Neo’s written essay on TORCHWOOD: CHILDREN OF EARTH (Series 3).
How did the UK’s parliamentary expenses scandal inform the reception of CHILDREN OF EARTH? How did Russell T Davies cope with using a writer’s room? Was the five-episode series a clean break from its predecessors, or a natural outgrowth of what came before? How consistently explored were the themes of muddled distinctions between humanity and inhumanity, and the unsustainability of systems that ‘pass the buck’?
Plus a ranking of the five episodes!
Context and Transformation
TORCHWOOD: CHILDREN OF EARTH broadcast over five consecutive nights in the early July of 2009, in the midst of the United Kingdom parliamentary expenses scandal that saw widespread corruption, exceptionalism, and systemic rot exposed to the public. It wasn’t that many years after the barefaced lies of the Iraq War, and wasn’t even out of the thick of the financial crash, when the proof, scope, and specifics of Members of Parliament – from all across the board – claiming ridiculous and exorbitant expenses at the expense of taxpayers was revealed. Public opinion on the entire political class suffered the same fate as certain characters did in the finale to TORCHWOOD’s second series. So, a year after that episode, that finale that battered the premise of TORCHWOOD to unsustainability, came an environment in the UK that saw what little faith ever does exist for the political class, for that essential premise of parliamentary democracy (that elected officials will act in the interests of their constituents) depreciated to a dramatic degree.
It’s in the context of all this that TORCHWOOD transformed itself from a sci-fi crime drama craning to be taken as mature, adult, the darker offshoot of DOCTOR WHO. A show that would do so by filling itself with raunchiness, edginess, and the novelty of taking fundamentally American concepts – ‘CSI: Cardiff’, and the very apparent influence of Joss Whedon’s shows – and transplanting them into Wales. It transformed, dropping the pretension and simply…actually becomes what it first tried to be, actually becomes a mature, adult show, darker than DOCTOR WHO and doing something story-generative with that distinction.
The Rule of Three
The first series of TORCHWOOD’s primary thematic focus was that the mundane experiences of life were the key humanising elements that truly defined one being ‘alive’, that made a life worth living in the first place, and that staved off the show’s conception of death as inevitable, meaningless oblivion. The second series focused on how it’s only through honesty, open communication, and shedding of the ego that relationships, conceived of as the most enriching part of ‘mundane life’, can be maintained. Both series jutted up the mundane world with the supernatural and fantastic, with the ensuing friction and fallout generating the stories and drama, most of which saw characters struggling with balancing their personal lives with the process of work.
While the third series does have an alien threat, it’s notably not from the Cardiff rift in spacetime, that literalisation of the friction between the regular and fantastical worlds. The drama is also hugely weighted in favour of the human responses. It isn’t the friction between the human and the alien that drives CHILDREN OF EARTH. It’s the distinctions between the human and the inhuman, the key difference of course being that the inhuman aren’t aliens, but are just regular old humans – only ones that commit the cardinal sin as conceived in CHILDREN OF EARTH, that being passing of the buck. Characters constantly rationalise or displace away their inhumanity by ducking any responsibility or attribution for it. It flows down to the weaker and the meeker instead. All the many lies of the series stem from these open circles, the way characters and institutions fob off their actions and motivations onto specific lies like in propaganda, or broader institutional lies like the myth that a corrupt government born of unsustainable systems would truly consider children as pure, untouchable, equal, and – most critically – ‘the future’.
(spoilers for CHILDREN OF EARTH – but no further in the show – below)
The Writer(’s Room) and the Influences
CHILDREN OF EARTH can be seen as being conceptually birthed out of three earlier episodes of the series. In SMALL WORLDS the team face an unsolvable moral quandary against creatures with suggested (yet crucially never proven) abilities to basically destroy the world, which is only solved through all saviour narratives being abandoned, and Jack directly sacrificing a child to the creatures. In COUNTRYCIDE, the team’s conception of the episodic threat as alien or supernatural is undone by the revelation it’s entirely human depravity, a fact so maddening and depressing it drives Gwen to act selfishly and corruptly herself. In ADRIFT, Chris Chibnall demonstrates just how workable and fruitful the concept of writing a TORCHWOOD conspiracy narrative with Jack’s past actions as the mystery is. ADRIFT also features another unsolvable moral quandary demonstrating how, as with COUNTRYCIDE, the truth can be so much more horrifying than a fiction, so much so that it can drive one to dangerous disillusionment.
