Airs Monday through Friday on BBC America; on DVD on July 29.
In one of my many attempts to explain why "Torchwood: Children of Earth" is so good, I described it as a smarter "24." But that doesn't quite do it. Yes, it's a thrill ride on a par with "24" at full throttle, and with just five episodes, "Torchwood: COE" moves much more intensely and efficiently than a "24" season. But the thing that makes "Torchwood" so very good has more to do with its fixation on consequences -- the consequences of great power, and of great responsibility. ...
Since it appears to be obligatory to explain your connections to "Torchwood" and "Doctor Who" when reviewing new product, let me say that I have liked "Torchwood" and have saved DVDs of it but have not watched it obsessively. My closest ties to "Doctor Who" go back to the Tom Baker era; I've seen some of the newer shows and, again, liked them but not so much that I waited anxiously for each telecast. I did check some of the "Torchwood" backstory from the end of Season 2 before going into "Children of Earth," but didn't find it essential save for a few lines and the added resonance it gave to the ending.
And, still, I was dazzled -- hooked in the first 20 minutes (I watched the DVD, by the way), ultimately chewing up three episodes one evening and the other two the next morning.
The premise is deceptively simple: All the children in the world have begun to act strangely. Their actions, it turns out, are a warning of terrible events to come: events that involve the secret operation Torchwood, the British government and Torchwood leader Captain Jack; it is also about the painful past and the prospect of a ghastly future. It's a story with echoes in "Independence Day," "Storm of the Century" and even -- for me, anyway -- the Woody Allen movie "The Front." As that last note indicates, historical parallels are plentiful.
As rousing as the action can be, some of the most effective moments involve people in closed rooms, discussing with icy matter-of-factness the most politically astute way to deal with something that should be tearing their guts out, making choices that no one would want to have to make. At times, the action sequences go the same way: you're caught up in the drama of the moment, only to see that, in a world as brutally real as this, the dramatic gesture can prove quite terrible.
But it is not just the villains of the piece -- and there are many -- who are torn up. Captain Jack himself, wonderfully played by John Barrowman, is confronted in several different ways with the implications of his power -- that he can never die -- and the horrors that come with that. As he has seen before, the people around him not only grow old, they can die suddenly and horribly, and sometimes because of Jack's own immortality-driven deeds.
I am still not quite where I want to be in explaining this because I am trying to hard not to give too much away, and I fear that I already have. Still, this is one of the best things you will see on TV this year.
It's what science fiction can do at its best: using a highly fictional construct to make us think about our real-life issues. In fact, as it goes along, "Children of Earth" feels less and less like a fantasy and more like something that is agonizingly real -- that demands that you ask yourself if you would make the same decisions as the heroes and the villains when you see the consequences. And, how would you handle the pain that is one of the results -- or are you so inhuman that you would feel no pain at all?
"Children of Earth" woos us, and then batters us; as much as you want to keep going, you know that every scene holds the potential for horror, that even supposedly positive turns can feel like a hard punch to the stomach. That's what makes it great, unsettling TV: It is adventure of the darkest sort, enticing us with inspiring moments, then showing where inspiration can lead.