Better Late Than Never


At a point just over halfway through Torchwood Children of Earth my wife turned to me and said “where’s the Doctor in all this?” I didn’t know she cared. And yet in a way it’s this lack of the Time Lord that drives 2009′s miniseries, for although he and his interest in Earth’s survival is mentioned in only one episode, CoE is a production over which his shadow (as interpreted by Russell T Davies) is cast long. Glib, cloying, weepy – you could call the Tenth Doctor a lot of things, but by and large he is a hero, and a figure who has generous accommodation on the winning side. Not so his human counterparts in Torchwood, and therein lies the interest in this story.

CoE starts things off by literally mobilising the team from the end of Day One in a ritual cleansing of fire – no Hub, no pterodactyl, not even any former Torchwood bodies. The dreaded SUV was desecrated in one of the story’s few concessions to humour, seen off in a crude and fitting riposte to the old, sometimes pompous and ridiculous series. The Torchwood team and Hub are rebuilt from scratch, with no plan B to fall back on – a good thing then that Owen’s flat-bed scanner stand-in was up to the job, and that Ianto’s computer lessons made him a match for Tosh. This is Torchwood as drawn largely by RTD in Everything Changes, and the Torchwood that I’d say a lot of fans thought they would be getting two years ago. This story falls just short of being a reboot – there are trappings of the past, but as a standalone Children of Earth has the grit and resolve to peer it with the likes of say, Edge of Darkness.

Series Three could (and perhaps nearly did) function perfectly well as a conclusion to Torchwood. It’s certainly a conclusion to Torchwood ‘classic’, and as rumours of a fourth series gather we can be sure that the show will not be the same, which is, even if you enjoyed the past series, a good thing. Reinvention can be healthy, and credit should be given to RTD, Fay and Moran for resisting the lure of the expected ‘reset’ button. If CoE can be characterised by any one thing for me then it is in confounding viewer expectations: core cast died, Jack’s victory is Pyrrhic, and Torchwood’s higher-ups look to not be the clean sweep you might have hoped for – even PM Brow- I mean Green outlived better people than himself. I once argued that what Torchwood needed was someone above them to be accountable to, and a regular foil – preferably the same person. We got that with home office lieutenant Frobisher, but to an extreme – I dare say even Primeval‘s Ben Miller wouldn’t have issued a blank page assassination order on his own team.

Ah, Frobisher – a good man destined for a bad end, and even his is un-heroic and a waste. If he’d applied the slow and steady method his colleague and admirer Bridget Spears championed through to the end, he and his family might well have survived the day. But a tragedy needs casualties, and CoE worked also because it had the space (perhaps affordable with a smaller Torchwood crew) to build that character and invite audience investment. Frobisher was a well-wrought character, a true antihero and tragic figure rendered superbly by Peter Capaldi working with a gem of a script and some great direction. It’s to the writers’ credit that we care about this man as much as we know he is seriously compromising the ability of Torchwood to understand and undermine the 456 (although one wonders how much time Jack spent thinking about them post-1965). In fact CoE had a good number of interesting characters, from lost soul Clem who could easily have been offed as collateral in an early episode after a useful info dump, but instead provided the twist to Jack’s character in a scene that undercut the character’s triumphant ‘I’m back” re-robing beforehand. Less well-rounded perhaps is government tough-girl Johnson, who comes into her own in Day Five and delivers what’s needed, but without the full character change you might expect at the same time – her conversion seems lacking in completion somehow. On the other hand, boffin Dekker in his woodwork-teacher’s coat was an interesting, mercurial figure for the first four days, yet betrayed a callous streak during Jack’s greatest trial. Not bad for an old man who’s had a leg shot out from under him, either.

Space prohibits me from going on about characters to great length, there were many, and they were for the most part well-realised. Nicholas Hallet’s PM was a great piece of casting, visually not unlike a younger Geoffrey Palmer (no not that one, that one) and the supporting blokes – Kai Owen’s Rhys, PC Andy and Ianto’s brother in law Johnny were all welcome comic relief, but each of them flawed, fumbling and noble. It seems a pointed observation by Davies and company that the heroics of the story, wading in discarding bulletproof vests for a hopeless time-saving fistfight, facing off against riot police unarmed, are the feats of simple men like them, in contrast to the duplicitous and cowardly acts committed by their apparent superiors in Whitehall. As a sort of middle ground between these two groups is Cush Jumbo’s Lois Habib, the Martha-proxy, reduced for a couple of episodes to being the literal eyes of Torchwood, her resourcefulness marked her as suitable Torchwood material, even if her future was left uncertain. Should she stay on? I’d not object.

