The Best and Worst of Torchwood: Series 1

For previous installments:

 

Torchwood began from plots left over from two previous Doctor Who series. Captain Jack Harkness from Series 1.

And the Torchwood story arc from Series 2.

 

The Best:

Everything Changes, Greeks Bearing Gifts, They Keep Killing Suzie, Random Shoes, Captain Jack Harkness, and End of Days

jack

Keeping it brief:

  • Everything Changes is another rare time that a series premiere makes it to the best episodes, since it has all the wonderful story elements that I love;
  • Before Toshiko’s relationship with Adam in Adam, there was Mary, an Evil Demon Seductress (see Feminist Frequency‘s #4) in Greeks Bearing Gifts, a fantastic episode that attempts to delve into the morals of invading people’s thoughts, without their consent;
  • They Keep Killing Suzie explores the human character in a wonderful way, both for Suzie Costello and Gwen Cooper;
  • Although Love & Monsters was quite awful, Random Shoes was really fantastic, and I frequently rewatch it;
  • Captain Jack Harkness is my favorite Torchwood episode of all, with a powerful romance, time travel, and Doctor Who references; and,
  • End of Days finally reveals to the team that Captain Jack can’t die, before he revives and continues in Doctor Who‘s “Utopia.”

According to the Den of Geek review of Everything Changes:

It’s inevitable, really, that a show that’s making as much money for the BBC asDoctor Who is right now should get its own spin-off. Torchwood actually seems much more up Russell T Davies’ street than Doctor Who, with its sex, lies and .. well, not much rock ‘n’ roll yet, but we’re only one season in.

The first episode, Everything Changes, has a lot to pack in. Introducing concept, characters and setting, we leap straight from the season finales of both seasons 1 and 2 of Doctor Who, catching up with breakout character Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) after his miracle resurrection at the end of The Parting of Ways (Doctor Who, s1 ep13), and with the Earth after the events of the season 2 finale, which saw – among other things – the destruction of Torchwood One, known to us mere mortals as Canary Wharf.

Our guide through this strange new world is PC Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), a humble uniformed policewoman with more curiosity than a sack full of very curious cats. Witnessing Captain Jack and his colleagues temporarily resurrecting a murder victim, Gwen investigates these strange “Torchwood” folks that no one seems to know anything about, eventually ending up in their base, knowing far, far too much about this top secret organisation and wondering just what they’ll do with her. And, as almost an after thought, who or what exactly is going about murdering people on the streets of Cardiff?

The main cast are introduced, with Jack and Gwen taking front and centre positions as he circles her, and she tries not to blink. Lying her way through the episode and into the base seems to impress, although given their very lax attitude to stealth, it wouldn’t surprise me if two or three curious Cardiffians turned up at the door each week wondering who these Torchwood people are that they heard about down the pub.

Plot-wise, it seems almost incidental, although there’s a lovely twist in terms of the identity and motivation of the murderer. Apparently I’m not the only one whose job drives them potty, although I’m glad to say I’ve never gone quite that far.

It’s also a clear induction into Torchwood territory, in conjuncture with our introduction to our cast of heroes, which shows each of them using and abusing their alien super-toys. By the end they appear to have learned their lesson, each handing their pilfered goodies back to Jack, and the suggestion seems to be that Gwen – pure of heart as she is – will mend their broken ways. It’s almost tragic to think that they’ve so easily given up the very complexity that makes them interesting, but trust me – stick with it through a few more episodes and it’ll all start to get fun again.

Getting a real sense of a show from just one episode it’s pretty tough, especially a first episode, which has so much to pack in, but this one does manage to give a very clear idea of what’s in store for the rest of the season. It’s a shame such a strong start is so let down by the following episode, which certainly made me switch off the first time round.

But it has three-dimensional, challenging characters who feel like they might be real people, quite different from the usual run-of-the-mill cardboard cut-outs you see so often, and while the writing can be rather hit-and-miss, it has its moments of brilliance, the “CSI:Cardiff” line being a particular favourite of mine. It’s also visually very impressive indeed, especially if you’re lucky enough to see it in high-definition.

Don’t just expect Doctor Who with swearing – Torchwood has a feel that’s entirely its own. But give it a chance. You might just like it.

According to the Slant Magazine review of Greeks Bearing Gifts:

This week’s cautionary tale falls short in spite of its interesting themes and compelling execution. The failure lies in the decision to reduce Toshiko (Naoko Mori) to a lonely, vulnerable mess, unhinging the entire process. Portraying Owen (Burn Gorman) and Gwen (Eve Myles) as idiotic horny teenagers doesn’t help. Fortunately Jack (John Barrowman) remains true to his save-the-day character, while Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), reverting to his previous status of inscrutable cipher, evokes a three-word response: Seek professional help.

We open on a balmy evening in Cardiff, 1812, as a pretty young woman (Daniela Denby-Ashe) leads an even prettier, younger redcoat through the woods to a clearing, chattering away the whole time. For a prostitute, she’s excruciatingly oblivious to her client’s attitude; his irritation with her is rapidly overcoming his arousal. “My name’s Mary, like the Virgin,” she smirks, in what she imagines is wit; when the young officer doesn’t respond, she asks if he’s religious. Something snaps in the young man, and he smacks her; she displays a glimmer of intelligence, or at least a self-preservation instinct, and informs him acidly, “I’m not one of your hounds,” and rakes her nails across her face.

The ensuing chase through the woods is brief, as Mary notices something glowing and stops to see what it is; the officer catches up to her, and asks, “Do whores have prayers?” with his pistol drawn; we hear the shot fire, but never learn what happened.

In the present day, the field team has been called to investigate a strange discovery at a construction site. There’s a skeleton, but something else, like two large metal spiders, rusted together. Team dialog includes typical banter, but Toshiko establishes with improbable precision exactly how old the find is; Owen makes a quick assessment and determines that it’s a woman, most likely killed by a single gunshot to the chest. The team packs up the find for more analysis back at the Core; when the camera pans over the crowd, it lingers on a young blonde who looks very much like Mary.

Because, of course, it is Mary, but it will take us a while to find out exactly how she’s managed to stay so young and fresh for nearly 200 years. Back at Torchwood, Tosh is dying a quiet death; Owen and Gwen are goofing around together and manage to kick out the plug of her computer, interrupting an important process. Tosh is justifiably upset, and Gwen has the decency to apologize, but Owen is obnoxious, and wonders why Tosh always has to be so uptight. (“Does the stick up your ass have a stick up its ass?”) Tosh, miserable, gets back to work.

Later, we see Tosh, alone at a pub, still miserable. The hints we saw in “Countrycide” that she had a crush on Owen are reinforced here; she was just as bothered by watching how chummy he was with Gwen as by his unkind remarks. She’s abruptly pulled out of her pity party by Mary, who approaches her confidently and reels off some story about a guy who won’t stop looking at her, and she knows how it will go, and she doesn’t want to be banned from this place because they do the nice olives on the table, and so on. Clearly, 200 years have not diminished her capacity to ramble. Tosh doesn’t want to be rude and tries to disentangle herself from the situation, but gets nowhere, because Mary knows who she is.

Tosh is surprised at the details that Mary apparently has at her fingertips, but even more surprising is that Tosh accepts the explanation that Mary was able to find all this stuff out on the internet. Since Mary already knows all about Tosh, and, apparently, Torchwood, Tosh decides it’s OK to hang out with her. A few drinks later, we see Tosh in mid-buzz soliloquy, passionately going on about the universality of war (weapons are ubiquitous among the detritus tossed up by the rift) and the fundamental relationships of love and family. She’s cute when she goes on like that, but even she knows she’s going too far, and says as much to Mary, but that doesn’t stop her.

Things go from weird to worse when Mary places a small pendant on Tosh, and suddenly Tosh is deluged with the sounds of everyone’s thoughts. Naoki Mori does a great job in this scene, as she does throughout the episode, but this writing of Tosh is problematical. Writer Toby Whithouse gives us a character who is technically brilliant, kind, and caring, but also lonely and vulnerable because of it. The problem is that Tosh isn’t just vulnerable, she’s credulous to the point of gullibility, and eventually she’s reduced to a heretofore uncharacteristic powerlessness. There’s not a smidge of the indomitable Tosh of “Countrycide” here; having identified a potential trap, she walks right into it and locks herself in.

Tosh is far too willing to accept Mary’s explanation of the provenance of the pendant (“It’s been in the family for ages,”), and never stops to ask why Mary would give her something so obviously powerful and precious. Listening to Mary describe the pendant as “leveling the playing field between God and man” should set alarm bells off, but doesn’t. Mary is a classic abuser/con artist, grooming Tosh with extraordinary gifts and special attention. There are hints that both Mary and the pendant exert some influence over Tosh and thus prevent her from using her common sense, but it’s never made clear whether that influence can be chalked up to technology or just hormones.

Tosh reacts to the pendant exactly as Mary predicted she would, and Tosh at least has the sense to wonder about that, and she’s not happy that Mary is waiting for her outside of her apartment. With Tosh pulling away, Mary pours on the charm and seduces her, forcing her to admit that she was attracted to Owen but nothing would ever happen there, now, especially given everything she “overheard” between Gwen and Owen that day.

These two, caught up in the early days of a passionate affair, apparently spend all their time thinking, or trying not to think, about sex, although their behavior isn’t all that different: there has always been a lot of ribbing among the team members, and if there’s a bit more of an edge to the exchanges between Gwen and Owen, isn’t that just because we know what they’re thinking? It’s impossible to tell, but the effect of these scenes is remarkable. (I wanted to smack them both and tell them to grow up, even though they really weren’t doing anything unusual.) Tosh must struggle both not to react to their thoughts and to somehow respond only to what they are saying and doing, and barely contains herself: “I think my desk is on fire,” she announces as she storms off. Owen and Gwen have no idea what her problem is, but then again they aren’t really paying that much attention to her. These scenes showcase the acting skill of all three, with so many layers of interaction and internal dialog, and such great facial expressions. They are easily the best scenes in the episode, even if Gwen and Owen come off as grinning and giggling idiots.

