Doctor Who's racy cousin, Torchwood, returned to American screens last night, and packed as much excitement and intensity as the show's whole first season. Aliens make contact, in an episode that's all about bad communication. Spoilers ahead!
So yes, we're going to try and recap Torchwood, "Children Of Earth," as it appears on BBC America this week. Many of you may already have seen the episodes when they aired on the suffix-less BBC a couple weeks ago, but I'm going on the theory that most non-die-hard fans waited. Plus, for those of you who have had a fortnight to digest these episodes, this is a chance to reconsider them, and maybe rewatch them. Given that this is the most thought-provoking, gut-wrenching TV SF we've had since Battlestar Galactica and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles both ended, it's worth a second look. Oh, and do please try to keep spoilers for days two through five out of the comments, if possible. Or at least, put a giant "SPOILER" thingy before them.
Anyway, in the first episode of "Children Of Earth," the world's children first freeze, then start chanting. It turns out they're receiving a transmission on the 456 wavelength, which some unnamed aliens used to communicate back in 1965 — so we call those aliens the 456, for convenience. Right away, we establish the mystery of the aliens and the theme of communication versus posturing. The aliens don't need to make all of the world's children chant in unison just to send a message — they're doing it to freak everyone out, and to show what they can do. And the British government's immediate first concern is to make sure nobody knows about certain past events, and to remove anyone who could reveal the truth. The aliens may be named after a wavelength, but honest communication is the last thing on anybody's mind.
Meanwhile, of course, all of the story's major characters are absolutely dreadful at communicating. Captain Jack Harkness, our dashing hero, is having a really hard time moving from the raunchy innuendo phase of his relationship with Ianto into something more serious. Ianto keeps trying to talk to Jack about whether they're "a couple," and Jack keeps blowing it off. (At first, I thought this was just standard television banter, so I was pleasantly surprised when it acquired a bit of an edge.) Nobody talks about the fact that two of the team's five members died not long ago. And Gwen, once again, barely has time to talk to her husband Rhys.
And then we find out that Jack and Ianto both have families, whom they've barely spoken to in years. There are so many ways that the revelation that Jack has a daughter and a grandson, and Ianto has a sister and her family, could have felt forced — I was bracing for a sort of "Cousin Oliver" moment. But no. Actually, it made sense that facing a mystery involving children, both Jack and Ianto go and look up the families they've stayed away from. And while the actor playing Jack's daughter Alice, Lucy Cohu, was a bit too smirky for my taste, generally this new supporting cast works really well. I loved Ianto coming in and handing out money to the kids he barely knows. But how dare Alice think that Captain Jack is "too dangerous" to have her son hang around? What a ridiculous idea. /sarcasm.
And then there's the other aspect of communcation, which is trust — Torchwood only has three members now, and it desperately needs to recruit some fresh cannon fodder. Luckily, that fresh-faced doctor, Rupesh Patanjali, seems like a perfect replacement for the not-terribly-lamented Owen. He seems so nice and caring — what could possibly go wrong? Ha. The revelation that Rupesh was actually a government stooge, killing innocent people to win Torchwood's trust, caught me off guard, not least because it came so quickly. Luckily, you're already seeing some glimmers that young Lois Habiba, who's totally shut out of the loop over at the Home Office, might have the initiative and cleverness to join the team with the best gadgets and the shortest life expectancy.
Meanwhile, we also meet John Frobisher, the ruthless but tormented bureaucrat who's left with the responsibility of covering up the British government's involvement with these mysterious aliens, and his long-suffering assistant Bridget Spears. Both Peter Capaldi and Susan Brown pack so much into their performances, especially around the handling of the "kill order." Capaldi gives us little hints of his remorse behind a forced blandness, and Brown's slight hesistation before hitting the "Enter" key is marvelous.
It's not all great, of course — a little of the traumatized Clem and his smell-based superpowers goes a very long way. And what on Earth is up with that scene where Rupesh tells Gwen that people are committing suicide because aliens disprove the existence of God and "science has won"? I know Russell T. Davies is an atheist, but still, WTF? I have a feeling there's an idea there that he didn't unpack properly, but on the surface it just seems lazy and weird. For one thing, what exactly does the presence of aliens prove? I suppose it proves that all life didn't originate in the Garden of Eden, or that the world isn't really 6,000 years old. In other words, it proves what the fossil record already proved ages ago. I think that RTD was trying to say something about our terrible smallness in an infinite, diverse cosmos, but he lunged for a trapeze that wasn't there. Luckily, that's just a brief moment.
Anyway, there's so much in this episode that could have been an episode of Torchwood season one by itself — you could easily have devoted 45 minutes to the heroes' family lives, or the duplicitous Rupesh, or the conspiracy to destroy Torchwood, etc. Instead, all that weighty material gets crammed into a single hour — and then it's capped off with a pretty insane cliffhanger, as the Hub blows up with Captain Jack inside, and Gwen and Ianto fleeing. And the good news is, it only gets more intense from here on out, for the most part. Check back tomorrow for our recap of Day Two.