Torchwood Gets SeriousBy Michael Karol Posted: Jul 24, 2009
In its first two 13-episode seasons, TORCHWOOD was a jaunty, clever, and occasionally chilling and horrific sci-fi series — a spin-off of DOCTOR WHO that I enjoyed as much as, if not more than, the parent series. This season, TORCHWOOD, a five-episode miniseries, got serious.
Torchwood is a top-secret group of three based in Cardiff, Wales, that monitors and eliminates alien threats to the Earth: its leader, suave, ambisexual Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), and agents Ianto Jones, his current lover (Gareth David-Lloyd), and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles).
The prologue: poison-breathing aliens land in Scotland in 1965, and take 12 orphans for the purposes of … well, let's just say, human children do something special for this species.
Flash forward 44 years. The aliens are returning; this time, they establish a base, a sealed chamber to contain the poisonous gases they breathe, in London's Thames House, and what they want is far more traumatic: nothing less than 10 percent of the Earth's total population of children.
The British government's first decision: eliminate Torchwood. Captain Jack had a role in the 1965 incident, which the government insists can not come to light. Problem: Jack can't die. Gwen and Ianto can, but they manage to survive the bomb that destroys Torchwood headquarters.
From left, TORCHWOOD's Barrowman, Myles and David-Lloyd
The first two episodes are one slam-bang chase sequence, as Gwen, her husband Rhys (Kai Owen) and Ianto, on the run, try to avoid being killed and rescue Jack. Simultaneously, the aliens broadcast a chilling three-part message via Earth's children: "We are coming. Back. Tomorrow." The kids are stopped in their tracks and can do nothing but parrot the message until the aliens finish "broadcasting."
What's brilliant is that the aliens are mostly a figurative plot element; the smoke in the chamber veils them. And the focus of the series is split equally on the Torchwood trio and the British response to the aliens. The solution comes after a series of meetings/discussions between the prime minister and other British public servants (especially the wonderful Peter Capaldi as bureaucrat/middleman John Frobisher, who has two kids of his own) and, finally, representatives from other countries.
It should be no surprise — yet it's stunning —how easily harsh and selfish the decisions of those officials are, and how quickly the process degenerates from "How can we possibly give them 10 percent of the Earth's children?" to "Of course, it's understood that the children of everyone at this table will be exempt," to "We'll give them the 10 percent lowest academic achievers from every country." Guys (and gals): We're talking about 35 million children being handed over to an alien race, never to return!
Jack, wracked with guilt about his role in the 1965 incident, refuses to allow this to happen, and with Gwen, Rhys and Ianto's help, reconstitutes Torchwood. Luckily for them, they have the help of an insider, temp Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo), whose instincts tell her something's not right with the plan to eliminate Torchwood.
The acting is superb. The strong bond between spouses Gwen and Rhys is matched by the heartbreaking romance between Captain Jack and Ianto. These soapier elements, always welcome, come as no surprise — the series was always a soap at heart, if one of mythic proportions. We also meet Ianto's sister and her family, and learn that Jack is a grandfather who has a strained relationship with his daughter, now older than him due to the immortality thing.
Still, the dark aspects of the plot and the cynical, hopeless way the story plays out are what make this miniseries so exceptional.
God help us if our fates are ever in the hands of the world's politicians, instead of those with a deeper perspective, like Jack. When we leave our decimated hero, he's decided to "travel the world" for a bit. I hope those travels are detailed in a fourth season.