Tosh is appalled to hear how her co-workers think of her, but Mary assures her that they really are her friends, and not to judge others based on very private thoughts. Later, though, when it suits Mary’s ends, she feeds into Tosh’s (rather juvenile) fears that nobody likes her, insisting that they don’t, in fact, like or respect her. Tosh never notices how Mary contradicts herself. When Mary finally reveals herself as an alien (a very nicely rendered, transparent, glowing, be-tentacled humanoid), Tosh’s immediate reaction is to bring her into Torchwood, thinking that the team can help her. Mary says she is a political prisoner, abandoned, the way that Philoctetes was on Lemnos, but she refuses to go with Tosh, saying that ours is a culture of invasion, and that Torchwood could do nothing constructive. By this point, Mary figures she has reeled Tosh in so firmly that she comes right out and asks Tosh what is going on with the artifact that was removed from the site; she tells Tosh it’s a transport, and she needs it to go home. Tosh tries to spy for Mary, but comes up blank trying to read Jack’s thoughts.

Mary’s early coaching regarding use of the pendant—“It will change the way you look at people”—goes forgotten as Tosh sinks lower and lower, trying to please Mary, reconcile what she learns through the pendant with her view of humanity, and do her job at Torchwood. Eventually, it’s too much for her, and she pleads, “Tell me what to do!” Mary orders, “Get me into Torchwood.”

Meanwhile, Owen has been examining the skeleton, which was neither female nor killed by a gunshot. Something triggers a memory, and Owen searches back through the case files at Cardiff Hospital, and finds a patient with a hole punched through his chest, and his heart removed. Further searching uncovers similar mysterious deaths, and finally Owen concludes the victim found with the transporter died the same way, and that none of these deaths can be chalked up to bizarre cults or human sacrifice.

Owen’s discovery dovetails neatly with the arrival of Tosh and Mary at Torchwood; Mary grabs Tosh as a hostage, bargaining Tosh for the transporter. Tosh, wearing the pendant, hears everyone’s thoughts during this scene, and it’s an affecting mix of concern for her, tactics, and all sorts of muddled feelings. Jack takes control of the situation and saves Tosh, giving Mary the transport. The rest of the team doesn’t have the chance to get annoyed; Jack reprogrammed the transporter to go to the center of the sun. “You killed her?” Tosh asks, and Jack’s feral expression as he answers yes is a lovely bit of characterization for him.

Equally lovely is the scene in which the unsettled Owen and Gwen confront Tosh about what she “heard” while wearing the pendant. Tosh apologizes, and says it was none of her business; Owen agrees and huffs off. Gwen remains, and in Myles’ best line of the episode, gently reminds Tosh that neither she nor Owen is in any position to judge Tosh. Sweetly, Gwen tells Tosh that love suited her, and hopes that she won’t be put off by what happened with Mary.

Jack doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this episode, distracted as he is by administrative tasks, but his brief turns here are well played. When Tosh wonders why she couldn’t hear his thoughts, explaining, “It was almost as if you were dead,” Jack’s expression goes from haunted to nonchalant in a fraction of a second, but that glimpse of his fears is extraordinary. They banter about what “regular” bosses are supposed to do, and then Jack leaves the decision of the disposition of the pendant up to Tosh.

When Tosh smashes the pendant, deciding it’s too dangerous to keep, I wanted to throw something at the screen. I was willing to accept all of Tosh’s emotional turmoil and credulity in this episode, chalking it up to alien influence and the triumph of infatuation over loneliness, but this last bit goes too far. Tosh is the tech expert, the one fascinated with alien technology, the one who wants to understand how everything works, the one who can figure this stuff out. And here she has this amazing little piece of technology, unique, and obtained at the cost of significant personal pain, and what does she do? She destroys it, betraying the one fundamental aspect of her character that Whithouse had so far respected.

This action is especially annoying given that we already know what Torchwood does with tech it deems “too dangerous”; we saw the procedure in the very first episode when they put the Resurrection Glove into the permanent archives. I wonder if Whithouse had ever seen the pilot episode? I do know that they may come to regret the decision to destroy the pendant. Next week’s episode has them hauling the Glove out of deep storage; who’s to say what good use the pendant could’ve been put to? (Tim Kring has a multitude of ideas on this topic.)

Nifty special effects and top-notch performances from Mori, Gorman, and Myles can’t mitigate the basic error of characterization. We’re halfway through the first season now, and the writers have to start nailing this stuff down. It makes little sense to see a strong and determined Tosh one week only to portray her as pitiable the next. Can we chalk up Tosh’s lack of judgment here to her trying to resist her usual conservative impulses? Before this, Tosh was restrained, but not to the point of seeming repressed. She made her move on Owen at Christmas, with the mistletoe, and that went nowhere; can anyone blame her for not making a bigger play for him?

Perversely, “Greeks Bearing Gifts” boils down to yet another good-girl-gone-wrong story. Tosh gets picked up in a bar, trusts someone she doesn’t know, and then everything goes wrong. The sex is secondary, but Tosh’s unquestioning faith in Mary substitutes; it’s the misplaced trust that leads to the pain. I’d like to think that a woman as intelligent and experienced as Tosh wouldn’t let herself get set up like this, and I’m not willing to give Whithouse a pass for what they did to her character in this episode.

According to the Slant Magazine review of They Keep Killing Suzie:

“They Keep Killing Suzie” is the kind of episode that Torchwood does well: an exploration of the human character, unfolding in unexpected ways in a unique context. It could be seen as a return to form, if Torchwood had established one yet. There are no aliens in this week’s episode, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any monsters; whether they are monsters by nature or nurture is the question of the day.

When the team arrives to investigate a series of gruesome murders, they’re met by a Detective Swanson (Yasmin Bannerman) with a chip on her shoulder so big it’s spoiling her attractive features. She and her staff have no patience for Torchwood with their “special ops” mystique, and from her attitude we glean that Torchwood isn’t as secret an organization as we’ve been led to believe. This may be another manifestation of a poorly managed first season, but a good bit of the character interactions hang on this point; if Swanson’s entire staff is aware enough of Torchwood to detest them, our team has been doing a poor job of keeping a low profile.

The murder scene reveals why Swanson & company are particularly peeved with Torchwood. It’s called out by name, with foot-high letters spelling “TORCHWOOD” rendered in the victims’ blood. The team reacts with a mixture of dismay and nonchalance, with some banter about how many people they’ve managed to piss off; at that, Swanson goes completely off the rails. She launches into a “It was only a matter of time” harangue, detailing how they swan around with such high-handed arrogance, and ends up with “As far as I’m concerned, you did it.”

You don’t often see that level of hyperbole and blame-shifting in police professionals, because usually they know it’s bilge, and that psychos will use whatever excuse is most convenient to justify their behaviors. Still, the entire team wonders if the detective isn’t right when, via DNA evidence left at the murder site, analysis reveals that the murderer had an unknown compound, “B67” in his blood. Owen (Burn Gorman) identifies it immediately as RetCon, the amnesia drug that Torchwood uses to keep its secrets secret, a system obviously in need of overhaul. When Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) declares that 2,008 people have been dosed with RetCon, they have the decency to pause for a moment to contemplate just how horrible things could get if the drug causes violent psychosis.

Gwen (Eve Myles), a RetCon survivor herself, pushes hard for aggressive action. We’re back to the Gwen of strong convictions so markedly absent in “Greeks Bearing Gifts”; she convinces Jack (John Barrowman) that what’s happening here is serious enough to get the Resurrection Gauntlet, aka the Glove, out of cold storage so they can question the victims.

Jack tries the Glove, but fails. Owen won’t even have a go, having tried it before with no success. Ianto also declines, and Tosh is off monitoring equipment. Gwen insists that she make the attempt, in spite of Jack’s concern (wordlessly mirrored by Owen); they can’t help but remember what happened to Suzie the last time someone was allowed to use the Glove. Gwen insists; Jack relents, and gives her the Glove with some words of advice. Pushing Daisies this isn’t. The first victim, Alex Arwen (Daniel Llewelyn-Williams) is no help at all, and Gwen’s inexperience with the Glove gives them only about half a minute. The next victim (a brief but terrific performance by Gary Pillai) is a bit more helpful, giving them three important names: Pilgrim, Max, and inevitably, Suzie, Jack’s former second-in-command who committed suicide in “Everything Changes” (after Gwen discovered she was murdering people so she could develop her skills with the Glove).

A search of the victim’s home turns up a hand-written flyer for Pilgrim, a religious support group. Suzie’s former co-workers dismiss the idea that Suzie could ever have belonged to such a group, but Gwen asks them pointedly how they could know such a thing. Until Gwen showed up, none of them ever showed any interest in one another, and they acknowledge that they never really knew Suzie at all. They take a field trip to a storage locker to go through her things, and Gwen learns that when she dies, all of her things will be similarly preserved, as will her body in Torchwood’s morgue. She has never considered these things before, and now it’s way too late to get out.

When Tosh (Naoko Mori) discovers a Pilgrim flyer among Suzie’s things, that decides it for Jack: it’s time to talk to Suzie (Indira Varma). Resurrecting her successfully involves some business with the knife she had created (Ianto, tasked with coming up with cool names for things, dubs it the “Life Knife”), and Jack sort-of has to kill her again by stabbing her in the heart before Gwen can resurrect her.

Typically, a resurrected victim would only survive for a minute or two, but Suzie’s a different case altogether; she not only doesn’t die, it seems shecan’t die. Once Suzie is alive again, the episode becomes a study of three characters, principally Suzie, in contrast to Gwen, with a decent supporting performance from Jack.

