BBCHD - 6th July 2009 - 9.00pm
SPOILERS FOR NON-UK VIEWERS
'You're working for the Home Office and you've never heard of Torchwood?'
Jesus, you mean they're not on Facebook? Not even Twittering? MI6 have got a lot of explaining to do this week. Their new boss Sir John Sawyer popping up on Facebook wearing a pair of Speedos has put the wind up the counter terrorism sub-committee and they've also got their hands full in Day One of the long awaited Torchwood epic, Children Of Earth. Dirty laundry from 1965 has made its way to the top of the pile in the washing basket and social networking isn't going to make diddly-squat difference in the world of Torchwood because here everyone does their washing in public. Everyone knows about Torchwood. People in Cardiff point to the Bay when total strangers ask about them. They're the least secret organisation known to (Welsh) man.
At the heart of tonight's episode is a great big homage to what Brian Aldiss called the 'cosy catastrophe' of John Wyndham, with numerous references to his particular brand of post-war British science fiction in The Kraken Wakes, The Day Of The Triffids and most particularly here The Midwich Cuckoos. For all the attempts, in this first episode at least, by Russell T Davies to globalise the crisis of the world's children abruptly stopping (shades of The Day The Earth Stood Still, another prime example of 1950s paranoid SF) it just doesn't quite come across by simply having Ianto read off a string of countries at the same time that a UNIT officer is providing a similar litany to a civil servant in the Home Office. Mind you, I bet parents would give their eye teeth for something as effective as this to shut their kids up. When it boils down to it, Russell, you're just a sucker for Wyndham and as much in love with Professor Bernard Quatermass as the rest of us who quite happily lap up alien invasion yarns designed to threaten the British Isles and patriotically disturb our stiffened upper lips. Even if he invokes Quatermass and his own run in with paranoid politicians, there is no doubt Russell will counter this by eventually wheeling out Lachele Carl as American news anchor Trinity Wells. Wait and see.
The homage to 1950s science fiction paranoia and to State Of Play political subterfuge stands the first episode in good stead. It is a very tight script, trimmed of fat, full of urgency and the need to coast towards an equally gripping conclusion. What's also interesting here is the way class is depicted in the story, where we see families and the backgrounds to the main characters revealed within a Britain where education and even how we use Facebook and My Space all still run along the old class divisions. Frobisher's family is clearly upper middleclass whilst Ianto's sister and brother are lower class from a neighbourhood that is, quite literally, as rough as arseholes. In the midst of the crisis, the script has time to highlight these differences and similarities, particularly with the fan pleasing scenes of Jack visiting his own daughter Alice and his great grandson and Ianto struggling to articulate his very individualistic sexual relationship with Jack to his sister whilst she can only simply codify him as 'gay'. Excellently played out scenes, and interestingly hinting at rather unpleasant opportunism on the part of Torchwood's male staff to simply get a chance to examine a relative's child caught up in the alien manipulation, they are a good example of Davies' ability to write good character moments. He does have an annoying tendency to over milk the pudding though and the running gag between Ianto and Jack about their status as a 'couple', whilst initially charming, is clearly a blatant sign-post to the audience that this 'couple' may not survive beyond the span of this week's five episodes.
These problems aside, this is full of broad humour, touching visual motifs and good character exploration. From Gwen turning the lights back on in a darkened Hub, briefly stroking a photo of the deceased Owen and Tosh, to the amusing encounter with Dr. Rupesh Patanjali as Jack and Ianto pose as 'poor old Mr. Williams' neighbours only to then surgically remove an alien 'hitch-hiker' from his dead body. Ianto's 'And I've got Tupperware' line and the observation 'NHS, too much red tape' sums up Torchwood in one brief scene for any brave newcomers. To confirm that this is definitely a Russell T Davies script we even get a joke about Jack and Ianto being The Chuckle Brothers and an ironic nod in Gwen's line about the Hub being 'a big science fiction superbase' in answer to Rupesh's query. Davies also mirrors Gwen's induction into Torchwood with her taking on the role of recruitment officer to the by now curious Rupesh Patanjali. There's a sweet scene where Davies pretty much distills all of Gwen's attitudes towards Torchwood, life and the Universe and intriguingly explores the effects of contact with alien life on the population with Rupesh discussing the insignificance ordinary people must now feel and how it shakes their faith in God. A bit of Davies own atheism creeping in there too.
