There is a big danger in taking an already short television season and turning it into a single multi-episode storyarc. If the story isn't successful – if it isn't compelling, if the character arcs aren't interesting, if anything falls out of place – one could be putting the fate of the entire series into jeopardy. It's a gamble, a risk – a risk that should pay great dividends for Torchwood and its creator Russell T. Davies with the new Torchwood: Children of Earth five-part series which will be airing on BBC America for five nights in a row starting on Monday July 20 at 9:00pm.
Based in the same universe as Doctor Who – or Whoniverse, if you will – Torchwood is the name of a top secret government organization founded by Queen Victoria with a mandate to protect the world from all sorts of alien baddies, that is to say, the likes of the Doctor himself. The Queen and the Doctor didn't see eye to eye, but that's neither here nor there, the upshot of it all is that Torchwood has changed a little during the intervening years and is now run (at least Torchwood Three is) by a good friend of the Doctor's, the inimitable and practically eternal Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman).
Children of Earth finds the cast slimmed down following the untimely ends of two members of the Torchwood staff, Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) and Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), in season two. Consequently, when the aliens come calling this time around, only Captain Jack, Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) are present to save the world from certain doom.
If that all sounds a little fantastical and ludicrous and more than a bit complicated, don't worry about it — one of the strengths of Children of Earth is that it's written so that even the uninitiated can figure out what's going on after playing a minimal amount of catch-up (or more quickly if they're sitting next to someone who has already been indoctrinated while they watch). The upshot of it all is that Torchwood are the good guys and they're going to save the world… or die trying. As Davies states in the press materials "…we're telling a brand new story. It's been deliberately written so that no one will be lost – and at the same time, the faithful viewer will discover so much more about the members of the Torchwood team."
As for the bad guys, this time out it's an alien race known only as the 456, they're called as much because that's the frequency on which they originally broadcast a message to Earth in 1965. In the opening moments of the season though no one knows that the 456 are on their way, all anyone knows is that all the children of Earth (at least the awake ones) have stopped simultaneously. Quickly though the 456 are able to do more than stop all the children, they're able to use them to broadcast their first message to the world: "We are coming." The 456's plans go well beyond just using children as radio receivers however, and England, Torchwood, and the world soon find themselves in dire straits.
While it is most definitely science fiction based, Torchwood: Children of Earth, like all the best sci-fi, isn't exclusively concerned with aliens and the future and improbable (or impossible) events. Torchwood succeeds – and make no mistake, this season does succeed, and more than previous ones – because it is concerned with characters and is able to center itself in the world in which we live. Children of Earth spends a significant amount of time examining the hypothetical politics of an alien invasion, looking at the best and the worst that we, as a world, might do in the face of obscene alien demands.
The humble heroes of Torchwood find themselves not only fighting aliens, but their past, and a threat from within their own government. This season is most definitely a dark look at our world, not just because the story has a focus on the 456's relationship to children (though that is a lot of it), but because it shows a myriad of groups and factions all out for themselves. Whether it's to protect themselves in the future, hide their tracks in the past, or just plain live through the present, Torchwood not only shows how poorly non-sympathetic characters might act in a dire situation, but how even sympathetic ones can do the wrong thing.
This five-part single episode story, Torchwood: Children of Earth, is so astounding and so good because it not only has a huge scope but because it doesn't lose the small stories, the stories of both the folks at Torchwood and their loved ones, like Eve's husband Rhys Williams (Kai Owen) and the stories of some of the members of the government who find themselves involved with the 456.
All three members of the Torchwood team, Captain Jack, Gwen, and Ianto, are given their own separate storylines and separate interests as the plot of this mini-season progresses. There is certainly enough for each of them to do, and for each of the actors to play with, that fans of the series will be satisfied and newcomers will be able to get a feel for each character.
On the non-Torchwood side of things, a particularly good job is done by Peter Capaldi who plays John Frobisher, a lifelong civil servant who still finds himself working for less than reputable politicians. Frobisher may be the most sympathetic – and the most sad – of all the characters who appear, he is a man who tries his best and who may know more and better than all of those around him, but who is never given a chance by his political bosses who come and go.
In discussing Torchwood, Barrowman said "in series one we were crawling, series two we were walking and now series three we're running." It is true that Children of Earth is an experience that will leave the viewer completely breathless by its conclusion, after watching the first four hours back-to-back I found myself terribly distraught that I hadn't allotted enough time to watch the last episode right then as well.
Anyone with any interest in science fiction would do well to watch Torchwood: Children of Earth, and anyone who just likes good television should tune in as well. The series, which has been above average until now, has finally really hit its stride and makes for an excellent weeklong experience.
At this moment, Russell T. Davies has said that he hopes to do a fourth season, that he has an idea for it and is just waiting on the go ahead from the BBC. With any luck, it won't be too long before he's able to tell us "we are coming."
Torchwood Children of Earth airs five nights in a row on BBC America starting this Monday at 9:00pm and is something not to be missed.