In “Everything Changes,” we all (Team Torchwood included) assumed that Suzie was seduced and corrupted by the power of the Glove, that it was the desire to master the Glove for good that led her to murder. Turns out that Suzie was brilliant but psychotic; the resurrected Suzie does little but whine and complain. The team is still operating on the principal that Suzie was a decent person that derailed at the end of her life, but that’s a very bad assumption.

Gwen, sucked in by Suzie’s request to see her dying father, takes her off on an unauthorized field trip just as Owen discovers that Suzie has created a link, via the Glove, by which she’s drawing life energy from Gwen: Suzie’s only still alive because she’s stealing life from Gwen, and Gwen doesn’t know it yet. Of course the first thing Jack and Owen do is call for Gwen, but she’s already gone; they’d follow her except that the power cuts out and everything goes dark. Ianto thought Jack initiated the lockdown, and they realize it must have something to do with Suzie.

Now, most of the team realizes what Suzie is, but Gwen doesn’t until her slow decline suddenly crescendos to a blinding headache and bleeding skull. Suzie explains that Gwen’s being shot in the head, slowly, and that it will hurt a lot; as Suzie heals, Gwen takes on Suzie’s mortal wound. Gwen’s struggling to understand what’s happening when Suzie wakes her father only to remove his breathing tube; she doesn’t want to see him to say goodbye, she wants to kill him. Suzie helps the failing Gwen out of the hospital so they can make a run for it. Suzie’s father dies, alone.

Back at Torchwood, the team has figured out that Suzie triggered the lockdown, but not how, until they remember the prisoner they’d brought in earlier, the murderer with the RetCon in his system. They find him in his cell, chanting lines from Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death” over and over. Jack realizes it’s a verbal key that, repeated dozens of times, would trigger the lockdown, and most importantly, Suzie set the entire thing up. She conditioned Max, using RetCon and who knows what else, with psychological triggers: if he didn’t see Suzie for three months, she must go on a killing spree and be sure to call out Torchwood. Max’s involvement would lead them back to Suzie, and they would be forced to resurrect her. Once Suzie was resurrected, she could signal Max to recite the poem over and over, trigger the lockdown, and enable her escape. Suzie knew the Glove better than anyone, she knew she could survive indefinitely if she could make a strong enough connection with the wearer of the Glove. With Gwen Cooper reviving her, Suzie hit the jackpot. She was a completely twisted bitch, and the Pilgrim members that Max murdered were really Suzie’s murders by proxy.

The team is dumbfounded to realize how Suzie played them all, and they know that she’s playing Gwen at this very moment. They’re helpless, though, unable to get out or even call out, until Ianto thinks to use the water tower as an antenna. Who do they call? Detective Swanson.

As Gwen slowly dies, Jack suffers the laughter of Swanson’s staff as she puts him on the speaker and makes him repeat, for all to hear, that they’re locked in to their own facility and need some help. All the detectives have a good laugh until Jack tells them that one of his team is in danger, and then Swanson gets serious. She gets her hands on the same copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson that had been found among Suzie’s things, and they try reading out various lines from poems to reverse the lockdown. Nothing works until Tosh suggest a numerical key, and the ISBN number does the trick. Jack and Owen take off after Gwen and Suzie, Owen estimating that Gwen has little time left.

Tosh tracks the girls to the hospital, but Jack and Owen don’t catch up to them until they’re at a dock; Suzie wants to get on the ferry and just keeps running. Gwen succumbs, finally, and Suzie gives her a quick kiss and takes off, but Jack follows her; Owen cradles the lifeless Gwen, quietly devastated. Suzie can’t believe that Jack would kill her, but Jack has no problems shooting her. The only problem is she doesn’t die no matter how many times he shoots. Finally, Jack realizes it’s the Glove that’s keeping her alive, and in a neat little scene, Tosh calls Ianto to get her a weapon; he tosses it to her, and she obliterates the Glove. In that moment, Suzie dies for the last time, and Gwen returns. With the connection broken, she apparently gets all her life’s energy back.

Interspersed with all this action is a fair amount of philosophical discussion, and stark speculation about life after death. Suzie, quite contradictorily, says there’s nothing, much like the young man she revived in the opening scenes of “Everything Changes.” But in that nothing she apparently retained an awareness of self, so that’s not exactly nothing. And later, she claims “there’s something out there, and it’s moving,” to Gwen, quite fearfully, but she later declares with vicious glee that it was coming for Jack. To Suzie, “life is all,” because she knows there’s nothing else out there—although there apparently is something else out there, she’s just too afraid to find out what it is. She dismisses Gwen’s afterlife ideas as “never having left primary school,” but I think Gwen’s vision, wherein our relatives and friends are waiting for us, is a very common one.

At any rate, Suzie is revealed here as weak and flawed, in spite of her brilliance. It wasn’t the Glove that turned her, although the Glove enabled her to set her immortality plan in motion. She obsesses throughout the episode with how others saw her, and denigrates herself as bad, but she reveals her true feelings with an outburst when she realizes that it was Gwen using the Glove: “Gwen bloody Cooper!” Suzie thought Gwen was an idiot, and never wavered from that position no matter how much she’d later say what a good person Gwen was, and how much better at everything Gwen was than Suzie ever was—so much crazy-talk, none of it sincere. Suzie detests Gwen, and is happy to use her. A healthy person wouldn’t dream of implementing such a wretched scheme. For someone for whom “life is all,” Suzie has a very cavalier attitude towards the value of other people’s lives.

Then we have Gwen, for whom it is so important to do the right thing, to make things right whenever she can. In her naïveté, in her accepting that her co-workers’ trust in Suzie is not fundamentally displaced, Gwen both reaches out and trusts Suzie, trying to help her achieve some peace before she dies again for the last time. But Gwen’s not blinded by her “be nice” attitude: she’s perceptive about relationships in a way that no one else at Torchwood is. Gwen points out that no one at Torchwood really knows anyone else, and so why should they be surprised to find out that Suzie was psychotic? No one argues with her, as there is nothing to argue about.

Finally, Captain Jack is called upon once again to make the decisions that are supposed to be hard, but how can anyone think it would be hard to kill Suzie (again), knowing what they now know about her? She was dead, she should stay dead, end of story. Even Suzie’s attempt to claim some last bit of Gwen as reason for keeping her alive was lame; Gwen wasn’t a murderous crazy woman. Aside from that, Jack has Death Issues. He has been dead so many times, and so many times he has not stayed dead. And he doesn’t remember anything about being dead, either, and that idea bothers him, just as the idea of something coming for him in the dark, once he really dies, bothers him. I like the facility with which Barrowman’s features fall; he’s perky one second, flat-eyed and dismayed the next. My advice for Barrowman is to stop trying so hard, because we can always tell; just relax into the role and go with it. His best scenes are the quieter ones, as he tends to over-emote in the angry and excited ones. It’s possible to like Jack’s character even if he’s a cold-hearted bastard, because he’s our cold-hearted bastard, and this week, he saves Gwen.

Much to my relief, Ianto’s character is rehabilitated this week as well, and he is back to the smooth competence he displayed earlier in the season. He also seems to have finally moved on from the Lisa debacle, and I have to believe all that business between him and Jack about the stopwatch is some kind of proposition, about which I do not wish to speculate further. Tosh is a bit player this week, although she has a great line about not being able to look the resurrected Suzie in the eye, so horrified is Tosh at Suzie’s murder spree. Owen, too, has a much reduced role, and although he is still solicitous of Gwen, it is not obvious that their affair continues.

The entire team manages to bust Suzie’s chops for her crimes, and the answer to her “Haven’t I suffered enough?” is always No. It’s not just that Suzie was willing to murder for her own trivial purposes, it’s that they all trusted her, and she betrayed them. The first betrayal came with the murders, but the second betrayal was worse, since they all believed that she was turned by the Glove. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” indeed: the second betrayal revealed Torchwood’s unwillingness to believe the evidence of its own eyes, and thus they were taken in by a killer. Three innocent people died at the hand of an unwitting accomplice, an old man was murdered in his bed, and Gwen was dead for a few seconds, all because Torchwood failed to see the snake in its midst. Once they knew that Suzie was out murdering people, why didn’t they thoroughly investigate her life and figure out what other illegal or questionable things she was doing? What possible excuse could there be for thinking everything would be OK, now that Suzie’s dead?

Perhaps Swanson was more right than she knew, blaming the three victims’ deaths on Torchwood. But having survived this crisis, the team should draw closer together—and not just Jack and Ianto, whatever it is they’re doing with that stopwatch.

According to the Slant Magazine review of Random Shoes:

“Random Shoes” plays as if an episode of Doctor Who wandered off and got lost, only to find itself somehow on Torchwood. Part police procedural, part ghost story, this episode presents a structural, if not thematic pair to Who‘s late season two episode, “Love and Monsters.”

In the role of “Monsters” Elton Pope (Marc Warren), we have the hapless—and dead (no worries, that’s not a spoiler)—Eugene Jones (Paul Checquer), victim of a hit-and-run. Torchwood is called in because they had an acquaintance with Eugene, who has an unusual interest in alien artifacts. The relationship consisted solely of Eugene approaching Gwen with this artifact or that theory, and Gwen & co brushing him off. Eugene was a hapless pest and not worth their time or trouble when he was alive; now that he’s dead, Owen (Burn Gorman), ready to move on, summarily declares “No alien involvement” and therefore, nothing having to do with Torchwood.

Gwen (Eve Myles) feels differently, though, and refuses to drop it. Clever blocking and intercutting lines make us believe that Gwen at least feelsEugene’s presence, even if she can’t see him. These Sixth Sense-like interactions between the physical and spiritual worlds are smoothly pulled off in several scenes, as Eugene narrates to Gwen the events leading up to his death.

