I tend to be a due diligence sort of critic. If something’s based on a book, I set out to read that book. If something’s a remake, I try to see the original. I try to be as well-informed as I possibly can be. That’s usually how I see my responsibility as a critic.
Sometimes, though, you just have to embrace your ignorance, since that’s a point-of-view as well. Take, for example, BBC America’s “Torchwood: Children of Earth,” which airs as a five-night, five-part event starting on Monday, July 20.
Much of the early scuttlebutt on “Children of Earth” was that it was tremendous and that, most importantly, it was designed to be easily accessible to viewers without any interest in “Torchwood.”
See what I mean about ignorance being a point of view? I’ve never watched a complete episode of “Torchwood” and, largely due to a childhood intolerance for cheesy British sci-fi, I’ve barely watched any of the two most recent incarnations of “Doctor Who.”
The way I figured it, if ever there were a critic qualified to declare whether or not “Torchwood: Children of Earth” plays for the uninitiated, that somebody would be me.
So keep that in mind when I say that I plowed through five hours of “Torchwood: Children of Earth” over two otherwise busy days. I’ve noticed a couple people I trust go overboard in their praise and that perhaps implies a different depth of understanding that they had as fans of the franchise, but I was consistently and thoroughly engaged, and the backstory I was constantly aware I was missing never hampered that interest..
[Full review, keeping spoilers to a relative minimum…]
“Torchwood: Children of Earth” is technically the third season of “Torchwood,” but it’s a self-contained miniseries. The only way you’d know that it had a pre-existing narrative is that the characters seem familiar with each other and there are a couple backstory details that are assumed to be understood. If you’re comfortable with waiting a few minutes, nothing is left unexplained for all that long.
After a prologue in 1965, we’re introduced to the Torchwood team, which includes Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). I couldn’t begin to tell you any of their specific job descriptions, but Captain Jack has a peculiar gift that’s revealed in the first episode, in case you didn’t know before. Also, Jack and Ianto are a couple, a detail that’s off-hand and only occasionally remarked upon. While “Torchwood” has been praised for shattering some TV sexual taboos, the same-sex romance in “Children of Earth” is just sincere and matter-of-fact.
In any case, Torchwood was established by Queen Victoria to combat alien threats. I know this because writer-producer Russell Davies uses a character named Lois (Cush Jumbo), a new government employee, as a proxy for the uninformed audience. Lois is frequently looking into records to learn things about Torchwood and I was appreciative. Most of what she sees is on computer screens, so you can either press pause (as I did) or move on.
The five hours contain references to past adventures and at least one nod to The Doctor, but the characters have enough trouble with the adventure at hand. There’s no need to dwell on the past.
In the miniseries’ first moments, all of the children of the Earth simply stop. They freeze, mid-action. Director Euros Lyn expertly creates tableaus of arrested youthful activities that are disarming and creepy, all without exploiting any of the images. Then, of course, the children start chanting, “We Are Coming,” which is even creepier.
The “we” in question refers to an entity known at The 456. What The 456 is and why The 456 is coming is something I wouldn’t dare spoil (thankfully New York Times “critic” Mike Hale decided to spoil the entire miniseries in his hackjob review, so if you care, go dig through The Gray Lady’s archives).
“Children of Earth” has moments of action and some use of science fiction effects, but you’re not likely to walk away astounded by production values on computer-driven expense. It’s more from the British science fiction tradition of somebody like a John Wyndham, whose “Midwich Cuckoos” is one of several clear influences on Davies and company. Basically, something horrible happens and a few clear-headed individuals come up with ways to react, some right and some wrong. “Children of Earth” may be summer programming, but it isn’t escapist entertainment.
Our heroes are from Torchwood, but the British government and several international regulatory and diplomatic agents also become involved and the writers have fun imagining how these different organizations with different agendas would respond to what certainly appears to be a threat. The action is all on an intimate scale — small teams of commandos going after one or two fugitives — but those are hardly the most effective pieces of the miniseries.
The miniseries’ fourth hour, easily my favorite, is mostly people sitting around a table having a conversation that starts out bleak and becomes plausibly chilling. The tension of people making intellectual choices, delivered with few histrionics, is something many other writers could stand to study.
It’s probably the writing and intellectualizing that carry “Torchwood: Children of Earth,” rather than the pacing — not slow, but certainly deliberate and often padded — or the characterizations.
I know I said I don’t watch “Torchwood,” but I’ve sat through several TCA sessions for it, so I know that Captain Jack is the hero and I know that Captain Jack is sort of a roguish, wisecracking adventurer, a little James T. Kirk and a little Indian Jones. I wouldn’t know this from “Children of Earth,” in which Captain Jack is a secondary character for the first three hours and is far from dynamic in the last two. Barrowman has good scenes with David-Lloyd, but any real chemistry between the two must have preceded this miniseries, making Barrowman’s blandness a bit of a problem up until the final episode.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think that Myles was the star of “Torchwood.” She’s passionate and humorous and, thanks to her character’s relationship with husband Rhys (Kai Owen), she has more at stake than any of the other characters. She certainly goes under the heading of “Actresses who wouldn’t get leads on American shows,” which is much more a critique of American casting directors, who seem to be attempting to mine the United Kingdom for a pretty crop of stars, not necessarily actresses of substance.
As the U.K. is ever a breeding ground for stellar middle-aged character actors, one must salute the performances by Peter Capaldi (about to get a burst of exposure in “In the Loop”), Paul Copley and Nicholas Farell, among others. With the Torchwood team on the run for much of the miniseries, there’s ample time for fleshing out supporting characters, including the British bureaucrats and the family members of the Torchwood team. Those secondary characterizations are often more convincing than the moments between our supposed stars.
Under normal circumstances, when I enjoy something as much as I enjoyed “Torchwood: Children of Earth,” my inclination is to rush out and fill in those gaps in my knowledge. But even after rushing through all five hours, I was left without any desire to go back and start “Torchwood” from scratch, or even to watch any future “Torchwood” projects, at least not without the same general acclaim that proceeded this viewing.
In the end, I was struck by “Torchwood: Children of Earth” as an interesting story, well-told by Davies. But my appreciation tended toward the “Children of Earth” side of things and not the “Torchwood” side. The characters on all sides could, in theory, have been anybody for all I knew about them before and for all that I care to find out about them now.
That’s probably a positive development. The last thing I need is to get a retroactive “Torchwood” obsession, going back through two seasons and then through all available episodes of “Doctor Who.” Viewers can be satisfied that “Children of Earth” will satisfactorily occupy five hours of midsummer programming, with out commitment for anything more.
“Torchwood: Children of Earth” premieres on BBC America on Monday, July 20 at 9 p.m. ET.