Children of Earth was to be the third season of the Torchwood series, but it was cut from thirteen to five episodes, and it aired one per night in July 2009. John Barrowman said it was like a punishment and writer Russell T. Davies and director Euros Lyn scrambled to cut it down. Freema Argyeman and Noel Clarke had to be dropped from the story. Presented on mid-summer evenings, it was expected to fail miserably, but it achieved good ratings, fan admiration, a BAFTA Cymru Award, a Saturn Award, a Celtic Media Festival Award, and a phone-call of admiration from the suits at BBC, just to add a little insult to injury.
For two days, all the children on Earth are paralyzed in place and speak in unison in English, one word at a time: “We are coming,” and “We are coming back tomorrow.” Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) believes this is tied to an alien species called 456. In 1965, that species had come to Earth and brought a message on that radio frequency. They had given the British government a cure for a deadly disease in exchange for twelve children. Naturally the government does not want the public to know that they had given away people’s children. Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) had been one of four black ops agents involved, and they are all targeted for assassination. A bomb is planted in Jack’s body, which explodes inside the Torchwood Hub in Cardiff, destroying the place. Of course, knowing that Jack will come back to life, the assassins collect his remains and lock them up. The remaining Torchwood team, Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), Gwen (Eve Myles), and her husband Rhys (Kai Owen) are also marked for death, and they have to flee. An isolation tank inside Thames House is constructed according to instructions from Species 456, through the children.
The fleeing Torchwood team contact Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo), Frobisher’s personal assistant, who is recording all these governmental secrets. She helps the team rescue Jack, in a spectacular way, and they give her Torchwood contact lenses that allow them to see what she sees. Torchwood rescues Clement MacDonald (Paul Copley), one of the original twelve children who managed to escape the 456. He has been institutionalised for forty years since, but still freezes and speaks the words of the 456.
The ambassador for the 456 arrives in a column of fire over Thames House and appears in the isolation tank. The ugly three-headed 456 species demand ten percent of the Earth’s children, or they will destroy the human race. They present one of the original twelve, still a child but now a shrivelled husk. Children all over the world chant out the number of children demanded. The governments of the world give in.
Torchwood announces their presence and dares to intervene in the situation, threatening to reveal the government’s secrets. Jack and Ianto storm Thames House, confronting the 456 and ordering them to leave Earth or face interplanetary war. The 456 release a lethal virus. Thames House locks down and everyone inside dies except Mr. Decker (Ian Gelder), who scrambles into a hazmat suit. Clement is killed with an auditory message and Ianto dies in Jack’s arms. Then Jack dies and when he rises again, he and Gwen mourn Ianto.
Lois is sent to prison for espionage and Torchwood, or what remains of it, is on the run. The governments of the world agree to deliver up the children. Prime Minister Brian Green (Nicholas Harrell), his cabinet, one member of the armed forces and one of UNIT cover up the UK Government’s actions. Children are given inoculations at schools. The authorities decide not to use a lottery because their own children might be chosen. They decide to send the children with the lowest marks in the worst schools. They learn from the 456 that the children are used to make a recreational drug, but they don’t care.
Frobisher is ordered to submit his own children to keep up appearances, but he kills his daughters, his wife, and himself. When parents keep their children home from school, the military rounds them up. Gwen and Rhys help protect Ianto’s niece and some others. Torchwood and its allies realize that the death signal sent to Clement could be used against the 456, but a single child would have to be the focal point for the transmission and would probably die. The only child available to them is Jack’s daughter’s son Steven (Bear McCausland). The message is sent, amplified by the world’s children, the 456 suffer exquisite pain, and they withdraw from the Earth. Steven dies.
Prime Minister Green suggests they cover it all up and blame the Americans, but Bridget Spears (Susan Brown), Frobisher’s assistant, reveals that she is also wearing Torchwood lenses and has recorded all the conversations and will release them. Six months later, Gwen and Rhys meet Jack, who has been travelling the world, tormented by guilt. He plans to return to space. Gwen has Jack’s vortex manipulator, which was found in the ruins of the Hub. She gives it to him, and he transports away. Gwen is pregnant.
Peter Capaldi is, of course, the 12th Doctor. Nicholas Briggs was the voice of the 456, as he had been the voices of the Daleks and many other creatures on Doctor Who. He also played a member of the Cabinet. The story bears a marked resemblance to The Midwich Cuckoos. The death of Ianto caused a furor among the fans. The complaints and threats were mild compared to today, but heartfelt. One accusation was of homophobia, but the series received a positive image award nomination from GLAAD.
But I must say the morality is a little murky in this one. The plan that Torchwood found so repugnant was to sacrifice millions of children to save the entire human species from destruction. Clearly, all the choices here were repugnant, including the ones that Jack Harkness made. And just as clearly, those making the choices had no real right to do so. Frankly, I found it hard to believe that 456 would wipe out the only source of their drug. I suppose the upshot is that the government never should have made the bargain in the first place, back in 1965, even at the cost of a virulent plague, and they should have known 456 would be back. Once you capitulate, you belong to the enemy. Who’s to say that 456 didn’t start that plague in the first place? I imagine this is just the sort of debate the writers wanted to encourage.