The episode is dominated by flashbacks, extending all the way back to Eugene’s pivotal failure during a mathematics competition. From Eugene’s perspective, his failure drove away his father, who abandoned the family soon after, but also led him, indirectly, to his life’s passion, the collection of alien artifacts. A kindly professor, finding the dejected boy sitting alone in a lab, gives him a strange artificial eye that he believes is of extraterrestrial origin. From that moment, Eugene’s interests and hopes become tangled up in The Eye; he sees it as something marvelous, and figures that something as wonderful as this must be important to its owner, who must someday come looking for it. With the patience of a fanatic, Eugene settles in to wait, broadening his interests just enough to collect a few more pieces of intergalactic ephemera, and to occasionally hound Torchwood with his ideas. But now, Eugene’s dead, and no one is exactly sure why.

Team Torchwood barely makes an appearance, save Gwen; her interactions with Owen seem to indicate their affair has cooled off. Owen castigates her for thinking she’s the only one with a heart, and while he’s right that they are all human, he’s also being deliberately obtuse here: right now, Gwen is the only one who cares. Gwen’s no more tolerant, and tells Owen to sod off, an expression few Americans understand (“sod” refers to sodomy, not pre-planted strips of grass). Later we see Gwen sleeping alone, which raises the question, whatever happened to Rhys (Kai Owen)?

We never find out, at least in this episode, because it’s all about Eugene. Gwen manages to track down his father, interview his perpetually weeping mum, and canvas his workplace, a perfectly rendered telemarketing floor, complete with cubicles and bored, loopy co-workers. When these obvious leads turn up little, Gwen turns to Eugene’s cellphone, which contains the photos of the titular random shoes, as well as the numbers of Eugene’s friends. Gwen is able to track them down and piece together the story of a quietly desperate life, until the day Eugene realizes he has to stop waiting and get on with the business of living. Stop waiting for his dad to come home, stop waiting for the alien to come and claim The Eye. To this end, he resolves to sell The Eye on eBay and give the proceeds to a kind woman in his office. (Here, it’s obliquely revealed that Eugene nurses an unrequited loved for Gwen.)

The auction languishes but suddenly takes off, and everything comes to a climax when Eugene sets a meeting with the winning bidder, giddily anticipating finally meeting his alien and collecting ?15,005.50. How crushed he is to see his friends Gary, a schlub but not bad-hearted, and Josh, who is morally compromised at the very least. Gary and Josh were bidding on The Eye to give Eugene a bit of a boost, but they were not the ?15,000 bidder. They outbid that guy by ?5.50 and thus won the auction. There is no possible way to spin this in a positive direction; they had neither the intentions nor the means to pony up ?15,005.50, and thus they robbed Eugene of a significant amount of money.

Eugene doesn’t take it well, and takes it even harder when Gary and Josh insist that he fork over The Eye for the measly ?34 they’re offering. A brief slapstick sequence starts with Eugene swallowing The Eye to prevent Gary and Josh taking it, and proceeds through their abortive attempts at the Heimlich maneuver. Eugene manages to escape as they’re trying to force-feed him a banana milkshake, and he takes off across an open field. As he pauses to catch his breath at the roadside, a car rounds the bend and plows into him.

So now we—and Gwen—have an explanation for why Eugene is still around, because we all know that on Torchwood, when you die, there’s Nothing. (Except for Suzie Costello, who can discern something moving in the Nothingness.) It has to be The Eye, which means that it must actually be a genuine alien artifact. A helpful mortuary worker retrieves The Eye from Eugene’s body and delivers it to Gwen, and for the first time in the episode, she speaks directly to Eugene, telling him she’s got it now, and so he can go.

Then things get very bizarre, but for just a little while: Torchwood’s SUV comes barreling around the corner, and would’ve plowed into Gwen except that Eugene suddenly becomes corporeal and tackles her out of the way. Gwen’s vindicated, everyone else is astonished, and then Eugene’s given one last soliloquy as he fades to black, admonishing the audience to recognize that life can be both dead ordinary, and truly amazing.

Having evoked “Love and Monsters” at the top of this piece, the most obvious thing lacking in “Random Shoes” is a soundtrack (like “Love and Monster”’s use of ELO) to push this sentimental story completely over-the-top. Writer Jacquetta May is channeling series creator Russell T Davies here, and almost reaches the same delightful, delirious height that Davies achieved in “Love and Monsters.” We fall just short of the mark, here, mainly because Eugene’s already dead when the episode begins. The only redemption available to him is a retroactive one, the realization that his life wasn’t useless after all. It tugs at the heartstrings to hear his dad’s a cappella rendition of “Oh Danny Boy” at Eugene’s funeral, and it’s wonderful to see his dad return to his wife and surviving son in the final scene; we get the sense that they at least will learn something from Eugene’s death.

But what does Eugene get? Is it enough for him to know that The Eye was a real alien artifact? Did learning the truth about his father absolve him of his lifetime of guilt? Were his few sweet days floating around Gwen Cooper enough to compensate for a lifetime of rebuffs? I’ll grant that a dramatic life-saving would be the high point of anyone’s life, but Eugene barely has a moment to savor it. It’s lovely, really, that Eugene goes out on such a high note, so optimistic about the possibilities of life. But there’s a lingering sadness that he only realized this after he was dead, and never got a chance to do much of anything in his own life.

Were I to reduce this story down to its most absurd, I’d point out that this is yet another tale wherein we see the perils of human interaction with alien technology. Eugene’s obsession with The Eye can be seen as the cause of his death, but that’s missing the point. This episode is no more about alien artifacts than it is about banana milkshakes, or random shoes. The alienation here is self-imposed by a bright young man who had a very bad day once, and thereafter never seems able to live up to his potential. He misinterprets a series of events, and with the self-importance of every adolescent, he blames himself for everything. With luck and diligence, most of us grow up, though, and realize that we don’t wield that kind of influence, and can’t, even if we want to. Sadly, Eugene never did, until he died.

And what of The Eye? Jack (John Barrowman) babbles something about its capabilities, confirming its authenticity, but there’s no explanation even attempted to explain how Eugene’s consciousness—his soul—could survive his corporeal death. His sudden heroic return to the physical plane, even though his body no longer encloses The Eye, barely registers a reaction. They’ve just seen a dead man save Gwen and then evaporate, and they barely exchange astonished looks. How quickly one becomes jaded to the wonders of aliens tech.

There is a lyrical quality to Eugene’s little speeches, and Checquer does a great job with Eugene’s post-mortem spiritual development. Even Myles’ quiet competence and gentle but persistent questioning are perfect here, and I like how the pieces of the puzzle all eventually come together. The only significant problem here is that the tone of this episode is so wildly different from everything that’s come before it. There is very little character development of the regulars (even Gwen), but that’s OK because they don’t contradict anything that has happened before, either. Gwen’s substantial role anchors the plot to the series, but a sweet funny little story like this just doesn’t seem like it belongs here.

At some point, I’m hoping the show runners make a decision on where they’re going with this series, because right about now I’m suffering from thematic whiplash. I’m not saying a show can’t do terror, gore, sex, and tenderness—it’s just that if they’re going to give us sweetness, there has to be an edge to it somewhere. The only bite in “Random Shoes” is that it sucks that Eugene is dead, and frankly, that isn’t enough for a show that has the potential thatTorchwood has shown in the past. If ”Small Worlds” can so brilliantly portray the agony of losing a child, why play down the importance of Eugene’s death to Eugene? Yes, we see everyone around him affected by it, but Eugene is all too ready to accept it, and goes off happy because he got to save Gwen. Where is that raging against the dying of the light? Why isn’t he more angry? Shouldn’t his friends have been arrested for defrauding him, assaulting him and ultimately causing his death? Alas, all that’s swept under rug.

In the end, Eugene is snuffed out, his cheery little flame flickering right up until the darkness consumes him. Although his final words are meant to be inspirational, it’s hard to come away with anything other than the impression that nothing really matters, because we’re all headed for the void. A lifetime of pain and loneliness can be undone in hours, and vindication and validation are more important than justice and loyalty (or lack thereof). Even in a fantasy series like Torchwood, we need something we can believe in; I’ve always thought “nothing is easy” sounds about right. In “Random Shoes,” everything’s easy, and everything’s wrong, but you can only see that if you penetrate the smokescreen; we’re supposed to believe that everything came out right in the end, but it didn’t. Eugene’s still dead. I guess May felt accepting a full-blown resurrection would be asking too much of the viewers; she was probably right.

According to the Slant Magazine review of Captain Jack Harkness:

“Out of Time” writer Catherine Tregenna returns with the next chapter in the story of broken-hearted Owen (Burn Gorman). But “Captain Jack Harkness” is not just another story of love gone awry across a rift in time; it gives us a long-overdue glimpse into our Captain Jack’s past.

Torchwood continues its obsession with World War II—recall that Doctor Whointroduced us to Jack during the Blitz—when Jack (John Barrowman) and dressed-up Tosh (Naoko Mori) stop by an abandoned building to check out reports of old-style music coming from inside. The building, long disused, was once a dance hall; Jack admires the still-intact chandelier in the ballroom. Sharp-eyed fans of Doctor Who will notice the “Vote Saxon” posters plastered on doors and walls, along with “Bad Wolf” graffiti in a stairwell. Considering it was the Bad Wolf that got Jack into his current (immortal) situation, it was a bit odd for him to not even register that graffiti, but this was supposed to be quick. Tosh is on her way to her grandfather’s 88th birthday party and doesn’t want to be late.

Jack is charmed when they hear strains of big band music floating down the stairs; he determines they’re just temporal echoes, audible now because of the Rift. He and Tosh are substantially less charmed when they realize the Rift has somehow opened and they’ve fallen through time, right into the night of a goodbye dance for a squadron of local flyboys who are heading out the next day.

Fortunately, Jack’s long coat and Tosh’s lovely dress provide some protective cover while they figure out what to do, but the two soon trip over a wholly unexpected coincidence when the real Captain Jack Harkness (the gorgeous Matt Rippy) introduces himself. Our Jack, thinking quickly, renames himself Captain James Harper, and no one seems to notice his discomposure. Except Tosh, of course, who simply wants to know why that man has Jack’s name.

