29 September 2015: The Magician's Apprentice/The Witch's Familiar review added.
27 December 2014: Last Christmas review added.
11 November 2014: Dark Water/Death In Heaven review added.
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CHILDREN OF EARTH
Well, all right.
When you first heard they were making a Doctor Who spinoff for adults, what were you hoping for? Teenage giggling about sex with aliens? Major characters who were either pointless or charmless? Straining after cool that fell flat on its face?
So that's a no, then. And if you're anything like us, what you were hoping for instead was a series that, relieved of the responsibility not to terrify the kiddies, wasn't afraid to go to places so dark even a torch wouldn't show you the way out. (See what we did there?)
Well, it took them two series of mistakes, horrible flubs and backtracking, and they had to kill half the cast to do it, but they got there in the end. Finally, finally, Children Of The Earth Day One delivers.
And isnít just good. It isnít even very good. In all the ways that matter, this episode is flawless.
Itís as if Russell T Davies has taken every single thing that was wrong with Torchwood and carefully reversed each one. Like what? Well, letís start with Ianto. In the first series, nonentity wasnít in it. Apart from a wincingly sobby role in the wincingly bad Cyberwoman, he was utterly personality-free. The production team clearly realised their error, and in the second series they attempted to graft a personality on to him. Trouble was, it was a different one each week, and none of them were interesting either. In the middle of which, we were expected to believe that Jack found this mousy, bland teaboy magnetically attractive. Um.
To be honest, when Day One started we couldn't quite remember if Ianto was one of the ones who'd been killed last year. But during Day One, Ianto suddenly transforms into an actual person. He and Jack are having the couple discussion, and we see Ianto grappling with other people labelling his relationship and coming to terms with it (and his doubts about Jack) himself. Whatís more, we see him in a non-Hub setting with his sister and her family, and thatís when his character really starts to zing. The best parts of Torchwood have always been the interactions the team have outside the Hub, especially Gwen with Rhys and, needless to say, the sublime PC Andy, and nobody does these scenes better than Russell T Davies. All the stuff with his sister and her husband twitting Ianto about being a bender have that ring of absolute truth which makes a character three-dimensional. And the tenderness in his relationship with Jack adds texture to both of their characters.
It's not just Ianto, either. Gwen's always made out better than Ianto in the character department, but to say she hasn't always worked is putting it mildly. Her relationship with Rhys in the beginning was an infuriating cycle of lies and blame set on repeat, but things did start to look up a bit once she finally made up her mind to commit. And here that's magnified: her scenes with Rhys are a total delight and are far more real than the oh-so-cool banter with her teammates that used to be Torchwood's squirmy hallmark.
And the pregnancy thing works very well too, because of something that again is a total reversal of Torchwood's normal modus operandi: thank God, thank God, they've stopped hitting us over the head with everything. Instead of Gwen emoting on about how she feels about being pregnant, instead we see her responding to Ianto's confession that he's lost the Torchwoodmobile with a totally abstracted "Yeeaaahhh...." Still tells us everything we want to know, but allows us, for once, to join the dots all by ourselves. Woohoo.
That's also continued in the way they set up scenarios in this episode without making what's behind them immediately apparent. Some of that's a luxury that's only available because of the five-part format, of course, but nevertheless we suspect that Old Torchwood couldn't have resisted spelling everything out three times anyway. And related to this is the wonderfully refreshing lack of Torchwood's usual obviousness. After the setup which looked as if it were readying Rupesh to join the team, we were totally blindsided when he turned round and shot Jack. Fantastic stuff.
And the plot? Nice. Scary chanting children are always a good thing, and the 1965 flashbacks and layers of political intrigue couldn't be more grippy. We also love the character of Clem McDonald: crazy characters if not done well can be embarrassingly kooky, but he's superb. It's a combination of great writing (the sniffing thing is inspired) and a totally convincing portrayal by Paul Copley.
What else? Oh yeah, Jack. We loved the big reveal about his daughter and grandson, which fills in another bit of his past while reminding us that he's sexually omnivorous (which hopefully will quiet down all the tedious yapping about the Big Gay Agenda, although who knows, maybe the Big Bisexual Agenda is to the complainers even more scary). The problems of growing up with a father who never gets older are nicely outlined without beating us about the head with it, too, and it beautifully illuminates why, Jack, like the Doctor, holds back from involvement.
And they blew up the Hub. How can that be bad?
Real characters. Engrossing plot. Perfect pacing. Subtlety. This can't be Torchwood, surely?
Nobody notices the children? Nobody? All those children? Standing in the middle of the road? Staring into space? Causing accidents? All over the world? Not a single Twitterer anywhere? Yeah, right.
