I admit it: I’m rapidly falling for Torchwood.
I haven’t watched the new Doctor Who — not the Christopher Eccleston series, and not the David Tennant series (save three or four episodes, which varied drastically in quality). Torchwood is a Who spinoff — the names are anagrams of each other — but you don’t really have to know one to watch the other. You don’t even really have to know the first two seasons of Torchwood to watch Torchwood: Children of Earth, the five-part miniseries that began last night on BBC America.
It probably helps, though. I’m six or seven episodes into Torchwood‘s first season, despite a coworker’s insistence that I ought to just skip it and go straight into season two (I’m a completist. Even if I’d known how much I’d hate “Black Market,” the absolute nadir of Battlestar Galactica, I still would’ve had to watch it, just to know why I’d hate it so much). Torchwood is a rather X-Files-like show about the titular organization, a secret institute founded by Queen Victoria that protects the human race from alien threats. For various reasons too elaborate to go into here, the Torchwood of the show is Torchwood Three, and it’s in Cardiff. In Wales. Can you think of the last thing you watched that was set in Wales?
Torchwood‘s first series started strong, with an episode that brings a new member to the team: former cop Gwen Cooper (the sweet-faced Eve Myles), an ordinary woman who initially serves as the conscience for the other team members, who’ve maybe been down in the Hub, Torchwood’s home base, too long. It’s immediately apparent why the show is so popular in certain circles: We’re encouraged to identify with Gwen, who’s in over her normal-lass head but shines unexpectedly in the team’s strange environment (I think this overlaps with certain kinds of popular fanfic, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion). Plus, there’s a lot of making out! Everybody’s kind of in love with everybody else! Everybody’s both hot and sort of attainable looking! Awesome!
Gwen and the rest of the gang are led by the omnisexual (“Period military is not the dress code of a straight man,” one team member theorizes), unkillable, rather charmingly cocky Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). They find alien stuff and destroy or use it. Sometimes the results are really cheesy, and sometimes the episodes are just plain terrible. But cheekiness and sweetness exist side by side in Torchwood, and they both overlap with the sometimes goofy, sometimes fascinating science fiction elements. To the show’s credit, even the worst episodes (that I’ve thus far seen, anyway) tend to have an element, or moment, that works to redeem the plot’s failings. In the clunky “Cyberwoman,” the unexpected emotional side of Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) comes to the fore; one moment between Gwen and crabby doctor Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) nearly makes up for the rest of the awful, awful cheap horror flick that is “Countrycide.”
I’ve got half of the first season and all of season two to go, but I couldn’t resist Children of Earth; the previews were far less campy, but the serious/silly/sweet tone seemed to remain. If you’ve not watched all of the series up til now, this new miniseries will spoil certain things for you, but I don’t think Torchwood is the kind of thing you desperately need to remain unspoiled for. (Also, if you’re at all an internet junkie, it’s probably impossible. I knew things I didn’t want to know about Children of Earth at least a week before it started airing here.)
But enough intro. Let’s talk about the new show.
When Children of Earth begins, Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), Jack and Gwen are all on slightly uncertain ground. Gwen’s husband knows about her work, but remains outside the Torchwood sphere; Jack and Ianto are in a relationship, but they’re still working out what it means and what it is; Ianto notices every time someone refers to the two of them as a couple. The Hub, Torchwood’s headquarters, feels a little empty. A doctor Jack and Ianto meet seems a likely candidate for a new team member, though, and they do need a doctor.
And then things get strange. Across the U.K., all the children stop. Torchwood spots it. The Home Office spots it. Nearly two hours later, it happens again. This time, the children all speak in unison, repeating “We are coming.” In a mental hospital yard, one adult does the same thing. No one knows why. In the government offices, a man explains that a transmission is coming across the 456 wavelength, which last squawked in 1965. The prime minister wants nothing to do with it, leaving the entire situation in the hands of a lower-level bureaucrat who, interestingly, has a fresh-faced, curious new employee.
“Day One” doesn’t explain much. Instead, it drops kernels of information in among scenes that (re)establish relationships. Children, it turns out, are more in the lives of the Torchwood team than expected: Ianto goes to visit his sister, who asks him about the gorgeous man he was seen dining with. The moment when Ianto explains, about Jack, “It’s not men. It’s just him. It’s only him,” is so simple, so vulnerable, it’s a wonder it’s not the episode’s most affecting scene. (It could have sounded, in the wrong actor’s mouth, as if Ianto were denying his sexuality, but it doesn’t; it sounds instead like love and devotion that doesn’t care about gender. It’s only Jack for Ianto, now.) But even before that, when Ianto walks into his sister’s house and her two kids immediately take cash from his ready hands, there’s a sense of familiarity that it would take a lesser show multiple episodes to establish.
Though it’s a nice enough moment, the writers don’t do quite as well with Jack’s family, which (as I understand it) hasn’t been seen before. He drops in on a single mother with a tow-headed son who calls Jack “Uncle,” but their relationship is something else entirely. When the woman who is actually Jack’s daughter tells him, “You make us feel old,” it doesn’t mean quite as much as it ought. To be fair, though, I did just watch the episode in which an old love of Jack’s is killed by nasty, vicious fairies, so the fact that Jack is constantly having to watch his loved ones die didn’t need reiterating for me just yet.
And then there’s Gwen, whose husband is house-hunting when he points out to her that the strange moments when the children stopped were clearly set to U.K. time (one on the way to school, one at the first break in the school day), though they happened worldwide. It’s Gwen who goes to find the lone adult who spoke when the children did; he’s a strange, sad old man named Clem who smells things on people — including truth, and pregnancy. It might be too convenient that Gwen turns out to be pregnant at the beginning of a miniseries involving all the world’s children, but in the episode’s final, beautiful scene, conflicted emotions play across Myles’ face after she scans her midriff and confirms Clem’s statement. Jack stumbles in on her discovery, and sees, clearly, that she’s still working out what this means to her. “That’s good, isn’t it?” he asks.
It’s a very long pause before Gwen says, “It’s brilliant,” and a delighted, relieved Jack calls to Ianto, “We’re having a baby!” He doesn’t mean he and Gwen, or he and Ianto; he means the small group that is all that’s left of Torchwood, and in that one line he reaffirms all the affection that’s apparent even in the first episodes.
And then he puts his hand on the scanner, which confirms what the audience has already suspected: There’s a bomb in Jack’s stomach, planted there by agents who temporarily killed him at the behest of the government. Jack, who’s been around for decades, knows too much about something. He can’t die, but the reluctance of both Gwen and Ianto to run, to leave him to deal with this alone, to accept that they can’t fix it or change it, only flee — it’s only day one, and it’s already heartbreaking.
Torchwood, like so many other shows I love, is on one level a story about making your own family, even if you love the one you were born into. Like Buffy’s Scooby Gang or Battlestar‘s ragtag band of survivors, the employees of Torchwood (who apparently are paid quite well for their services, unlike the folks on those other two shows) are forging bonds under circumstances both ordinary and bizarre. They’re just going to work. They’re just saving the world. It’s what they do.
Want more? io9 argues that Children of Earth: Day One is stronger than the entire first season. Should you want yet more commentary, I suggest you get yourself to LiveJournal, which is full of smart folks very kindly tucking their spoilers behind cut-tags. You’ll find a mountain of fanfic and a lot of discussion links here.