RTD’s only full writer credit on the show before CHILDREN OF EARTH was the pilot, but here he develops those ideas explored in earlier episodes. He does so in a five-hour serialised narrative with the gimmick of it being aired all over a consecutive work-week, emphasising the urgency and frantic pace of the story (and, of course, born of real-world compromises as a result of the show being promoted up to BBC1 with all its competitive programme slots). A third series for the show had initially being planned as in the vein of the first two, with thirteen episodes and the team investigating supernatural cases in Cardiff and so on. New members of the team would perhaps be DOCTOR WHO’s Martha and Mickey, who’d been positioned as potential new team members. That plan that lasted in increasingly smaller forms right up until the availability for both actors completely dropped out shortly before production for CHILDREN OF EARTH started.
However, things were pulling too much towards change. Head writer and pseudo-showrunner Chris Chibnall was leaving to work on LAW AND ORDER: UK (where, incidentally, he’d poach the actor for Martha). The sheer explosiveness of EXIT WOUNDS with its twin main character deaths strained just how well the show could really operate ‘as normal’ again. The promotion up to BBC1 with its more limited timeslots all pushed the show to a new direction. The novel idea of the consecutive-five-day-broadcast was latched upon and, in a new arrangement, RTD would use essentially a writer’s room to break the first four or so episodes of the series.
The finale proved more troublesome. In his own words, as set out in THE WRITER’S TALE, ‘the gaping void of Episode 5 is staring at me, and we’re seriously running out of time. When I said to you the other day that it’s all my fault, I’m only just beginning to realise what has happened, in this new five-episode process. A long time back, we stared, all of us together, at the emptiness of Episode 5. We had no solution. Nothing. We had bits of plot, but no story, no essence, no real reason for the show to exist. So, I took a deep breath and… well, I gave away one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. The point being, it wasn’t a TORCHWOOD idea. It was a notion I’ve had in my head for about 20 years, and a series that I’ve always been dying to write, and something I’d talked about at length with Nicola Shindler, and Phil Collinson, and Julie, hoping that we could make it together one day. They loved it. They always said, “Let’s do it,” ahead of any other idea I’ve ever had.
‘It was, essentially, a family drama, in which the world goes to hell, ending with our nice, safe, comfy western society descending into anarchy or a military state. Those nightmare regimes that we see in Africa, or Bosnia, or in history – but right here, on our doorsteps, with ordinary people like you and me, and our mums and dads, and our brothers and sisters, not just watching it, but part of it. Brilliant idea. And now I find myself using it up on TORCHWOOD. I love TORCHWOOD, but this was a good six hours of drama, maybe 12 hours, maybe three years of drama, that I’ve been planning for decades, condensed onto the ending of a sci-fi spin-off thriller.’
That very same idea would be reused by RTD some ten years later, in his 2019 family drama of the future YEARS AND YEARS, but its use in CHILDREN OF EARTH – however late into the process it was conceived – forms an integral part of the premise. That premise would be the line between humanity and inhumanity, and how that line is papered over with fictions by those who would pass the buck, who would exploit systems and relationships to be rigged in their favour, so the inhumanity they’re built on never reaches them, never has any tangible effect on themselves.
The most foregrounded influence may be the ‘close encounters’ alien mythology the opening minutes of the first episode play with. Just as SMALL WORLDS in series 1 took a fairytale and played it grimmer, more grounded in emotion than fancy, and of the general TORCHWOOD stylistic sensibilities, so too does CHILDREN OF EARTH approach the Spielbergian idea of wondrous encounters with aliens (human children and aliens, no less), and turn it sour. As Jack says, “You just come with Uncle Jack. We’re gonna go an adventure, yeah? Everyone off…here we go. Alright, children, you follow me. Adventure.”
