By April Bernard
The cloth edge of certainty
has shredded down to this:
God and love are real,
but very far away.
If I go to Istanbul, will I return?
That is not one of the permitted questions.
When I go to Istanbul, how will I bear to return?
I could slip into the small streets
that lead away from the souk, then run east
to the high plain and the Caucasus --
It's all alone, the returning,
the going. The cloth,
a soft holland whose blocks of blue and lemon
once cheered me in a skirt,
now dries dishes. God and love
are very far away, farther even
than the mountains in the east.
"This is the first poem of my new book, Romanticism," writes Bernard in Poet's Choice. "I was standing in front of my kitchen window, looking north (not east) at the Vermont mountains and drying dishes with a fraying cotton (not holland) cloth, when the phrase came to me: 'God and love are real, but very far away.' I had bought the fabric (of many more colors than just blue and yellow) in Amsterdam more than a decade ago...I also unconsciously feared, as the poem makes explicit, that if I ran away to exotic lands, I might never come back to the responsibilities of my life as a mother."
It was a gorgeous day -- a bit overcast, not too hot -- so we figured that it was the perfect afternoon to go to Butler's Orchard to pick blueberries, particularly since we'd read that it will be a short blueberry-growing season this year because we had a wet spring and a relatively cool early summer (we have a lot of fireflies this summer for those reasons, too). Apparently Butler's Orchard now leaves the giant slides and rubber ducky derby tubs that used to be for the pumpkin festival only open throughout the growing season. And we stopped in the farm store to get apple butter, pecan maple syrup, blueberry popcorn and other necessities. Previous photos here.
We got home around 4:30 p.m. and spent the rest of the evening, with a long break for dinner, watching the entirety of Torchwood: Children of Earth. I doubt it will surprise anyone when I say that I was extremely disappointed in the last hour and a half...and I don't mean in terms of the behavior or fates of the characters. I mean that the writing, particularly in the last installment, simply went to crap. This didn't shock me -- denouements have been the bane of all the big Doctor Who arcs of the modern era -- but given how superlative the pacing and dialogue were in the first three installments, the sudden reversion to late X-Files "let's just destroy everything and hope characters weeping suggests the grand importance of it all" was pretty pathetic.
Let me start by saying that I loved Gwen pretty much throughout, though I'll readily admit that the deck was stacked in her favor; she didn't have to make any really horrific decisions, just the standard ones like whether to blow out the brains of the guy sent to kill her or whether to terminate a pregnancy that initially thrilled her once she got a reminder of the terrible things that can happen to children. For the most part I was happy with the characterization of all the women in the miniseries, from the heroic Lois to the kick-ass Johnson to Ianto's harried sister, even the gratuitous "we don't need to give her a life because she's Jack's daughter" Alice. (Note: of course I think motherhood includes having a life, but we get to know so little about her besides, after having her thrown in our faces as insta-family, that I was not inclined to care about her.) I'd have watched the miniseries just for Gwen being so on top of her game -- HER game, the one that involves police work and thinking that one child saved is a triumph -- and for Lois, who's like everything I loved about Rose, Martha, and Donna all rolled together.
I'm only a passing Jack/Ianto fan; given how few gay relationships we ever see on TV that aren't wholly focused on the relationships as what's most central to the characters' lives, I like them in principle, and I've appreciated the character interaction, including some of the things other people don't like so much -- I like that Jack has always held Ianto at arm's length, that he's like the Doctor in "School Reunion" explaining that knowing someone can spend their entire life with him while he has to live on past them makes it just too painful to get too deeply attached, and I thought this miniseries complicated that beautifully. I was not really devastated that Ianto died as he did -- everything he did seemed perfectly in character, even having lied about his family to Gwen, having secrets he never shared with any of them -- and I thought Jack's reaction was really perfect, devastated in the moment but not guilty or stricken with paralyzing grief.
I can't decide whether Ianto's suggestion to his sister that he's not really gay, it's only Jack, is a form of defensiveness or simply how Ianto sees the world...it would be nice if someone having gay sex on Torchwood actually considered himself or herself gay. I liked how quietly furious Ianto was with Jack for never telling him about the 1965 children, and then how they had exactly the same argument Frobischer had had with his wife, you don't really talk to me, you hide behind work as a reason to avoid intimate conversation...it really explodes the gender dynamic that drives me insane on Doctor Who sometimes, where the women are always the nurturers and the Doctor is always the aloof genius, to have the same dynamic here between two men. It's all right with me that Ianto doesn't consider himself gay because otherwise I think it might come a bit close to butch-femme stereotyping instead of just being who they are and part of the dynamic of their particular relationship.
