this should be the end. They’ve done a complete narrative. They’ve brought everyone to their predicted end. Sure, you could twist over backwards and find a place to start another season, but why? They made their choice to end the story here, and I’d rather they stick with it than try to make something new that’s really not Torchwood at all but some sort of AU fanfiction of itself.

Keith Z-G
Keith Z-G
Sun, Jul 19, 2009 3:04am

Actually, the miniseries format may be a saving grace if they [b]DO[/b] bring it back (the cynic in me is thinking that considering how amazing CoE was that they certainly won’t).

Even in British shows if it’s a season (or “series” I suppose) then to a degree a premise needs to stay intact, especially since networks seem to hate viewers having to see the episodes in strict intact order. But as a miniseries you can tell a narrative from start to finish; I can see Torchwood potentially continuing in some form as in a continued story of the (remaining) characters, but pressing it into the episodic mold (especially with standalone episodes) would be quite awkward at this point I’d figure.

Looking very much forward to the episode-by-episode reviews/discussions.

Sun, Jul 19, 2009 5:06am

Is the lack of spoilers for us Americans for whom it starts airing on Monday? If so it’s considerate, thanks.

I read a spoiler on Wikipedia and I have to say it sounds brilliant (in the American sense, not meaning fabulous).

The question I ask myself is how did this man, this genius, who gave us the gleeful “Queer as Folk” only ten years ago become the writer of something so disturbing? I am a life long Sci Fi fan and I don’t shy away from apocalyptic and distopian stuff but today I find myself wondering if I want to see this. It isn’t just “art”, the Prime Minister’s name is a color for christ’s sake! It is clearly meant to make people think, it is clearly designed to address the frightening McCarthian world we live in today. That’s the really disturbing bit I think.

Sun, Jul 19, 2009 5:19am

One other completely left field thing:

Any additional stuff shouldn’t be Torchwood at all. As others have said the Torchwood story arc has come to a good finish. That isn’t to say that there is nothing else left to make. Jack Harkness AKA The Face of Boe(sp?) is a super hero of the same class as The Doctor and he is certainly deserving of more stories.

Sun, Jul 19, 2009 12:23pm

It is clearly meant to make people think, it is clearly designed to address the frightening McCarthian world we live in today. That’s the really disturbing bit I think.

That’s my favorite part of SF.

Les Carr
Les Carr
Sun, Jul 19, 2009 3:30pm

Really, as much as I enjoyed Torchwood, I think this should be the end. They’ve done a complete narrative. They’ve brought everyone to their predicted end.

On the contrary, I think they have reduced the series to its essentials ready to take it on again. Season 1 introduced us to a “sexy” non-militaristic version of UNIT. Season 2 showed us Jack as the leader (and lover, in the broad sense) of a team. The end of season 2 starts to remove that, and CoE more or less completely strips that away from him. Now we’re left with a man who can’t die but who can’t live with himself either, doing terrible things to stop worse things happening and who can’t take comfort from those around him because he either causes their deaths or watches them age and die. That sounds to me like Doctor Who with the adult subtext promoted to the script, and it sounds like a very exciting place to start new Torchwood stories from.

Sun, Jul 19, 2009 5:01pm

This was bleak, compelling, gut-wrenching, brilliant television, with few missteps. It was dark, but then there has been darkness in TW right from the very first episode.

I don’t think I could have coped with CoE all in one sitting. Having 24 hours between each episode, and particularly when it ramped up at Day 4 and Day 5, gave me some time to process it and consider the implications, although I needed more time. I felt I was partway recovered and then, thump, I was knocked back again by the next installment! It probably took me about a week to get over the feeling of being just so overwhelmed by it all.

This was in the British tradition of bleak, dystopian SF, going back to H G Wells, Wyndham, Ballard, 1984, Quatermass, Doomwatch, Blakes 7, the original Survivors and much more. Judging by the hugely positive audience response, it seems that there is still an appetite for that.

Joyce – I don’t follow your comment about the prime minister’s name being a colour. This was a cheeky pop at our current PM, I think. G. Brown cf B. Green. Was that what you meant? Certainly, CoE reflected many current concerns in British life, and no doubt those found elswhere. The best SF holds a mirror to reality.

If this is the final outing for TW, then I’m content with that. If they decide to continue the story, then that will work for me, too. I bet the BBC are doing all they can to persuade RTD to give us more.

