I’ve been a fan of science fiction since I’ve been a fan of fiction. I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation and then The X-Files on television from the late ‘80s through the ‘90s; they were a formative influence on my earliest writing. I remember the wonder with which I experienced Jurassic Park and Independence Day for the first time — though the latter hasn’t aged well. In 1998, the visionary Dark City firmly cemented my love of the movies. But this summer I have come to a believe that the future of science fiction is on the small screen, not the silver screen. I reached this conclusion as I watched the BBC miniseries Torchwood: Children of Earth, which aired in the US from July 20-24 on BBC America. It’s a masterpiece.

Torchwood is a Welsh-set drama, spun off from sci-fi stalwart Doctor Who, about an elite group of alien hunters who monitor a rift in the space-time continuum. (They sure don’t make space-time continuums like they used to — they’re always rifting.) The series has produced two previous seasons, but it has never been better. The setup is simple, but diabolical. One day, the prepubescent children of the world — every single one — stop at the exact same time, frozen as if in a trance. When they are entranced again they repeat in unison a disturbing proclamation: “We are coming.” It’s an alien threat, using children to communicate, but what do they want? What will they do when they get here? I will reveal little else of the plot. Though the miniseries has already aired, it is available on DVD July 28 and I want you to see it for yourself. The breathless, moment-to-moment intensity of it is such that I don’t want to spoil a bit of it.

The children of 'Torchwood: Children of Earth'

'Torchwood: Children of Earth'

You will seldom see anything like this in a movie theater. Because television operates on a relative shoe-string budget it must traffic in ideas more than effects, and that is evident in Children of Earth, which employs little CGI. We are shown only one alien creature on-screen, and it spends all its time in a glass chamber shrouded in a chemical fog. There are no intergalactic dogfights, no elaborately designed sets — the action takes place largely in British government buildings. Some stuff blows up real good, and the heroine, Gwen Cooper (the superb Eve Myles), double-wields pistols in a way that would make Quentin Tarantino proud, but this is not a showcase for special effects or makeup departments.

Instead, you get scenes rooted in character and theme. The Torchwood team leader is Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, in a dashing yet deeply emotional performance). He is immortal, and you might think that would deflate the tension, but then you’ve never watched a man get sealed in concrete and then dropped from a cliff — and walk away! He is in a relationship with fellow team member Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), and the script takes time to deal with the reality of the characters, who know that one of them will still be alive long after the other is dead and gone.

Their relationship is treated matter-of-factly, but it’s groundbreaking. There is a decided lack of LGBT presence in science fiction — big screen and small — especially gay and bisexual men, as if the makers of current sci-fi cannot distance themselves from their adolescent fantasies enough to contemplate how human sexuality may evolve in future eras; Jack was once a time-traveler, and grew up in a distant future when human interaction with alien races renders the distinctions of human orientation irrelevant.

Consider also a scene from the fourth episode: a roundtable between members of the government, who must decide a plan of action. It evokes … no, I won’t reveal what it evokes. You’ll know it when you see it, and you’ll be horrified not just by its implications but by its plausibility. You won’t see a scene like this in any film intended for a mass audience, science fiction or otherwise. It’s a masterstroke that elevates the miniseries from escapist thriller to a meditation on the nature of evil. The writer and producer is Russell T. Davies, who created Torchwood and oversees the current Doctor Who series, and with Children of Earth vaults to the head of the class of modern sci-fi visionaries.

'Star Trek'

'Star Trek'

Compare it to the highest grossing science fiction films of the year: Star Trek and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I will discuss only Star Trek at length because I have not seen either of the Transformers films, but even its fans are likely to tell you that its strong suits aren’t character, story, or theme.

Star Trek was greeted with overwhelmingly positive reviews and perhaps more importantly the approval of Trekkers. Well, most Trekkers. I consider myself among their number and could work up little enthusiasm for the reboot. I posted my review on Facebook and received a comment protesting that my two-and-a-half stars were unduly harsh. (I generally give that rating to a film I consider a near-miss.)

Watching Children of Earth, I understand all at once what Star Trek was missing: something new. The Trek franchise was taken over by director J.J. Abrams — whose TV work includes such creatively audacious gems as Alias and Lost — with the intent of refreshing a well-worn formula. But he only replaced the well-worn formula with other well-worn formulas. The screenplay by frequent Abrams collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — who also wrote the latest Transformers film — is composed of familiar elements: a rakish hero, a by-the-books counterpart, and a villain hell-bent on revenge. There is one bold story development, but it’s taken straight out of the original Star Wars. Mostly, the plot is a clothesline for action sequences and CGI, which flash across the screen in choppily edited bits.

What an incredibly vivid world Torchwood creates with so few effects! Imagine what Star Trek could have created on a Hollywood budget! Instead, we get new variations of space ships shooting at each other. But that is the nature of the business of Hollywood these days. A studio will only bankroll what it thinks it can sell, and it’s a safer bet to feed the consumers more of what they’ve consumed before, especially when committing hundreds of millions of dollars to lavish production values.

CGI has taken over blockbuster films. Special effects themselves are not the enemy; they become the enemy only when they replace storytelling and imagination. It required intelligence and wisdom to make Children of Earth. It requires decidedly less to envision ships shooting each other, or robots clanging into each other, or a new spectacular disaster befalling a recognizable skyline like New York City. I’ve seen these things before, and long for things I haven’t seen.



There are notable exceptions in recent cinema. In the last ten years, Hollywood has produced WALL-E, Children of Men, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Minority Report, which are among not only the best science fiction films of the decade but the best films, period. Two of those were directed by Steven Spielberg; it takes the clout of a Spielberg to get a mystifying film like A.I. made at all, and even then its $78 million domestic gross is considered a disappointment. Children of Men received rapturous reviews and Academy Award nominations, but its entire worldwide gross ($69 million) amounts to less than what Star Trek earned domestically in its opening weekend ($75 million). Is that a genuine reflection of public taste, or a matter of aggressive marketing? WALL-E proved that there is an audience for sophisticated sci-fi — even kids! So why isn’t there more of it?

Most viewers who admire the Star Trek movie probably don’t know that a show called Torchwood even exists, or that from July 20-24 it produced some of the most compelling science fiction this decade. They may not know that elsewhere on the dial are other bold sci-fi programs, often neglected, that also explore provocative ideas; I could as easily have written this article about Dollhouse, Lost, the sadly canceled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the recently concluded Battlestar Galactica, or Davies’s own Doctor Who, and if we expand the topic to cover fantasy more broadly, the list grows even longer.

We could even include Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files, which are long-ended but both still available on digital formats and in syndication. Still after all these years it is rare to find a film that is equal to them.