Children of Earth and the “First Contact” Archetype

By Dylan • 22 January 2021

Allow me this week to take some time out of your day to actually write a blog post on something not only science-fiction related but also actually related to what we’re watching on the podcast. If you read my last post you know I talked in some unfortunate detail about Cars 2. This week I want to talk about Torchwood Series 3: Children of Earth (henceforth Children of Earth) and how it plays into tropes of the “first contact” archetype sub-genre of science-fiction.

Kiyan and I have talked at length about genre and specifically what science-fiction means as a genre term (you can find that discussion scattered throughout Zenith: A Blake’s 7 Podcast) and I don’t think I have enough space here to continue that conversation. For the purposes moving forward I’ll just assume you know what I mean when I say that I’ll be “analyzing” Children of Earth from a science fiction standpoint and specifically through the lens of a first contact story.

I’ve seen a lot of people refer to Children of Earth is pretty much a conspiracy thriller with some light sci-fi but I want to argue that its structure is actually pretty similar to two other first contact stories, specifically Contact (1997) and Arrival (2016) (which bizarrely both have single word titles). In fact I think the sort of “low sci-fi” angle of the story is a staple of this sub-genre and is not present in Children of Earth just because Russell T. wanted to write a conspiracy thriller. I should also note that as of writing I have yet to watch the final episode of Children of Earth, but I have watched the other four episodes. Moving forward there’s going to be spoilers for Contact and Arrival, obviously.

I believe that there are three distinct phases in a first contact story: the aliens arrive and are met with disbelief, humanity bands together to solve a common problem (either the aliens themselves or a problem the aliens present to them), and the aliens leave at the end having fulfilled their purpose. What makes a first contact story interesting is that the aliens exist as a plot element, but the main plot is driven by the character interactions and reactions to the aliens, as opposed to the aliens themselves like in most other sci-fi sub-genres.

The first and foremost staple of a first contact story is that when the aliens arrive, humanity will not believe them, or fail to understand their purpose here. For example, in Contact when the aliens “arrive” they send a coded message that is picked up by the Very Large Array in New Mexico. Jodie Foster’s character (Ellie Arroway) is the first to recognize it as an alien message, but the scientific community, nay, the world at large does not believe her. For a good part of the movie she’s ridiculed, disparaged, and quite frankly treated like shit. That is, until the aliens transmit a video of Hitler along with their initial message. This is the kind of “oh shit” moment where everyone realizes that this is actually serious.

In Arrival, too, when the aliens arrive, they are greeted with indifference and disbelief. Even though they arrive in giant pebble shaped spaceships that are kind of hard to ignore. Amy Adam’s character (Louise Banks) is called into help and translate the alien language since she already has security clearance and even she is incredulous until she’s actually inside the alien spaceship.

In Children of Earth this moment and plot point is represented by nobody in London really believing anything alien is necessarily happening when all the kids start talking in unison. They just think it’s pretty weird. It’s not until the kids start talking about “We Are Coming” that people really start to man up and go “hang on this could be something.” Even Frobisher doesn’t believe that this could be aliens and he’s encountered them before. He spends most of episode 1 and part of 2 decrying the return of these aliens.

This moment of disbelief is important for first contact stories because once it passes it serves as a catalyst for the human race to band together and work together to combat the alien threat (although in both the stories I have mentioned already the threat turns out to be quite benign). Let’s look back at Contact. In Contact the aliens transmit a set of blueprints that are encoded and encrypted. It takes first a huge collaborative effort (until John Hurt shows up anyway) to try and crack the encryption. From there the entire human race has to work together to build this giant structure even though they have no idea of its purpose. This mirrors aspects of Children of Earth, where London takes blueprints transmitted by the 456 and builds this chamber – Even though they have no idea what it does.

In Arrival, the different linguistical approaches taken by the US and China mean that they interpret an alien phrase differently. By the midpoint of the movie this tension in translation has lead to a breakdown of scientific collaboration, and Chinese and Russian teams have cut contact with the other countries teams. The aliens respond by providing linguists and scientists in each of the 12 crafts exactly 1/12th of a more complex message. It takes the entirety of the human race and scientific community to band together, tearing down these barriers to share what they know in order to translate the message and understand why the aliens have come to Earth.

Frobisher and Dekker look on at the chamber they've built for the 456

In Children of Earth this concept comes through when the 456 actually arrive in London, and Prime Minister Green (no relation) has to make the decision to share with the rest of the world that they have arrived in Thames House even though he would rather keep this fact a secret. He knows that anything that happens moving forward must be shared with the rest of the world. He’s going to need their help to fulfill the 456’s request for children. And once again the aliens force his hand by having the kids in each country recite the number of children they require from that country. It’s going to take a global effort to solve this problem.

Finally, at the end of the story the aliens must leave. This is quite obvious for Arrival, where the aliens leave having fulfilled their purpose. In Contact after Ellie makes, well, contact, with the aliens they reveal that they will have no further communication with humanity for the time being, as they’re not ready to join the galactic federation (or whatever it was, honestly the ending of Contact was a little unclear).

Which brings me to my prediction for Children of Earth. Torchwood, UNIT, Frobisher, someone ends up dealing with the 456, perhaps even killing the ambassador. And after that they leave to never be heard of again. Gone. Just as the sub-genre intends, just as the story requires. I don’t think the 456 will be killed off in their entirety. But I do think we’ll just never hear about them again. I do know that I’ll certainly find out in the next 24 hours, when I watch episode 5. But I’m pretty confident that I’m right here.

Based on the evidence presented, I think I’ve made my case that Children of Earth mirrors the first contact type story told in Contact and Arrival. And weirdly enough along the way we learned that Contact and Arrival are pretty similar movies, surprisingly.

Do you think that Children of Earth is a first contact story? Or do you think it’s a conspiracy thriller with alien elements? Or even both? Hit us up on Twitter or Facebook and let us know.

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