EPISODE REVIEW: Torchwood: “Children of Earth, Day 4” (Season 3, Episode 4)

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Welcome to Science Fiction Hell Week, Day Four. The kids VBS is over now, so less strain there, and I got some giddy good site-related news today that I can't really reveal yet, but suffice to say I'm surviving the daunting workload of the week, and am really enjoying watching and reviewing all this stuff.

So ever since the new Galactica hit the airwaves, it’s been trendy to talk about how dark Science Fiction is getting, how it’s no longer depicting a maoist-utopian fantasy world like Trek, how it’s morally ambiguous, and it’s also trendy to talk about how American SF is somehow more serious and darker than it is with our cousins in the UK. Well, I’m here to tell you that as of tonight, that’s all crap. All utterly horrible crap. I’ve been watching SF my entire life - the happy happy joy joy kind and the dark stuff - and I can honestly say, without hyperbole, that I have *never* in my life seen something as cynical and creepy as this episode of Torchwood.

It is also somewhat trendy for Americans - mostly the left-leaning ones, but others as well - to pat ourselves on the back and talk about how we really don’t trust our government (Often with good reason), and ramble on about conspiracies and shadow cabinets and all kinds of crazy paranoid crap. We pride ourselves on our cynicism, or at least our media does. There’s nothing we wouldn’t suspect our government being capable of, and take them down for. This is, after all, a post-Watergate, Post-Clintonian world. Well…you know what? That’s crap too. The fact of the matter is that not only was this episode of Torchwood the darkest political thing I’ve ever seen, it is one of those things that we - as Americans - simply could not have done. The way the British Government is portrayed in this episode is amazingly vile, and there is simply no way any studio, any network, any director, any American would or could ever portray our government this badly. Even Michael More, the gibbering paranoid schizophrenic whackjob of our time, would stop shy of this kind of thing.

So don’t talk to me about darkness, moral ambiguity, and political cynicism, ‘cuz the Brits have us beat hands down.

PLAY BY PLAY

We start with an extended flashback to 1965, explaining what happened. The 456 contacted earth, warning us that a variation of Indonesian Flu was brewing. In exchange for 12 kids, they’d give us a way to neutralize the disease before it killed a few score million. The 456 said the kids would live forever, and not be harmed. The British government agreed, and Torchwood’s Captain Jack was selected to deliver the kids because he was already known as a heartless bastard who didn’t give a crap about anyone, so they knew he’d be willing to drive the bus without getting all heroic and trying to save the kids.

So Jack drove the bus, and didn’t get all heroic, and didn’t try to save the kids.

In fact, he cold-lied to them, telling them it would be a fun adventure, and encouraged them to go in to the alien light. When the aliens left, The Kid Who Ran Away was left behind. In yesterday’s review, I kept calling him that because I couldn’t remember his name and didn’t have time to look it up, but it was McDonald, and he didn’t run away like I assumed, rather the aliens left him behind for some reason. He then scampered off in to the woods, unbeknownst to Jack and the rest.

Back in the present, McDonald shoots Jack, then runs off, very reasonably overwhelmed by all that’s going on. Gwen goes to him and tries to calm him down. These are very effective, if brief, scenes. Having a history of being around mentally ill people, I admire the way she handles the situation. Ianto and Gwen question Jack about the ‘65 mission, and he’s forthcoming about all the info from the flashback. He didn’t recognize that it was the 456 aliens this time out because they didn’t speak through kids back then.

Frobisher asks to know what the aliens want the kids for. The ambassador allows a person with a camera to come inside the chamber, provided it’s all off the record, and though we still don’t get a very good look at the beastie, it’s suitably creepy… and it’s plugged in to a small child, sitting silently in the corner and crying, presumably crying for all eternity. “They have not been harmed. They feel no pain.” And, as per their promise, they probably do live forever, or at least an appreciable portion thereof. The American general is aghast at this, and demands all the information from the earlier alien visit. He also says that the UN will deal with the Prime Minister directly.

The Prime Minister calls Frobisher to a secret meeting with his secretary and Lois hanging along. Lois continues to record everything and transmit it to the Hub 2, where it’s being recorded. We see a very loooooong cabinet meeting which plays out with the same kind of disturbingly polite savagery we find in Kenneth Branagh’s “Conspiracy.” The cabinet discusses their options - give the 456 what they want or face the end of the species. At first the discussion is merely hypothetical, the mechanics of moving so many kids, and so on. Frobisher provides some of this information. The question of how to select who goes and who stays is broached, and a random lottery is selected - just hypothetically, mind you - and then they discuss whether or not the children of the cabinet members should be exempted. (They are). The PM suggests making a counter-offer of 6000-odd undesirable children that no one will miss from around the world.