Thematically there are rich influences at work here – the 1979 Quatermass movie, The Midwich Cuckoos (although less of an influence than the trailers led us to believe), and even organised religion in the pre-Christian imagery of child sacrifice and, if you will, the 456′s ‘tithing’ of Earth’s children. Ianto’s ‘faith’ in Jack costs him his life, and even the story’s abbreviated title – “C of E” – has a tongue-in-cheek ecclesiastical ring to it. As it turns out the 456 were of course a cipher, the real monster being us, as RTD demonstrated in Midnight to equal effect; and the series creator seemed to have been at pains throughout to provide the chilling moments of the story came not from the mist-veiled aliens, but from government officials too ready to use such banal and controversial measures as educational tables for schools as the criteria for unspeakable crimes against their people.

My introduction to the work of Russell T Davies was not Queer As Folk, the assumed point of entry for the DW fan, but his brief turn in the dark Robson Green thriller Touching Evil, whose supernaturally gifted DCI Creegan is perhaps an archetype of Jack Harkness. Children of Earth is the product of that RTD. Davies’ vision is an existential one, despite the cheery bumf of a large part of his Doctor Who output, and this story reminds us that when the writer means ‘adult’ he’s capable of delivering just that – challenging, shocking and riveting stuff. When Jack’s insistence that ‘nothing’ lies beyond death save for an eternal ‘darkness’ combines with Davies’ vision for humanity the news is worse for us all – as Gwen surmises in Day Five, there’s barely anything in humanity worth fighting for. And yet they do, because contrary to the vocal fans who saw the Jack/Ianto romance as the ‘heart’ of Torchwood, Gwen (whose story we have followed since Everything Changes) is its conscience and humanity, and it is therefore fitting that she, pregnant and with a future to defend, remains. I’ll stick my neck out and say that her Torchwood will not be the failure of Jack’s. If there’s a ‘Gwys’ club, sign me up.

And on that note, ‘Janto’ fans hounding Moran from the internet and baying for RTD’s blood for the death of their favourite character have absolutely missed the point. Ianto didn’t die because he was gay – he could have died at any time previous if he were that dispensable (are we to assume then that Suzie and Tosh died because they were Asian?) Ianto died because Jack’s ‘plan’ (blackmailing aliens to the population they’re threatening to destroy!?) was a bad one and it failed. The real tragedies of the story are Frobisher’s family and Steven, Jack’s grandson, who dies for the only available and effective plan, and at the hands of the only man who can execute it: Jack. His demise and the resulting lifeless body shown were the more affecting for me as a father than anything the series had thrown up before. I think certain people need a serious dose of perspective, and if their ‘threats’ to not watch the show from this point on are genuinely carried out then Torchwood will be the better for their absence.

Does Torchwood have a future, though? There’s talk of course in the wake of its ratings triumph, and in the series it could possibly continue with one still-operating Hub and another MIA. And the future of Torchwood’s Britain? Not so rosy, perhaps, with ex-PM Green’s apparent successor being as much a party to his crime (we may well expect her contribution to be excised) – one senses another Harriet Jones in the making. Could Bridget Spears be Jack Harkness or Gwen Cooper’s new boss? Worse things could happen. As I said to another fan recently, for once I’m really interested in the future of this show, and I never thought I’d be saying that.

2 Responses to “Better Late Than Never”

  1. Al Says:

    Nice review, Peter!
    Despite the inevitable delivery of the ‘feel good factor’ at the end…
    ahem… I have to confess to being constantly surprised at very turn by this story.
    Decades of watching Who has conditioned me into expecting unexpected last-minute ways out, so it’s quite a shock when the worst case scenario turns out to be the solution taken. Bleak, but all the more affecting because of it.
    I have to ask though, Jack is clearly and absolutely impossible to kill, but wouldn’t he still be at least miffed with the people who put him through unspeakable agony while trying? Maybe immortality makes you infinitely forgiving, but I know I’d be a lot less understanding as soon as I came back together again!
    And isn’t the Doctor going to get a shock next time he turns up to ‘re-fuel’?
    But as ‘Gwys’ make their way down that dark Cardiff hillside, I have to conclude that the future of the show concerns me far less than the fact that it seems to have gone out on such an unimaginable high.

  2. the_other_dave Says:

    I’ve felt I should have something to say about this, but I think that part of the reason you’ve had little in the way of comments to this one is more to do with succinctly hitting the nail on the head, rather than delayed original posting.

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