I FORGOT MY LINES
In the middle of the screaming scenes there's a shot of a worried teacher and you can see the kid standing next to him isn't screaming.
NEVER HEARD OF IT
They seem to have taken the name off the side of the cars. See, widespread mockery does work after all.
All right, we need to get this out of our systems first.
Oh, how we love him. Love him, love him, love him. And he is, if that were even possible, better than ever here. He's funny, he's adorable, and he's so very real. "What kind of terrorist shoots your wheels? Hmm?" Ohhh, bless!
PC Andy would be more than enough justification for this episode all by himself. But guess what? He doesn't have to be, because it's another great one. Again they resist that Torchwoodesque urge to tell us everything at once, instead trickling out the info in a satisfyingly maddening way and filling up the gaps with escape and recapture. But fun escape and recapture, with lots of brilliant character notes (like PC Andy! Oh, we said him already). Gwen and Rhys are particularly good here: we love the way Rhys insists on carrying Gwen's bag, and his horror when Gwen insists on getting to London when their coffers are empty ("Everything's dearer in London!"). And the action is terrific. Right out of the starting gate the surprises keep coming - the government agents posing as ambulance men fooled us completely, and Gwen's escape is proper derring-do (actually, considering the way she's blazing away, more like derringer-do). We love that Rhys gets to contribute his expertise in haulage to pick a lorry, too. Meanwhile, Jack's reconstitution answers a few questions about how his immortality shtick works (while posing a few more) and the concrete scene rivals his being buried alive for sheer visceral horror. Yes, Ianto nicking the entire cell and getting away in a digger doing about five miles an hour is absurd, but oh, do they get away with it. It's fabulous.
Meanwhile, the political plot is ticking along perfectly. Kudos to Peter Capaldi, who plays harried civil servant with a secret Frobisher with exactly the right mix of anxiety, terror and ruthlessness. Again, the pacing is spot on: we particularly love the way the tension is expertly slackened by having Frobisher's daughters joke about wanting a pony. This, and Rhys's lines about ordering breakfast in the middle of the tense meeting with Lois are exactly how you do it when you don't want to wear the audience out too soon with too many shots of adrenalin. And it's also exactly what until this series Torchwood hasn't had clue one about.
It's another great episode for Ianto (we can't believe we're typing those words). His scene with his sister is perfectly judged, and we particularly like the nuances of the line about his father: "He pushed me too hard. He always did.". Somehow, we don't think he was talking about the swing.
And meanwhile, the aliens, in the series's second A For Andromeda reference, have commissioned their private swimming pool and the government has hopped to. Terrifying.
Granted, it's not quite as perfect as the first one. We could have done without the agent repeating that he was just following orders, for a start: the first heavy-handed touch so far. We can't quite swallow that the kids seem so unconcerned about having been possessed by aliens, either. But details, details. It's still bloody good.
WE'RE NOT WORTHY
We know we said Peter Capaldi was good in this, but we don't think that was enough. Obviously, we utterly worship the man as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It - but who could have thought after seeing Tucker that Capaldi could play a grey, anonymous-style civil servant with equal skill and power? Honestly, we are in awe.
We know Gwen is the kind of terrorist that shoots at the wheels. But how the hell, shooting from the front, does she hit the back tyres? (Thanks to Gareth Rafferty for pointing this out to us.)
All this government information, and they have to ask PC Andy to find out where Gwen lives?
Enough with the zooms in on the username and password already! We get it, she has access! (Not that we're saying handing out a password for a top secret system to a temp is unrealistic. Our experience is that it's more likely than not.)
We love the way Rupesh is woven back into the story even after he's died. Now that's good writing.
THAT WOULD BE RUDE
We have to assume there's a good reason for it which they'll get to later, but the government's seemingly unquestioning compliance with the aliens' orders does raise the question of why nobody even mentions resistance.
We're in very familiar territory now. BBC News 24. First(ish) contact. A threat to the entire world. But it's done so well that it still works magnificently.
First of all, there's some nice fluffy padding in the shape of the team going all Hustle for clean pants and bog rolls - and we say that sincerely. It extends the main action and it's a sheer joy to watch. And who on TV ever takes into account of things like clean pants and bog rolls? Again, there's a realism there Torchwood usually doesn't come anywhere near.
More important, though, is the alien contact. It's hard to do this well: show too much and it's a letdown, show too little and it's frustrating. Here they get the balance exactly right: glimpses through the smoke, terrifying thudding against the glass and spurting of creepy fluids, and in an icy counterpart, that deadpan voice. We have no trouble believing they're powerful. We certainly have no trouble believing they're scary.