Sun, Jul 19, 2009 5:46pm

Is the lack of spoilers for us Americans for whom it starts airing on Monday? If so it’s considerate, thanks.

That was the reason.

Sun, Jul 19, 2009 10:08pm

Yes, Green=Brown (exactly). I meant that to use that as evidence that this wasn’t just art but a commentary on the commentary on the current day.

Wed, Jul 22, 2009 5:13am

Of course any chance of a continuation of Torchwood was almost destroyed by John Barrowman himself, when he rolled a rally car on Fifth Gear.

Luckily only the car was totalled, but you can see that the character traits of Jack Harkness are indeed very much present in the actor himself.

Wed, Jul 22, 2009 3:22pm


I won’t be specific to avoid spoiling anything, but I saw all these in one sitting about a week ago, and I was completely enthralled… until the last episode, which I thought ruined the whole thing. So I wish I had waited a day in between each episode, because then I think I would have had more time to appreciate what was good about it, until the end disappointed me. Upon reflection, “ruined” is too strong a word. The series took on more than it could support, and the structure of the plot left it to Jack to pull a solution completely out of his butt, which is sadly not uncommon in these types of shows. Now, it was not a reset button or get out of jail free solution — there were excruciating costs, but the whole was somehow less than the sum of the parts. Now, I’ll grant you that most of my objections have to do with with information not shared, rather than with problems on-screen, which means that one *could* retcon most of my problems away, but I wish they could have written the story to focus both on the agonizing ethical dilemmas *and* on the social/biological dynamics of a new alien species. Instead the aliens were mostly a macguffin to set up the ethical dilemmas. Which were fascinating ethical dilemmas, don’t get me wrong, but I would like my aliens to be *both* a plot device *and* a workable set of bio-physical-social entities in their own right.

And to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that. First four episodes, riveting. Last episode tripped while running for home plate.



Wed, Jul 22, 2009 7:35pm

I work second shift so watching it on BBCA this week isn’t possible. And yes, I know, they show it again at midnight and through the wee hours of the night, but I miss the midnight showing by about half an hour and I’m not about to either jump in in the middle of an episode or stay up until they show it again 2-3 hours later. No matter how good it was, I’d be nodding off in front of the TV.

Which leaves–the five episodes back to back on Sunday prior to Planet of the Dead, or waiting for the DVD. I’m not sure I can handle that much TV in one day, and after reading comments above, not sure I want to power-watch it anyway. *sigh* Decisions, decisions.

If I’m perfectly honest, all the reviews and reactions I’ve read have almost put me off seeing it altogether. Yes, they all say it’s brilliant. They also say it’s bleak and dark and haunting. Do I need that? :P Is that entertaining?

Thu, Jul 23, 2009 8:13am

Still, to get ratings comparable to what it got in the U.K., something like 30 million people have to be watching TW:CoE on BBCA by its final episode, and that’s not gonna happen.

Thu, Jul 23, 2009 3:13pm

Thanks, Matthew. Watching TV on the computer isn’t an option on dial-up, and you’re right, the vintage-1997 VCR still plays but doesn’t record. I have the DVDs on order already. Thanks for reassuring me that it isn’t all bleakness.

I’m tickled pink it’s doing so well in the ratings but, geez, can I confess this? I kind of hate the thought of Torchwood and Doctor Who going mainstream in the USA. They’re…ours. We anglophiliac geeks who look down our noses a bit at the Trekkers. Just a bit–we like Trek, too. It’s just that…Who is SO much cooler. And, well, if everyone finds out how great our shows are…


Thu, Jul 23, 2009 6:28pm

Weimlady – have you checked if the back to back showings are of the full length versions (60 min content + 15 min commercials) or the edited versions cut down to fit into a 60 minute slot?

Good luck avoiding spoilers! Torchwood was trending on twitter during the UK broadcasts and some tweets included spoilers.

Thu, Jul 23, 2009 10:30pm

No cable service here–DirectTV.

And Gee, I haven’t been trying to avoid all spoilers. Would have to go around with my cyber-fingers in my cyber-ears singing “La-la-la-la!” to do that! The big one will no longer be a spoiler after tonight, anyway.

