I’ve had a somewhat uneven history with Torchwood. The first season, broadcast in 2006, didn’t do much for me. It started well enough, but within a few episodes had descended into a juvenile mess that really didn’t become the pedigree of the people making it. Cyberwoman still ranks as one of my most hated 45 minutes of drama ever made (which makes me feel bad now, with writer Chris Chibnall doing some sterling work on the recently recommissioned Law and Order: UK). I think it was a problem with identity, and early Torchwood was trying on different hats to see what fit.
By the end of the first season, things had settled down somewhat, with the final two episodes of the season showing some of the promise that was to come.
Season two was a stellar leap forward in terms of style and consistency. The tone was less forced and the writers knew the characters better. There was less emphasis on bolting on self-conscious adult content and it got on with telling good stories - Owen’s journey throughout the season being particularly well thought out. There were some stumbles, but nothing’s perfect, and this season finished with a brace of episodes that were action-packed and shocking in places - even if the lad playing Jack’s brother had more wood than Epping Forest.
And now we come to Children of Earth, effectively being Torchwood’s coming of age - it’s in the big league now, playing out on BBC1 over five nights. Many Torchwood fans are seeing this as a slight to the show, some kind of punishment and that it’s a sure sign of the BBC wanting to kill it off. Which is, obviously, nonsense (although star John Barrowman takes a different view).
Children of Earth: Day One, is a calm, considered, intelligently played and chilling piece of drama that sets up things for coming four episodes. It helps that this marks Russell T Davies’s return to Torchwood, a series he created, as scriptwriter for the first time since Everything Changes. And it shows…
On Doctor Who, Davies is often forced to play to the crowd, sometimes keeping Doctor Who’s legacy in mind, and that, personally speaking, sometimes takes away the subtlety that his writing can so effortlessly deliver. With Children of Earth, after nearly five years’ marathon running on Doctor Who (read The Writer’s Tale, and you’ll wonder how the man is still standing), he is clearly delighting in the gear change. There’s no plot to resolve in 45 minutes or less here, there’s another four episodes to follow. If anything, the sometimes-sedate pace of the first 50 minutes or so might work against it.
But after 26 episodes of Torchwood that ran at break neck speed, this is lovely stuff. This first episode is full of great character moments as the central mystery is established - just why did children all across the earth just stop - literally stop - between 8.40 and 8.41 (British time)? Who are the 456? Are Ianto and Jack an item? There’s a great little scene between Gwen and Dr Rupesh, a character who is slowly being drawn into Torchwood’s world, about how suicide rates have doubled since the first contact with aliens. It’s as poetic a piece of writing as we’ve had from Davies in anything he’s written.
The action switches between Cardiff and London, as it becomes clear that somebody in Westminster knows more about why the children are being affected and why they’re now chanting “We are coming” in spooky unison. But take a moment to readjust to seeing Peter Capaldi (brilliant as civil servant John Frobisher) against a political backdrop without a tirade of creative swearing. I swear he walks up the same flight of stairs that Malcolm Tucker does in In the Loop.
There’s a very tasty cast here — Capaldi, Nicholas Farrell, Lucy Cohu, amongst others. But it’s Paul Copley (surely one of our most underrated actors) as Clement McDonald who steals the show, with a delightfully twitchy performance - again, a scene with Gwen is one of the highlights of the episode.
And then, after all this layering, all this set up, the pace ups dramatically - with the gunshot that starts it practically acting like a starting pistol. As the credits run, you’re left blinking at the breakneck speed in which the last 10 minutes unfolds, ending with a cliffhanger that ensures you’ll be back the following night.
On the basis of this first episode, Torchwood: Children of Earth deserves to be a big success. It’s an intelligent sci-fi drama with a good cast and an engaging story that is a million miles away from where this Doctor Who spin-off began. And not a Cyberwoman in sight.