A review of Torchwood: Children of Earth

It goes without saying, doesn’t it? I’ll say it anyway: major spoilers. As I write this, only the first episode has aired in the USA, but this covers the full five eps.

1. Children of Earth

Earth's children
Earth’s children [1]

[1.1] I just rewatched, in one long jag, all five eps of Torchwood: Children of Earth, which comprises season 3 of the show. I laughed. I cried. I shook my fist at the screen because something happened that I really, really did not like at all. (More about that under the cut.) If you liked seasons 1 and 2 of Torchwood, all I can say is, it won’t prepare you for season 3, because the stakes are higher and the themes are darker: children, love, commitment, duty, honor. This is the program that had something real to say, in season 2 in particular, about life and death, but T:COE takes the promise of the first two seasons to a whole new level.

[1.2] Season 3 of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off starring John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, aired in the UK on 5 consecutive days from July 6 to July 10, 2009. It began airing on July 20 on BBC America, and it will be available on DVD on July 28. (Why, yes, I have preordered my DVD from Amazon!) The plot, in a nutshell, is thus: Aliens announce, by seizing control of and speaking through all the children in the world at once, that they are coming. They want something—something to do with our children. And it not going to be good.

2. Themes

Torchwood team
The Torchwood team: Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), and Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) [1]

[2.1] This miniseries has several themes. One is family, as articulated by the Torchwood family, Ianto’s sister and her family, Jack’s revelation of the existence of a daughter and grandson, Frobisher’s murder-suicide to save his daughters from a fate worse than death, and Gwen’s pregnancy and the family she has created with her husband, Rhys. Another theme is duty and service: various politicians attempt to cope with the crisis, from engineering cover-ups and off-the-record remarks, to spinning the removal of 10% of Earth’s children as a useful method of reducing Earth’s overpopulation, to sacrificing the children of a dedicated public servant to the aliens, to committing treason for an ideal. The scene in Day Four where a female civil servant lays out the criteria by which children should be selected—those who are likely to contribute less, the lowest 10%—is devastating as she—a woman! a mother!—says what everyone is thinking. Late in the series, the theme of drug use arises, when the aliens say they use human children for “the hit”: the children are incorporated into the aliens’ bodies, as the ambassador demonstrates to everyone’s horror; their bodies provide pleasurable chemicals. In short, Earth has been contacted by a bunch of drug runners. The revelation of the aliens’ utter selfishness (and possible commercial interest) makes their actions all the more abhorrent. They are not acting out of desperation but greed.

[2.2] One important theme in Torchwood in general, across all three seasons, is the nature of life and death. The character who epitomizes these concerns is Jack, because he cannot die. In T:COE, he dies over and over again: he’s shot at least four times, he’s blown to bits by a bomb implanted in his body, he smothers or drowns in liquid concrete that then hardens into a block, and he dies from the virus released by the 456 as a demonstration of their power. Every time, he comes back. The government thinks that his remarkable regenerative powers have something to do with the rift and/or the Hub, Torchwood’s Cardiff base of operations, but as educated watchers know, his immortality is the result of the grace of the Doctor’s TARDIS. The other character in Torchwood most associated with death, in addition to Jack himself, is Owen, Torchwood’s doctor, who in series 2 becomes a walking dead man with a fragile, nonhealing body. Owen, along with his colleague, Tosh, dies, but his condition is used to make several points about the nature of life and death, and to contrast with the sort of life-death immortality that Jack enjoys.

[2.3] But the overarching theme of T:COE is love. The 456 mock humans’ ability to love their children, citing horrific infant mortality rates, and also citing the unfortunate decision back in 1965 to give the 456 twelve children. When John Frobisher kills his children, his wife, and himself, he does it because he loves them and is attempting to save his daughters from a fate that he literally considers worse than death. When Frobisher’s secretary dons contact lenses that permit the Torchwood team to record everything she sees, she does it for the love of her now-dead boss, a good man driven to his death by an unscrupulous politician. Ianto’s sister, Rhiannon, takes neighborhood children into her house and takes risks to keep them safe because she loves her own children. However, at the center of the this theme is the love relationship between Jack and Ianto.

3. Gaying up Ianto Jones

Ianto Jones
Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) [1]

[3.1] Even after two seasons of Torchwood, we really don’t know much about Ianto. He’s the quiet, hot guy in a suit who delivers coffee in season 1 and who gradually becomes a field agent. We know he and Jack to be lovers, but of course the audience for T:COE must also be casual watchers who haven’t seen seasons 1 and 2, and thus, some time is spent on Ianto and his relationship to Jack, the better for Ianto’s death in Day Four to evoke an emotional response. (I know it evoked an emotional response in me, my usual refrain: “You did not just do that.”) Ianto is presented in season 1 as straight, in that he has, or had, a girlfriend (1.04 “Cyberwoman”), and Gwen is rather surprised when she finds out that he and Jack are lovers, but in T:COE, little ambiguity remains about his preferences.

