Counting to 456: Torchwood and the Children of Earth

(This essay discusses the entire series in detail. Spoilers for every episode abound.)

In 1966, something terrible makes contact with the British government. Something worse delivers twelve children to it. One escapes to a life of homelessness and mental illness, a life of misery and nightmares of a man in a long coat who promised safety and lied. The others disappear.
In 2009, a voice speaks from the throat of every child in the world and the child who escaped, the man in the long coat and a group of civil servants, politicians and innocent bystanders find themselves at the centre of an event that marks a very intimate apocalypse.

Torchwood:Children of Earth throws everything the previous two series built up around themselves out and replaces it with something which is both infinitely darker and far more contemporary. Five episodes long, each one of them equating to a single day, it’s a story that deals with powerlessnes, societal collapse and what it means to face total, absolute change. These big ideas are all viewed through the lens of small, personal apocalypses, a very human look at how the world ends that hasn’t been seen on British television since The Day of the Triffids. Both are stories about normal people in impossible situations and both follow what happens when those people do the only thing they can; break.

This is clearest in John Frobisher, played by Peter Capaldi. Frobisher is a resolutely average man wth a wife, two daughters and no chance of moving any higher in the government. When the children begin to speak, he is placed in charge by the PM and finds himself giving the order to kill the only people who could uncover the British government’s previous interaction with the alien race known as the 456. When faced with this responsibility he does what almost anyone would do; delegates it to his assistant and murder becomes an item on someone’s to do list. Six people have their death warrants signed before the first coffee run of the day, thanks to something as innocuous as it is disturbing; a blank piece of paper.

Frobisher is at the heart of the story’s strongest element; it’s political dimension. Approaching an event of this magnitude from the perspective of a government allows the writers to take the impossible, fantastic events of the five days and not only ground them but curdle them. This is second contact presented as a policy issue, an action item and as a result this is a moment of singular, abject change that is tainted with the same air of polite sleaze and passive aggressive corruption that has tainted British politics for as long as I’ve been alive. Frobisher is a middle manager put in charge of negotiations with an alien race for no reason other than his diposability, a useful tool in the same way a pen is, or a gun.
He’s a flawed, unfaithful man who signs off on murder but is all too aware of what he’s doing. He knows why he has the job, knows he can never escape it and knows exactly who he’s dealing with. In one of the story’s best moments, he tells Jack that he has his daughter and grandson. Jack threatens to kidnap Frobisher’s wife and Frobisher smiles, apologises and tells Jack that he won’t do that, because he’s the better man. John Frobisher is not a good man, by any stretch of the imagination, but he knows exactly what he is and that makes for queasy, uncomfortable and riveting viewing.
Frobisher, in the end, is not even a monster, he’s the man who stands next to the monsters and in the end, that leaves him with no choice but to become one. His final scene, played out over Bridget explaining that he was a good man is heartbreak in needlepoint, an average life collapsing into horror in one of the series’ many quiet targedies. Frobisher returns home, and Bridget explains how they met. Frobisher sends his children upstairs, and Bridget remarks that he always worked hard and that that isn’t appreciated enough. Frobisher takes a gun from a box, his hand shaking and walks upstairs to the only conclusion he has left, the only way he can still protect his family.
Bridget, his aide, appears to be stronger than Frobisher for most of the story. She’s a career civil servant, a woman who is as calm as she is disillusioned, grinding her way through the same tasks in the same office for yet another decade. It’s only as the series continues that we see who she really is, a fiercely competent woman who has been overlooked and ignored her entire life and has come to accept that. Like Frobisher she’s not exceptional, like Frobisher she’s doomed the moment the job is passed to them but unlike him, she is lucky enough to be given a means of escape. Her final scene, calmly informing the Prime Minister that everything he’s said has been recorded could be played as triumphant, as a final victory but instead it’s played as the closing note of a career that stalled years previously. Bridget was in the room just like everyone else, she said nothing, just like everyone else but in what is surely the last moments of the government, she finds the strength to do the right thing.

If Frobisher and Bridget have greatness thrust upon them and are crushed by it, then Brian Green, the Prime Minister embraces it for all the wrong reasons. Nicholas Farrell has the hardest job of all, playing a man who could and in some ways should be a caricature, a politician who sees nothing but an opportunity in the greatest crime ever committed against humanity. He’s polite, plausible, slippery and utterly convincing, telling Frobisher his children will be taken so the government can appear to be ‘victims’ too with exactly the right amount of sympathy needed to get him out of the door. Green is the embodiment of decades of failure in English politics, a man who exists to do one thing; continue to govern. After all, there are things to be done, policies to be made, elections to be won.

