Torchwood Children of Earth and the Steven Moffat Effect

By Kiyan

On Trust Your Doctor, we’re currently deep in the weeds of Children of Earth, the third season of Torchwood.

And what wonderful weeds they are.

Surprising and surprisingly grim, Children of Earth leaves fetid, gnarly gashes where the previous two seasons of Torchwood contented with surgical cuts. It’s brutal, at least compared to what came before, and that’s a good thing. And we’re only two episodes in.

It’s with this brutality that Children of Earth delimits itself from what came before. “If you expected the same old Torchwood, think heckin’ again,” says Children of Earth as it dedicates its first episode to the wholesale destruction of everything Torchwood had been up until that point — from the new mini-series format replacing the standard 13 pisodes to the seeming disinterest in fantasy alien tech (“The technical name is a gizmo,” Gwen tells Clement of a device she uses to deactivate a security camera, waving a remorseless goodbye to the detail with which previous Torchwood seasons would have tackled this moment). It all culminates in the literal, sudden, upsetting destruction of Torchwood (Torchwood itself, the hub), which gets blown to smithereens shortly before the first daily installment of five is through. It’s a bold refusal to stick to the surefire, to rest on laurels already drooping under the weight of a(n admittedly great) second season. Right off the bat, everything changes.

But what really strikes me the most about Children of Earth so far is the balancing act that the season plays. Every moment of edge-of-your-seat action gets its quieter, more meditative complement, every further fathom of mystery into which the story plunges you its vitalizing oxygen bubble to keep you going — backstories for, revelations about, and contemplations on characters you care about; concrete (😎) stakes that keep you on solid ground while a sea of larger puzzles steeps off to the side. It’s an adventure as lost as it is found, offering the tonally and narratively new up in equal measure alongside remeditations on stuff you already know (and maybe even care) about. Children of Earth takes you on a journey that tiptoes the line between the unprecedented and the familiar, remixing the show’s brief past into its own future vision.

This approach ring a bell? It should for any Doctor Who fan. Because it’s largely what Steven Moffat did over the course of his 10+ years of work on Doctor Who.

Steven Moffat didn’t work on Children of Earth. He didn’t work on any of Torchwood for that matter. But Children of Earth feels more Moffatesque than many actual Moffat stories, and it all comes down to the Steven Moffat Effect.

And that’s not too surprising. Because the explosion? Turns out it doesn’t work. The hub may be gone, but Gwen, Jack, and Ianto all survive.

The explosion doesn’t destroy torchwood. It lays it bare.

What is the Steven Moffat Effect?

But what is the “Steven Moffat Effect?” Well, other than “the term I came up with to give this blog post a clickbait-y title,” the best way to answer that question is with another question:

“Is Doctor Who about time travel?”

Someone who’s only ever watched Classic Who will probably tell you no, or otherwise explain that time travel is really just the show’s conceit, that Doctor Who never really thematizes or, to appropriate the linguistic term, topicalizes it.

Ask someone who’s only watched New Who though, and they’ll probably say that, yes, of course Doctor Who is about time travel. What else would it be about? Blink is great. Haven’t you ever seen Blink?

This is the prime example of the Steven Moffat Effect. The 2010-17 era of Doctor Who takes what was once just a conceit, a usually minor detail in the background that was never a main plot point or even really a big deal, and makes it important, primarizes it. Under Steven Moffat, Doctor Who became a show about time travel in a way that it never was before.

You can see the same thread in other Moffat works as well. Because believe it or not, the same is true of the 2011 Tintin movie that Moffat co-wrote… minus the time travel stuff. In the original Tintin comics, Captain Haddock’s drinking problem serves largely as comic relief. But the 2011 movie turns levity to gravity when it hinges its emotional climax (so its climax) on Tintin’s calling out the Captain’s alcoholism after it gets them stranded in the desert. (Though it’s been 15+ years since I last read a Tintin comic, and I saw the movie once in 2011, so some of this may be wrong(?), and if it is, feel free to correct me.)

