TV Review: Torchwood: Children of Earth: Day One

6 Jul

*****

Back in November 2007, in a DVD review of BBC Three’s recently aired first season of Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, I was less than kind to the new arrival.

Criticising the series makers’ rush to get the programme on air barely a year after it was publicly announced, I commented that it was “a schizophrenic series that annoys as much as it entertains, the perceived need to justify its post-watershed slot meaning that what at times seems to be a treatise on what it is to be a thirty-something in noughties Britain…is often lost in a mire of soft-core titillation and half-baked plots.”

Who would have thought that two years on the BBC would not only have promoted the programme to BBC Two for its second season, but that they’d be stripping it across five nights on primetime BBC One for a truncated third mini-season?

And who would have believed that Torchwood: Children of Earth could be so much fun?

Opening on a group of schoolchildren being stopped on a bus journey in 1965 Scotland before being herded towards a bright light nearby, a truncated title sequence then leads us back into present day Cardiff, as Gwen Cooper goes about her daily routine.

Only today her routine isn’t quite so normal as she witnesses a child stop dead in her tracks nearby. As the girl’s mother tries to move her, it soon becomes clear that children all over the globe are being paralysed while the authorities look on. And panic.

While threats in Torchwood are usually confined to the Cardiff Bay area, Children of Earth ramps up the scale of the situation early on. We’re used to Captain Jack and co working under their own steam, with little sign of repercussions from superiors or peers, but now they’re on the radar of higher powers.

This time around we’re brought into the corridors of Westminster, Peter Capaldi suitably grey and uninteresting as John Frobisher, a civil servant caught up in a conspiracy that predates his time in office by at least a few decades. Capaldi is fantastic here, a million miles away from his role as Malcolm Tucker in In the Loop and torn between family and his country.

There’s a definite X-Files vibe going on here, with a hospitalised and seemingly mentally unstable patient played by Paul Copley providing tantalising glimpses into the past and a government scientific advisor popping up to inform Frobisher that current events echo those that occurred in the 1960s

We’re also introduced to more friends and family of the central cast than ever before: sons, daughters and sisters rapidly shunted into the limelight as the plot demands. Thankfully these new additions all work, just enough information drip fed about our heroes’ lives pre-Torchwood to help make them more fully rounded people, something sorely missing in the series’ first year.

Writer Russell T Davies has proved he has the common touch when it comes to his Who scripts and he’s brought that to Torchwood in spades. Gone are the misguided attempts to make the series “adult” by throwing in bad language or sex. Instead we have a genuinely intelligent script and characters who are adults in the sense that they’re grown-ups.

Packed with incident, revelations, humour and energy, from this first episode it feels as if, like its parent show’s lead character, Torchwood has been regenerated, or at the very least rejuvenated, into a show that has earned its place on BBC One.

Oh, and remember those cliffhangers made so iconic by Classic Doctor Who? Russell T has gone back to the drawing board to bring us one of the most gut wrenching endings to an episode that we’ve seen for many a year, one that should have viewers returning for Day Two in their droves come tomorrow night.

Welcome back Captain Jack, you’ve been missed.

Visit the Torchwood website for more behind-the-scenes details.

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