This attitude leads to the series’ most horrific and best scene, the axis around which everything else ultimately revolves. The 456 issue their demands for ten percent of the world’s children and the PM and his cabinet begin discussing the logistics. In the space of ten minutes, they go from the absurdity of attempting to haggle, to excusing their own children from removal to discussing how to ‘spin’ the biggest crime in human history to a single line which embodies the series’ uniquely horrible approach to science fiction:

‘”If we can’t identify the lowest achieving 10% of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables for?”

This is it. This is the moment that Torchwood has talked about for two years, the moment ‘where everything changes’ and it’s only when it arrives that two awful truths become clear; the wrong people are presiding over it and no one ever said things would change for the better. This is the end of the world decided by committee, a very English, polite, sickening apocalypse.
In isolation, this would simply be disturbing. However, we see it through a resolutely normal perspective, Lois Habiba, a new secretary played by Cush Jumbo and that’s what makes it truly horrifying. Lois is a normal young woman who finds herself, along with Frobisher and Bridget, in the middle of history. She’s also the key to the rest of the characters’ survival, the only woman who is prepared to believe not just in Torchwood, but in the idea that something other than appeasement is possible. The series has already been criticised for its jet black ending and the incredibly cynicism with which it views humanity but Lois embodies the best elements of us, the quiet, polite young woman who still believes in doing the right thing, even in the face of incredible pressure to turn the other cheek. She grounds the political scenes, reminding the viewer that millions of lives are being weighed against billions and that each and every one of them is a child, is innocent. They all know they have blood on their hands but Lois is the only one horrified enough by it to do something.

She’s also where the real hope of the story lies, not in the people we are expected to trust but in the people who are just like us. It’s given voice by both Lois and Ianto and Jack’s families, resolutely normal people who are consumed by the bad choices made further up the line. Ianto’s sister Rhiannon (Katie Wix) and brother in law Johnny (Rhodri Davies) provide much of the comic relief with Johnny’s cheerful approach to petty crime a stark contrast to the resolutely proper Ianto. However, for all this they’re compassionate, nice, normal people. They worry about what Ianto does, whether or not he’s gay, cheerfully pump him for information on Jack and are all but destroyed by both his death and the total betrayal of the population by the government. They’re everyone, a normal couple trapped at the end of the world and despite everything, desperately concerned with keeping their kids safe.
In stark contrast, Jack’s daughter Alice knows exactly what her father does and wants no part of it. Where Rhiannon and Johnny are brash and honest and open, Alice is closed off, cautious. Through her, we see what a life lived next to Torchwood does, see a woman who never quite relaxes and who is sharp enough to know her father is prepared to use his own grandson as a test subject. She’s played with total reticence and reserve by Lucy Cohu and like many characters gets a final scene of incredible emotional weight. After Jack has sacrificed Stephen, he’s sitting, alone, in a corridor. She walks through one set of doors, pauses, then turns her back on him. Jack looks at her, then leaves via the other doors. In any other series it would be a moment of redemption and triumph, two people finally breaking away from one another to build their own lives. Here, it’s a moment of acceptance as Jack heads for a future stripped of everyone he loves, or at least, those who’ve survived.

For two years Torchwood has described itself as being beyond the government and above the law. If the idea that the government are to be trusted is the first great lie of Children of Earth, this is the second. Every single weakness of the previous two years is exposed and used as a weapon against the team, from the open secret of their existence to their uneasy relationship with the government and Jack’s immortality. By the end of episode one they are cut off from their support structure, their headquarters and their past. By the end of the story they are decimated, reduced to one member with their status in what is surely a very different world unclear.
This is also their finest hour as every single one of the series regulars turns in career best performances. After two seasons of being told how charming and human Gwen is, Eve Myles is finally allowed to show us that side of the character. For the first time we not only see the quiet, friendly, commanding young woman that Gwen is supposed to be but also the very natural and surprisingly poignant relationship she has with her husband, Rhys. Myles and Kai Owen are an incredibly charming double act, finishing each other’s sentences and bantering with one another like people who’ve spent years of their lives together. The moment where Rhys finds out Gwen is pregnant and insists on carrying her rucksack is another of the series’ best and quietest moments. Gwen has survived a bomb explosion, fought for her life against government assassins and kept the pair of them alive but Rhys is damned if he’s going to let his pregnant wife carry a rucksack. They are the heart of the story and the chilling, bitter monologue Gwen delivers at the start of episode five is made all the more affecting by the sight of Rhys, tears rolling down his face, filming her.
Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto is also given some great material, especially in his interactions with Jack and his family. For the first time, we see something beyond the proper, old fashioned young man with a fondness for good suits and the moment where he arranges to meet Rhiannon where their father broke his leg is another of the series’ best moments. Rhiannon defends their father, Ianto holds his ground and in less than ten seconds we all that we need to see. Ianto decided to be a good man a very long time ago and whilst he’s not always succeeded he’s never stopped trying. His final moments drive that home and for a character who started out at the heart of many of the show’s weakest episodes, his death is the most affecting of them all.

