Torchwood's five-day miniseries, "Children Of Earth," is a new classic. By any measure, the five-day "event" format was a triumph. But does that mean Torchwood should have more "event" miniseries? Probably not. Relatively vague spoilers ahead.
"Children Of Earth" was a huge experiment, format-wise: instead of doing a regular series of 13 episodes, the show served up one single story, told over five nights. And even before this experiment aired, Russell T. Davies was saying that if it was successful, we might see more Torchwood miniseries like it. We might even have two or three one-week "event" miniseries in 2010, presumably a few months apart. But the more I think about it, the more I think the amazing success of "COE" was a one-off, and trying to copy it would be a terrible mistake.
Torchwood's biggest challenge, as a grown-up spin-off of the time-traveling chidren's adventure Doctor Who, has always been its relatively small scope. Whenever alien monsters want to come and destroy the Earth altogether, the Doctor is there to stop them. Torchwood's job, generally, has been to keep minor-league space-vermin from harrassing the citizens of Cardiff, and to deal with Captain Jack's evil brother and psychotic ex-boyfriend.
"Children Of Earth" finally bulldozed right past this problem — the alien menace was definitely a Doctor-level threat to the Earth, and then some. And yet the Doctor didn't show up — although probably not, as Gwen suggests, because he was disgusted with the human race. It's more likely that Harriet Jones was right once again, and the Doctor just can't always be there when aliens menace civilization.
A big part of "Children Of Earth"'s amazing success simply comes from sharp writing — with a few very notable exceptions, almost every scene in the five episodes was written with a shrewdness and intensity that very few science fiction programs have ever achieved for one episode, let alone five. It was like Battlestar Galactica without the new-age mysticism, or Joss Whedon at his absolute darkest.
But another huge part of "CoE" comes from the fact that the stakes were so very high, and series creator Russell T. Davies seemed willing to break all of his toys in one go. Without giving away too much for those who haven't seen this series yet, Torchwood really does get put through hell. As all of the promo blurbs have made clear, Torchwood gets basically destroyed and has to rebuild from the ground up — but it's shocking how far RTD is willing to go in that direction.
Let's put it this way — before Lost's season finale aired, a number of actors (especially Michael Emerson) went around saying that you'll be so shocked by what happens, you won't even be able to imagine how Lost can exist as a series next year. And after watching the finale, I found that statement to be pretty untrue — I can imagine dozens of ways Lost can continue next year, and it's pretty clear that Jack, Sawyer and Kate will be running around, even if Juliet isn't. It wasn't really that shocking, given that we'd been told for two or three weeks that they were going to set off a hydrogen bomb. And then they did.
By contrast, Torchwood really was shocking. If Michael Emerson had come up to me and said, "After you're done watching Torchwood season three, you won't even be able to imagine how Torchwood can continue to exist as a television show," he would have been telling the plain unvarnished truth. (But of course, he would have had some nefarious concealed agenda behind telling the truth, because that's just how he is.)
And it's not just that shocking things happen in "Children Of Earth" — it's also just the fact that we see the characters and the world they operate in a much different light afterwards. Captain Jack, in particular, shakes off the creeping blandness that had been overtaking him through the first two seasons of Torchwood and becomes every bit the complex, tormented, amoral, inspiring figure we always knew he could be.
So I'm dying to see how Torchwood does continue — but I don't think the show is going to be capable of doing anything like this again soon.
I think if you try to follow up "Children Of Earth" with another mega-event where nothing is the same again, you'll end up with cheese. You'll probably end up with Heroes season two. Or BSG season three. Plus, I doubt that Russell T. Davies can keep his silly, cheesy, schlocky tendencies so firmly in check for another five-episode miniseries. And if it's true that we might get two or three five-part miniseries next year, they'll definitely start getting more farcical, I'm willing to bet.
Torchwood needs to come back from this shocking, disturbing, grand, insane story with something maybe a bit more pedestrian. It needs to be a regular television show again, showing us from time to time how Captain Jack helps get a cat out of a metaphorical tree. So if I were Russell T. Davies, I'd push for a regular 13-episode series next year — it can end with some kind of massive world-shattering climax, but it can also have room for episodes where there's a sex monster or Captain John has dangerous underwear or Cardiff is nearly sucked into a null dimension, or whatever. Stories that can sustain themselves for 45 minutes, but wouldn't justify five hours.
The bottom line: You can't raise the stakes again after a story like this one. If you do, you'll start dealing in stakes that are so huge, they're unimaginable. Torchwood will probably never be as good as it's been these past five days — although I'm desperately hoping to be proved wrong about that — but it can still be way better than its first two seasons, if it builds on the brilliance of "Children Of Earth." I just don't think the way to build on "Children Of Earth" is with more "Children Of Earth."