When last we encountered the Torchwood show, Mrs. Speculator and I were not very optimistic about our seeing it down the line (http://perrynomasia.blogspot.com/2008/04/torchwood.html). A year has gone by and the creators decided to try a five-episode mini-series, something that we felt would be fairly tightly managed and a departure from the episodic nature of the first two seasons. And the memory of the Captain Jack from Doctor Who was still with us, so we recorded the whole series while in San Diego and only just sat down to watch it this past weekend with high hopes.
From a high level, there are moments in the mini-series that are some of the most powerful in the Doctor Who/Torchwood franchise. The premise was compelling: an alien race (which humans have named 456) announces their impending arrival on Earth using all the human children as a sort of speaker for their intentions. And it is quite chilling to see all the children stop at the same time and with absolutely no affect announce "WE ARE COMING" before careening off into their normal routines as if nothing had happened. As it turns out, the 456 are coming back, and the nature of their return is the crisis the mini-series centers on. The shockwaves of their return force a compelling examination of the nature of being human, and being a part of a human society. And the show's creators do everything they can to paint a depressing view of the depths to which humans can fall.
When the world's children announce the return of the 456, Great Britain's Home Office undertakes a massive cover-up their first visit. Part of the target of this cover-up is Captain Jack, who begins the mini-series his normally genial self, trying to work out the implications of being a couple with Ianto, who it turns out has not completely considered what it is like to be in a relationship with a man who cannot die. Everything is mysterious on the part of the government with only momentary glimpses into their plan intermixed with life as usual at Torchwood, where Gwen considers a new doctor to join the team while Jack and Ianto begin to investigate the strange announcement by the children. These moments are the general strength of the franchise: extremely interesting characters interacting. But as the mini-series goes on, the weakness of these characters makes itself felt; Jack is not a very good leader, prone to frenzied bursts of energy without much positive effect. Ianto eventually ends up standing around, becoming more and more of observer or hanger-on, like the engineering crew on the Enterprise: on screen and busy but only providing plot points for everyone else to act on. And by the end of the mini-series, the strongest character on the team, Gwen, is completely ineffectual as she runs from hiding place to hiding place instead of leading the team as she is most suited to do.
The end of the second season was frustrating in that it existed in some ways just to push Jack to his physical limits, and the first two days of the mini-series falls back to that pattern while barely advancing the idea of the aliens returning. Instead the plot focuses on killing Jack in as final a way as can be imagined and making him come back again. Meanwhile the back story of the 456 is being pieced together in small discoveries in the workings of the Home Office as it works with the Prime Minister and in the flashbacks that plague a homeless man named Clement. But that story languishes as most of the emotional direction is on Jack's useless death and the efforts to find him and get the team together. In hindsight, I think those two days could have been squeezed down, especially by forgoing Jack's death and resurrection and focusing on who is pursuing them and why.
If the viewer doesn't figure out for themselves, the mini-series makes it clear: the 456 arrived on Earth in 1965 and asked for twelve children, which the British government obligingly gives them, using orphans that "no one would ever miss." The 456 delivers the cure to a strain of influenza as their part of the deal, and the British never ask what the children are to be used for. Clement was one of those children; he escaped the 456 but suffers from horrible flashbacks and other emotional damage at the idea of what he went through. And the government wants Jack dead because he was one of the children's guards when they were turned over to the 456. Now that the 456 are back, the British government wants no one to know that they have dealt with them in the past, especially since such dealings involved the morally ambiguous surrender of children.
The British government is represented by Home Office minister John Frobisher who, while not involved with the original exchange, is tasked with keeping it under wraps, to the point of lying to the British people and to the rest of the world. Frobisher is portrayed by Peter Capaldi in what is the strongest acting performance in the mini-series, showing up the regular cast shamelessly. Frobisher is torn by his duty to the government and his duty as an official of that government. On the one hand, he recognizes the international backlash that will assail Britain if the world finds out its secret, but on the other, he grows increasingly terrified of what the 456 are doing to his daughters who are forced to speak for them along with the rest of the world's children. Particularly telling is an interview Frobisher has with the Prime Minister where he is told that the Prime Minister will not take any responsibility for what happens and that Frobisher is utterly expendable. The Prime Minister, played by Nicholas Ferrell, is exceedingly selfish, uncaring of the effect his decisions will have, so long as he is not personally touched by them.
