Even newcomers to the Torchwood universe (or the Doctor Who universe that spawned it, for that matter) shouldn’t hesitate to jump right into the five-hour miniseries Torchwood: Children Of Earth. By the end of the first hour, novice viewers should be up to speed with what Torchwood is about: John Barrowman plays the immortal Captain Jack Harkness, who along with his lover Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) and ex-policewoman Gwen (Eve Myles) leads the Cardiff branch of an organization dedicated to protecting the populace from supernatural and extraterrestrial phenomena. Children Of Earth’s first hour also gives a general sense of what the miniseries is about. A menacing alien race known as “The 456” is causing all the children of the world to freeze in their tracks and speak in unison, delivering a message about the aliens’ imminent arrival. When their demands are revealed, Children Of Earth takes on added urgency, and a thematic richness that sets it far apart from the typical made-for-TV sci-fi.
Actually, aside from the aliens—and the presence of an unkillable hero with ready access to awesome extraterrestrial technology—Children Of Earth has more in common with an inside-baseball political thriller than an action-fantasy. While Captain Jack and his team scramble across Wales and the greater London area trying to uncover the secrets of The 456, the aliens are in direct communication with one of the prime minister’s aides, played by Peter Capaldi. Large sections of Children Of Earth consist of bureaucrats sitting around conference tables, coldly discussing the sacrifices they’re willing to make to The 456, and how to minimize the public-relations damage. But while the Torchwood writers make the British government out to be one of the main villains of the piece—along with, y’know, the three-headed lizard-things threatening to exterminate all human life—they’re sympathetic to the idea that even the bad guys have families they’re trying to protect, and enough of a conscience to know they’re going to regret their decisions. And by the end of the fifth hour, our heroes make a few terrible choices themselves.
Children Of Earth makes effective use of the episodic format, varying its storytelling approach subtly in each installment. The second hour is practically free of Captain Jack, whose immortality gets tested by bombs and cement coffins, while the fourth focuses mainly on the backroom negotiations (during which the prime minister’s office tries to communicate with an unyielding beast in a gas-filled glass box), and the last jumbles the narrative by skipping to the end before going back to catch us up. Children Of Earth’s pace is fairly relentless, but the miniseries takes the time to show how the news media scrambles to piece together the biggest story of all time, and how even a tender moment between relatives can be laced with ulterior motives. Children Of Earth adroitly balances the high-tech with the low-tech, as the heroes don a pair of futuristic contact lenses that double as cameras one moment, then scrawl information on their hands with ballpoint pens the next. Mostly, this run of Torchwood is concerned with how evil both large and small plays out in a series of selfish acts and procedural moves. In that way, Children Of Earth is like The Wire of science fiction.
Key features: A spoiler-riffic 30-minute behind-the-scenes promotional piece. Do not watch first.