We've waited all summer for an action movie with genuine (not canned) excitement, twisty plotting, and real characters. We'd never have guessed it would come in the form of Torchwood, formerly known as Doctor Who's ridiculous spin-off. Minor spoilers ahead.
So the first two episodes of Torchwood season three, the five-part miniseries known as "Children Of Earth" have already aired in the U.K., and they've vastly exceeded my expectations.
I'll try and keep this review relatively spoiler-free, for all the people who aim to watch the show when it airs on BBC America starting July 20. But be warned: by "relatively spoiler free," I mean I'll try and stick mostly to details that were in the trailers and preview articles that have appeared in official places like the Radio Times. Information the BBC wants you to know before seeing this story, in other words.
So. Honestly, I think the trailers sold this story a bit short. I expected it to be a lot of slow scenes of children being spooky while people wrung their hands, intermingled with sinister government people being sinister. But actually, the thing with the kids stopping absolutely still, and later repeating the alien message "We are coming," was extremely intense and well handled. And most of the credit belongs to Russell T. Davies, who wrote the first episode and obviously worked on the second one as well. Davies knows how to convey the rhythms of family life, and the chatter of everyday people coming and going, so when he gives us children stopping dead and chanting spookily, it doesn't feel at all like a cruddy horror movie. It feels, at first, like an inconvenience — and then the horror of it sort of sneaks up on you. The aspect of this storyline that I expected to be the most annoying turned out to be dead effective.
I often feel like there are two Russell T. Davieses — there's the one who creates storylines like this one, or the Doctor Who episodes "Midnight" and "Turn Left": jagged dramas where people are pushed to the edge and they reveal their inner ugliness as well as their inner courage. And then there's the one who wants you to bathe in a swimming pool full of schmaltz and bombard you with a rough sequence of over-the-top "moments" that are disconnected from each other and from any sense of storytelling — like last season's "Journey's End." Like so many writers, Davies' greatest strengths can become his worst weaknesses, when he gets too self-indulgent. But he's got a lot to prove here, by turning Doctor Who's weak sibling into a genuine success. Davies has said again and again that he'll stay with Torchwood (and the other spin-off, the Sarah Jane Adventures) forever, even though he's leaving Doctor Who at the end of the year. So he's obviously determined to win people over with this one.
The Torchwood team have never seemed as likeable as they do in these first two episodes. Giving both Jack and Ianto family members of their own seems like such an obvious step at character-building, you have to wonder why it didn't happen in season one. Jack's visit with his daughter Alice is, as the Radio Times says, "low-key but poignant" — especially given what we find out about why we haven't seen her before. "I get older... and you stay the same," she says. Meanwhile, all the stuff with Ianto's family is hilarious, and it's great to see a different side to Ianto than the eager-to-please manservant we've grown to love.
As for Gwen — I never thought I'd say this, but she's really growing on me. Davies seems to sense that Gwen has spent too much time in previous outings having her lip tremble and her wall-sized eyes water, so she's thrown into the role of action hero — and it works beautifully. It's hard to believe these are the same people we saw bickering endlessly, and obsessing over who was snogging whom, back in season one. There's still plenty of time for weird/risque humor, but it doesn't drive the story into the realms of the trivial.
And then there's all the political intrigue, something Davies has tackled in the past, with mixed results. This time around, the stakes genuinely feel enormous, and the mystery that unfolds regarding whatever happened in 1965 is genuinely intense. And all of Torchwood's incompetence and silliness, that we've all lamented in the past, finally comes back to haunt them once the government sets out to destroy the team before they discover the truth about what's going on. We saw back in season two that even random old ladies on the streets of Cardiff see the Torchwood van drive by and mutter, "Bloody Torchwood." Now the fact that this organization is possibly the least well-kept secret in Wales turns out to be a genuine liability. And the ubiquitous surveillance state, which the Torchwood crew were so happy to take advantage of in the past (Remember all those scenes in the first two seasons where our heroes check the public CCTV camera feeds?) suddenly turns out not to be quite so warm and fuzzy.
The other thing that "Children Of Earth" is doing really well, so far, is its alien menace. Whatever the mysterious alien threat behind the mind-controlled children and governmental paranoia is, it's being built up as a legitimately huge menace. Without having shown us so much as a tentacle-tip so far, the show has managed to build tons of anticipation for the alien threat to show up — here's hoping it doesn't actually disappoint.
And finally, as the Radio Times says, Jack and Ianto have to deal with the implications of being a couple. And this is the other thing I really liked about those first two episodes. Without dragging us into any long relationship-wrangling scenes, the show gives us several glimpses of just what it might mean for Jack and Ianto to be "a couple," rather than just storage-room lovers. (And no, the show doesn't forget that Ianto used to have a girlfriend, as we saw in the episode "Cyberwoman." Even though we've all tried to forget that episode.) Not surprisingly, this is a subject near to Russell T. Davies' heart — the vast difference between queerness behind a veil of innuendo and secrecy, and proud, open queer relationships in the light of day. He doesn't retreat behind any simplistic archetypes, and instead allows both Jack and Ianto to have complex feelings about their relationship and how public it should be, which are hinted at from various vantage points, rather than spelled out in giant block letters.
Oh and — and this is a bit more of a spoiler — RTD doesn't stint on the nudity. Those of us who worried that the move to BBC1 meant Jack would be covering up more needn't have worried. And I have a feeling adherents to at least one obscure fetish will be very happy about one particular scene in episode two.
Obviously, the show isn't perfect — there are a few convenient coincidences that help our heroes out at various crucial moments. The British civil service seems to be pretty easy-going about handing out passwords to top-secret computer accounts as well. And there are one or two moments, here and there, that fall flat. But so far? I'm pretty riveted.
I can hardly believe I'm actually saying this, but this could be the year that Torchwood becomes better than Doctor Who — at least until Steven Moffat takes over the reins of the parent series. Then all bets are off.
And a warning to people who've read this far and want to remain unspoiled — I have a feeling the comment thread on this post will get quite spoilery. That said, if you've seen the episodes already, please keep your first paragraph of your comment spoiler-lite, in case it crops up on the front page of the site. Thanks!