Thursday, July 30, 2009

What are the school league tables for? A review of Torchwood: Children of Earth

Children of Earth what BBC did instead of a third season of Torchwood. As probably everybody on Earth already knows before me (I waited till it was available on Netflix, not getting BBCA,) Captain Jack Harkness in 1965 turned over eleven children to aliens. The twelfth is left to lay the groundwork for the climax. They return, this time demanding ten percent of all the Earth's children. The UK government, to cover up the previous deal, tries to execute some of the survivors of the previous deal, which involves blowing up and killing all of Torchwood for some reason. What determined which people who knew of the previous deal could survive is unknown by the movie's end. The aliens, for some reason, make all the children of the Earth speak in unison some of their dialogue, so everybody is thoroughly freaked. The Torchwood team is running around trying to escape or rescue Jack. The government takes out insurance by seizing Jack's previously unseen daughter and grandson.

Which they do. They manage to recruit a secretary to record the secret meetings. What with everything, Jack realizes it's the old aliens back. Jack then uses the recording to blackmail the government into permitting his meeting the alien spokesman. Jack makes a defiant speech, the alien calls the bluff and releases poison into the building where the secret meetings take place. Ianto perishes. The government then proceeds to go forward on the surrender, while Jack calls off releasing the recordings of the plans for the surrender. He is taken to his daughter and grandson. The implication that Jack caved to save them is not quite drawn. Gwen and Reece try to save Ianto's previously unseen niece and nephew. The government assassin who has religiously tried to kill Torchwood has a change of heart, releasing Jack and helping him fight the aliens. In a sensational turn of events, this demands sacrificing Jack's grandson. Ianto is dead, Gwen is pregnant and Jack goes off into space for rehab time from the gruesome tragediness of it all. In short, hardball negotiations on actor contracts for any more Torchwood are GO!

Of course, Torchwood, as a Dr. Who spinoff, suffers from merely recounting the plot. Dr. Who has always suffered from childish beliefs about how if it's not mundane, there's no rhyme nor reason. Unlike other shows, it has at least used imagination and a certain amount of heart to turn out a superior product, usually. This latest outing shows both the advantage and disadvantage of such disdain for science, society and sanity.

The ostensible heroes get rather less screen time than is usual. They are extremely ineffective. It mostly plays because the government itself has kept Torchwood from working effectively, concentrating on killing everyone. When Jack and Ianto confront the alien spokesman, though, it appears they had no plan beyond shooting the glass of their atmospheric chamber. When the glass is bullet proof, Jack can only scream "Not him!" This sets up much emo as Ianto dies. And when for some obscure reason the grandson is the only child in reach to sacrifice to kill the aliens, it is extremely difficult to accept that 1.) it really is the only way to attack the aliens, because it doesn't actually make any sense and 2.) it is not at all clear why the kid has to die and 3.) the old guy whose death was supposed to be the clue to the mechanics of the final jeopardy died without anything of the sort being clear. It is forced upon the viewer that this is all about Jack emo. And the silly idea that to save us it is necessary for heroes to take the burden of sin upon themselves and commit terrible crimes. Enjoying the climax is strictly a matter of how much affection a viewer has managed to invest in Captain Jack Harkness and whether the political moral resonates.

So much for the disadvantage of thinking the science in science fiction is a synonym for magic. You get to thinking that any childish fantasy is acceptable. But what about the advantage?
The advantage is that you can use thes gaudy excesses as disguises, to leave a certain emotional space. Or as hightlighters, to draw caricatures. Caricature is underrated. A good caricature is more recognizable than the original precisely because it emphasizes some real aspect.

In the government discussions on surrender, one character asks the question "What are the school league tables for?" In context, plainly, to identify the loser children. In the story, the children sacrificed to the aliens are plugged into the aliens as a sort of prosthetic attachment for chemicals that make the aliens feel good. Since the school league tables in real life mean exactly that, to identify the loser children who get plugged into a system that makes its masters feel good, the Whovian huggermugger in this movie highlights the real horror of a system where the masters knowingly write off whole swathes of the population because, basically, it feels good, for the pocketbook as well as the ego. We get to see what "we" really do, everyday, in disguised form that lets us deny it as simply sensationalism. When the group decides to sacrifice the children the drama climaxes. There is something of a counterparallel climax, where the civil servant doing the dirty work, informed that his children have been selected as tokens of elite sacrifice to the system, goes to his home and slays wife, children and self. The awfulness of the system and the impossibility of standing up to it are driven home.

This is far too intense and real (despite the sf trappings) to let stand. Lois Habiba, the offwhite secretary who records the session with Torchwoodian contact lens (which Gwen and Reece had at home for DIY porno with extreme closeups---that is very Torchwoodian!) is at first sneered at as a revolutionary! Captain Jack of course is no rebel. He's a Rebus, whose maverickness signs true dedication and whose flaws are really not so bad, in fact, something someone like him might need to do the job. The sacrifice of children to the system has to be made, because nothing's more important. Therefore, Jack has to sacrifice a child. To be a hero, instead of a pathetic loser like John Frobisher, the suicidal civil servant, Jack has to not only sacrifice his child but somehow win. He not only survives but defeats the aliens. Frobisher's secretary (and lover, for a time, at least) Bridget Spears, had gotten the contact lens from Habiba. She recorded subsequent conversations, which are, we are shown, will force the evil PM Green to step down. The main villain punished! The show does at least hint that his replacement will be just another of the ones who argued for the sacrifice.

Thematically, the recordings should have been released. The alien threat should have been shown to be either a bluff or the consequences of defiance dealt with.

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