As we announced on Friday, this week is Torchwood Week here on TV Today. In the run up to next week’s transmission of the five-part Children of Earth on BBC1, we’ll have a variety of features and interviews throughout the week.
We’ll start with the first of a two-part interview with series creator Russell T Davies, who returns to writing duties on the show for the first time since 2006’s premiere episode, Everything Changes.
Conducted after the press preview of the first episode of Children of Earth, be warned: the interview does contain some spoilers for the upcoming story, although we’ve tried to keep those to a minimum.
This series takes a very different structure, with its single story over five episodes playing over a single week. Why did you go for this format?
We just fancied it, to be honest, it was as simple as that. I loved it on Criminal Justice, and Five Days. And Anne Frank, actually, I thought that was brilliant — although that came after [the decision for Torchwood].
And you’d never have the money for thirteen episodes on BBC1 for something like this. And we’ve done all sorts of two-parters and one-offs on Doctor Who, Sarah Jane and Torchwood, but we’ve never done a long thriller.
And I’ve never done a multi-part story with more than one writer [John Fay writes episodes 2 and 4, while James Moran co-writes episode 3 with Davies] — I’ve written six parters myself, of course. So that was brand new, and I thought that’d keep me awake of a day.
What’s the appeal of that to you as a writer?
Oh, it’s marvellous. That’s what’s really exciting, because it’s brand new. You can be a lot cheekier with it, and simply have to assume that people are watching. For example, in the first episode we just have Kai [Owen, who plays Rhys] in one scene. If we just went out weekly on a Monday night, we’d give him a lot of big scenes in episode 1 to establish him.
And you’ll see things as the series goes on, we use a shorthand: we introduce Lucy Cohu as Jack’s daughter, but in Episode 2 she doesn’t get much to do. She gets parked slightly. But in Episode 3, big things start to happen to her as well. If it was weekly, you wouldn’t be able to do that. She’d have to have a big story every week just to remind you of who she is.
I loved that, but I didn’t realise before we went into it. That’s what’s great about new formats, you learn new things. I was dreading that they would end up showing it weekly after we’d made it, because there are no guarantees! But it would look quite bad if it went out weekly. I think in some parts of the world it may go out weekly, actually. It’ll look quite odd. I think sometimes you’ll be sitting there going, “Who’s that character? Who’s she? Why’s she got two lines when last week she was really important?”
So there are really interesting things to discover when writing it. Most interesting for me was co-ordinating the complicated story with a lot of characters across three writers like that. Especially because the order they were written was episode 2, episode 3, episode 1. So that was immensely complicated, but actually sort of fun.
What about the move to BBC1? Does it feel any different writing for the big channel?
It feels nice, because let’s be honest it’s a big channel. It’s also scary because you don’t know how well this will do. In a way, you’re comfortable with a smaller, cult audience on BBC2 or BBC3. You’re slightly safer there. But who wants to be safe?
That’s part of the reason to reinvent it as well, as it goes onto a different channel — to make it more muscular. Apart from me wanting to do a different format anyway, the fact it’s on BBC1 means it has to sit alongside Spooks and all those brilliant shows.
It keeps us on our toes as well. With twenty six episodes done before, there’s a great danger of thinking you know how to make it.
A lot of the familiar elements of previous series seem to be written out in the first episode, as well.
Yes. That’s partly me coming back to Torchwood as well, having not written for it since the very first episode, although I’ve always been very hands on with it. If we were going to set up a worldwide thriller, the Torchwood team were way too strong and comfortable. They have a great big car and a great big super base and they’re hard to damage. So that was the first impetus I went into it with — to get rid of everything that makes them comfortable. It’s marvellous from episode 2 onwards, because they’re literally on the run. And Rhys [played by Kai Owen, who only briefly appears in episode 1] becomes a part of that.
They’re absolutely stripped down, no money, no resources, nothing. It just makes it, frankly, a better thriller. They were just too strong before. That’s fine when they’re fighting great big aliens, but this ups the stakes.
At the end of the second series, we lost regular characters Tosh [Naoko Mori] and Owen [Burn Gorman]. Part of the expectation must be that we’d see their replacements in this story, but things don’t happen quite that way…
Certainly in this sort of format with only five episodes, you don’t need a team of five. God knows what they all would be doing. We’d have had to kill some of them, I expect! So having the three, with Kai joining as a fourth. So much has been made of how the team is “still in mourning”. There’s a half second mention! That was in a press release nine months ago, and it carries over into every bit of reportage.
A lot of time has passed for the teamm, as it has for the public. If we spent time doing a big memorial scene… Plus it’s a new channel. It’s a tricky one, because you’ve got to assume that there’s a brand new audience coming to it, and yet there’s obviously an inherited audience. And it’s quite a wide inherited audience — not just the BBC2 viewers, because the Torchwood team have been seen on Doctor Who in The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, so there’s a knowledge of who they are.
So there’s a balancing act — I don’t know if we get it right or not — between starting from scratch and starting as the third series of something. And then, at the end of the first episode, you’re reinventing it anyway. Who knows, we’ll see. Actually, people are clever. Who’s going to get lost watching this?
For you as a writer, it’s your first time back writing stories of this length since before your Doctor Who days. The format seems to give the characters a bit more breathing space.
Yes it does, but that’s only because I put that breathing space in there. Another thing I thought needed doing (not that this is a criticism of previous Torchwood episodes) is that, in its third year, it’s time to take stock and see the families. So we meet Jack’s daughter, we meet Ianto’s family. I’ve always known they were there, really, they weren’t reinvented out of the blue. Similarly there’s a whole new family dynamic Gwen and Rhys.
So it’s home life. I did think it was a bit of a missing element and was the way to go in series 3. So it’s not breathing space as such, it’s just drama. That’s the way you tell a drama. if you go all the way back to the very first episode that I wrote, you see Gwen at home with Rhys and finding out about Torchwood via a pizza company. It was a lot more domestic. So it’s time to bring that back.
Which then, in a story about children, starts having more implications. Everyone has got children now — Ianto has a nephew and niece, Jack’s got a daughter and a grandson, Gwen and Rhys… it’s just loading the story.
Watching the trailers, one does wonder if there is a Midwich Cuckoos/Village of the Damned influence.
It’s a bit unfortunate that one of the kids is very blond! When they put the trail together for episode one, that kid’s very distinct! You saw that trail and thought, Oh God, it’s like Village of the Damned! It’s not. They’re not getting powers, they’re not going to be psychic and taking over the world. They’re just voices, that’s all.
But there is that marvellous Village of the Damned feel, that when stuff happens to kids it’s freaky. It really unnerves you.
How did you go about casting so many children?
Through local agents, usually. A lot of them are just schools — you sort of make a contribution to the school minibus. They’re all rehearsed. There was a lot of work, the second AD would go along and get them to speak in unison, and learn how to stand still. There were an awful lot of takes that we couldn’t use.
Some are foreground, some you choose specially to stand… some of them pull briliant faces. Some you pick out. It’s an awful lot of work. But good — there’s something so unnerving about it.
In the second part of this interview tomorrow, Davies talks about placing Jack and Ianto’s gay relationship into the primetime schedules, the political story behind Children of Earth, and the impact of budget cuts on the other Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures.