The Last War in Albion will run tomorrow – scheduling snafu meant I failed to get it imaged up in time. Though frankly, this is not as dissimilar as TARDIS Eruditorum sometimes is.
It’s July 6th, 2009. Cascada is at number one with “Evacuate the Dancefloor.” Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, La Roux, and Michael Jackson also chart, the latter with two songs, this being mainly due to him being dead. In news, since Planet of the Dead there’s been swine flu and protests in Iran over the almost certainly fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While during the five days of this story, a coup d’etat takes place in Honduras, an earthquake takes place in China, and Al Franken is finally sworn in as a US Senator, wrapping up the 2008 elections that took place some eight months earlier.
While on television, airing on five consecutive nights, is Torchwood: Children of Earth – the zenith of that series’ popularity, which means that it did about as well as poorly rated episodes of Doctor Who did. Nevertheless, it is something of a cultural milestone – Torchwood’s one stab at a big event. While its ratings weren’t quite as impressive as Doctor Who’s, all five episodes placed in the top twenty, and everything after the first got AI figures in the 90s. This is, in other words, hugely successful television.
To start, at least, the important thing to realize about Children of Earth is that it is very long. It’s nearly an hour longer than The War Games and five minutes longer than The Daleks’ Masterplan. Only if you are one of those very strange people who wants to count Trial of a Time Lord as a single story, or if you want to argue that Torchwood doesn’t count as Doctor Who, do you have an easy way to argue that Children of Earth is not the single longest televised story in Doctor Who’s history to date.
This is all the more extraordinary given that it comes in an era where the narrative velocity has increased dramatically. The War Games and The Daleks’ Masterplan came from a highly serialized era of the show’s history in which things simply happened more slowly. Children of Earth, on the other hand, is medially dense piece of work that makes a habit of communicating information through all sorts of means – dialogue, acting, camera angles, sound design, et cetera. All of which is to say that there’s nothing quite like it in Doctor Who. The fact that it is intensely serialized, done as a straight shot, five episodes in five days single story gives it a narrative heft. It goes out of its way to demand to be treated as a single thing – even above and beyond most miniseries. Even the episode titles – the very simple “Day One” through “Day Five” – seem designed primarily to efface themselves, existing as parts of a whole.
This is not to say that it is not clearly constructed on an episode-by-episode basis. “Day One” is about putting pieces on the board and building to the magnificent set piece spectacular of blowing up the Hub. “Day Two” is consciously built around Jack’s absence from the narrative. “Day Four” is a false conclusion, and “Day Five” is consciously bookended around Gwen’s testament. Only “Day Three” is structured purely for its role in the whole – a pure exercise in transporting pieces from Point A to Point B.
And yet the rapid deployment of Children of Earth and its status as a single mega-story overwhelms all of this, so much so that actually talking about it as five individual episodes seems vaguely ridiculous. Certainly attempting to do so seems to neuter it – to detract from the monolithic and awful grandeur of the series. What is striking about Children of Earth is that watching it is a truly disturbing experience – one where the end so alters the beginning that it does not even feel meaningful to talk about the beginning on its own. The entire story is designed to meticulously and calmly build to the horribly brilliant scenes of Britain’s momentary descent into totalitarian madness.
In this regard we should perhaps start with the brilliant sequence towards the end in which PC Andy watches as Johnny and the rest of the estate start fighting back against the soldiers and then joins the fight. But, more crucially and more fascinatingly, takes off the trappings of his police uniform before joining in. There’s so much that’s interesting wrapped up in this gesture. The strange relationship it suggests between Andy’s senses of duty – the idea that he (on a personal level) cannot bring himself to resist the state while also wearing its uniform – is wonderfully revealing for Andy’s character. That he respects what his uniform stands for too much to wear it while rioting speaks volumes.
But it also encapsulates one of the most fundamental themes of Children of Earth, which is the nature of the world’s systems. Children of Earth is an awful and angry parable about the world we have built and what it would take for it all to come crashing down. The answer, on the one hand, is clearly a lot – it’s not like alien invasions demanding 10% of the world’s children are what you’d call common. And yet the line between order and madness is still depicted as so thin as to vanish nearly overnight.
At the center of this is the depiction of the government, and at the center of that is one of Children of Earth’s main characters, John Frobisher. Indeed, it is not strictly speaking inaccurate to say that John Frobisher is both the villain and protagonist of Children of Earth. He does, after all, have what is in many ways the most complete character arc as events spiral utterly and devastatingly out of his control, and his murder/suicide of his family provides “Day Five”’s most shocking and dramatic moment. But, of course, he’s also very much the guy trying to kill the main characters.
This dualism causes the odd situation whereby the central villain is defined by his very smallness. Capaldi, as we’ve noted, was at this time most famous for playing Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. On one level, of course, Frobisher is an adjacent character – a government functionary. A member of the civil service, in this case – “the cockroaches of government,” as Dekker puts it – and thus, unlike Tucker, actively and consciously outside the structure of elected officials, but in this case the difference is not that Tucker is aggressively partisan while Frobisher isn’t. Rather, it’s that Tucker is a superhuman character built out of big gestures and dramatics, whereas Frobisher is consciously designed as a small and deferential man.
It’s a phenomenal performance by Capaldi, who plays the character in such a way that there is almost no resemblance between the two roles. Frobisher is meek and awkward. The first scene where he meets with the Prime Minister where we see him in silent closeup, pointedly not even making eye contact with the Prime Minister as he sits, leaning forward in his chair, on edge and looking awkward, just waiting as the PM reads. He is a man who can’t even demonstrate any boldness in ordering a death, simply silently, without words, handing a folder to his secretary and looking up at her nervously, as if afraid she’ll argue, and who fidgets nervously with a pen afterwards.
This is, of course, the entire point of the character – that he is a small and ordinary man who does horrible things out of the most banal reasons imaginable: because they are his job. And ultimately he is chewed up and spat out by the very system he served, the victim of the logic he protected. He is the banality of evil incarnate. It is the sort of villain that Robert Holmes always rendered as the subject of angry comedy transplanted into a realm where he is deadly, horrifically serious. It is, in short, an effort to portray the world Robert Holmes railed against directly, instead of through the soothing lenses of comedy and exaggeration.
This marks, in many ways, the most cruelly vicious trick that Torchwood ever plays. After two seasons of exploring the abutments of eccentric and magical spaces with the ordinary world, Torchwood turns around and abuts a cruelly, horribly real space against a magical one. We get what is, in the end, a fairly standard alien invasion plot, complete with ludicrous baroqueness, and then we get an aggressively accurate depiction of humanity in response to it. And, pointedly, it is humanity that is shown to be monstrous and awful. The worst thing in Children of Earth is specifically and consciously the consequences of the ordinary human reaction to the 456. For all that Frobisher is a small and pathetic man, he’s responsible for some of the most awful things that we have seen in the entire history of Doctor Who.
And yet he is, in the end, only moderately awful compared to the system in which he resides. Of Capaldi’s many impressive performances, the look of disgust on his face when the Prime Minister asks if anyone objects to the plan to just kill all the students from the lowest 10% on the school league tables and gets total silence. [continued]