This episode features the largest chunk of exposition from Jack since the pilot, when he explained to Gwen that he can’t die. Jack’s story comes in bits and pieces, but he eventually conveys to Tosh that he’s been through World War II before. At first he says he was on assignment, but then he confesses he was a conman (which squares with what he we learned in “The Empty Child”.) And he never was “Jack Harkness,” that’s a name he acquired when its owner was killed in action—the very next day after the goodbye dance. It was a convenient cover for Jack, and one he hadn’t given much thought to, until confronted with the man himself. Jack, feeling too many things at once and trying to be glib, quips, “I took his name. I just didn’t realize he was so hot.”

They’re not just idly hanging around, though; they’re trying to figure out a way to navigate back through the Rift. Tosh quizzes an airman for coordinates, and completes some equations that could help Torchwood c.2007 open the Rift and get them back home. The problem is, how to get the data 60 years into the future, when pencil will fade and paper crumble? The creepy manager, Bilis Manger (Murray Melvin), gives Tosh one way—take an instant photo. Tosh senses the anachronism of the early Polaroid-type camera but doesn’t question it. Manger’s sinister motives are revealed to us, at least, when we see him retrieve a file prominently labeled “Torchwood.”

Back in the present, Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) and Owen wonder what’s happened to Jack and Tosh; they dispatch Gwen (Eve Myles) to follow up. She arrives, torch in hand, and runs into the very same Bilis Manger (the cravat’s a dead giveaway). Gwen’s cover story is flawless; she says her two friends were exploring the building because they had heard it was haunted. Manger of course knows exactly what’s going on with both the building and her friends, but doesn’t let on.

Ianto’s the first to realize what’s happened when he finds an archived photo of both Jacks, Tosh, and Manger from the 1941 dance. Owen pounces: they’ve fallen through the Rift, they’re in the middle of the Cardiff Blitz, they should re-open the Rift and get them back. They know Tosh was working on the physics (meta-physics?) involved, but Owen finds only half the information they need to program the Rift Machine, something heretofore unmentioned, rather like an Elephant in the Room. Have you wondered what, exactly, the Core is? Well, it’s that huge machine around which Torchwood makes its offices. It’s sitting on the Rift and apparently it has some capacity to control it, somehow. Don’t look for explanations, you won’t find any, and that’s probably just as well; we’re into the territory of wibbly- wobbly timey-wimey stuff here, as The Doctor would say.

Owen’s fervor to open the Rift is transparently not about Jack and Tosh, but about retrieving Diane (Louise Delamere, appearing in the “previously on” scenes this week). Ianto and Owen face off over the fates of their respective loves, and it seems that Owen scores points against Ianto, but in reality, Ianto wins. For all that Lisa was a psychotic murderer, she never left Ianto, whereas Diane chose to leave Owen. Owen can’t accept that, and the struggles between these two men give us some of the most tension-laden scenes in the episode. Owen’s attempt to open the Rift in spite of Ianto’s objections fails, and both men notice it’s missing a part.

Once the boys at the Core realize they need both a key and more equations to open the Rift safely, they send Gwen, still at the site, on a scavenger hunt. She finds the photo Tosh hid, but they see—and Tosh realizes—that the photo did not capture all the equations. Tosh manages to find a permanent “ink” and copies out the rest of the equations, appending a melancholy “Tell my family I love them,” and hides it in the bomb shelter. Manger finds it later, and scratches out some of the coordinates, then replaces it. Decades later, Gwen uncovers it. She knows it’s the last message they’ll find from Tosh, but notes that some of the information is missing. This should make them pause, but in the mad pace of this episode, there’s no time to think it through: why would someone leave the hidden paper with most of the formulas intact? Why not just take or destroy the entire sheet? The logical conclusion would be that someone is manipulating them, but they don’t see the trap because they’re not bothering to look.

Owen, joining Gwen in the search for more information, finds the key to the Rift Machine in Manger’s office. They’ve realized, of course, it’s the same man in both times, but they don’t pursue it. He seems harmless enough, but why would he have that key? Again, no one’s taking a big picture approach, so no one questions why Manger would have that particular piece of technology lying around, and why he would permit them to find it.

Ianto and Owen continue their power struggle; Owen’s contempt for Ianto is manifest in his scathing remarks. He persists even when Ianto pulls a gun on him to prevent him from opening the Rift. Ianto knows better than to screw around with something so dangerous, especially with incomplete data. Owen, obsessed, is all for letting the machine fill in the gaps. Ianto shoots Owen in the shoulder in a wonderful moment of bravado, but Owen manages to start up the machine anyway.

Back in the past, our Jack is undone; the real Captain is so handsome and brave, the genuine article versus Jack’s cheap imitation. Our Jack knows the Captain will soon be dead, and advises him, carpe diem. The Captain’s no idiot, and he realizes that Jack’s warning is not just general advice. He doesn’t question what Jack’s saying, he just seems relieved to have found someone with whom he can let down his guard and be honest about his fears and dreams.

The two men are bonding in a way that at first seems fraternal—Jack understands the Captain’s guilt over a fallen airman; he recounts an ambiguously-placed story about persuading his best friend to join up for the service with him, for the adventure. They were both captured by “the worst enemy imaginable,” and his friend was tortured and ultimately killed. They let Jack go. How many years, decades ago in Jack’s timeline did that happen? And how many centuries in the future will that event actually take place? We never find out, but shared survivor’s guilt brings the two men even closer.

Jack sends the Captain to spend a last night with his local girl, but the Captain returns with the excuse that he should be with his men. Jack, for once not looking for sex, at last sees just how much he and the Captain are alike. The sexual tension between the two men is unmistakable, but it seems nothing can come of it, even though a temporary re-location to a bomb shelter might seem to provide an opportunity.

When the air raid ends and Manger re-opens the dance, Tregenna lapses into anachronism so absurd you just have to go with it: the Captain leads Jack onto the dance floor, and the dance is intensely intimate. For the two men, the rest of the world momentarily disappears, but then the Rift opens—a wall of fuzzy light appears—and Tosh calls Jack to come back through with her. Jack leaves the dance floor but then returns to share a rather amazing kiss with the Captain. The onlookers can scarcely believe what they’re seeing, and neither can I. There’s just no way an RAF officer would come out like that. Of course, the fact that Jack and Tosh literally disappeared afterwards would help the Captain deny or dismiss any accusations that might follow, not to mention the fact that his hours were numbered.

That kiss is without a doubt among the most tender, sincere, smoking hot gay kisses ever filmed. I’m the type that rolls my eyes at most heterosexual PDA, including such passionate dance floor goodbye kisses. But I’m willing to give this one a pass, in spite of the anachronism. Both men were so tormented, but in the few hours they had, they created a real connection that wasn’t about sex at all. It was the recognition of self in the other that each man felt, and the kiss perfectly expressed that recognition. I know I should be scoffing, but that moment plays as genuine, and so I’m willing to accept it.

Back in the present, Jack and Tosh pop through, apparently unscathed. Owen, tending to his own wounds, castigates Ianto for being a lousy shot; Ianto can’t believe what an ass Owen is; of course he was aiming for his shoulder. Tosh says she knows it was wartime, but it was “beautiful,” and Jack agrees, “There were angels dancing at the Ritz.” Tosh tries to console Jack, telling him that the Captain would be proud that Jack had taken his name; here he is, saving the world. They close out the episode with a toast to the Captain.

But the Rift has been opened; can that be the end of it? We know it can’t be, because Bilis Manger warned, “It’s coming, out of the darkness,” just as Suzie Costello warned Jack. But for this episode, we still don’t have any idea what “it” is. Ianto tells us there’s no sign of Bilis, and it remains unspoken whether or not they’ll pursue that odd character.

The biggest, in fact the only, flaw in this episode is the dance and subsequent kiss between the two Captains. The whole thing looks spot-on; I’m continually impressed by the guest actor casting. Matt Rippy isn’t just a pretty face, he has the look, the body language, of an RAF officer in the 1940s. The women’s clothing, the men’s haircuts, the shape and size of the glasses from which they drink, the music—all the little details are in place. The regulars are mostly up to the task this week, as well. Eve Myles’ Gwen has not much to do, which comes as something of a relief; she’s been put through the wringer lately. This is the most we’ve seen of Naoki Mori’s Tosh since “Greeks Bearing Gifts”, and I found her irritatingly limited, her too-wide eyes often substituting for genuine expressions. But John Barrowman, often the weakest actor in a strong cast, does very well here, allowing vulnerability and guilt to seep through his usual facile expression. Most fun of all, Burn Gorman and Gareth David- Lloyd go toe-to-toe, with Owen descending to his prat-like worst, and Ianto holding fast to his faith in Jack and his internal moral compass.

The note of suspended tension on which the episode ends is fed on several levels. Owen has, at this point, alienated the entire rest of the team; it’s one thing to be an ass, it’s another to cut to the quick, to insult with intent to damage on a regular basis as he has lately. No one knows what else will come out of the newly-opened Rift, and everyone’s worried about that, too. There’s no “to be continued” placard as the episode draws to a close, but it’s certainly implied. Even so, “Captain Jack Harkness” can ably stand alone.

According to the Slant Magazine review of End of Days:

Following the new Doctor Who‘s tradition of ending each season with a cataclysmic event, “End of Days” brings Torchwood‘s premier run to a mostly satisfying conclusion. I could fault writer Chris Chibnall for eliding far too many important details, but there’s no need for such a tedious reckoning. What he has given us is an enjoyable combination of characters, alien technology, and an unknowable so far outside our understanding that we want to label it supernatural. Desperate love wreaks havoc, but simple faith can (apparently) repair all.