And they want the kids. This is both a little obvious, since threatening children is the fieriest hot button there is, and bloody terrifying.
Peter Capaldi outdoes himself here. His attempt to channel his terror into maintaining a rigid diplomatic protocol is all too transparent: we can't help feeling sorry for him even as we despise him for his obvious complicity in something very, very bad. And repeated meetings are given a James Bondian spice by our fear of Lois's discovery in her camera contacts. There's a little too much repetition of what's said in the meeting room and at Hub2, but other than that it's pitch perfect.
Alice is given a little more to do here, and she shows the steel that makes her without a doubt Jack's daughter. And the reunion with Clem is both touching and does the job of giving rise to the episode's shocking cliffhanger. Rhys, too, works brilliantly as a member of the team. In essence, nobody puts a foot wrong.
Three down, three winners.
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
Argh! We put our hands over our eyes as Gwen took the lenses out and handed them to Lois, who capped that off by putting the lenses in without washing her hands. She was lucky her career as a spy wasn't cut short by a corneal infection. Children, do not try this at home!
I'M WITH THE BAND
While Lois's plan to get into Frobisher's entourage is enterprising, it's also barking mad. Why wouldn't Bridget Spears (Bridgeney?) not check this with Frobisher considering the security around this meeting?
SIGNS POINT TO YES
"Do you think he's using me?" Somebody hand this man a clue. Not only is he using him, he told him he was in the last episode!
Powee. The start of this episode is dark, dark, dark. While you can see the logic of trading twelve children for the entire population, actually standing there and shooing their trusting little faces into the arms of an alien clearly up to no good is something else altogether, and watching Jack do it is viscerally shocking. It's certainly a shock for Ianto, who in the middle of his coming to terms with his relationship with Jack is forced to recognise just how little he knows about him - and what he's capable of. It's incredibly powerful television.
Then on we go into the episode's centrepiece: the COBRA room discussion about what to do about those pesky kids. And here we felt, not that the wheels fell off, but that there was a speed wobble or two.
Yes, it's chilling. But a bit too much so: they overegg the pudding just a little. Some of it is brilliant, like the quote that strikes you to the heart: "If we can't identify the lowest-achieving ten percent of this country's children, then what are the school league tables for?" and the manoeuvring to protect their own loved ones ("What about nieces and nephews?") But referring to the children as "units" pushes it a little too far. And nobody at all voices a single word of protest? Not one? Not even to ask if appeasement now would just bring the aliens back for more later? We think we're pretty cynical about politicians, but that's too much even for us. Just a few lines expressing their horror at what they felt they had to do would have brought it into the realm of the believable - and made the situation even more horrific. When bad people do bad things, well, what can you expect? The true horror lies in good people doing bad things.
And it's the same with the plan of action: as in Turn Left, the first children they pick on are asylum seekers. An obvious target; too obvious for our taste. We get it: the British don't like asylum seekers. Another choice - severely disabled children, for example - would have had a lot more impact.
Then Lois makes her stand and threatens them with Torchwood. Ben Foster, whose music up till now has been exemplary in that we didn't even notice there was any (the true mark of success for TV music as far as we're concerned), hilariously suddenly sees fit to bung in the dumdedumdeBOPPLEBOPPLE theme every time someone says the T-word. And the plan swings heroically into action.
And fails spectacularly. Which is great.
The Doctor might be able to get away with facing down aliens with nothing more than a quip and a satsuma, but this ain't Doctor Who. And Jack sure ain't the Doctor. The government assumes they can't fight the aliens; Jack assumes they can. Neither knows what they're up against, so both positions are totally untenable, and Jack's bravado is doomed to fail from the start. And as a result, the aliens kill everyone in Thames House, including Jack's lover.
They had to do this. Assuming we weren't actually going to see ten percent of the Earth's children sacrificed, they had to kill somebody so we knew the threat was real, and it had to be serious. Seeing the inhabitants of Thames House piling up against the doors is horrific, but it isn't personal. With Ianto, it's personal. It's a shame it happened practically the instant he'd turned into a real character, but it was the right decision. John Barrowman delivers "Don't go..." with real emotion, and they end with a striking - and shocking - shot of the two of them dead on the floor.
It's not quite perfect. Still excellent, though.
ALAN WANTS OUR KEDS
Lois scribbles away and Ianto translates fluently. Trouble is, though, that Lois is using Teeline, which is designed only to be understood by the writer as it's highly dependent on context to make sense (it leaves out the vowels, for a start). Thanks to Mhairi McFarlane, a proper journalist who knows about these things, for this one. We wouldn't have noticed if Lois was writing in Sanskrit.