There's also a very Bondian feel to the conspiracy within government sub-plot, bolstered by a wonderful scene early in the episode as both Frobisher and Lois Habiba arrive for work, he arriving in his sleek black ministerial car and she hoping off the bus, as Ben Foster's score of driving strings echoes Murray Gold's UNIT theme. Whilst the inclusion of Lois mirrors Gwen's 'first day at the office' introduction way back from Series One, there are also a couple of continuity nuggets thrown out to the fans with Frobisher's mention of Colonel Mace (The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky) and news of Martha's honeymoon (or is that perhaps a guarded reference to Freema's flit to ITV's Law And Order? Still, at least Foster pops in a bit of Martha's theme). Peter Capaldi is great as the twitchy Frobisher and at one point I thought he was going to launch in a Malcolm Tucker tirade of expletives at Cush Jumbo playing Lois, as she titted about with cups of tea whilst Frobisher is trying to conduct a debrief with UNIT's Colonel Oduya. 'Fucking tea! Thank you very fucking much. Now will you piss off and go and breach some high security protocols on Bridget's bloody computer!'
When the possessed children eerily begin chanting 'We are coming', the script then introduces another character, one with a link back to the dirty dealings of 1965. Timothy White (yes, and Davies manages to get a joke in there about that but you'd need to be a certain age to appreciate it), in a superb performance from the ever wonderful Paul Copley, is in a care home and one of the best scenes in the entire episode is Gwen's interview with him. It's an emotionally powerful scene with both Eve Myles and Copley magnificent as Gwen tenderly teases his real name and background from him. Beautiful acting from them both, adding a tragic core to the archetypical alien invasion plot. That the plot is also part of a government cover up is later revealed by Mr. Dekker, a boffin straight out of Bond's Q branch who has been tracing the alien signals for donkey's years. Cue intense chat with the Prime Minister, who doesn't want any stains on his hands and orders Frobisher to cover up Britain's involvement with the aliens, the 456. That also means killing Jack.
The final twist is that lovely Rupesh turns out to be an agent undercover at the hospital. But here the plotting gets muddied. Yes, we know Frobisher orders the death of Jack and other retired military personnel, suggesting he may have knowledge or been witness to the original 456 abductions but what exactly was Rupesh doing trying to infiltrate Torchwood in the first place? It seems terribly convenient that he's involved in this set up and is asked to carry out the execution. And if they know Jack is immortal then what plans do they have for him because it seems another agenda, primarily of agent Johnson (a suitably severe Liz May Brice), is also being played out with the destruction of the Hub being part of it. All very Machiavellian even if the discovery of the bomb in Jack's stomach is horribly contrived around Gwen busy giving herself a pregnancy scan. Gives a whole new meaning to having a bun in the oven, I suppose.
This is leaps and bounds ahead of most Torchwood fare it has to be said, complete with a frenetic cliffhanger to ensure viewer loyalty, with director Euros Lyn getting excellent performances from the three remaining main characters, suggesting that the original line up was always too cumbersome in the first place. Here, there is enough involvement for Jack, Gwen and Ianto in the main plot as well as opportunities for character development. Lyn's direction is slick, handling the actions scenes with a grand sweep and understanding the importance of framing actors to maximise their performances for the screen. Coupled with an excellent score from Ben Foster, a committed guest cast, splendid use of Cardiff locations...this is a Torchwood, if the momentum can be carried through the remaining episodes, completely fit for BBC1's purpose.
Cathode Ray Tube Children Of Earth Torchwood Series 3 Day One
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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