We pick up shortly after the events of Captain Jack Harkness, with Gwen (Eve Myles) staring lovingly at a sleeping Rhys (Kai Owen). Their morning idyll ends quickly when Jack (John Barrowman) phones and asks, “You watching the news?” It’s not all hell breaking lose out there, it’s all time, with people from past ages, and futuristic air/spacecraft from the future, suddenly appearing all over earth. The initial interpretation was that these events were a series of stunts, but as they continue, everyone realizes that Something Very Bad is happening.

At Torchwood, Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) helpfully reads aloud from apocalyptic accounts including The Book of Daniel, but Owen (Burn Gorman) cuts him off before he can get into the details about Abaddon. Owen’s sure that this isn’t anything too serious, and tries to shrug the whole thing off. But the entire world is asking Torchwood what’s happening, and whether or not they had anything to do with it. When Tosh (Naoko Mori) puts up a display plotting the events, it’s clear they’re all stemming from the fracture in the the Rift that Owen caused by opening it without knowing what he was doing. Owen pushes away any responsibility, saying that Jack and Tosh would still be trapped if he hadn’t opened the Rift; Jack doesn’t even bother to respond to that one. Still, Jack’s confident it’s not the end of the world and tries to reassure the team. We know where his confidence comes from, but of course his team does not, and they’re still very worried.

Tensions ratchet up among the team members when Owen is called over to Cardiff Hospital, which has established quarantine; Tosh goes along in spite of Owen’s protests. Owen realizes that the corpses he’s seeing are plague victims, most likely from the 14th century, and his façade of indifference finally disintegrates. He realizes that all sorts of sicknesses could come falling through time, and he warns the ER doctor to be ready for them. The doctor, of course, is incredulous: “You’re Torchwood! You’re supposed to fix all this!” But Owen doesn’t know how, and tells the doctor he has his responsibilities cut out for him now.

While Owen and Tosh are at the hospital, Jack and Gwen are called in by Gwen’s old partner, Andy (a boyish but serious Tom Price), who has taken custody of a furious Roman soldier; already the guy has killed two people. The steady stream of Latin invective is very convincing, but Andy is still having a hard time believing what Jack’s telling him: Time is broken. Andy gets to deliver the first pop culture reference of the episode, tagging Jack and Gwen as Mulder and Scully, asking them what they’re going to do about it. (The second comes soon after, when Owen derisively calls the ER doctor House.) Gwen tries to laugh it off—“Oh, Andy, did you think the world was going to end on your shift?”—but Andy knows her too well and sees right through her bravado.

Before leaving the hospital, Toshiko has a vision of her dead mother, a fresh wound upon her forehead. She warns, “It’s coming, out of the darkness,” that same idea we’ve been hearing most of the season. Unhelpfully, Tosh’s mother doesn’t say what it is, or why it’s coming, but clearly the vision was intended as a warning. Meanwhile, back at the police station, Gwen has a vision—or a visit from—Bilis Manger (Murray Melvin), whose sad, inky eyes contemplate her as he says, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Gwen appears hypnotized, but when she breaks out of it and tells Jack what happens, he finally decides to find Bilis. It’s starting to seem as if he may have had something to do with all this Rift business.

Back at Torchwood, Ianto is tortured by a vision of his dead lover, Lisa (Caroline Chikezie), wholly human, and begging him to open the Rift and set everything right.

Everyone is extremely keyed up, and Owen pushes Jack to be a leader, tell them what to do, and fix what he broke. Owen is acting out of overwhelming guilt, but he’s still an asshole here, and he finally takes it too far. Jack tells him, flat out, “This is not supposed to be happening,” but Owen can’t bear to hear that, and wants to dump it all back on Jack. Jack admits he doesn’t know quite what to do, but he insists that his team be united behind his decisions. When Owen continues to challenge him, Jack fires Owen. Ianto, Tosh, and Gwen, witnessing this entire scene, can’t believe what they’ve just heard, but Jack is adamant, and tells anyone else who feels like Owen to follow him out the door. The other three remain motionless, but Owen fairly staggers out the series of doors that will take him back to the real world. He knows he’ll be RetConned within a day or so, and all his time at Torchwood will be erased. This scene showcases the fantastic directing and editing that went into this episode. Burn Gorman could do a dramatic reading of nursery rhymes and have everyone in tears, but Barrowman tends to the overblown and unconvincing. Quick cuts between the two men mean that we see glimpses of Jack’s determination and anger, expressions that Barrowman really can’t sell in extended shots, but we see just what we need to see.

This is one of the first times that Jack has been called on to lead and he has actively, assertively done so. It doesn’t matter that Owen’s questions—“Who are you, anyway?”—are legitimate, and that the team more or less has a right to know. The midst of a crisis isn’t the time to be calling the question, especially when he didn’t have any better ideas.

With Owen gone, the rest get back to work. Bilis keeps an antique time piece shop, and Jack and Gwen find him there. They get right to the point, and Bilis admits that he can step through time, from one era to another as anyone else might step from room to room. He tells them that the solution to all their present difficulties is to open the Rift, and let it suck back in everything that was let loose. Jack is suspicious; he knows it can’t be that easy. But when he tries to strong-arm Bilis into accompanying them back to Torchwood, Bilis has already disappeared.

Jack leaves, but before Gwen can follow him, Bilis reappears; she asks him why he was apologizing. When she insists that she really wants to know, he shows Gwen a vision of Rhys, horribly murdered in their apartment. Gwen takes off (reminding me that this is the first running scene we’ve had in ages), and bursts into the apartment where there is no blood spattering the walls. Rhys is cleaning the oven, but Gwen insists he come away with her; when he deters, she tases him and puts him in a holding cell at Torchwood.

Owen, meanwhile, is doing his best to anesthetize himself with alcohol, when he has a vision of Diana (Louise Delamere), completely distraught and out-of-character, but Owen’s too engrossed in his own troubles to notice. Diane claims she’s lost, and begs him to open the Rift and find her again. The vision dissolves when the bartender asks Owen if he wants another, but that doesn’t stop Owen from being affected by it.

Torchwood is abuzz because Gwen’s brought in her boyfriend; they’re trying not to show that they think she’s gone around the bend. Gwen asks Tosh to bring up the security camera feed on her monitor so she can keep an eye on Rhys in his cell, but just then there’s a security breech. As the Weevils’ shrieks compete with the alarm, Rhys’s cell door opens, and he wanders out. He sees Manger at the end of the corridor, and asks him if he knows what’s going on; Manger guts him. Rhys can’t believe it, even as the blood soaks through his shirt. Manger stabs him again; Rhys collapses. Manger disappears and the security breach alarms quiet almost instantly. Gwen, up at the office level, screams and runs; she fears what she’ll find.

Eve Myles plays hysterical very convincingly. She swings between too-calm and frantic, and her thought processes are twisted by grief. There’s this lovely moment, with Rhys, dead on the table in the autopsy room and Gwen sitting next to him, thinking, thinking; Jack is standing by Gwen, slowly cleaning the blood from her hand. It’s a very simple, human gesture, but when Gwen turns her head you can see she has a streak of blood on her face as well. It’s small things that help carry scenes like these, where the range of emotions is completely crazy. Jack tries to comfort Gwen, telling her there’s nothing they can do. Tosh and Ianto wonder if that’s true.

Owen comes back at that moment, not to apologize or beg for forgiveness, but to open the Rift. When Ianto goes to follow him, Jack assumes it’s to stop him, but Ianto says simply, “No,” and Tosh and Gwen follow to help. Jack sees that they’ve all fallen for Manger’s trap and picks up his pistol to stop them.

There follows what is arguably the best scene of the entire season for this ensemble. Jack tells them it’s a trap; they don’t care, too many people have died already, and Gwen’s damned if she’s going to lose Rhys this way. Jack mocks their united front, tearing down each one in turn: Tosh, ready to love any alien who gave her pedant; Owen, so tough he climbed into a cage with a Weevil so he could be torn apart; Ianto, hiding his cyber-girlfriend—Jack doesn’t spare Ianto anything here, reminding him that his teammates pumped Lisa full of bullets. Everyone’s standing shell-shocked as Jack dresses them down, until he gets to Gwen: “You’re so in love with Rhys you spend half your time in Owen’s bed.” That’s too much for Gwen, and she punches him in the jaw so hard he flies backwards, losing the gun. There’s a lot more shouting, and Owen has the gun now, but Jack taunts him: “If you want to be a leader, you’ll need much bigger balls,” and that’s when Owen shoots him in the head. Just to make sure, he shoots him again in the chest, too. Ianto, Gwen and Tosh have the grace to be horrified, momentarily, and then they retina scan Jack’s glassy eye.

Jack revives just as the Rift opens, and it’s his turn to be horrified. Gwen’s not surprised but Owen, Tosh, and Ianto are understandably freaked out. Jack looks terrible, as he always does, post-death, with huge dark rings around his eyes, standing out in his too-pale face. The Rift Manipulator mechanism is destroying the Torchwood offices, and Ianto and Gwen help Jack out—Ianto makes a point of grabbing Jack’s coat as they leave.

Out in the street, they look around to see what’s happened, and Owen, at least, is sure that everything’s going to be OK now. He’s dead wrong, of course; it was a trap all along. Bilis Manger is waiting for them with his final pronouncement, “He is come.” In a blessedly short bit of exposition, Bilis explains that he was always the servant of his master, Abaddon, who had been imprisoned beneath the Rift. Now he has come to feed on life, and everything will die in his shadow.

This brief speech, like the speaker, is extremely creepy, but the edge is taken off the terror when we see Abaddon, a 30-story high demon who looks like nothing more than the younger brother of the demon in Doctor Who‘s The Satan Pit. We get a long shot of him stomping away, car alarms incongruously sounding in the background. There are some really well-done scenes of Abaddon’s shadow passing over groups of people, who instantly fall dead. I would have really preferred to have seen only Abaddon’s effects and not the demon at all; sometimes leaving things up to our imaginations is the better way to go.

