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Torchwood: Children of the Earth Review

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Tonight, on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, the five-part Torchwood miniseries "Children of the Earth" begins on BBC America. It's a dark, epic, near-masterpiece of science fiction that far exceeds the series' first two seasons.

As enjoyable as it's been, Torchwood had trouble finding its tone until recently. A spin-off of long-running BBC series Doctor Who, the show retained some of its predecessor's campy fun, but also seemed to be reaching for the gritty realism that had understandably escaped most sci-fi shows until Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica remake redefined what sci-fi could be. The combination was often jarring as silly alien creatures and the preposterously good timing of the series' dashing bisexual hero Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) would have the viewer settled in for a fun ride when an episode would veer off into the pitch-black darkness of existential despair.

In last year's second season, creator Russel T. Davies seemed to conclude that Torchwood would be better suited to leave the frivolity for the good Doctor, and let Harkness go to darker places. The main characters faced increasingly morbid and difficult challenges before two were killed off in the finale. The remaining team of Harkness, Gwen Cooper (Eve Miles) and Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) enter the new stand-alone miniseries "Children of the Earth" with a new sobriety to face their biggest challenge ever.

The five-episode story-arc "Children of the Earth," is by far the best thing Davies has done with Torchwood. The earth has been in mortal peril in half the episodes in the Doctor Who universe, but this time, its inhabitants are aware of the aliens in orbit. One of the creepier species to visit our planet, the "456" communicate through our children: "We are coming," "We are here." Their arrival presents a moral quandary for world leaders who seem ill-equipped for ethical questions. The 456 demand 10% of the earth's children, and threaten human extinction if we don't cooperate. The British government has secretly made this deal once—when the order was for a dozen kids in exchange for a vaccine for a new strain of flu that would have killed 25 million—and are as concerned about covering that up as they are the present threat.

While Davies makes it easy to villify government officials, he also doesn't offer any easy answers when it comes to fighting back. Is it OK to sacrifice a dozen kids to save humanity? Millions? One? When you subvert a government willing to trade away its kids, are you a hero or a traitor if the result might bring about the end of humanity? It's a nail-biting, epic story that never lets up and finishes with its biggest punch to the gut. Like Moore's Battlestar Galactica, Davies has not only reimagined a classic series, he's used his new extraterrestrial platform to explore human nature.

Torchwood: Children of the Earth will be out on DVD and Blu-ray on July 28.

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