Doctor Who and Tintin both have legacies that stretch back longer than most can remember (and the few who can probably don’t care to admit it), and when Moffat (and his co-writers) took the reigns, they ended up reevaluating what were once minor components in a much more comprehensive way and bringing them, in the process, to the forefront.

That’s the Steven Moffat Effect.

And to a large extent, it’s how Children of Earth approaches its being the third season of Torchwood: by taking what were once minor points or jokes and honing in on them with laser focus.

For example, take the…

Big Bad Bureaucracy

Children of Earth remixes a familiar facet of the Torchwood team — their close relationships with one another — and uses it to comment on something that extends far beyond either Torchwood (the team) or Torchwood (the series): bureaucracy.

If acquaintances agree where friends argue, Torchwood must have been really good friends. Because back when Owen and Tosh were alive, these MFers were at each other’s throats 25/8. So yeah, Torchwood is a close-knit team. And as both their somber moment together at the end of Exit Wounds and their adroit teamwork in Children of Earth indicate, Gwen, Jack, and Ianto remain closer than ever into their third season together.

In seasons one and two, this intimacy as a team usually serves as a source of either comedy or, well, basically strife.

But Children of Earth takes things in a different direction. This time, Torchwood’s close bond isn’t just about the three members who are left. It’s also about the possible dangers and potential pointlessness of bureaucracy. Throughout the first two episodes of Children of Earth, the Torchwood trio makes it out of what would otherwise be fatal scrapes either because they’re a small team, because the people they’re up against are the opposite of a small team, or both. In the first episode of the season for example, the team learns about the bomb embedded in Jack’s stomach just in time to save themselves because they’re a team of three who can communicate face to face. And in the second episode, where the government organization out to kill Jack has to pass information through bureaucratic channels coded and riddled with secrecy, Torchwood is able to communicate with each other while evading detection thanks to the intimacy of their network, such as when Ianto tells his sister via postcard to meet him “where dad broke [his] leg,” or when Gwen tries to set up a rendezvous point with Ianto by meeting up where they last “had ice cream together.” Reevaluated and contrasted with the workings of an organization whose commitment to secrecy (even going so far as to namedrop the Official Secrets Act) and middlemen has, so far, been its undoing (Gwen and Rhys are saved because John Frobisher needs someone to answer his phone for him), the close relationships our Torchwood members have with one another and the intimacy of their small team don’t seem so bad. The memory of the downsides that seasons one and two presented still lingers, but there’s a value, says Children of Earth, to the proximity, an importance to not getting so caught up in the business of running a business or an agency or a government that you forget, like Prime Minister Green, to care about other people. It may just save your life.

Ianto and Jack

Children of Earth also explores the relationship between Ianto and Jack in far more detail than ever before, detailing its implications and the effects it has on Ianto more deftly than season two does. When Ianto visits his sister and her family in the first episode of the season, we learn that he has never been in a romantic relationship with another man before. Complicating matters further, Ianto tells his sister that “[i]t’s not men [… i]t’s only [Jack].” And complicating matters further, Ianto’s sister has probably told a bunch of people about it against Ianto’s wishes.

Thoroughly exploring its ins, outs, and implications, Children of Earth mirrors Ianto and Jack’s relationship with its outlook on Torchwood’s intimacy. The latter, Children of Earth claims, isn’t all bad. Likewise, the former, it says, isn’t all good either. The happy fun times of Ianto and Jack’s relationship are just one of its faces, one of its facets. For Ianto, this relationship poses an entire sea of hardship to navigate, and he’ll likely have to crest more than a few challenging waves before all is said and done. As Children of Earth hones in on these difficulties that season two never really concerns itself with, the Steven Moffat Effect is in full force.

All in all, I’m enjoying the direction Children of Earth is taking things. Using familiar points as the launch pad to explore new reaches is an exciting method and a revitalizing approach to creating a new season of an established show. The Steven Moffat Effect, in other words, is indeed, uh, in effect. I couldn’t be more excited to see where it takes us.

That’s it for now. What are your thoughts on Children of Earth and its approach to the Torchwood formula? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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