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Suffer the Children

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | August 5, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | August 5, 2009 |

“There’s one thing I always wanted to ask Jack. Back in the old days. I wanted to know about that Doctor of his. The man who appears out of nowhere and saves the world, except sometimes he doesn’t. All those times in history where there was no sign of him… I wanted to know why not.” -Gwen

“Torchwood: Children of Earth” is a sort of experiment in television by the BBC. “Doctor Who” and its progeny garnered a particular reputation for piracy over the last few years, as the shows were broadcast or released on DVD in America months after their broadcast in the UK. Enterprising sci-fi geeks had little trouble using torrents or video sites to see the episodes long before they hit the SciFi channel state-side. Rather than taking the very American steps of suing fans or cracking down with tedious protectionism that irritated the legitimate viewers and failed to trip up the illegitimate ones, the BBC simply made it easier to pay them to watch “Torchwood.” Over a three week period, “Torchwood: Children of Earth” was broadcast on the BBC, BBC America, and released on iTunes, DVD and Blu-Ray. Australia has to wait until October for the DVDs, but that’s life in a prison colony for you.

“Children of Earth” is also interesting because it is a five hour mini-series in lieu of a full thirteen episode series. That lends a certain urgency to everything that happens, each episode leading directly into the next, taking everything lovely about two-part cliff hangers and injecting the whole affair with cocaine.

Mini-series linked to television series tend to fall into two categories: starters (the pilot for “Battlestar Galactica”) or finishers (the conclusion of “Farscape”). The former don’t tend to have much in the way of compelling side characters because such characters are indistinguishable from the main characters without previous context, whereas the latter lack side characters because the focus is on tying up all loose ends. A mini-series dropped right in the middle of a show’s run can introduce side characters with full story arcs that begin and conclude alongside the constants of the main characters who existed in the narrative before and (usually) after the events of the mini-series. And “Children of Earth” draws some fantastic supporting characters.

Lois is a temp, overwhelmed on her first day, then curious, then terrified, and then driven to a matter of fact sort of boldness. Clement McDonald aches as the lost boy with a stolen life, driven mad by the horror that touched him, the ultimate key to the crisis. Alice, Jack’s daughter who looks older than he does, distrusts him at first, reaches out for him in fear, proudly proclaims his unstoppability, breaks at his unspeakable final betrayal. Johnson, the government assassin, murders on command for the greater good, but slowly thaws as she sees the hollowness at the center of the state. Ianto’s sister and brother-in-law, common as dirt but proud and stubborn, they rise to their finest hour. PC Andy tears off his uniform and finds something to fight for. The Prime Minister’s cabinet, each character distinct and individually horrifying as they descend into rationalization. And of course, Mr. Frobisher, who evolves from the epitome of evil’s banality, to a sympathetic middleman, to a man of devastating quiet desperation.

The series opens with a subtle problem: at the exact same moment, every child on Earth freezes. They awake a minute later, with no memory of what happened, lurching right back into motion like there was a glitch in the Matrix. A few hours later, it happens again and they all screech like a dropped microphone. In unison they begin to chant “we are coming.” The glitches continue, the message evolving slowly. Someone is broadcasting through the mouths of the children. There’s a wonderful tension as the characters are unable to determine if they should be frightened for the children, or of the children.

Expendability is a recurring motif throughout the series. Forty years ago a dozen children were given to the 456 because they wouldn’t be missed, worth the offered payment of an antivirus that could save millions of lives. The Torchwood team is slated for execution because they know too much. The Prime Minister puts Frobisher in charge precisely because he is expendable. The politicians judge the children themselves as expendable: ten percent of them is painful, but worth paying to save everyone else. Thirty million is a smaller number than seven billion, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

It’s the easy acceptance of that expendability that horrifies, the way the politicians opine that they are making the tough decisions even while manufacturing rationale to exclude their own families. Randomness is discarded, because no one would believe it truly random when the children of government officials miraculously avoided the sacrificial draft. Alphabetical order is suggested half-heartedly. Finally, they light on the logical solution, take the lowest ten percent: the troublemakers, the poor, the stupid. It can even be spun as a good thing for the world. After all, there’s a population crunch, dwindling resources. It’s around that point that we understand that they use the word ‘expendable’ in a slightly different tone than the dictionary. They use it as a polite place holder for ‘inferior,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘slave.’ When they say ‘expendable’ it is a slur for everyone except them and their own. Sophie’s choice doesn’t mean much when you just grab someone else’s kid instead.

Sacrifice is very distinct from expendability though. Expendability means that your blood will be taken to pour on the altar, sacrifice means that you willfully cut your own flesh. Nine times out of ten it might be the same result with different motivation, but motivation is the only thing that matters in a moral calculus. Sometimes thirty million is not a smaller number than seven billion. You can pile corpses hip-deep around an altar and it’s still not sacrifice until you cut your own heart out. That’s what Jack and Frobisher do in the end.

Jack continues to grow as a character and by the end of this series his story begins to echo with the story of the Doctor. He doesn’t die, he regenerates. He has sacrificed everything he ever loved in order to save his people. And finally, at the end, he runs away into space and time rather than stay to build.

The first two series of “Torchwood” were good science fiction, but they probably weren’t for you if you didn’t care for the genre in general. Science fiction always works best when it resonates as a metaphor, but in a lot of stories the aliens and gizmos are their own delightful fun. “Children of Earth” breaks out of the genre to tell a truly universal story, one in which the aliens and gizmos are really just window dressing. It’s a story that could be set in World War II or a Victorian coffee house or any other arbitrary stage. In short, “Torchwood: Children of Earth” is one of the best science fiction stories I have ever seen.

“But I don’t need to ask anymore. I know the answer now: sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame.” -Gwen

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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