"There's one thing I always meant to ask Jack back in the old days. I wanted to know about that doctor of his, the man who appears out of nowhere and saves the world except sometimes he doesn't. All those times in history when there was no sign of him. I wanted to know, why not? But I don't need to ask anymore. I know the answer now. Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet and look away in shame." – Gwen Cooper, Torchwood
Just finished airing on BBC 1 in the UK, about to air on BBC America in a week and a bi and to be promoted up the wazoo at San Diego Comic Con, Torchwood: Children Of Earth is a surprise.
It's no secret that Torchwood has been criticised for its combination of mawkishness, gratuitousness, lack of sense and playing to the emotional gallery. This X-Files-Meets-X-Men TV series is, well, choppy is a kind word. It's nadir was probably the Cyberwoman episode but there have been many low points in its run. For something trying to be an adult sci-fi drama, it's telling that the children's TV Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures often had more gravitas and a sense of cohesion.
Which is why Children Of Earth is a bolt from the blue. Because this is the best British drama of the year. Hell, this could cosy up to the likes GBH, Edge Of Darkness, Boys From The Blackstuff and State Of Play without looking totally out of place.
It's mostly the fourth episode that does it. The first three are good, very good, don't get me wrong. The haunting child threat, the hidden alien menace reminiscent of Quatermass, the fear in the voice of a civil servant that drives him to do terrible things and the home life of those who get caught in the Torchwood focus. and then episode four, takes all these aspects, ramps them up and weaves them together with multiple plot strands, turning the tables on the audience and on the cast repeatedly, intelligently, consistently with true emotional gravitas. And allows for a decent enough payoff in the final fifth episode.
But it's the political messages that stick out and are extreme for a mainstream BBC 1 drama. They quite blatantly encourage class war, state how little people can or should trust their political leaders, before moving to a full scale endorsement of anarchy, open rebellion and uprising against the state, with all sorts of trigger words regarding MMR inoculations, CCTV, trust in government, exemptions for politicians and saving face. And then Captain Jack Harkness becomes just like them. The story is his failure, his failure to be perfect, his failure to find a better way, his failure to be The Doctor.
And Russell T Davies has become Guido Fawkes by way of Alan Bleasdale.
With rumours that director Euros Lyn will be taking on a Doctor Who movie, certain eyes were wondering how Lyn would handle a longform project such as this and if it would provide any clues. But this is a TV show, filmed as a TV show, directed as a TV show. It is comfortable with that, it's not trying to be a movie. Episodic, shot to bring us close to the cast, comfortable in mundanity, even when aliens are controlling the children. And rather than dazzle with an FX budget, it hides, it suggests, it teases. And is far more effective for it.
Torchwood: Children Of Earth is available on DVD from Monday, will be broadcast on BBC America from July 20th, then available on DVD from July 28th.