Most of the fiction that deals with heroes and heroines, with extraordinary people with a mission to protect and serve the rest of us, softens—some would say softens fatally—the hard choices that heroism often brings with it. One of the reasons why so many shows and comics make use of that device known as the reset button is that this is an area in which we cannot bear very much reality—we can look at the world in which half the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer die or become vampires only if it is an alternate world that returns to non-existence by the end of the episode. And Buffy was, on the whole, one of the tougher shows—dead characters were liable to stay dead and in all sorts of areas it did not have happy endings. To an extent that permanently alienated many parts of its audience—one need only remember the howls of outrage online the night that Tara was killed.
Not the least of the achievements of Torchwood: Children of Earth was to upset large parts of the show's fandom to the extent that they are promising never everever to watch the show again—and to say enough in this review I will have to give away the reasons for that. More often, even good shows like 'Buffy' avoid moments of real pain—Buffy decided that sacrificing herself would do as a way of closing the portal opened by Dawn's blood, because Dawn was made from her. But what if her guess about the nature of magic had been wrong? Someone would have had to climb the ladder and fling Dawn in after her; and that, or the show in which Buffy had had to sacrifice her sister, would have been more interesting even than the show we saw. The sort of poetic logic that let Buffy decide that her own blood would be an acceptable sacrificial alternative for Dawn's is ultimately the stuff of theology, not of rigorous plotting.
We don't like hard choices in our fiction, because in the real world too many managers confuse making the hard tough choice with making the right one, as if they were necessarily identical, and as if making the unpopular choice were not, much of the time, a way to show off one's machismo, rather than a reluctant exercise of wisdom. Part of the point of fiction, though, is to—at least some of the time—offer thought experiments which we can work with, dilemmas that resonate beyond the text, rather than simple escapism in which dilemmas have no horns to gore us, and in which past actions do not limit our freedom of manouever before we have even started.
Part of the point of Children of Earth is that Jack Harkness made a questionable choice in the past, when he was not supposed to be a leader and was, as the old joke goes, only obeying orders. An alien race threatens Great Britain, and the world, with a superflu, and asks a modest fee of twelve children to release the antivirus, and the choice seems simple: twelve or many millions. When, after an escalating process of dread, in which the aliens use the children of Earth as a megaphone for simple threatening messages, they now ask for ten per cent of humanity's children, with the alternative being universal death, the choice is also simple, in the minds of the UK's government and seemingly the governments of every single other nation. In the UK, it becomes a handy oppurtunity to save resources by getting rid of the so-called "underclass", by giving the aliens children from schools at the bottom of the league tables.
Jack—who has spent the first few days of this crisis being repeatedly killed by the organs of the state as a man who knows too much, and also has that greatest crime in the eyes of the British elite, actual knowledge of what he is talking about—bulldozes in and tries to act as if he had actual power. Go away, he tells the alien, as if he were the godlike Doctor, or else; or else what? ask the aliens courteously, and release a virus that kills everyone in the government building where the confrontation takes place. Including Jack, and his lover Ianto, who will not be coming back the way Jack does.
The mistake Jack makes is that of thinking he is a character in a different sort of show to the one Torchwood turns into in this excellent mini-series—people have talked about it as edgy, gritty, and realistic, but none of this means it is not intensely a piece of metafiction as well. He thinks that old tricks might just work, and that a brilliant piece of improvisation that costs nothing is as good as a solid plan. It is view which worked for him in the days when he had no commitments, but now he has a team, and a lover, and, we discover, a daughter and a grandson. He inhabits a world in which he has something to lose—and the principles he learned at the feet of the Doctor rapidly disappear in the face of human loss. Take them all, he screams, and let him live, once he realizes that confronting the aliens has cost him his lover; and the aliens are greedy and want it all.
Jack Harkness gets revenge for that—and saves the children of Earth whom all governments had betrayed. The cost is of course just one child, his grandson, and his relationship with his daughter, and a part of his humanity. Jack makes the choice left to him when he is left with no other choice—he tortures his own flesh and blood to death in order to save millions of lives, and kill a bunch of alien junkies. (Has anyone noticed that, in the Whoverse and not just the Whoverse as reconfigured by Russell T. Davies, genocide is justified when carried out in retaliation against species that regard genocide as a legitimate tool of policy? Not entirely logically justifiable as a piece of morality, I'd have thought, though plausible as a piece of pragmatism. Those of us tender-hearted enough not to want bloody vengeance for what the 456 intended and for Ianto's death may console themselves with the thought that what Jack created was a massive psychic feedback loop, but the vast sprays of arterial blood that decorate the alien's habitat—instead of their usual putrid green vomit—imply otherwise.) Most superheroes, and many other heroes, get a sort of exceptionalist plea in such circumstances; one of the strengths of Children of Earth is the silent confrontation between Jack and his daughter in which it is clear that she will probably never forgive him and he will certainly never forgive himself, a scene all the more powerful because they know he did the needful thing. Those fans who were outraged by Ianto's death would clearly prefer to be watching a different show—belatedly, Davies, who all too often gives such fans the soft-focus material they would prefer, gives them the sort of real drama that we need.
If this is the end of Torchwood—and I think this was originally the plan—it was a brave retrieval of a great idea that in its first two seasons all too often bogged down in feebly executed episodes. If—as seems likely given the ratings it got in the UK and US—there is now going to be a fourth season, one of the surprising strengths of Children of Earth is the way that it makes Eva Miles as Gwen a character of grit and determination who could carry a show—and a team of operatives—by herself with Jack off angsting among the stars. It created a number of seriously interesting characters—the temp Lois whose conscience makes her Torchwood's one ally; the ruthless woman soldier Johnson who eventually decides the state she serves has lost its moral mandate; Alice, Jack's daughter—whom I would cheerfully watch in a reconfigured show for many hours.
Obviously, it's still Torchwood and still the Russell T. Davies Whoverse, and there is a fair bit of it that is clumsy, plodding, and inconsistent. The creepy old technician Dekker never entirely transcended his role as multiple plot function, in which capacity he implausibly survived the mass murder that killed Ianto by strolling in no particular hurry to a cupboard where he kept a hazmat suit. On the other hand, I loved the way that Ianto's lumpen family came through and did the right thing without being sentimentalized. What is most remarkable is that Davies plays fair—his contempt for the governing classes is almost absolute, and yet he respects perhaps the most villainous of them, the civil servant who, like Jack in 1965, obeys orders and organizes the murder of our beloved characters, and the betrayal of millions of innocents, only to be betrayed himself, told to offer up his daughters as proof of equality of sacrifice, and who kills himself and his family, in pointless ironic despair. His assistant, one of those strong middleaged amoral women Davies so likes, speaks his elegy—"he worked hard"—and what she says speaks volumes about both him and her. The aliens remain incomprehensible figures of appetite—the children of earth are all human, all too human, in both their virtues and their bureaucratic wickedness.
Roz Kaveney is a writer and reviewer living in London. Her most recent book is the BSFA Award-nominated Superheroes!; other titles include Reading the Vampire Slayer, From Alien to The Matrix, and Teen Dreams.