Themes and Regimes
If we take the first primary theme of CHILDREN OF EARTH as the distinctions between humanity and inhumanity, and how those distinctions are constantly covered up with fictions and superficialities, we can see many ways this is explored through the series. There is Jack’s otherness through his invincibility and eternal age (particularly through the warped nature of his family with his daughter and grandson). There is also Jack’s straddling of the line between personal humanity and inhumanity, such as in his willingness to sacrifice orphans in 1965 where other operatives were reluctant, and his ultimate departure from the planet.
There is PC Andy removing iconography of the inhumane state, his police uniform, before engaging in the humane citizen defence against the army attempting to abduct children. There are the many juxtapositions of the government officials. The Prime Minister’s assured and kindly tones on the television contrasting with his evasive cowardice and cruelty behind the camera. John Frobisher’s cold banality of evil routine against his domestic home life. Others, still, trying to spin culling poor children as something society might accept as good because of the inherent unsustainability of the political system as performed to provide for everyone.
Frobisher, being drawn in such contrast to Peter Capaldi’s iconic aggressive and looming Malcolm Tucker figure, seems very human – all diminutive and furtive – but orders killings and conspires with the aliens all the same. It is not just his children, but all children in the show, that are simultaneously framed as inherently pure, innocent, treasured and protected above all else in society, the very nature of the future…yet, in truth, as dehumanised as any else, along the same lines as the rest of society, with the government dropping all pretence of considering poor children having the right to exist at all.
There is the act of subverting the characters set up as new Torchwood members in place of Owen and Tosh, with the former a plant seeking to infiltrate the team, and the latter punished and unwilling to associate with the team beyond the actions she felt she had to do as a citizen. Note her helping Torchwood in the first place was born of her apt questioning of “Why would the government want to kill people who can help? I didn’t sign the Official Secrets Act to cover up murder. But then, I didn’t take the job to commit treason on my second day”.
There are the poorly ways the very human, mentally afflicted Clement MacDonald is treated. There are the ’EMTs’ attempting to kill Gwen and Ianto. There is Rupesh highlighting how the supernatural and alien ‘wonders’ of the last few years have actually driven more and more people to suicide and crises of faith. There is the artificiality of the vision the Torchwood camera contact lenses provides. There is the reason the aliens want children in the first place being not alien, but so utterly banal and human – hedonistic desire for drugs. And there is Gwen coming to the conclusion that the reason DOCTOR WHO’s titular figure is absent during so many human atrocities is not because of any sci-fi reason, but of the Doctor feeling very human shame at inhuman actions taken on Earth.
If we take the second primary theme of CHILDREN OF EARTH as ’passing the buck’, how fundamentally unsustainable exceptionalist thinking is, how relationships and systems that rely on exploiting others are tenuous through how they depend on that other to displace onto in the first place, we can also see many ways that is explored through the series. There is the whole nature of the gift of orphans to the aliens in 1965, from the idea it could sate them (thus passing the buck down to some point in the future when they’d return), to the use of disaffected children ‘no one would care about’. There is the UK government covering up they ever gave such a gift, futilely ducking UNIT and America’s questioning, and lying to the world in a manner just putting off the inevitability of the truth coming out. From the very first episode it’s clear the ‘invasion is so centred on Britain, and on reference to a past exchange, that all the UK government does is kick that reveal briefly down the line.
There are the many transparent inconsistencies and unsustainabilities of the government in general (e.g. what Nicholas Briggs’ character highlights in his speech about the country being unable to provide for its population). There is how the Prime Minister constantly passes the buck to John Frobisher, explicitly setting him up – and telling him this to his face! – as a fall guy. There’s also how the Prime Minister gleefully plots to pin the totalitarian actions of the finale onto UNIT and America, and how the Prime Minister’s power being essentially usurped merely puts it in the hands of another as slimy and reprehensible. There is the conception of civil servants as the ‘cockroaches of government’ that avoid the attributions, blame, responsibilities of the elected, while still wielding all that power. To that end, Frobisher constantly averts his eyes, runs away, avoids clear judgement and recognition in the moment for actions he takes and decisions he makes. There is also Clem as the ‘remnant’, the human link to the 456 that they (fatally, as it turns out) take too long in terminating.