[3.2] T:COE tells us more about Ianto than the entire first two seasons of the show, during which whatever he and Jack had together wasn’t clear. They seemed to care for each other, but it wasn’t presented as a committed love relationship, and they didn’t acknowledge themselves to be a couple. Rather, as Gwen puts it in T:COE, it’s “shenanigans in the dark.” But in T:COE, their relationship deepens and changes as Ianto confronts his feelings. The catalyst for some of this is his coming out to Rhiannon in Day One. She asks him about it: a friend of hers had seen Ianto dining intimately with a man who was “gorgeous, like a film star, like an escort.” Ianto, looking panicked, is finally driven to say, “He is very handsome,” thus admitting all. He continues, “It’s weird. It’s just different. It’s not men. It’s just him. It’s only him. And I don’t even know what it is, really, so, so I’m not broadcasting it.”

[3.3] This inexplicable something is love. Now that self-contained, buttoned-down Ianto has come out, now that he and Jack verbally spar about being a nagging, typical couple (although they tend to have these conversations while not really looking at each other and trying to be casual), the narrative repeatedly presents him as gay. Moments after he comes out to Rhiannon, his brother-in-law greets him cheerfully with “Hi hi, gay boy! Says you’re taking it up the ass!”, followed by a bear hug. It’s the best coming-out party ever: nobody seems to care much, although Rhiannon is touchingly concerned about his happiness. In Day Three, Clem declares him “queer. I can smell it,” and more than one character asks, “Ianto. Is he gay?”

Ianto and Jack
Ianto and Jack [2]

[3.4] Several of Ianto’s scenes with Jack show Ianto feeling out whatever their relationship is. When a doctor in Day One treats them as a couple, Ianto tells Jack, “He thought we were together, like a couple. He said, ‘You two.’ The way he said it: ‘You two.'” Jack responds, “But we are. Does it matter?” Ianto, clearly uncomfortable, says, “No. It’s all a bit new to me is all.” Later in Day One, Gwen also calls them a couple, leading Jack to say, “I hate the word ‘couple,'” a sentiment that Ianto says he agrees with. Several other exchanges along these lines occur, where the two of them express discomfort while simultaneously moving closer together: they are a couple, but only now are people treating them as such.

[3.5] Although we see the result of a long-term relationship with the immortal Jack—his daughter, who appears older than Jack, notes that he never changed, while her mother grew old and died hating him for it—Ianto notes that they ought to make the most of their time together. Ianto wants to learn more about Jack: he asks him what it felt like to die in the explosion, when a bomb implanted in Jack’s body goes off. Did it hurt, or did everything just go black? (The answer: it hurt.) He demands of Jack that he be told information: where Jack is going, what he is doing. Jack responds by answering the question, and then offering a tidbit of what is to Ianto shocking information: “And just so you know, I have a daughter called Alice and a grandson called Steven, and Frobisher took them hostage yesterday.” Can anyone really know Jack? Or is it, as Jack asserts, all there on the surface, with nothing beneath it?

Jack holds a dying Ianto
Jack holds a dying Ianto while the terrifyingly mysterious representative of the 456 looks on from its tank [2]

[3.6] Still, Jack loves Ianto. In Day Four, in a scene where Jack learns that the 456 have released a virus into the building that will kill everyone, including him and Ianto, as a demonstration of the aliens’ power, he capitulates completely. “I take it all back, but not him!” he begs. The alien remains implacable, of course: they expect delivery of 10% of the world’s children, as requested, the next day. This moment is a turning point for the darkness of the show: not only has a beloved character died, but he’s died just as he’s realized he’s in love, and the aliens will not negotiate. Torchwood’s plan has failed. They have gained nothing except a demonstration of the power of the 456, which has resulted in many deaths. Jack’s panicked initial reaction to the realization of Ianto’s impending death is the same panic we see on the faces of mothers in Day Five, when they realize their children are boarding buses, to be taken somewhere for some unknown purpose. They would do anything to ensure the safety of their children, just as Jack wants to take it all back, to soften his stance, to negotiate again.