But had they done that, we couldn’t have the showdown between our immortal, TARDIS-born Jack, and the demon who feeds on life. To such a one, Jack deadpans, “I’m an all-you-can-eat buffet.” He still looks like hell, and staggers rather than walks, but the team gets him out in the open where he can draw the attention of the demon. This scene was written to Barrowman’s strengths and was well-directed also. Jack falls to his knees, and his screams seem as if they will never end. At first the demon is delighted, but then Abaddon realizes that there’s something different here, but he can’t break away. Then streams of TARDIS-like energy pour out of Jack, bringing the demon down, and eventually destroying it all together. Jack collapses; he has nothing left.

For the second time, Gwen rushes home; Rhys thinks she’s crazy, she was just there. She gives him a long kiss and promises she’ll be back for him. Back at Torchwood, Jack is laid out in the morgue, and Owen says there’s no way he’s coming back from this. Gwen refuses to give up; Jack told her he couldn’t die. The others don’t know what to make of Gwen’s faith, but they leave her with him. There’s a montage of Gwen with Jack’s body, doing all those tiny fussy things that people do when they can’t accept reality. The others, cleaning up the office, wonder how long she’ll stay down there with him. Eventually Tosh goes to talk to her, “It’s been days,” but still, they won’t rush her. Gwen, in the same grubby outfit she was wearing when the Rift opened, finally seems ready to accept that Jack is gone. She hesitates, then lightly kisses his lips, and then begins to walk away. She has only gone a few steps when she hears Jack’s voice, very weak: “Thank you.”

The reunion scenes are mostly wordless; Gwen has fetched Jack’s clothes and he looks amazing for a guy who was dead for so long. Tosh sees them from across the Core and runs over the catwalk, throwing herself in Jack arms. Ianto can barely move, he’s so overcome; the two men embrace, and then kiss like they mean it. Owen, tears standing in his eyes, hangs back; he looks at Jack and stammers, “I’m…” I’m not sure whether Owen trailed off or Jack interrupted him, but it doesn’t really matter. Jack says what Owen needed to hear most, “I forgive you,” taking Owen in his arms. Owen crumples into his embrace, sobbing; it sounds like the kind of crying that physically hurts. All of Owen’s sins of pride and desperation are absolved.

Gwen later asks the questions we would ask: what now? Jack says the Rift closed when Abaddon was destroyed, and all of the people who fell through time were drawn back into it. But now the Rift will be even more temperamental than before (although how he can know that, there’s no saying.) Gwen wonders what vision would have tempted Jack to open the Rift, the way all of the others were so expertly manipulated; Jack tells her “a certain kind of doctor.” Just then, the “hand alarm” goes off; Jack’s face lights up when he realizes what’s happening. We faintly hear the call of the TARDIS, and suddenly, Jack’s gone. Gwen has no idea what’s happened to him, she just knows he left. The final shot is of the four remaining team members, wondering whether Jack’s going to come back, and what’s going to happen if he doesn’t.

“End of Days” isn’t a perfect episode, but it’s a good episode with some great stuff in it. It stumbles particularly in casting Gwen, Owen, Tosh, and Ianto as entirely emotion-driven; only Jack has the sense to see how they are being manipulated. The others won’t even consider the idea that it’s a trap, because they couldn’t conceive of anything worse than what was already happening. How dearly they paid for that failure of imagination.

Speaking of failure of imagination, it was significantly disappointing to have all the “it’s coming, out of the darkness” warnings add up to a hugely muscle-bound CGI creature stomping on buildings. I liked the “feeds on life” angle, and I liked the dying-in-the-shadow business, but really, couldn’t we have done better than that? And if you’re going to go to the trouble of reading prophetic scripture, it would’ve been nice to tie all that in, somehow. How did the prophets know about Abaddon?

The last big complaint is the abundance of loose ends we’re left with. We know that Rhys was OK, but what about everyone else? Did Abaddon’s victims revive also? Documents at the Hub indicate they didn’t; it would’ve been nice to wrap that up on air. Bilis Manger, the time-jumper who orchestrated all this, disappeared completely; was he destroyed with his master, or did he escape through time? How can Torchwood ever hope to find him, much less reign him in? He’s much too dangerous to be left to his own devices. Last, what’s going to happen to our intrepid team, after they shot Jack and almost destroyed the world? Sure, Jack forgave them, but are they going to be able to forgive themselves?

As for what happened to Jack: lucky us, we get to see his side of story play out in the Doctor Who Season 3 three-part finale, Utopia, The Sound of the Drums, and The Last of the Time Lords. It’s fair to say that Torchwood hasn’t quite known what to do with Jack Harkness, or John Barrowman. “Utopia” is exposition-heavy but it’s useful exposition, clearing the decks of many nagging Jack-related questions. That hand, for example, is the one that the newly-regenerated Doctor lost in “The Christmas Invasion;” Jack found it and used it to make a proximity alert so he’d know whenever the Doctor was near. Jack’s been waiting over 150 years for a chance to talk to the Doctor, because he still can’t understand what Rose did to him in “The Parting of the Ways.” He doesn’t know what he is, much less who he is, and he has been damned lonely living through decades waiting for his Doctor to show up.

Whether or not you watch Doctor Who regularly (I can’t imagine that there are fans of Torchwood who don’t watch Doctor Who, but I’ll grant it’s possible), you should watch at least those three episodes if you plan to keep on withTorchwood. Jack doesn’t find all the answers he wants, but learns enough to make peace with himself. I’m looking forward to the treatment of this character in season two; I’m hoping he’s a lot more settled and that we can have a bit more fun.

The Worst:

Countrycide, and Combat

owen

Countrycide fell flat with me, while Combat is very Owen-centric much to my dislike, as he is my least favorite character in the show.

According to the Slant Magazine review of Countrycide:

With the sixth episode of its debut season, Torchwood‘s identity crisis continues. Its premise collapses under mere moments of scrutiny, there’s no cool technology or special effects, and my favorite character does something rather loathsome. But don’t let all that put you off: “Countrycide” fires on all cylinders, featuring brilliant camera work and believable character development. Now, whether or not you will like it depends on your tolerance for on-screen blood and guts.

The pre-credit teaser sets up the episode when we see a woman driving alone and at night, through the Welsh country. She has just reached the limit of her cellphone’s range when she notices what looks like a body stretched across the road. Since she’s a character in the story and obviously has never seen a single horror movie, she makes two fatal errors. First, she stops the car and gets out to investigate. Second, she leaves the car running. I can see the logic in that, I suppose: the light from the headlamps was useful in illuminating the thing in the road, which turns out to be something made to look like a body—a decoy, bait for a trap. That suspicion is confirmed when the woman runs back to her car only to find the keys gone. Throughout this scene, we see figures dash past the camera, out of focus. We know there’s someone—or something—else there with the woman, and this is confirmed when the car is attacked.

Needless to say, she doesn’t make it.

Post-credits, Team Torchwood is driving the same road, investigating a spate of recent disappearances in the area. Owen (Burn Gorman) is in a right state at being dragged out of the city: “What’s that smell?” he asks. Gwen (Eve Myles), enjoying his discomfort, replies, “That would be grass.” Owen snaps back: “It’s disgusting.” The team exposits what they’re doing there, and Owen pulls the SUV off into a grassy field to get some lunch from a canteen truck. Jack (John Barrowman) instructs them to set up camp there, provoking general moans and groans; everyone hauls duffles and rucksacks out of the SUV and starts pitching tents.

Camaraderie is at an all-time high when Gwen teasingly asks the others who was the last person each snogged. Tosh (Naoko Mori) pathetically admits it was Owen, on Christmas Eve: “I had mistletoe.” Jack tosses off the question with a joke about non-humans, and Owen mortifies Gwen by referring to their mini-make-out session in the autopsy room in “Cyberwoman.” Gwen would get all shirty with Owen but doesn’t have the opportunity, because Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) brings everyone right down by reminding them about his dead girlfriend Lisa. Now Gwen is subdued and ashamed of her thoughtlessness. Owen rescues her by noting their need for firewood. Gwen accompanies Owen more to scold him about bringing up that kiss than to be a help, but Owen throws her attitude back in her face: Gwen has been avoiding him, and he knows they’d be great together. This is just the first of many fantastic scenes between these two, antagonistic passion bristling between them. We never do get to see what comes of it, though, because Gwen spots someone watching them through the trees. In a classic bit, the two plan their response speaking into each other’s mouths, maintaining their embrace until they suddenly peel away, guns drawn.

The shadowy figure has disappeared, but left something behind: a body, stripped down to its skeleton. Another decoy, in fact, which the team learns as they hear their SUV being driven off while they examine the remains. Fortunately, Ianto is able to track the vehicle, and the team takes off cross-country to retrieve it in the nearby village, and that’s when things get reallyweird. Torchwood then morphs into its own version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only in this case it would be Welsh Village Blunt Instrument Massacre. There is no point in complaining that it’s derivative; that’s not the point. The point is, it’s masterfully put together, and each character gets moments of illumination.

Take, for example, the visuals. Wide, gorgeous shots of the rugged country with dark gray clouds scudding by high overhead are spectacular, and the constant soft wailing of the wind sets everyone’s nerves on edge. The sparse and stick-like woods feel claustrophobic by comparison. The village, with its fieldstone structures and pre-war furniture, is already creepy because it appears completely deserted. Other small details contribute, such as the small prey hung upside and swinging in that constant wind outside many of the buildings. Fear keeps ratcheting up with every new body that’s discovered, skewed point-of-view shot or glimpse of an indistinct threatening figure.

The team makes the obvious mistake of splitting up. Jack sends Tosh and Ianto to retrieve the SUV while he explores the pub/inn with Owen and Gwen. Interspersed with the team’s movements are point-of-view shots, through windows and around corners; whatever’s happening here, there’s more than one perpetrator, and the team is under close watch. The pacing here is excellent, and once they all realize they are in a horror story, everyone smartens up quite a bit.