As far as the Torchwood team goes, there is Jack ducking the very reasonable questions his daughter Alice brings up about how fundamentally incompatible his nature is with a family unit such as her and Steven’s. There is the Torchwood team handwaving how exactly they’d deal with Gwen and Rhys having a child and still having Gwen as some sort of workable consistent member of the team, when the show has spent so much time emphasising the danger and unsustainability of the job (brought home all too cruelly in Ianto’s ultimate death). There is how Jack thinks threats could possibly appease the aliens, who’d made their abilities already too plain. There is Ianto’s sister resisting the apparent truth of their father’s behaviour towards Ianto, and there is her pointing out to her husband how unsustainable the creche they set up is. The Torchwood ‘on the run’ narrative in general, with the inevitability of the team being tracked down at some point (and Clem, similarly, with his escape from the facility where he was housed), also falls into this pattern, as does Gwen, Rhys, PC Andy, and the rest of the citizens resisting the army while the inevitability that they’ll be caught stares them in the face. There is Gwen and Rhys’ humanity being demonstrated in how they resist this concept, in how they accept Jack and don’t place the weight and blame of how the finale went down entirely on his shoulders for killing his grandson, and there is – finally – Jack thinking he can just ‘run away’ from his problems, from himself.
The Time of the Captain
The fourth of the episode series tries for a false conclusion. Lois Habiba attempts a sort of government takeover via Torchwood, uses filmed evidence of their inhumane plans as leverage. Jack takes over the situation from the government, makes a rousing speech to the aliens, reminiscent of how the Doctor would solve such situations in DOCTOR WHO. He appeals to humanity, the human spirit, the purity of the conception of children as the future, to the apparent will of humans to resist, and so on. It all completely fails; the aliens demonstrate their power, Ianto is killed along with scores of others. Lois Habiba is imprisoned. Unlike what RTD may posit in other series of his, recorded evidence is not enough to undercut, let alone destroy, corrupt institutions. The circle has to be closed. The unsustainability of the systems must be defeated with force, manipulated, exacerbated, or played out. The buck has to stop being passed.
So, the climax of the series is where the British government, during a media campaign of barefaced lies about ‘protecting the children’, seeks to essentially cull the poorest children of the population. There is a spirited resistance from numerous citizens, but all it does is save some time; the government succeeding is shown as inevitable. Conceptually, the key to the ending has always rested in the beginning. Jack, on behalf of the government (more or less), sacrificed children he had no attachment to in 1965. The aliens use a kind of psychic frequency link to control the children. One of those children, in 1965, escaped from all the inhumane present, both the aliens and Jack himself.
The hanging point of the aliens is that connection being left in the remnant, the lost child, in Clem. It’s through this that Jack realises a link goes both ways. Not only can the aliens be killed, or at least severely damaged, through sending information back through that connection in a child’s mind, but symbolically, the link connecting Jack’s original sin of sacrificing children has to be brought to bare in the present. The buck has to stop being passed; he has to sacrifice someone that he does know the name of, someone that does mean something to him, his own family, child, flesh, blood. Only in using that child as the connection through which to defeat the aliens can the entire rotten situation be brought full circle and closed. In doing so, Jack has to viscerally feel the inhumanity of what he did in 1965, in a way too close to home to be able to run from the consequences. His grandson dies. His relationship with his daughter is over.
Superficially, Jack sacrificing his grandson is the same action as he undertook in 1965, and as the UK government was attempting – sacrifice of a minority number of children to keep the rest of the UK safe. But the crucial differences are appeasement and exceptionalism. Jack sacrificing his grandson wasn’t an act of appeasement, it was an act of war. Jack did not sacrifice an orphan or a poor child construed as not worthy of living in a society. He sacrificed someone he loved, someone close to him, part of him.