[3.7] The emotional climax of T:COE is Ianto’s death in Jack’s arms; so often, of course, it has happened the other way around. However, Jack always comes back, and Ianto won’t. Ianto’s last words to Jack begin with the significant, “I love you.” He continues, “Hey. It was good, yeah? Don’t forget me. A thousand years’ time? You won’t remember me.” Jack promises that he will, and Ianto breathes his last. The scene ends with the two of them dead on the floor in front of the tank housing the 456. They took a last stand together, and they went down fighting. The revelations of Ianto’s sexuality were used in aid of this emotional impact. They also tell us something about Jack: he loves, but sometimes, that doesn’t matter. As he put it, he’s lived a long time and done a lot of things.

4. Annihilation

[4.1] The terrifying and implacable aliens, the absence of hope, and the destruction of an important, only recently acknowledged love relationship all render T:COE bleak, because it seems that this time, the world will end. Jack’s story isn’t over, of course. Torchwood saves the day, but at a high personal cost: Jack’s own grandson, Steven, a child, must be used as the fulcrum for the powerful transmission that ejects the 456, and it costs Steven his life—and Jack any hope of a continued relationship with his daughter.

[4.2] T:COE, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and any other number of TV shows and films, kills a gay character just after establishment of great intimacy: Ianto admits his love aloud to Jack, then dies; Tara dies right after having sex with Willow. In fact, it’s such a cliche, especially in the horror genre, that Brian Jurgens, on October 30, 2006, wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay about for in AfterElton.com: “The Gay Characters’ Guide to Surviving a Straight Horror Film.” And speaking of Buffy, Daniel Greenfield, in “Gay Characters, Mortality and Buffy,” notes that gay characters in popular culture become de facto role models. He argues that Tara did not play an important narrative role in Buffy and pretty much had to die, if only to provide a pretext for Willow to wig out and bring the season to its shocking climax. Yet Ianto certainly plays an important narrative role in Torchwood, with important skills and autonomy. Interestingly, in T:COE, he is also the voice of the 456 as he reads Lois’s scribbled shorthand notes aloud. He is a sort of mysterious alien himself. Rhiannon didn’t know him, and it seems Gwen didn’t know him either, as she learns when she tells Rhiannon of Ianto’s death. Who he is becomes synonymous with who he loves.

[4.3] Ianto may have been gayed up for T:COE, but it’s also made clear in the narrative, for those who haven’t seen the first two series, that he’s dated women, and this whole gay thing is new and inexplicable to him, a kind of label, like “couple,” that he’s not quite comfortable with. Jack, of course, is a space-traveling omnisexual: he’s taken both men and women as lovers, and it’s certainly implied that he’s had sex with all manner of aliens too. Clearly, within the past 30 or 40 years, he fell in love with a woman, married, and started a family. Ianto’s uneasy because this whole gay thing is new. Jack is uneasy because he’s not sure about this whole “couple” thing, so different from shenanigans in the dark.

[4.4] Both Ianto and Jack thus inhabit an ambiguous space that the narrative attempts to redefine as “couple in love,” to create an emotional center for the series, and to show the effects of the death of beloved people on Jack’s psyche, even as it shows the effect on Ianto and his relationship with others when he semipublicly admits to being in love with a man. And Jack is certainly affected: he screams at the 456 (“Not him!”); he cries when he places Steven on a pad and starts up the machinery that will kill the child while saving 10% of the world’s children from a hideous fate. In addition to all the physical pain and repeated deaths that Jack’s body takes, we have the emotional pain inflicted by overwhelming loss: “Steven, and Ianto, and Owen, and Tosh, and Suzie, and all of them. Because of me,” he says in Day Five as he prepares to leave.

[4.5] Of everyone we know from three seasons of Torchwood, all have died except Gwen and of course Jack. Gwen’s happy marriage to Rhys and her pregnancy offer a beam of hope: children, a family, mean life will go on. But it’s also closing a chapter for Jack’s character: “I have lived so many lives. It’s time to find another one,” he says in Day Five. The team is gone, Ianto is dead, the Hub has been destroyed, and Jack leaves Earth. For Torchwood, there is nothing left.

5. Photo credits

1. BBC America: http://www.bbcamerica.com/content/262/index.jsp.

2. BBC UK: http://www.bbc.co.uk/torchwood/.

If you would like to comment…

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12 thoughts on “A review of Torchwood: Children of Earth

  1. I have an idea that when Moffat takes over the series after the launch of the 11th Doctor, that Jack will be back. After all, the first time he ran off from Torchwood, his travels with the Doctor brought him back to them. Maybe he needs to meet up with him again!

  2. @Catherine: Thanks much! There is way more to this, and I’ve seen a bunch of great reviews on LiveJournal and elsewhere, including a kick-ass one about the strong women.

