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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