The best science fiction is always written as allegory. Star Trek did it, Battlestar Galactica did it. The sci-fi element is the Macguffin, the item to start the story going. It is what the story says about us, humanity, that lifts science fiction to the level of greatness.
And thus we have Torchwood: Children of Earth.
This five part series is a like a cooker on low heat, slowly building to the payoff you know is coming. Over the first three episodes we learn so much more about the characters we already know, we meet and like (or dislike) new ones, and we are painted the picture of how the story is going to develop.
Then episode four arrives, and we as television viewers have our thinking minds grabbed, given a good shake, and a slap around the head for good measure.
The real message (of many) starts to become clear as we watch, transfixed and horrified; not at some alien creature, not at some exploding special effect, but at something as innocuous as a meeting, a dozen people seated around a table.
Torchwood as a series explodes so far beyond its humble beginnings with this pivotal scene. It’s not flashy with CGI. It’s just superb writing and acting. It’s the payoff to three episodes of setup. And what a payoff it is.
These people, these (mostly) elected representatives, sit and discuss how they would deliver 10% of the children of the world to the alien threat. Who gets selected? How are they collected? How do we protect ours? And the discussion is horrifying because it’s logical, and understandable, and one can feel that this is how politicians would reach such conclusions.
We have met the monster, and it is us.
And the allegory doesn’t stop there. In the final episode, we are treated to scenes of armed soldiers rounding up children. We are given scenes of parents screeching in fear and anger and fighting against the same tyranny that has selected them as “acceptable losses”. A tiny moment says it all: an old lady points out to a group of soldiers the abandoned building adults are hiding some children. Selected individuals being rounded up? Families hiding from soldiers? Groups being transported to depots? How did we get from democracy to tyranny in so short a time?
We are given another, ultimate payoff. The civil servant, the man of the people, the one just doing his job for ever changing political masters, is told that he is to be part of the sacrifice, to help sell the spin. But this servant of the people will not go meekly. In his own way he will save his children, his wife and himself from the never ending Hell that was brought down on him just because he is expendable. An extremely powerful moment, made all the more heart wrenchingly horrible by the final resolution of the series… when one realises, after all has gone quiet and the world is safe and your mind frees itself from mourning the loss of loved characters, that he did not need to do what he did. His children would have been safe.
Russell T. Davies and everyone else involved in this production has crafted event television that lives up to the name. This is heavy, sad, frightening, horrible, brilliant stuff. The story is given, and takes, time to set itself up and establish characters and put the pieces into play. Jon Barrowman should be praised for his performance as Jack, but it is Peter Capaldi as the poor political pawn Frobisher who deserves a damn award. This is what Torchwood should be like. THIS is what Doctor Who should be like – not all the time, but damn well some of it. This is television that makes you THINK.