My roommate doesn’t troll the net the way I do, so I will get my shock second-hand. :) I can hear it now–“Did you know that was going to happen?” Well, yeah. I did. :D

Fri, Jul 24, 2009 10:06pm

I have decided that I didn’t like the show as a whole. I find the way that Jack goes to meet with the 456 without a plan annoying, I find that he let’s himself be defeated so easily unbelievable, and I don’t like the narrative style of the entire final episode. Here is my alternate ending:

Jack and Ianto have gas masts with them because they went in thinking they might have to go into the alien tank, and in fact they do go in. They try to detach the child and fail. All the same stuff happens and they have to run out of the building without releasing the virus. Jack’s daughter still persuades the special forces chick to help Jack and the “remnant” is still killed, the whole team assembles in special forces warehouse. All the same stuff happens allowing them to figure out that they need a child to transmit the sound. Jack is about to make the terrible choice when Gwen points out that it might work with a pregnant woman – they have a few minutes why not try that first. Everyone realizes she is volunteering to die and tears ensue. But she is an adult, and she can volunteer so her proposal is accepted.

I don’t know after that. I have no particular attached to the show continuing. I just found that the last two episodes didn’t really work. Also I am sick of the “poor lonely immortal” story. It is such self serving crap for us mortals, so we can feel better about our mortality (“at least I don’t have to watch everyone I love die”).

Mon, Jul 27, 2009 12:05pm

I became a Torchwood fan during the 2nd season, I had never seen it before that and picked up on it from becoming a very late fan of Dr. Who. So I eagerly awaited this mini-series. Unfortunately I was on second shift, here in the US, when they ran it last week. So when they ran the entire 5 episodes Sunday afternoon I set myself up to watch. And it was worth it, although it was long and included the new Dr. Who episode following, and made for a very long afternoon/evening of viewing. The story was interesting. From a technical perspective, as with all SF, many plot setups don’t make sense. An advanced species that couldn’t synthesize the drug they obtained from Earth children? A first contact like this? But I am a SF fan and know that certain elements in all SF will be unrealistic and shouldn’t interfere with the story.

That the story though threw out so many fundamental morality decisions is what made it so very interesting. Having grown so disenchanted with politics here in the US, particularly that previous administration, it just reinforced the overall selfish, self serving attitude of politicians nowadays. Built around this story line it showed an extreme exaggeration of what we see with this group but I could found that part of the story very realistic. I anxiously awaited each episode as they came one after the other to see where the story line was going. It turned out to be a marvelous afternoon of television.

Finally, it is very interesting the way the series is mimicking real life to a certain extent. As others have stated and I mentioned to my wife this morning, the only reason a TV show drops a character usually is the actor has decided to quit the show for one reason or another. But here we have people getting killed because real people in this particular job have a high likelihood of getting killed. Very realistic. I hate to see them lose these wonderful characters but a group like Torchwood would most definitely have this happen. It just makes it that much more believable when it is unbelievable to begin with.

I can now only hope they continue the series. If they do though things will have changed drastically and I will be most curious to see where they take it from here. I did read a blurb on it in the SyFy channel magazine interview with Barrowman and he made it sound like there would be more. It was nothing definite but he was talking with and hoping for at least a couple more of these mini-series or a normal season. I will be anxiously awaiting if they do.

Mon, Jul 27, 2009 4:07pm

I watched it in a 6+ hour block yesterday. (And still there were cuts, per my friend who watched it Monday-Friday.) And it was good. It was good enough to make Planet of the Dead, one of the weakest Doctor Who episodes, look very silly and childish as it followed on the heels of CoE. Which was unfortunate, to my mind, as I never want the Doctor to take second place to anything. If newbies to both series tuned in to see CoE due to BBCA’s heavy advertising campaign and stuck around to see the Doctor for the first time, well, I just wish they could have seen him at his best.

Anyway–I think Jack should have been able to find a better way out of the situation than sacrificing Steven. Couldn’t he have found a way to confer his own immortality on the boy, even if just temporarily, just enough for one resurrection? A blood transfusion, a long deep kiss of life (like the one the Doctor gave Rose to transfer the vortex energy from her to him). Could still have been very suspenseful, as he wouldn’t have been sure it would work, never having been done before. The horrific special effects of the boy’s death could still have been used, but, after a suitably angst-laden pause, he could have gasped and come back to life just like dear ol’ Gramps.

Or would that have cheapened the whole thing? What do you think?

Mon, Jul 27, 2009 4:08pm

Oh. Sorry if the no-spoilers rule is still in effect on this entry. I was thinking since everyone on both sides of the pond has seen it now, I could speak freely. MA, feel free to delete if you need to.