Torchwood's latest miniseries has made us rethink everything we thought we knew, especially about Captain Jack. The immortal rogue made a dreadful mistake in 1965, but at least he'll never sacrifice innocents for expediency again. Right? Right? Spoilers below.
So let's get it out there right away: Part five is easily the weakest of the five episodes of "Children Of Earth." The pacing is a bit flatter, the storytelling a bit more random, and the characters a bit less compelling — especially poor Gwen, who was kicking so much ass not long ago.
That said, even if it's weak in comparison to parts one through four, part five of "Children Of Earth" is still a rattlingly strong ending to a brilliant story, and this single episode is still better than the entire first two seasons of Torchwood put together. A lesser writer than Russell T. Davies would have saved some of the story's biggest shocks — Lois standing up, Ianto dying — for this final episode. It's a mark of RTD's confidence that he put that stuff in episode four and devoted so much of episode five to the aftershocks. And then when we get that one last shock, in the way Jack defeats the 456 at last, it's that much more dreadful because we're already pulverized.
So in episode five, all hope seems lost. Jack's attempt to bluff the 456 into surrendering has proved a miserable failure, and cost him the life of his lover and comrade, Ianto. Jack is almost catatonic with grief, but he does arrange for Gwen to take Ianto's body back to Wales. There, Gwen tries to honor Ianto's memory by saving his nephew and niece from the mass handover of children to the child-using 456.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Brian Green crosses another threshold, from oily nastiness to out-and-out repulsiveness. The public is swallowing the cooked-up story that the children are being rounded up for innoculations against the "chanting in unison" bug. Green is beginning to think he might actually come out of this mess with his political career intact — and then he overreaches a bit, arranging for John Frobisher's kids to be rounded up, so Frobisher can make a big public appearance in support of the inoculation program. That way, when the kids all disappear, a semi-high-profile public servant can be seen to have been duped as well. Green is so oily, trying to intimidate Frobisher by ignoring him and scribbling on pages in between telling him the news.
This development felt ever so slightly forced, and intended to give Frobisher some kind of closure — but it did feel believable, especially given how amoral and small Green had already shown himself to be. Frobisher, of course, doesn't hand over his kids — instead, he walks into a room with a loaded gun, and we hear four shots. Just when you thought Frobisher's story couldn't become any more barbed and tragic, it takes one last turn into awfulness.
But hey — at least the 456 are using the children for some important, noble purpose, right? Right? Like they're a kind of natural life support system? Or their little childish neurons make a natural hyperspace navigation aid? Or their youthful optimism keeps the 456 spaceship A.I.s altruistic and brilliant?
Actually, er, no. The children of Earth just secrete chemicals that feel really, really good to the 456. And the aliens have the means to keep the kids young and fresh for decades, perhaps hundreds of years, while they siphon the juices out of them. Oh well.
The biggest letdown, for me, is Gwen, who really was winning me over as a great action hero just a few days earlier. Now she's suddenly a bit weak, and she's back to channeling Rose Tyler — her silly camcorder intro was way too reminiscent of Rose's "this is the day I died" intro in Doctor Who's "Army Of Ghosts" two-parter.
Gwen basically gets written out of the story early on in this episode, but we still have to watch her trying to hide Ianto's nephew and niece, and some other random kids, and then hiding, and running, and hiding, and whining, and running. And mostly whining. It does dramatize the horror of what's going on. But we could have had Rhys, or Ianto's sister, trying to hide the kids, and it would have provided the same level of dramatization. Why does Gwen have to be shunted off to the sidelines like this?
Oh yeah. Because Jack "can't stand to look at her." I'm tempted to take the cheap shot and say neither can we. But really, she was doing so well. She was winning me over, big time. And now, she's suddenly mopey and weak.
Ohai. I'm sending you out of the story now:
Instead, Ms. Brown, the woman who blew up Torchwood on Monday, is left in the Gwen role, dragging the also-mopey Jack back into action and kicking him in the ass until he figures out how to stop the 456. And there's an amazing irony that Jack's daughter Alice is the one who insists they get Jack to solve the problem — and it ends up costing her so very much.
After those scenes of Jack and Dekker working together to come up with a completely unacceptable solution to the 456 crisis, I'm totally dying for season four to feature Dekker as a major member of the Torchwood staff. And every time he steps out of line, they could shoot him in the leg again. I just love his weird sad-sack humor and total lack of morals. He's the guy who's willing to do whatever it takes, or whatever the guy with the gun wants.
So yeah, Jack needs to destroy a random child in order to defeat the 456 — and unlike the politicians, who safeguard their own children while sending millions of others to a fate worse than death, Jack picks the one nearest to hand, his own grandson. Who dies screaming/singing, with blood pouring out of his nose and mouth, while Jack and his daughter watch. Jack manages to become the ultimate tragic hero in the same moment he becomes the ultimate antihero.
And then he leaves Earth, because Jack just plain has nothing tying him to the human race any more. Whatever finally brings Jack back to Earth for another romp with the Torchwoodies, I hope it's truly dreadful and we get to see Jack struggling against the need to return to the scene of his greatest crime.
Oh, and meanwhile Prime Minister Green gets his comeuppance in a scene so full of weird holes that I don't know what to make of it. Bridget Spears was recording Green being callous, using those contact lenses — but who was actually recording? Don't you need a laptop to record that stuff? Okay, so Bridget's bluffing, I can accept that. But how does this lead to that creepy woman getting to be in charge? The woman who was the first one to suggest sending poor kids to the slaughter? And in what way could that possibly be deemed an improvement? I'm sort of baffled, and I think RTD was straining too hard to give Green some kind of comeuppance, without fully thinking it through.
Nitpicks aside, though, this was a brain-shattering ending to one of the best pieces of science fiction television ever to come out of Britain. I've had a few weeks to think it over, and I've watched it twice, and I'm still obsessing about it and trying to tease out all its layers. What did you think?