    @kisha: I can only hope. I would LOVE it if the new Doctor got to travel with Jack, and I like the DW Jack better than the TW Jack, if that makes sense (more fun, less angst). But then again, I thought that they were setting up some DW companions to be new TW team members, and…not so much.

    • @ Karen

      They do have new companions, but that doesn’t mean that Jack can’t have a good run with either Ten in the next three specials or Eleven in the next series. Besides, if Torchwood comes back for a fourth season, something powerful will have to happen to send Jack back. I can’t how anything short of running into the Doctor would do that. He’s like his mentor and the only person in the universe who understands what it is like to be like Jack and constantly see everyone around him live or die by his actions.

      On another note, I think the only reason TW Jack and DW Jack differ is that TW is geared more towards an adult audience. So, Jack can be a grittier character. His complexity is the same though.

  3. K-

    Lots to admire in this series, to be sure. Easily the most confident, assured, and slick production of TW to date, from a scripting, character, production, and acting perspective. Clearly the Doctor Who that RTD wanted to be making all along.

    Managing to feel like an entertaining mash-up of DW, Qatermass and X-Files (with a dash of the time-constrained 24), this series’s best accomplishment is finally finding a way to be at peace with its… well, its gayness. Previous seasons of TW always felt ‘uncomfortable it its own skin’, so to speak, (thereby making the viewer uncomfortable as well) but this one struck the right tone from step one. I haven’t completely decided if it was the writing coming into its own, the production finding its rhythm, or the actors getting their feet under their characters, or a nice blending of all the above. Sadly, I suppose I must acknowledge the ‘gay character dying’ point made above; but I must plead a little ignorance on the usual fate of non-comedy gay characters. If what you say is true, (that gay characters are acceptable in drama so long as they make the supreme sacrifice), I guess I would be a little disappointed that as talented a writer as RTD would fall into such a TV cliche. Public acceptance of gay characters is so new, Russell! Why help build a cliche already?!

    That said, I only had three little quibbles.

    1) the reveal of the up-till-then deliciously inscrutible and pitiless ‘456’ as mere drug addicts/dealers was an unfortunate pile-on. Why, RTD, why? You were doing so well up till then. Why not allow their uses for the children be mysterious and alien? Why bother to assign their motivations to humanity’s lowest of the low? Did you get a ‘note’ from on high, Russell? ‘Make the Baddies worse?’

    2) the character of Clem – as the peripheral character who is revealed to be
    -surprise!- the lynchpin of Earth’s salvation – is a pretty obvious, and dare I say it, tired device. There is just no way to keep that plot lever around without it feeling like a tacked-on afterthought. Re-watch ‘Blink’ again if anyone wants to see a truly clever plot resolution woven into the very building blocks of a story.

    3) ‘Frobisher’? REALLY? I had to back up the DVD the first time to make certain I’d heard that one correctly. Clearly, the writer is a big fan of the comic book adventures of the 6th Doctor. Brought me right out of the story every time the name was mentioned.

    All and all, a very strong B+, verging on an A-.

    Respectfully submitted,

    • Yep, it’s a cliche: you’re gay, you’re dead.

      1. The drug-dealing thing actually worked for me. It somehow made total sense in terms of theme: everyone is void of moral imperative, from the humans to the aliens.

      2. Clem: yes, they needed a way to defeat the aliens, but I really liked the idea that they had left someone on Earth, indicating that they knew they were coming back the whole time and had always planned to do so. On that level, it worked for me. I was just sad that the poor insane guy’s death was so overshadowed.

      3. I KNOW!! But only you and I suffered from the Frobisher knowledge, I think. Not everybody channels giant penguins when they hear that word.

      I would say that this is really SF at its best: hard hitting, dealing with really difficult ideas—and yes, people die, because sometimes the sacrifice is really that great.

      [[Sorry for the delay in approving; this got caught in my spam filter.]]

  4. Hello America,

    Over here in the UK, we think that there will be a 4th series now. News on the grapevine says it will be a two-week long episode but no definite chance that Jack will be back.

    So hopefully, Series 4 if it is done, will be a 10 episode affair!

    Come Russel T Davies… shake us all to the core again!

  5. UGH…I stopped reading after your fascinating intro and got on to Netflix and moved it up the Queue; however, I also just started Dexter…and I love him (or I would, if I had any feelings)!