It’s arguably regrettable that, right through the end of the series, children were treated entirely as pawns, with no agency of their own – what might Steven have thought, if the situation were explained to him in some form? Would he have resisted, and things would have proceeded as normally, except probably more horrifying as he’d be aware of what was happening? Would he play the hero, accept he would likely die, and volunteer anyway, to save humanity? We’ll never know, because the series consistently denies children their own sense of self, agency, part in the narrative. Steven is an object in Jack’s narrative, as the children are an object to the government’s.
Through his act of killing Steven, Jack completes his transformation into the inhuman, the alien, and so all he is willing to do at the end is run away completely, truly mount the alien identity and abscond from Earth entirely. The finale starts with Gwen ruminating on inhumanity being why the Doctor doesn’t stay on Earth as often as she’d expect, and ends with Jack – after ‘abandoning’ his grandchild in an all too gruesome way – leaving a world ‘too small’ for him, off for alien adventures across the universe.
The irony that Jack could only solve the issue of the series through bearing through an unpleasant truth, yet is unwilling to really mentally deal with his actions at the end, is not lost on Gwen, who pleads for him to stay part of the Torchwood family with her and Rhys. But the mounting Torchwood death toll proved too much to bare, and he all but delivers a Doctor-esque regeneration speech – ‘I have lived so many lives. It’s time to find another one’ – before asserting that he absolutely can ‘just run away’. TORCHWOOD couldn’t really become the mature, heady show it wanted to be in the first two series where it preened at and fussed over being shocking, and Jack couldn’t really become a Doctor figure when he was so rooted in a fundamental humanity. Only through separating himself so bleakly from humanity does he end up becoming the alien leaving a planet ‘too small’ for him.
In positioning Jack in such a fashion, and having Gwen and Rhys committed and starting a traditional conception of a family, with Torchwood itself terminated (originally, RTD was going to have the finale literally end with an endscreen displaying ‘TORCHWOOD STATUS: TERMINATED’), the series is utterly concluded. More series do come after (though their relationship to the CHILDREN OF EARTH’s finale is telling), but it’s undeniable how conclusively the finale ends things. Torchwood was founded because ‘Great Britain has enemies beyond imagination, and we must defend our borders on all sides….if this Doctor should return, then he should beware, because Torchwood will be waiting’. If we (charitably) take Great Britain as the resident populace rather than the state, then the greatest enemy became the state itself in the end, not the supernatural threats Torchwood was founded to combat. In CHILDREN OF EARTH, the Doctor didn’t return, but Jack became something that Queen Victoria would surely see just as inhumane, and just as alien.
Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that it’s a Russell T Davies finale that absolutely sticks the landing. Framed with a metatextual address condemning the depravities of humanity, the episode commits to the follow-through on everything the series had developed up to that point, throwing arresting image after arresting image as it barrels towards the only sort of ending that could possibly make sense in this kind of world – one so relentlessly conclusive that it effectively terminated the entire show.
A false ending that may have even been convincing if it weren’t so clearly demarcated as the fourth day of five. The POV shot of the room with the 456 distorting as Lois Habiba cries over the reveal of the stolen child used for nothing more than a chemical hit, that’s really the image summing up the episode – tears staining horrible developments that really hammer home how unchained RTD’s unique visions of darkness are.
Immediately sets the new tone, aesthetic, and storytelling direction for the series in an immensely confident and commanding way, feeling like a natural evolution of what came before, but even moreso a step into an exciting and dangerous beyond.
Perhaps the most episodic day of the series, with Jack’s absence from the narrative a great of point of tension forcing the other characters into threatening spaces. The details of Jack’s removal from the narrative are grimly fascinating, his rescue is enormously thrilling, and Gwen and Rhys’ relationship grows even stronger all the while.
The weakest link of the series in that it basically amounts to connective issue, table-setting after the big movements of the first two episodes. Setting in at “HUB2” can’t help but feel a bit of a regression.