Frobisher makes the offer, and the aliens start the kids around the world babbling again. Offer refused. They want 10% of the world’s population of children, in one day, or they’ll wipe us out. Meanwhile: The Commando Lady (Still unnamed) puts Jack’s daughter and grandson in a cell. The Daughter makes a very effective argument that Jack is someone to be feared, and the Commando Lady will spend the rest of her life living in fear for this. Meanwhile, Ianto and Jack discuss their feelings, but not so much in a gay way - though clearly they both are - rather in a terse manly way that didn’t bug me so much. Meanwhile, Gwen hits on the idea of using all their recorded information from the cabinet meeting to blackmail their way in to Thames House so they can deal with the aliens face to face. They set this plan in motion, sending Jack and Ianto off to Thames in such a way that the government is sure to find them.

Meanwhile, we’re treated to yet another looooooooooong cabinet meeting that plays out much darker and more oppressive, though nothing bad happens, and no one flinches. Someone suggests they go out of their way to preserve the good children - smart ones with good grades from the ‘desirable’ portion of society - from the culling. A mister Yates suggests that with a growing global population and diminishing resources, removing a few million kids from the population could perhaps be spun in such a way as to make it seem like a good - dare I say pro-Green - decision. It’s then suggested that they specifically select kids for the culling from the bottom of the gene pool - low grades, broken homes, mental problems, health problems - the ones who will ultimately be criminals and/or on the dole, a burden to society. Why not get rid of them now. It gets darker and darker like that with Hitlerian logic clearly taking the lead over any form of human morality or even empathy. They don’t even refer to the kids as kids, calling them “units” instead, “Units” for the alien’s consumption. Because of course genocide always starts with those in power distancing themselves from the notion that those they’re about to sacrifice are even human. They decide to play the busing of lambs to the slaughter as an inoculation program.

Jack and Ianto get to Thames House at the same time Commando Lady gets to Hub 2. Gwen quickly neutralizes her with their effective blackmail abilities while Lois outs herself as a Torchwood mole (Honorary). The PM reluctantly agrees to try it Torchwood-style, or else face a civil war. The engineer guy who’s been hanging around Frobisher immediately pulls a Von Braun, and switches to the dominant political side without even a pause. Jack and Ianto go in to stand up to the aliens. Jack starts speechifying, and Ianto cuts to the chase. It’s funny. The bottom line is that humanity will fight to the death to save their children. The alien - rather disturbingly - comments that most humans don’t give a damn about their kids, and rattles off infant mortality statistics to prove it. Jack says no, you must go, or else it’s war. The 456 somehow kill McDonald, painfully.

The alien calls his bluff, and releases a virus in to the atmosphere of Thames House. The building immediately shuts itself off from the outside world, but everyone inside is infected, excepting the scientist guy who dives in to a pressure suit ASAP. Ianto is infected and dying. He and Jack have some last words, wherein Ianto confesses that he loves Jack - it’s kind of deliberately painful the way he says it, and we’ve never heard him say it before - and Jack pleads with Ianto to stay with him. Holy crap! Jack actually loved Ianto! Who the hell knew? I thought he was just using the guy as a convenient lay. Both of them die.

The Cabinet decides to go ahead with their plan.

In a warehouse full of bodies on the floor, some guards take Gwen to Jack and Ianto’s corpses. As she looks at Ianto, Jack comes back to life, and hugs Gwen as she cries and says “There’s nothing that we can do.”

TO BE CONCLUDED

OBSERVATIONS

No doubt in my mind whatsoever that “Conspiracy” ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0266425/ ) provided the inspiration for the cabinet scenes. They were grueling to watch, because you know early on which way things are going to break, and so do all the characters in the scene. They all know full well from the beginning that they’re going to end up pulling a “Final Solution” - it’s on all their faces - but even so it takes them an agonizingly long time to get to that point. They make no real attempt to avoid it, they’re all just playing a role and hiding behind facts and figures, distracting themselves with the mechanics of the terrible thing so they don’t notice the terrible thing itself. It’s appalling, and entirely believable because it happened how many times in the 20th century? It’s painful and fascinating to watch, and it gave me chills at some points.

