Back in the far-flung past, I think my sense of humor and story developed from the smattering of influences from British television and science fiction novels. This is where my Doctor Who fascination comes in (despite its dormancy for many years), and it was the key that got me interested in Torchwood.
Well, that, and I’m a sucker for word-play. In case you missed it, “Torchwood” is an anagram of “Doctor Who”. (Bonus question: How many other words can you make from “Doctor Who”?)
Torchwood: Children of Earth is technically the third season of the DW spin-off series, but either because of lackluster viewer responses or maybe budgetary constraints, BBC America decided to produce it as a mini-series. I can appreciate the desire to tell a single story through one week instead of several months (including the obligatory one-off episodes that sneak in), but there’s a certain finesse required to take a weekly series and truncate it like this. Most people do not recognize this because so few franchises bother trying these days, and this is why:
In my opinion/experience, a mini-series must be self-inclusive. Even if you’re dealing with existing characters in an existing universe, you must be able to step right into it without the benefit of a friend sitting right next to you with a pause button to explain every little reference. A mini-series can catch new viewers that might not have been interested in tuning in weekly before and it should honor that with clear (or at least clever) illustrations of the universe that it’s living in. To hell with the “everyone knows Doctor Who!” attitude – not everyone knows Torchwood.
Oh, but if that was the only problem…
As Children of Earth opens, the entire planet is trapped in the realm of the Utterly Creepy Kids for a few minutes at a stretch. All of the children on the whole planet freeze at exactly the same moment and start screaming, then repeating “We are coming”. The British government, of course, does exactly the opposite of what every bit of common sense says they should do right now: they try to cover the indiscretions of past administrations by alienating the only people who have a reasonable chance of facing down the threat.
Sure, because Torchwood totally didn’t save their butts from alien threats repeatedly before then… sheesh.
Exposition is not a writer’s friend, it’s true, but when you’re presenting a mini-series, it’s quite nearly a requirement. If you don’t explain things like who the two people in the picture are, the viewer feels out of the loop. If you don’t explain the history between two of the main male characters, you’re leaving the viewer with a sense of “wtf?!?” when they are obviously stuck in a weird relationship of “not a couple” followed immediately by rabid lip-locking. If you don’t explain – or at least illustrate – to an American audience the difference between the branches of government controlled by Parliament versus the Crown, the whole nature of the social conflict is just bloody stupid.
I think what irked me even more is that even those of us who have watched Torchwood from the beginning needed something of a refresher about some of the odder points of the story given the long stretch between the last season and this one, and we had to scramble to get caught up.
For fear of revealing spoilers to those who have not seen it yet, suffice it to say that there are a number of plot points that seemed contrived, convenient, added on, or just plain ham-handed, and they were poorly balanced with a serious lack of foundation or explanation for a number of other plot points. Some of the personal losses seemed gratuitous, and I don’t wonder if the writers didn’t whip out this story to coat-tail on the current trend of “threat towards/by children” as a horror/emotive vehicle.
Flaws aside, I admit that I watched the whole thing – all five episodes – in one sitting and ended up staying awake until 3 in the morning to finish it out. It was compelling despite the road bumps, illustrated the class differences in a clever fashion, and did an excellent job of making the threat morally irredeemable. The action was intense, the characters still as endearing as ever – in that we still connect with them personally – and the press of fear was tangible. I couldn’t quite empathize as much as I would have preferred, but it was enough that I can honestly say I enjoyed it.
Torchwood: Children of Earth only gets 3.5 stars out of 5 from me. It makes me fear that they will not opt to follow up with a fourth season/series, but frankly, if the writing and story-crafting remains this choppy and unsatisfying, maybe that’s a good thing.