For once I’m going to be completely up front here: if there is even the slightest chance that you plan on watching Torchwood: Children of Earth and you wish to remain unspoiled, then you should stop reading right about HERE. Because we’re going to spoil the crap out of it in the rest of this article.
And I should point out that if you don’t want to watch Torchwood: Children of Earth, you’re wrong and you need to go sit in the corner and think about what you did.
Everybody good? Awesome.
So, today we’re going to talk about Torchwood: Children of Earth, in case you didn’t catch that. While nominally Children of Earth is the third season of Torchwood, a spinoff of the ever popular Doctor Who, it really stands alone both as a season and as a show in and of itself. Sure, the characters appear again later, and the continuity does fit within both shows, but it’s a completely different animal. For starters, it’s a miniseries. There are only five episodes, each of which follows a single day during the invasion of Earth by a hostile alien species. We meet new characters, deal with different problems, and overall see a very surprising side of the Doctor Who/Torchwood universe.
We also see some of the hands down best writing ever to grace the television screen. I’m really not kidding about that. I genuinely think this is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. In my life. And I am picky as hell.
Why do I love it so much? We’ll get into the actual plot in a bit, but I think the answer is pretty simple. I love Children of Earth because it presents us with an utterly unflinching view of humanity, good and bad, in the face of crisis. Because the monsters, far from representing just one singular social problem, represent all of them. The monsters are us, our greed, our self-righteousness, our inflexible wills, and our casual disregard for each other. The aliens might be the villains, but we’re the bad guys. All of us.
Did I mention that it’s incredibly dark? Because it is.
Children of Earth picks up a couple of months after Torchwood season two ends. (SPOILERS, in case you missed it the first time). Tosh (Naoko Mori) and Owen (Burn Gorman) are both dead, and Jack (John Barrowman), Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) and Gwen (Eve Myles) are left reeling from the loss. It’s pretty much business as usual for the team, even going so far as to show them trying to find new members to possible recruit, when a terrifying event streaks across the globe. All at once, every child on Earth stops – dead still – for a minute. Then, in unison, they all say the same thing. In English. “We are coming.”
Naturally, this sparks off a terror all across the world. What is happening? Who is coming? How the hell did they hack into our children? For all that it was big and scary, the kids seem to be fine afterwards. What is going on?
But someone knows. Specifically, Jack knows, and so does the British government. At the Home Office, John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) seems to be unfortunately aware of who is coming, and as the show progresses we find that he’s not the only one. Because “we” have been here before, and as a result, a few select people know what’s coming next.
It’s not good.
Jack, who is as you might remember immortal, recalls the last time this entity made contact with the British government: back in the 1960s. They call them the 456, because that’s the frequency on which the creatures contact Earth. Back in the sixties, the 456 made a trade with the British government. The 456 would send a cure for the Indonesian Flu, which would otherwise kill millions of people, and in return, the government would give them children. Twelve, I believe.
Jack is the only one of the soldiers left alive, and since the government would very much like this information not to get out, they try to kill him. That doesn’t go that well, and now Torchwood is on the case, struggling to figure out what the 456 is doing, what they want, and how to stop the government from rolling over like they did last time.
Also, Gwen and Rhys (Kai Owen) have just found out that they’re going to have a baby, and Ianto is frustrated by his relationship with Jack, while he also frets about his sister and her children. Jack’s got his own worries, when he realizes that his grandson is precisely within the target age group.
Lots more plot things happen, of course, but the basic gist is that the 456 demand more this time. A lot more. They want ten percent of all the children on Earth. If they don’t get them, they’ll destroy the human race.
And the worst of it is, the governments of the world agree.
Like I said, there’s a lot more going on here, and some even more horrifying stuff that we’ll cover in a second, but I think you’ve got the basics now. When push comes to shove, the people of the world back down. And the worst of it is, are they exactly wrong?
I mean, if you think about it, they are bargaining for the safety of everyone. Yes, they’re sending millions of children off to who knows where, but they’re also saving literally everyone else on the planet. Is that so wrong?
Yes. It is.
As the show progresses through the thorny issues that arise, it gives us a simple, but ultimately true answer. If we do not fight, we are not truly alive. If we don’t fight obvious evil like this, then what right have we to our children anyway?
When they decide to give the children over, the people of the council all agree that it can’t be, well, their children, right? So they make a plan. A plan to take the children no one will miss. The low-performing kids. The ones no one likes. The losers. Kids like Ianto’s niece and nephew. Which is, sad to say, all too plausible.
I mean, it’s kind of easy, right? It makes sense. It’s not super surprising to think of. Of course, if they were going to give in, then these wouldn’t be the people to take the hard cuts themselves. Of course they would use it as a chance to clean up the country. Of course they go after the lower income families, the immigrants, the undesirables. Of course.
It’s human nature writ large and frightening across the sky.
The 456 in this story are monsters. There’s really no question about that. Later in the story, it’s revealed that they kept the children from the 1960s, perfectly preserved. Why? Because the 456 needed them, wanted them. They use the children as drugs. They use them to get high. I’m not sure there’s anything more immediately horrifying than that.
But for all of the obvious evil in the 456, they aren’t the villains of this story. How could they be? To them, we’re ants. Ants with hallucinogenic properties, apparently, but still. They don’t care what happens to us, we’re a means to an end. And in a strange way, that makes them less villainous. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they totally deserve their awful end, but I don’t feel like they’re the ultimate bad guys in this. We are.
We’re the ones who let it happen. Who don’t fight. Who sit placidly and allow the most vulnerable among us to be taken, and who calmly agree when our government tells us to roll over and pretend we can’t see. It’s the sad fact of human nature. When given an opportunity to do good, but at great personal cost, or to do nothing, at potential gain, nearly no one will do good.
There is a flip side. There’s also Torchwood. Torchwood knows the stakes. They manage to infiltrate the building where the 456 are being held and try to negotiate. Actually, they more try to threaten and intimidate them, but that ends terribly and the 456 kill everyone in the building. Including Ianto and Jack. Jack wakes up. Ianto doesn’t.
So Jack already knows the risk. He’s already lost someone he loves dearly. And when the idea comes of how to defeat the 456 (use the same frequency they used to hijack the children and basically make their heads explode) he is the first to realize that it has a cost. It has a high cost: his grandson, Steven.
They need a conduit to send the message back to the 456. It’s the only way to save Earth. And it involves sacrifice. The same sacrifice, ultimately, that they rejected when it was all the children. For the sake of many, one. Steven dies. And Jack knows it’s his fault. Because it is.
I love this story because there’s no right answer here. There’s nothing that makes it all okay. Nothing’s okay. It’s all horrifying and terrible. But that’s kind of the point. You want to talk about monsters who represent something in the culture, well, sometimes it’s important to talk about the culture and how it can be a monster too. For all that the 456 clearly represent corruption and human degradation, they also aren’t the real evil here. We are. We’re the bad guys. And that’s important.
Sometimes there really isn’t a right answer. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still wrong answers. Just because we can’t see the good does not allow us to give in to the bad. The real monster in Children of Earth is Earth itself. Which is, in its own way, good. Because if we can truly see this, just this once, then maybe we can change.