Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #39: Torchwood - Children of Earth and Miracle Day?

Well, I’m having a bad go of things today. 

I managed to lose the “Ask JKM a Question” e-mail where a reader asked me for my thoughts on the recent Torchwood seasons, Children of Earth and Miracle Day

I want to apologize to that reader for this mistake, but I’ll try to answer the question anyway!

First, I not long ago completed catching up on Russell Davies’ Torchwood in its entirety.  I found that the series was wildly variable in terms of quality, bouncing from highs to lows and back to highs again.  There were some really great episodes (like “Countrycide,” which I reviewed here) and some really terrible episodes too.  The series it hits peak, I believe with the stunning third season.

That third season consisted of five episodes and those episodes depicted one overall story spanning five days.  It is titled Children of Earth, and, yes, it is an absolutely chilling tale.

For those of you haven’t seen it, Children of Earth sees aliens arriving on our world and demanding a percentage of our children for their own secret purpose.  Only late in the drama does Torchwood -- an organization dedicated to defending the Earth from extra-terrestrial threats -- learn precisely how our children are to be used.  That discovery, let me say, proves really sickening.

I can’t write this plainly enough: Children of Earth is one of the best-written, best-performed and most caustic things I’ve seen on television in a long time.  The story succeeds because it is really about us, not evil aliens, and about the ways our society picks winners and losers based on issues of class, race, and in some cases, bigotry.  That the story involves the exploitation of children – the innocent -- makes it all the more pointed, and devastating.

In short, when it becomes plain to the government of Britain in the series that the children are indeed to be sacrificed, there is a political discussion of “whose” children should go with the aliens.  Certainly not the children of the rich and powerful!

Instead, how about those poor kids struggling in bad schools who are determined to be dead-enders and a drain on society?   Let’s kill two birds with one stone and send them!

The government’s plan is to pack the less-fortunate children up in buses and without even consulting their parents, send them away to permanent alien enslavement. 

So often in this country we hear about class warfare.  It’s suspicious that the folks always complaining about it are those of the richer class...the very ones who want to protect their superior status.  This story is about how those “rich” folk further their own interests at the expense of innocence, at the expense of children who just want the same opportunities out of life that the wealthy received.  But, of course, when you try to help those who are less fortunate, you are accused of trying to re-distribute wealth…

The best science fiction on television, in my opinion is the brand that tells us something about ourselves, some truth that may be unpleasant…but necessary to hear.  Torchwood is a series set in the UK, so it’s not about partisan politics, I should add.  It’s about something much more basic: about how those without access to the levers of power are scapegoated and sacrificed by those who command it.  

I can’t say enough positive about Children of Earth.  It’s stunningly well-written and executed, and I give it my highest recommendation.  I found it…shattering, and thought about it for days after my viewing.

Miracle Day -- which is an American/British co-production -- is not nearly so strong a tale.  The story here involves the idea that suddenly man becomes immortal and nobody on Earth can die, thus creating a whole raft of new problems for the human race. 

That idea sounds like a great story and an important one too, but the season tends to meander, and the infusion of American action-sensibilities (and new, American cast-members…) works against Torchwood’s greatest strengths.    

The focus here over ten episodes (instead of five…) is more diffuse than in Children of Earth, and some episodes wander off on narrative and thematic dead-ends.  I can watch Eva Myles in anything, because she’s a great screen presence, but Miracle Day lacks Children of Earth’s drive, and in some sense, its brutal honesty.

So again, I must return to the idea of just how very hit-or-miss Torchwood often seems.  Children of Earth is undeniably a cult-television masterpiece. Miracle Day is okay, but not much more than that. 

That established I certainly wouldn’t mind further Torchwood seasons that, like Children of Earth are short, cut-throat and relentlessly on-point.


  1. Eve Myles.... mmmm ...mmmm... good.
    A real pleasure on screen. Who knew I would be so head over heels for anything Eve based on her quiet portrait of a character in Doctor Who's The Unquiet Dead.

    You're right though on you your points here. Children of Earth is the hands down winner.

    Torchwood fans can only hope the series will recover from Miracle Day and return. I hope so. We want Eve back! SFF

  2. Children of Earth was in my opinion, dang near perfect. Possibly the best Torchwood season of all. I just recently caught Miracle Day on DVD (I don't have Starz) and must admit, I liked it far more than I was expecting to. On the other hand, I did have some issues with it. Maybe some serious issues. First of all, it went on way too long. Had I watched it on cable from week to week, I admit I would have lost interest and quit watching long before it ended. The padding was excessive, too many thing were introduced that failed to have any pay off or real relevance (the cultists, the jump off the roof club, for instance). I would have preferred it to do 5 episodes, maybe 7 at the max. 10 was far too many. Too many good folks were wasted in what were glorified cameos. I utterly, utterly loathe Bill Pullman and Francis Fisher btw. Too much was set up for a potential new season, pointless now as it seems that will never happen. I know this was the compromise made in order to assure a totally American redux of the show would not happen, but it's too bad it wasn't better and also that it did not have a definite ending. Very good, but still not up to the high standard that Torchwood already set.

  3. I'm glad you got to explore Torchwood, John, in all its guises. I have to agree that "Children of Earth" is the series' masterpiece, with much to ponder, but I also found much to enjoy and to consider in "Miracle Day" too—not least in the character of Oswald Danes. It did meander here and there, but some such asides—the flashback episode "Immortal Sins", for example—were significant and worked well for me in their own right. All in all I applaud the ambition and scale of both "Children of Earth" and "Miracle Day", and to me Torchwood was an easy sell from the outset, especially given the character of Captain Jack, and the casting of both John Barrowman and Eve Myles, who are consistently excellent.