Tony’s away with the fairies.
Small Worlds brings PJ ‘Sapphire And What-The-Hell-Did-I-Just-Watch-Steel’ Hammond to the world of Torchwood for the first time. When you bring PJ Hammond in, you know a few things – you’re going to end up with a story with high stakes, distinctly and personally realised, there’s going to be some serious creepiness involved, possibly involving photos and time and the gateways between states, and there are always, always, always going to be several levels on which you can watch it or read it.
Go into Small Worlds expecting all that, and you won’t be disappointed. What’s unusual about this story is that for a PJ Hammond script, it’s very ‘daytime,’ very sunny and modern. But let’s not kid ourselves – Small Worlds has plenty of trans-temporal, extra-dimensional creepiness to go around, and a handful of pretty darned effective kills to ramp up the stakes, so that when its final bargain is struck, we believe there really is no other way to save the world.
People are frequently misled into remembering Small Worlds as a sunny, bright, slightly silly story though, because it’s ‘the one with the fairies.’ But that’s to make the central mistake of the story – to see something that looks small and cute and pretty, and think it’s innocent, and well-intentioned, and above all, not dangerous. But even within their own mythology, fairies are misunderstood by the majority of the world’s population. As was probably best pointed out by Terry Pratchett in his novel Lords and Ladies, in older civilisations, fairies were inherently seen as things to be respected and feared, rather than necessarily liked, and under absolutely no circumstances were they seen as the fluttery winged friends of children our generations have made them.
Hammond taps into the older, more primal version of fairykind, while showing the folly of our sanitised, oversweetened version. But in his storyline of fairies from the dawn of time coming to collect their next ‘chosen one,’ the next human child they will steal away from her family and friends, he also highlights two other, deeper concepts.
Jasmine Pierce is a loner child, who likes to play at the bottom of her garden (some things after all are too traditional to ignore). Throughout the course of Small Worlds, we see snapshots of the kind of trauma through which 21st century children go every day – bullying at school; vicious words and slappings at home; the ever-present threat of paedophiles. While Jasmine is a condensation of experiences more widely spread throughout society, she serves to make a very valid point – she may well be the fairies’ ‘chosen one,’ but every victim of these kinds of trauma is the chosen one to somebody, the special child for whom someone would do anything. It behoves us to keep them safe from all the threats that lay in wait for them – to interpose our version of justice between the innocent and those that would persecute them.
But perhaps more strikingly, Hammond shows us the dangerous alternative. He shows us child-justice – merciless, immediate, entirely disproportionate justice, driven by the unrestrained id, repaying hurt with sudden violence, repaying threat with death in terms of the paedophile who tries to steal Jasmine away. While the fairies themselves show this overreaction throughout the story – killing jack’s former lover Estelle simply, it seems, for sticking her nose into their business, killing Goodson the paedophile for his attempt to take Jasmine away and harm her, and killing Roy, her would-be stepfather, both for harsh words and slaps, and just as much for trying to keep their chosen one away from her fairy friends. But what’s telling is the actions of Jasmine herself – simply standing there, laughing as her would-be schoolyard tormentors are scared out of their wits, and as her fairy friends kill Roy right in front of her. If we fail to protect our children, Hammond suggests, they will protect themselves, and they have none of the balance, none of the fairness to which we as adults like to lay claim.
This utter lack of compromise makes itself felt in the final bargain too. With people dead and dying, both the fairies and Jasmine determined that she should go away with her friends, leaving her mother, her family, everything behind for a life in the eternal, timeless forest, and the Torchwood team prepared to fight them, it’s Jack to whom Jasmine issues her world-destroying ultimatum. These fairies, like those in folklore, can control the elements – and the elements are all they need to destroy the world should they want to. Storms that blow cities down, seas that swallow continents, ice that freezes the survivors, all are within their power – and all they want is one child. The lengths to which they’ll go to get what they want is familiar to every parent who’s ever had a child not want to go to bed, but it’s put into a grand context here - the world versus one child – that will come back to haunt Captain Jack Harkness in The Children of Earth, and which haunt him already with the import of the fairies’ power. Small Worlds gives us a look into two parts of Jack’s past – his wartime romance with Estelle, and his first encounter with the fairies, in which the accidental killing of one of the chosen ones results in fifteen characteristic murders, the throats of all the men in his troop filled with the bright red petals that are the fairies’ calling cards. It’s his experience of their unremitting, uncompromising approach to revenge that gives Jack his uncomfortable perspective. They’ll stop at nothing to get their newest playmate, even the destruction of the world. They will always have the past to retreat to, the ancient forests to play in, and we don’t have that option. So Jack hands Jasmine to her friends, and, with barely a backward glance to say thank you, she goes away with the fairies. Jasmine’s mother loses both the man she’s been with for five years, and her only child, in the space of minutes – her world destroyed by her daughter’s choices, and ultimately by Jack’s decision that one child’s life is worth the world.
Small Worlds is a story that mimics the fairies themselves – when you first look at it, it looks pretty, and sunny, and bright. But by the end of the episode, we’ve gone to the past, witnessed Jack’s capacity for love and heartbreak, seen the dangers that lay in wait for every child, every day, had a horrifying lesson in the instant nuclear retribution instincts of the young, and wept for mistakes made, lives lost and those left behind by the singular self-interest of a child who wants to go and play.
Never – but never – underestimate Small Worlds. It, and they, have the capacity to tear the heart right out of you, and serve a salutary lesson in looking after our youngsters, protecting them from evil, because if we don’t, the fairies, while not a real threat in our world, will represent the reactions of our kids, the furies and scars left on their psyche by the wounds we too easily inflict.