When I posed the question Which TV show should I start watching? I received a lot of enthusiastic feeback for Torchwood, creator Russell T. Davies spin-off of Doctor Who. Given the universal acclaim for the new five-part Torchwood miniseries, Children of Earth (airing at 9 p.m. weeknights this week on BBC America, and out on DVD July 28), I couldnt NOT watch the screeners that came to the office. Its even written to be newbie-friendly. And yes, its a gripping and engrossing piece of TV entertainment but not quite what I expected.
Its a little odd to sample current generation of British non-comedies, like Torchwood, MI-5? and Primeval. I associate British genre dramas with shows from the late 1980s and 1990s, especially Mystery! and Masterpiece Theatre, which delivered grittily realistic, impeccably acted, top-drawer police procedurals like Helen Mirrens Prime Suspect, Robbie Coltranes Cracker and such miniseries as the original State of Play (before director David Yates went to Hogwarts) and the wickedly entertaining House of Cards political satires, starring the late Ian Richardson. You could see the influence of those shows on the heavyweight American dramas that have become synonymous with HBO.
Watching four of the five episodes of Torchwood: Children of Earth, like seeing the pilots of MI:5? and Primeval, is to see influences going the other way across the Atlantic. Compared to the Mystery! shows, these are faster, sleeker, more action-oriented and slightly cheesier programs that owe a debt to American dramas, particularly such Fox network shows as 24? and The X-Files. Torchwood offers a variation of the latter shows premise by depicting the exploits of the Torchwood Institute, a small, secret organization that investigates extraterrestrial phenomenon. (Not coincidentally, Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who.)
It begins when every child on Earth periodically stops standing utterly still with blank expressions and begin uttering ominous phrases in unison, beginning with WE ARE COMING. WE ARE COMING. The scenes hark back to the creepy children of Village of the Damned and build to terrifying first contact encounters with an enigmatic, ruthless alien force. Peter Capaldi (whom fans of 1980s films will remember from Local Hero and Lair of the White Worm) superbly plays a hapless government official who unwillingly finds himself humanitys spokesman and conscience. The incursion builds to a dilemma of Biblical proportions.
I knew Torchwood commander Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) was had become a cult favorite as a man of action who happened to be a self-described omnisexual, liable to make a pass at any gender (and presumably other intelligent species). At the beginning of Children of Earth, hes beginning a relationship with right-hand man Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). Captain Jacks apparent immortality and inability to be killed doesnt get nearly as much attention as his sexual flexibility. I had no idea, though, that Captain Jack was so American. Comparable to Mark Harmon about 20 years ago, hes a clean-cut, blue-eyed, cleft-chinned jock type, which makes his tendency to kiss other men between world-saving episodes even more subversive for a sci-fi action show.
The early episodes of Children of Earth suffer from a subplot involving a government hit squad (which leaves a laughably transparent paper trail) thats as hackneyed as any conspiracy Jack Bauer ever untangled. Ironically, it requires far more suspension of disbelief than the A plot involving beings from another planet. The soundtrack music is pretty terrible, too, but overall Torchwood features clever dialogue, likably unglamorous supporting players and a story that builds to breathtakingly high stakes. Children of Earth is good enough to make you want to go back and get caught up on the rest of Torchwood. Im not sure, though, that it would belong on Masterpiece Theatre.
Photo courtesy of BBC
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