"A man who can't die has got nothing to fear." Oh, yeah? What about being buried alive for centuries? Or seeing your loved ones hurt?
AN EQUAL AND OPPOSITE REACTION
"If there's a virus, there must be an antivirus." Oh, goody. The people currently coughing and vomiting their way through swine flu will be happy to hear that.
WHAT CAN POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
Why wasn't Thames House evacuated? Even if they had to give the aliens control of it, that should have tipped them off to evacuate, surely? Also, doesn't the grid on Spooks have its own air supply?
WHOOPS, I MEAN I HATE YOUR GUTS
While Ianto's death was sad, it was hardly unexpected, since he made the mistake of making one of those "I love you" phone calls which are invariably fatal.
You thought it couldn't get any blacker after killing Ianto? You were wrong.
Yes, they really are going to cull the children. Yes, the army really is going to break down doors and pull children out of their parents' arms at gunpoint. And yes, the government's first thought after it's all over is saving their own skins.
It's harrowing stuff, even if, like some of Day Four, we didn't think all of it was entirely plausible. Would people really just troop back to normal life without even pressing the government about what the mysterious number meant and what the aliens wanted? Would parents who jib at the MMR vaccine really let their kids be given some unspecified jab for some unspecified reason? Wouldn't somebody ask why the kids had to be taken away by force for said vaccine instead of them sending round nurses to the schools? And how, in a Cardiff where they can't find Gwen's place without asking PC Andy, do the army repeatedly manage to divine where the missing kids are?
The scene where we hear Frobisher shoot his family and himself is almost unbearable to sit through. But why, if they're trying to lead from the front in an effort to demonstrate the safety of the vaccine (a clear echo of John Gummer infamously feeding his daughter a beefburger), would they pick an anonymous civil servant to do it instead of a minister? It makes no sense at all.
It's a shame they didn't pay a little more attention to credibility at this stage, because it weakens what is otherwise a spectacular run of episodes. Nevertheless, even with faults Day Five is still an order of magnitude better than the best of all previous Torchwood. And the ending, in our opinion the blackest of everything, is stunning. They need a child. They have a child. The child is Jack's grandson. It's him or millions of other children, but how could you stand there and nod your head when they ask if they can use him? How could you watch as he's tortured and killed in front of you? It's an impossible choice, but it's a choice that has to be made. And Jack, who sent children away to an even worse fate, is the one who needs to pay by making it.
The moment we like the most in the whole piece is one of the quietest. No guns, no screaming children: just Jack's daughter coming through the door, seeing Jack there, and stopping in her tracks and walking away. She can't face him. He can't face himself.
And the rest doesn't really matter. Bridget Spears ends the Prime Minister's tenure, but there's little sense of relief. Whoever's at the top, the same decisions would have been made.
And Jack moves on. Like Russell T Davies's Doctor, he's a lonely Byronic brooding hero eaten up with guilt who deals with it by keeping the universe at arm's length - and running away.
It's hard to see where they go from here, if they go anywhere at all: Jack gone, Gwen with a baby, the Hub gone and everyone else dead. It'll be very different if they do come back, but considering previous series that's not a bad thing. And if Children Of Earth is Torchwood's epitaph, you couldn't ask for a more magnificent one.
A TOT OF TOT
The children are for drugs? Yawn. All together now: drugs are bad, mmkay?
"One word from me and he will release the information to the public." How's Rhys going to hear this word, Gwen? Aren't you begging for a bullet in the back of the head?
WE'VE GOT THIS IDEA FOR A WELSH POLICE PROCEDURAL
Yay PC Andy! We love his "Who's the father?" and were cheering when he waded in to protect the children. When the long batons came out, though, we were jumping up and down screaming "Don't hurt PC Andy!" Ianto, schmianto: killing off PC Andy would have been the really unforgivable move.
Why does the American suddenly get to tell the British what to do in their own country? We thought poodling had gone out with Blair.
SHOOT FIRST, ALSO SHOOT LATER
Johnson without doubt kicks ass, but she's far too one-note. Why not talk to Dekker rather than shooting him? He's the one with the most experience of the alien broadcasts, after all. Not that Dekker didn't deserve it: just why is he so evil, anyway? Who rubs his hands at the prospect of a child "frying"?
BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY
Like we always say, if the character cries the audience doesn't have to, and there were far too many picturesquely trickling tears in these episodes. But they got it right in the scene where Jack's daughter walks away from him: not a tear to be seen, and the scene is far more powerful for it.
TO THINK I GOT A CORNEAL INFECTION FOR NOTHING
Bridget's surprise about the evidence she's collected with the contact lenses is presented as a game-changer. But doesn't Rhys already have all the evidence necessary?