Considering how long Jack has lived as a human on Earth, he's still a total moron about expressing himself as a human being. Han Solo seems like Mr. Sensitive compared to Jack. When someone asks why you picked him as one of a group of children to be handed over to aliens, you come up with a kinder way of explaining it than "You wouldn't be missed." When your dying lover tells you he loves you, you don't cut him off. Given the number of really terrifying detached-from-emotion men in this miniseries, from the Prime Minister to the military goons to the Evil U.S. General Stereotype, you'd think Jack would want to live up to Frobischer's belief that he's better than them. (Frobischer doesn't seem cut off from emotion so much as unable to process the extremes; I will never understand why he went home and killed his family instead of killing the Prime Minister, then hiding his children somewhere safe, like it was easier for him to know they were going to be dead and he was going to be dead and none of them could ever possibly be made to suffer any more. And those daughters were awesome -- "WE WANT A PONY. WE WANT A PONY." -- I'm really furious with him for not fighting harder for their lives.)
The pacing of the first four hours is amazing -- feels much shorter than it is, certainly shorter than the endlessly dragging Return of the King and various "action" movies of less duration -- and even some of the more just-plain-icky stuff, like Jack encased in concrete -- I swear these writers take pleasure in killing Jack in the worst possible ways -- seems fitting with the overall darkness of the storyline and sense of desperation. The Prime Minister is utterly, chillingly creepy, much scarier than the mad Saxon -- calling children "units" when he offers sixty of them, buying right into arguments that his cabinet's children should be protected and poor children should be sacrificed first -- really all the casting is terrific, and though I wish we'd seen more people of color particularly in London which wasn't nearly so white when I've been there, I love that there are people of all shapes and sizes and bad teeth, which we never get on US TV.
But, but, but, but, but. The 456 simply don't make sense to me. They're addicted to human children like a drug, so they...come to the planet, put in a fairly polite request, and don't make any show of force until someone directly threatens them with a war. If they can kill every man, woman and child on the planet -- and we've no reason to believe they're lying -- surely they could simply take the children they want, as many as they want, and more, so they can bring home a breeding colony and never have to deal with annoying human adults again? (I'm thinking of Octavia Butler's utterly terrifying short story "Bloodchild," where aliens discover they can incubate their larva in humans, so they bring the women to breed more humans while they implant the dangerous larva in the males, a gruesome extended meditation on the aphorism that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament).
Bottom line, I find the plot gimmicky, which didn't bother me during the first three and a half hours when it was unfolding with such breathtaking, devastating effect, but really irritated me toward the end. This is Sophie's Choice on a planetary scale, except it isn't, because it's more like the cabal from X-Files in league with the aliens and even they made sacrifices at the highest levels. These aliens clearly understand national boundaries and borders, since the kids say different numbers representing 10% from each country, though they all speak in English, Let's get real: the first thing the UK under this repugnant Prime Minister would do, having an inside connection, would be to suggest that the aliens take 15% from every country in North America, South America, Africa and Asia in exchange for taking none of their own.
In an ideal world, once they found out the aliens were using the children as drugs, everyone would simply have stood firm and said no -- if the aliens annihilate the planet they can't ever come back for more, so it's an empty threat on their part to kill everyone. And honestly, isn't it obvious that last time it was 12 kids, this time it's millions, and next time it's probably going to be 50 percent? The aliens don't appear to age, and I assume they do reproduce, so they'll need a growing stock of human children to feed their cravings. (I'd love to know about the riots when the internet and Twitter and Facebook went down all over the world, because that would have been a necessity the moment the roundups started.)
I loved Gwen's line about how sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame -- where the hell was he during the Holocaust, anyway? But we're already in la-la land, where the government simply releases Gwen and Rhys based on their own promise not to tell the world what the government did because it would just cause more chaos (and give me a break, people still deserve to know that their PM is an idiot as well as a murderer -- how could he ever have thought Frobischer would go along with a plan to sacrifice Frobischer's children, he'd never have explained the plot, he'd just have had people show up at Frobischer's house to "inoculate" and take away his kids while Frobischer was busy at the office). Bad, bad writing just to get to the resolution the writers wanted.
Which brings me to Alice and Steven. I figured they were Dawn Summers the moment it was revealed that they were Jack's biological family, because why give Jack a biological family except to manipulate Jack? In the midst of the giant fake-o ending, where Gwen is hugging a little girl and sighing happily that the world has been saved while the militia have dropped their guns, even though they haven't received any orders telling them that it's over and they can stop rounding up children, I couldn't feel anything for Steven. I probably would have been much more bothered if it had been some random child he'd befriended on the street in Cardiff than his grandson, but since they tossed a biological connection at us, giving him a cheap-and-easy family just so they could take it away, it really left me quite distant and cold.
In summary, I understand all the complaining people have done about things they didn't like in the miniseries, but for the most part, those aren't the things that really irked me about Children of Earth. I don't like lazy writing and attempts at emotional shortcuts. It was a disappointment to me from an intellectual rather than an I'm-so-sad sense -- I feel like they just had no clue how to wrap things up, so they hoped the actors could make the over-the-top dialogue and scenarios work. And, good as the actors are, they really couldn't.