I couldn’t immediately find out who’s directed this miniseries, but I’m impressed with the interesting use of silence and pauses they’ve made. It’s not full-blown Kubrick non-blinking silences that go on for seconds at a time, it’s more subtle than that, but it is in the same vein. The long meetings with the 456 yesterday and the cabinet meetings are shot in more or less the same fashion, where an inhuman thing blithely makes commands about the fate of children. In today’s scenes, the inhuman things were all politicians. It’s more subtle than it sounds, but no less chilling for that. In my introduction, I commented that no American could ever film, much less fathom, such a scathing attack on our own government. I think that’s true, and I am astounded by the unblinking hatred the producers have for the admittedly-fictional administration they’ve depicted here. The fact that Prime Minister Green doesn’t really exist in no way detracts from the fact that these people *clearly* believe the British Government is at least theoretically capable of atrocities on this biblical scale, and wouldn’t hesitate to do it to save their own necks. I’m as paranoid and anti-authoritarian as anyone - more than most, really (No, really. Despite the ‘Republican’ thing, I am. It gives my fellow ‘Bots fits at times) - but I can’t grasp the thought process that led to such a thing. It’s amazing, and it’s so completely different from the American way of doing things - the American way of even thinking - that, well, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by it, as ugly as it all is.

The Ianto/Jack scenes were played very well. I thought Jack hammed it up a tiny bit in Ianto’s death scene, but Ianto himself was great. I totally didn’t expect him to die, so I was a bit shocked when it happened. Now that Torchwood is down to just two people - their decline mirrors Duran Duran in the 90s - I really am believing this might be the swan song for the show as a whole. The reveal that Jack actually loved Ianto was surprising, and he’s not going to get over it for a long time. It’s going to mess him up more than he’s already messed up. I could totally see him saying “Screw it,” and leaving earth for a few centuries to get his head straight. Thinking about it, I suspect the reason Ianto’s “I love you” worked for me was because this miniseries has portrayed him as being uncomfortable with his obviously gay attraction to Jack. As he pointed out to his sister, “It’s not men in general I’m attracted to, it’s just him.” Ianto was as weirded out by that as I was creeped out by it, but I think his “I love you” was an admission to himself that he really was gay and didn’t care anymore. Again, if homosexuality on TV were played like this - as opposed to the way it was played on the first season of Torchwood - I don’t think most people could at least grudgingly look past the sexual deviance and see the characters, which is what everyone CLAIMS they want to do in the writing, but obviously they’re just going for the propagandistic political elements, and the cache that comes from writing a gay story in TV circles these days. Counterproductive really.

It must be stated that Jack’s plan was pretty piss-poor. When he said he was going to stand up to them, I assumed he meant more than just standing there and saying ‘no’ and then immediately trying to take it all back when Ianto got sick. Jack’s never been what I’d call a ‘good’ leader. He tends to succeed mainly by outliving the hell out of everyone (thanks to Douglas Adams) rather than by insight or smarts or what have you. Even so, tonight was kind of a low ebb for him. It is nice to see them finally making use of Jack as a tragic figure - as only an immortal can be - rather than just an out-and-proud guy who’s ok with himself, and a poster boy for horny bastards everywhere. His daughter’s quick mention of how frightening he is was nice, too.

The show rebounded nicely from last night’s slightly weaker episode, and I have a lot of faith the ending tomorrow night will be brilliant.

Something that’s been haunting me all week is this: The only thing that’s holding this back from being a landmark of Television is the fact that it’s tied to the Whoniverse, and it kind of doesn’t fit. It’s similar to the problem that Star Trek: The Motion Picture had - on the one hand, it wanted to be 2001, asking deep philosophical questions about the nature of Man, and on the other hand it was a goofy reunion movie featuring a bunch of middle-aged pop culture icons. Those two things went together about as well as peanuts and chewing gum. The mix here isn’t as bad as that, of course, and the story doesn’t suck like the ST:TMP story did, but you get my point. If you squint and try not to think about how many times Jack and/or the Doctor have saved the world from far greater threats, it works, and the way they shoot this it really takes no effort to do so, but even at its most grim, this show is far bleaker than anything else in the Whoniverse. The net effect is that, to my surprise, the Who association is actually kind of dragging this production down a little bit.

I wouldn’t have believed such a thing was possible even five days ago, but there it is.

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