Who woulda thunk it possible--within weeks of each other, television science fiction fans had not one, but two, incredibly stellar finales to watch (in the case of Torchwood, after the recent decision to renew the series, it's a season finale, but even so). I had the pleasure of revisiting Battlestar Galactica Season 4.5 a few weeks ago, and I had a similar pleasure (if it can be called that, given the rather troubling aspects of this particular wrap up) of watching Torchwood: Children of Earth, something I hadn't been able to catch in its initial broadcast version when it aired. While both finales have come in for at least some passing lambasting from rabid fans, it's hard to argue with the emotional impact (some would say devastation) that Children of Earth especially provides. For a series that has consistently broken the mold and forged new directions within what is often a tried and true science fiction landscape, this finale provides more of the same, which is to say one unexpected surprise after another.
As I discussed in a previous review of Torchwood's second season, I am not a savant when it comes to the Doctor Who universe. In fact, I have been regularly "schooled" on the ins and outs of how the Torchwood franchise fits in, jigsaw puzzle like, with the larger Who universe. Anyone who has even fleetingly visited the Torchwood series is probably already aware that its putative hero, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) is an unusually duplicitous character whose motives seems to shift with the breeze created by any visiting class of alien. That propensity is fully on display in this disturbing final quintet of episodes, a multi-segment arc that starts out playing a little like Village of the Damned, with kids overtaken by an alien intelligence, and then goes on to deliver one gut wrenching punch after another as the Torchwood team finds itself literally struggling for survival against seemingly insurmountable odds. On the one hand, they're up against the dreaded 456, an alien species that Captain Jack has dealt with previously. On the other hand, they're up against the British government itself, desperate to cover up a series of long ago events in which Harkness himself played a central role.
This is a breathless jaunt through Torchwood territory, with Harkness along with cohorts Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and Harkness' more or less love interest Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) are on the lam, trying to figure out not only who is trying to kill them and why, but also what the invasion of the 456 has to do with it all. While there are occasional missteps along the way (what starts out as a chilling imprisonment in concrete for the seemingly indestructible Jack devolves into a silly rescue by Ianto with a Caterpillar backhoe), this is an amazingly visceral action-adventure roller coaster ride where shifting alliances and subterfuge play out against some truly unimaginable choices various characters need to make.
Anyone familiar with the Torchwood universe will not be surprised to find out that Captain Jack has more than a few skeletons in his closet, some of which come catapulting out in this finale to disastrous effect. Barrowman is an interesting actor in this regard--with his matinee idol good looks (he reminds me of someone who could be a cousin of Tom Cruise's), he nonetheless is able to easily portray a sort of moral ambiguity that's rather unusual in the science fiction "hero" pantheon. Harkness is a character who can alternate between being haunted and sanguine about any number of rather shattering decisions he's made through the years (and years and years), and Barrowman paints this duplicity with some very nice brushstrokes. Myles has some excellent scenes here as well, as Gwen must balance some very personal stakes against a global (indeed universal) threat. If David-Lloyd' Ianto is sort of a tagalong in the finale, the actor manages to wrest a little humanity out of a tortured soul who discovers his lover may have some very dark undercurrents to deal with.
In a supporting cast filled with one great performance after another, Peter Capaldi's Home Secretary John Frobisher takes top honors in my book. Absolutely cringe worthy and despicable, yet strangely sympathetic when it comes to his relationship with his own children (like all the kids in this series, subject to mind control by the 456), Capaldi crafts that sort of middle management shlub that has to wade through a raft of excrement taking all of the blame and none of the credit. It's a performance that will leave you wanting to throw some heavy implement at the character several times throughout the wrap up, a testament to Capaldi's acting prowess.
If Battlestar Galactica attempted something approaching a happy ending, albeit one a bit too facile and with a "twist" that a lot of people found less than satisfying, Torchwood: Children of Earth goes in the opposite direction, with one horrifying decision after another, decisions with no totally satisfactory outcomes available, leaving the characters to twist slowly in the winds of whatever they perceive to be the lesser of several evils. Therefore some viewers are going to finish watching this show with more than a bit of a pit in the bottom of their stomachs. This is a series that has always been built up around the clash between an attempt at morality and the stark realization that truly moral decisions are not always available, or at least expedient, and those strands weave together with devastating results throughout these final moments. This may not be easy television to watch, especially for parents, but it riveting, emotionally overwhelming content that will penetrate to the deepest levels of your heart and mind. And for that, we need to thank Torchwood--a series that, like Battlestar: Galactica, never took the easy way out and forced viewers to examine their own belief systems and their personal criteria for making life and death choices.