  6. “Gwen’s happy marriage to Rhys and her pregnancy offer a beam of hope: children, a family, mean life will go on.” I don’t disagree with this reading of the end, but it certainly has me thinking of what else it means, particularly in light of Ianto’s death following hard on the heels of Tosh’s and Owen’s. What does it mean that the heteronormative families–remember Ianto’s sister’s family as well–survive the alien horror while Jack’s family, structured on absent fathers, and Ianto do not? It could be read that sacrifices must be made in order for this husband-wife-child structure to survive as the most important unit in the continuation of human life. In that case, it privileges heteronormative family structures, which seems so at odds with the other illustrations of love and humanity that TW has given us in the past. I find that highly unsettling, and while I appreciate that there are reasons for hope in the darkness, it saddens me that the hope comes primarily in the form of the nuclear family structure.

  7. You know, even though I’m one of those fans that just can’t accept Ianto’s death, I think that the show should have ended with this season because it was great and powerfull and ended every story. They’re throwing 3 amazing seasons away with the 4th one that I know I won’t be watching and not because Ianto won’t be in it, but because the story they are going to portrait is stupid and awful. They made Jack leave and Gwen get on with her life outside of Torchwood. There’s nothing left, the Rift is closed, there isn’t anyone anymore remembering that Torchwood was built against the Doctor, so there’s no point in making the 4th season. RTD said that he thought the 3rd was going to be the last one when he wrote it and then wanted to write a 4th for Gwen because he had some kind of vision of a new serie, well, I say, that he should have stopped while the show was still good.

    This was an amazing review by the way. I’ve never been affected so much by a show as this one. That scene when Ianto dies is simply amazing and the simple fact that so many people are still hung-up on it after more than a year, is the proof of how great this show once was.

  8. I can’t help but feel that Ianto’s death DID work and WASN’T pointless. If Tosh and Owen hadn’t died before, I might have reconsidered, but why did they die? It was terribly sad, and so pointless! Tosh didn’t even know who that man who shot her was! And right when she and Owen might start something… I think that establishes that death happens, and suddenly.

    Not only that, but I think Jack’s actions in front of the alien tank should be thought carefully. We conclude that, now that Jack has got permission to run things, he’s got two options: either negotiate with the aliens and find a best case scenario (probably giving them the 10%) or simply refuse and stand his ground. He stands his ground, but why? I would say mainly because Ianto guilted him for having negotiated in the past. Feeling boosted by Ianto’s trust and confidence in his heroism, he refuses to negotiate with the alien. All the BS about one injured is an injury to all DOES NOT suit the cold, calculating Jack. He was clearly talked into that. So, I believe Ianto’s death underscores the point that sometimes heroism is NOT called for and that negotiation and calculation is in order – even sacrifice. Maybe Jack wouldn’t sacrifice Ianto anyway given the choice, but at least he would have had the choice!! As it is, Jack sacrificed Ianto all the same, but unwillingly. And he did seem to learn that lesson when he decided to finally sacrifice his grandson.

    What I mean to say is that sacrifice, the greater good and responsibility are clearly the main themes of this series/season, and by focusing on this aspect of Ianto’s death we can weave it better into the fabric of the plot – and perhaps feel that it wasn’t lousy writing or homophobia after all that killed him. That view would of course offer the possibility of comparing Jack to that Nazi woman who was willing to sacrifice the lowest achieving children (and this is horrible!), but the question, I think, is: what is sacrifice-able? Is sacrifice an option? I think the only truly just answer would be: it depends on the case, and on what you’re sacrificing, and why.

  9. I just watched the entire series, five years after it came out, and was horrified by it. Many good reviews and points have been made but I have yet to find my areas of concern addressed. That is the sacrifice of Jack’s grandson as being okay, necessary, or to quote Russell Davies, “you could see he had to do it.” NO! I cannot! Earlier Jack claims that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” He then throws this away by sacrificing his own grandson in a belief that this is the only way to save the children.

    Prior to this horrific sacrific, what got my blood boiling was the craven cowardice of Torchwood’s remaining members and here I will include Rhys. They had the courageous Lois Habiba’s recording of the PM, et al, planning the sacrifice of the children. They threatened to go to the media with it. Then all of a sudden they choose to not do this, to give in completely to the PM, et al’s plan and just roll over and play dead. So dead that Jack gives himself to them and is incarcerated across from the brave Habiba whom he ignores.

    Why did they give up? Why didn’t they give the media the tapes? If they had every person in the world would have stood up to fight. A solution would have been found. Instead cowardice and child sacrifice reined supreme. Jack himself could have acted as the conduit–if Clem, an adult could so could Jack an adult. And Jack would have been reborn. And would have been a true hero instead of a child murderer.

    This is not good drama, not even good tragedy. It is horribly poor writing, worship of cowardice, and glorification of child killing. What a horrible state this left me in. What a terrible message to give. What a disgusting way to end Torchwood. It has turned me off Dr. Who, too, as Davies has his twisted mind all over that as well.

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