And so the British government is shocked when the 456 arrive and announce that they are back for ten percent of all the children on Earth. Finally it is clear to the rest of the world that Britain has treated with the 456 in the past, so they demand to participate in negotiations. Ironically, Americans are portrayed as moral stalwarts, appalled at Britain's past actions and the attempts to cover it up. The world at first tries to negotiate with the 456, asking what the need for the children is. I won't reveal this major spoiler, but it is horrifying, more chilling than I could have imagined, and the people involved with the negotiations are further appalled. Then the British haggle with the 456 and are rebuked—10% or the entire world will be destroyed.
During these important plot moments, the members of Torchwood have been scurrying about, gathering the pieces that allow them to witness and record the negotiations. Much time is spent watching Torchwood watch the negotiations on a computer monitor, which only serves to dull the horror of the intentions of the 456. And once they have all the information they think they need, Jack storms the building where the 456 are located and confronts them with human stubbornness. We never see the 456, only hearing them in the voices of the children of the world or in a monotone from the speakers that surround their noxious quarters. So when Jack tells them that six billion humans will not stand for this blackmail, they respond that they will demonstrate their powers in a dead tone. They then shut down the building they are in and kill everyone inside it, including Jack. Once again Jack tries to use a grandiose gesture to solve an achingly terrifying issue and fails, horribly.
The last two days make up the strongest part of the mini-series, as we watch the British government work out how they will determine which children are going to be given up. The conversations are numbing, mostly because it is all too easy to imagine that they portray exactly how such a plan would be worked out. The lowest levels of the human emotional spectrum are made clear: "Of course the child of anyone in this room will be exempt from this process." And then, as they decide their methodology for determining who will be given up, the viewer is plunged even lower as the same people discuss the method by which the culling will take place. Again, I'll not spoil the details here, but the conversations are heart-breaking and cold and all the more powerful for the ineffable calmness by which they determine how they will sacrifice other people's children to save their own. Even our shaky moral compass, Frobisher, cannot resist the temptation to save his own children. And when Frobisher is called upon to sacrifice his own children as an example to the rest of the British people, I nearly wept as he finally acts as a desperate father and yet makes the worst decision imaginable.
So, for the final two days, the most important plot moments belong to characters not in Torchwood, who are relegated to audience members, ineffectual at everything they might attempt. As the children are being gathered, Gwen and her husband Rhys try to save Ianto's family and friends, only to fail miserably at that as well, finally caught. That last day is hard to watch as the countdown moves inexorably on and no solution presents itself. Eventually, parents figure out what is happening and try to save their children. but it is far too late, and they are outgunned by the British military.
Then in the last fifteen minutes, the government is forced to give Jack another chance at defeating the aliens, and in that space of show time, he puts together all the various clues that have been dropped through the mini-series, creates a weapon that takes advantage of his deduction, and then defeats the aliens. Seriously, it happens just like that. The mini-series tries to introduce some personal trauma into these salvation scenes, but it is lost in the utter stupidity of everything being resolved so easily. One character even asks Jack, "Don't you think we've been trying that?" only to be amazed at Jack's prowess in overcoming all difficulties in those 15 minutes. And so this intensely thoughtful and poignant story is punctuated with an exclamation point of the worst cliché in science fiction. In many ways, the emotional climax is Frobisher's heart-rending personal decision and his acting on it. The clunky coda that is the world's salvation is necessary from a storytelling standpoint but just disappoints.
The end result is that I wish the mini-series had been two days shorter and had not involved Torchwood at all. The story is powerful enough to be told without the touchstone of the familiar characters of the Torchwood team who end up adding pretty much nothing to the sweep of the plot. If the writer was going to pull a deus ex machina out of his hat, any character would have been a good rabbit; it didn't have to be Jack. Ultimately, Torchwood just distracted from some of the most powerful moments I've seen in science fiction television. Any fan of the genre really should persevere through the mini-series just to see those moments, and I promise it won't be easy to watch—a sure sign of thought-provoking storytelling. And I apologize in advance for the flailing about that the characters we already knew go through and also put the viewer through, providing some of the worst moments in science fiction television.