Torchwood: Children of Earth and “The Greater Good”

On Wednesday, I exposed a portion of my major geek cred by discussing Star Trek at some length.  Today, I’m going to continue the geek trend to talk about another scifi show: Torchwood.

Torchwood is a spin-off of my favorite and possibly most spectacular scifi show ever: Doctor Who, however I’m saving the Doctor Who rant for later and focusing on Torchwood because the season premiere is tonight.  Unfortunately, whereas the first 3 seasons were shown on BBC America, the new season is being released by Starz making it much less accessible for some.  I have a currently have a free preview of Starz so I’ll actually get to watch the premiere.  Thank goodness!  But I won’t be able to see the whole season, sadly, and I will have to resort to waiting for it to get onto Netflix or something.

Torchwood follows a secret group of people responsible for investigating and controlling dangerous alien activity.  Torchwood, originally instated by Queen Victoria and comprising several bases of operations, now has only one stronghold in Cardiff, Wales, where a rift in time and space allows more than the usual share of dangerous aliens and technology into the general population.

The group is led by Capt. Jack Harkness (played the amazing and HOT John Barrowman *ahem*), a former conman from the 51st century who was first introduced in the Doctor Who season 1 episode, “The Empty Child.”  Jack was accidentally made immortal and sent to 19th century Earth and is forced to live the long centuries back toward his original time.  During this time, he joins and eventually becomes the leader of Torchwood.  He is also bisexual and is the first openly non-heterosexual character to be portrayed in the Doctor Who universe.

from left to right: Ianto, Gwen, Jack, Toshiko, Owen

The other members of the Torchwood team are: Gwen Cooper, a policewoman recruited by Torchwood in the first episode, who is generally the moral compass of the group and the audience’s entrance into the established universe of the show.  Owen Harper, the snarky, occasionally morally-ambiguous medical officer.  Toshiko Sato, the team’s tech/computer specialist who is secretly in love with Owen.  And Ianto Jones, who begins as an administrative assistant but is given more important roles as the show progresses he also enters into a romantic relationship with Jack in season 2.  The last regular character is Rhys Williams, Gwen’s fiancé (and then husband), who is at first unaware of Gwen’s job with Torchwood until he learns the truth in season 2.

One of the things I love about Torchwood is that it takes many of the alien-related situations from Doctor Who and plants them squarely and unblinkingly on Earth, amid real people with problems, conflicting ideals and personalities, (and occasionally some serious angst).  It becomes a show not just about strange aliens and flashy scifi tropes, but about how people deal with the unknown, with each other, and with themselves.

There are many things I could say about Torchwood, but what I really want to talk about now is season 3, called Torchwood: Children of Earth.  After threats of cancellation and enormous budget cuts, Torchwood creator Russell T. Davies was only allowed the money and airtime for this 5-part mini-series.  The BBC producers did not believe the show would do well, and were greatly surprised when all five consecutive nights Children of Earth aired received high viewer ratings.

WARNING: Some major spoilers ahead!  You have been warned!

Children of Earth opens when every child in the world, at the same exact moment, freezes in their tracks and speaks in English “We are coming.”  This event signals the arrival of an invading alien force, which the British Home Office calls “the 456” based on the radio frequency they use to communicate.  The 456 have come demanding 10% of the Earth’s children.  If this demand is not met, they will destroy the planet.

As the world learns this, the Torchwood team, consisting of only Jack, Gwen, and Ianto (after the deaths of Toshiko and Owen at the end of season 2), are attacked by British forces.  Jack is taken into custody and Gwen, Ianto, and Rhys (because he’s married to Gwen) become fugitives.  This reasons for this shake the team (and, I might add, the audience) to the core: in 1965 the 456 approached the British government offering a cure to a new strain of Indonesian flu that will wipe of 25 million people, and all they ask for in exchange are 12 children.  Without public knowledge, the British government agrees and soldiers are sent to hand-over 12 orphanage children.  Jack Harkness was one of those soldiers.

From here things just get crazy.  The British Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher (played to perfection by Peter Capaldi as simultaneously infuriating, pathetic, and sympathetic) is forced to take control and responsibility of the situation, leaving him with the blame and the blood on his hands.  The Torchwood team tries to stop the 456 before the world sacrifices its children.  And Jack must deal with his own culpability and make a damning choice.

This 5-part series rose Torchwood to the level of genius.  Art.  Mastery.  Though the aliens are powerful and evil and creepy, this is not a story about aliens.  This is a story about humanity, about the sins committed in the name of “the greater good.”  This story forces the audience to question their own stance on what constitutes that “greater good” and how far we are all willing to go in order to protect it.  And whether or not those choices in fact taint, and even destroy, the greater good.  It is intense, exciting, and heart-breaking.  I cannot stress enough how completely brilliant Children of Earth was.

And so, we come to the new season airing on Starz at 10pm EST.  Season four is titled Torchwood: Miracle Day, and will be only 10 episodes long.  I don’t know much about what to expect, but I do know that the only returning characters are Jack, Gwen, and Rhys.  Two new characters will be introduced.  And it’s set in the U.S.  So, if you have Starz, go watch it!  And if you have Starz or not, go watch the first 3 seasons, but ESPECIALLY Children of Earth.  I guarantee it’s worth the time.