At the centre of it all though stands Jack Harkness. John Barrowman’s work here is exemplary, balancing the playfulness of Jack’s personality with moments of total emotional collapse. His reluctance to treat his relationship with Ianto as something serious makes for some of the best jokes in the series but has a real edge to it as we see Jack run, time and again, not just from happiness but from responsibility. He knows what he’s done, knows how Ianto will react when he finds out and keeps himself at arm’s length because that’s where he feels he deserves to be. The events of Children of Earth do nothing to change that.
Just as the Gwen we see here is the one we’ve always been promised, this is the Jack Harkness that should always have been at the heart of the show. He’s a matinee idol fifty years out of time, a man who doesn’t age but knows death and who has done terrible things for what he thinks is the greater good. He’s the dark mirror of the Doctor, a man who does bad things for good reasons and who is covered in so much blood, a little more won’t matter. Here, at long last, the writers let Barrowman show the weight of Captain Jack’s thousands of years of life, the damage done to a man who can do nothing but live. Yet again, his best moments are the quiet ones, his distraught reaction to Ianto’s death, the scene with Alice in the corridor, the moment where Gwen asks if he’ll come back and he says simply ‘Why?’. Jack has done it all, the bad far more than the good and he can no longer take it. He’s a broken hero in a broken world and in the end does the one thing he can do; leave.

Ranged against all of them is the 456, an alien we never see as anything but an abstraction of beaks and mucus. This is the true genius of the piece, sidestepping the traditional, slightly poor Doctor Who monster for something which is as implacable as it is invisible. The 456 repeats the same phrases over and over, utterly confident in its superiority and presented, at least at first, as just that; a superior force, an alien that can’t be seen or stopped, only communicated with. When that fades, when the 456 are revealed as nothing more than junkies wanting children for the chemicals they secrete, it’s shattering, the accepted wisdom of modern science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular collapsing as we realise we’re not even important enough to conquer, just to farm. Again, everything changes and we’re shown not only how small we are, but how cruel the universe around is. We’re cattle, to paraphrase Charles Fort and Clem, the only survivor of the 1966 incident played with tremendous strength and dignity by Paul Copley, is defective cattle. His death is as casual as Ianto’s, as cruel and whilst it holds the key to defeating the 456, he’s still dead and he is far from alone.

Children of Earth is stunning, in the most literal sense of the word. It evokes classic British science fiction but does so with an approach which is modern without once being self conscious or mocking. This is a story about what we do in the face of total disaster, of tiny disasters and tiny victories and the way they weave together to make history, for better and for worse. Packed with incredible performances, it’s a relentlessly grim exploration of the moment everything changes for humanity and what happens to those left behind. It’s a modern classic in every sense, a story that takes old elements and makes them timely and new. 21st century TV drama has rarely been better.

3 thoughts on “Counting to 456: Torchwood and the Children of Earth”

  1. Hit the nail on the head there! The whole thing was handled beautifully and with the viewing figures trashing anything the previous two series has managed I sincerely hope they get a fourth chance. Not since Doctor Who originally launched back onto our screens has any sci-fi show been so right on the spot; even many American series are pale in comparison!

  2. Superb review that does absolute credit to the series, best of all by raising points I hadn’t noticed, or focused on, myself. Many thanks!

  3. I agree it was superb – and reminiscant of early dr who when each story run over several episodes (I was young so cant remember exactly how many but remember it was way better than the 1 & 2 part storys Dr Who has now!) Only thing is that it was so good it left me wanting more and ended like I wasnt get it! Please please if the ‘people who make it happen’ at the bbc are reading this give us more!!

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