There’s a lot going on: Gwen gets a gutful of shotgun pellet, Ianto and Tosh are captured; Jack, Gwen, Owen and a young man try to barricade themselves in the pub and fail. I found myself liking Ianto much more in this episode, and had a lot of sympathy for the clean-up guy who obviously hasn’t spent much time in the field. Tosh, too, showed unexpected competency and not a whiff of panic. “There’s not a cell I can’t get out of,” she flatly states, and you believe her when she says it. She does manage to escape, which of course results in the requisite chase scene, but here, it works, particularly the cross-cutting with Gwen and Owen’s situation.

As nightmare piles upon nightmare, the relationships among the team members come to the fore. In this respect, “Countrycide” is superior to the average slasher pic, because the typical film has only one smart, brave person, and Torchwood has five. Bravery and brains manifest in different ways, but one thing I enjoyed was seeing how completely every member of this team trusts each other. Moments of intimacy large—Owen performing field surgery on Gwen—and small—Jack’s “Be careful!” admonition to Gwen, or Ianto’s meaningful look at Tosh just prior to him head-butting his captor—make this episode the first which makes good use of the entire team.

The best thing about this episode is how long they string out exactly what’s happening in the village. All of Torchwood is convinced that some particularly carnivorous alien has slipped through the rift, and it’s well past the mid-way mark when we find out that everything that’s happened has been at the hands of humans. All of the odd-angle shots and fast-moving shapes at the edge of the scene contribute to the impression that there’s something alien here; the terrified humans that the team meets solidifies it. They are forced to face what’s really happening here when one of their captors refers to the young man as “meat.”

Which brings me to the worst thing about this episode: the explanation. We’re supposed to believe that this “harvesting” takes place every ten years, with the remote village—yes, the entire village—participating in rounding up strays and loners just driving through, people not likely to be missed, and butchering them for their later consumption? Two responses: Ick, and huh?Seventeen people had gone missing in that area, and they really expected it to go unnoticed? Also: the entire village is in on this business, and is OK with it? The whole “this is our village, it’s what we do” rationale works for every single one? Granted, it’s not a big village, and we can always, Deliverance-style, blame inbreeding, I suppose, but come on! It doesn’t make any sense at all.

But that’s OK with me. As horror-fantasies go, this is borderline superb in its execution, and the two endings are worthy pay-offs. After Jack has saved everyone and the appropriate (as opposed to in-on-it) authorities have been called, Gwen rails at the leader, a fantastic performance by Owen Teale, wanting to understand how he could do such things, and why. He says he’ll tell her if he can whisper it, and a more chilling statement I cannot recall: “Because it made me happy,” he says, and Gwen’s look of disbelief, revulsion, and horror mirrors our own. The man’s loopy grin as he’s escorted to a police car does nothing to diminish Gwen’s reaction, and there’s a great moment when both Owen’s and Jack’s expressions reveal their concern for her.

In the epilogue, Gwen voice-overs that she used to have a good job, how she expected to have kids one day with Rhys, and move up to desk sergeant, before Torchwood came along. We see her sitting, shell-shocked, next to Rhys, watching tv; he glances at her, worried, but thinks better of speaking. Gwen needs to process the day’s events, but she’s unable to say a word. How can she possibly tell Rhys about what had happened to her, and in that village? How could she destroy his innocent view of humanity?

We see her walking, and realize that it’s not a voice-over after all; she’s with Owen, in his apartment, wearing nothing but a button-down shirt, telling him what she can’t tell Rhys: all of these things are changing her, changing the way she sees the world, and she can’t share them with anyone. Owen, behind her, says quite tenderly, “You can, now,” and they embrace. The whole business lasts less than two minutes, but Myles and Gorman, stellar throughout the episode, completely blew me away in this scene. Gwen is in so much pain she doesn’t know what to do, and Owen, in spite of all the banter, on top of all the fantastic chemistry, loves her and can scarcely believe she’s there with him. There’s moment when he closes his eyes and leans in, smelling her hair, that’s just beautiful. He understands how fragile she is, holding her gently, but because this is also about sex, he’s not afraid to respond to her passionately. He knows Gwen needs to stop thinking.

Is humanity’s capacity for monstrous behavior Torchwood‘s recurrent theme? It’s too soon to tell, and I would take comfort in the fact that serial killers are few and far between, and, as far as I know, there are no known cases of cyclically cannibalistic remote villages. But there are far too many atrocities on the books for me to brush this off as absurd; there may not be murderous villages, but there have certainly been plenty of murderous governments and terrorist organizations. Frankly, I don’t want to be beaten over the head with this every episode; no one likes to be told he’s a monster, and this is the kind of thing that will eventually keep viewers away. It works just fine, here, particularly as the plot device which propels Gwen into Owen’s arms. I’ll be happy if they leave it at that, for a while.

Gwen’s relationship with Owen came as a surprise; we were conditioned from the beginning to expect Gwen to fall for Jack, but he’s too scary. Gwen knows more about him than anyone else at Torchwood, and that’s enough to keep her out of his bed. Sparks fly between her and Owen, though, and while I normally would be upset that the writers would have serious, conscientious, former-police-constable Gwen embark on an affair, it made perfect sense in the context of this episode. I’m not saying it was right, I’m just saying it works here. I admit, I like Rhys, and I don’t want Gwen to treat him badly. But I also admit that Gwen’s relationship with Rhys was doomed the moment she went to work for Torchwood. It seems the only ones who didn’t realize that were Rhys and Gwen.

Without veering into banality here, for long-term relationships to be successful, the partners need to grow together. Nothing is static in life, and a relationship in a steady-state is just treading water until it dies. In her voice-over, Gwen described the growth arc she expected to share with Rhys, the typical marriage-kids-career stuff. Joining Torchwood put her on a wildly different path, and is forcing her to see the world in ways she wasn’t quite prepared for—much akin to what we experience in the Real World that first year out of school. Experience forces us to grow up. Perversely, I find it’s to Gwen’s credit that she didn’t dump her shattering experience on Rhys; he didn’t sign up for it, and he doesn’t deserve it. At the same time, though, Gwen realizes that she can’t continue to play in the kiddie pool much longer. She’s a grown-up now, with grown-up relationships to explore, and grown-up work to do. I’ll be watching.

According to the Slant Magazine review of Combat:

The intersection of the alien and the human is front and center in “Combat,” as disaffected young men seek meaning, Fight Club-style. Our Torchwood team regulars struggle to deal with the accumulated consequences of actions we’ve seen over the course of the season, and Owen (Burn Gorman) becomes the nexus around which everything revolves.

Our first hint that this is an Owen episode comes from the opening credits sequence, with scenes from “Out of Time” spliced in; we even hear Diane’s voice-over (“Love, you’re always at its mercy”). It will take a moment before we check in on Owen, though. A Weevil, one of the bipedal aliens with piranha-like faces we met in the pilot episode, lopes through an industrial neighborhood, pursued by our Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). Jack’s back to his usual glib, confident self, but the Weevil attacks and eludes him; Jack notes that such things always happen when he has given the team the night off.

Elsewhere in Cardiff, Gwen (Eve Myles) is not exactly enjoying her night out with Rhys (Kai Owen). Her attention keeps wandering, and Rhys calls her on it; she’s always wishing she was elsewhere. Rhys can feel her slipping away, and asks what’s going on. Myles’ expression of flustered guilt is perfect. Gwen’s eyes are opened too wide in a simulation of honesty, but she isn’t fooling anyone as she tries to figure out what excuse to make this time. Her reprieve comes as Jack dashes in, all apologies, needing Gwen’s help to catch the runaway Weevil. Rhys, already upset, overplays it and rudely orders Gwen to sit back down. Gwen responds in the only healthy way possible: “Don’t ever speak to me that way again.” She heads off with Jack, but ultimately they fail. The Weevil is scooped up by unknown thugs, bundled into the back of a van as a ski-masked man confronts them with a sly grin before taking off.

Owen, abandoned, is in the depths of despair, out drinking alone; he’s right that you’re never more alone than when you’re surrounded by a crowd of total strangers. The lovely barkeep’s banter doesn’t penetrate Owen’s gloom, but it does draw the jealousy of her boyfriend, who unwisely attacks Owen and soon regrets it. But even beating down the two-bit thug doesn’t do anything to lift Owen’s spirits, who continues to ignore his ringing cellphone.

At Torchwood, Gwen’s leaving her third message for Rhys, and her pleading seems sincere this time. Rhys listens to her message as she speaks, but deletes it instead of picking up the phone to talk to her. Jack has already reprimanded Gwen over letting her personal life fall apart. A big part of her appeal to Jack, and one of the reasons he wanted her on the team, is that she was “normal,” and had a healthy outside relationship. But is Jack’s command—“Don’t let it drift,”—just more evidence of Jack’s fundamental disconnect with humanity? Is that a reasonable thing to demand of another person? On one level, we’re apt to reply, “Well, it’s not as if she wanted this to happen,” but that’s not exactly true, is it? Gwen did let it drift. She decided that Torchwood was more important than Rhys. When given the choice between work and Rhys, she keeps on choosing Torchwood.

Of course, Gwen also chose Owen, but that’s not working out well, either. The Owen we saw very early in the series, the sarcastic bastard, is back in spades. When he finally comes back in to work, he insults Tosh (Naoko Mori) and is cold to Gwen. Provoked, she asks him why they’re even continuing their affair, and he breaks it off with a crude insult, claiming boredom. This is such a stark contrast to the tenderness he showed her in “Countrycide” that Gwen is stung into answering his insult with one of her own: “You can be such a wanker sometimes.” It’s no consolation at all to Gwen that Owen agrees with her.

In the midst of all this personal drama, there’s still the Weevil situation to sort out. Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) has noted an increase in strange and severe injuries in the local emergency rooms; the natural conclusion is that Weevil attacks are up, as well. Tosh and Jack investigate the warehouse where the captured Weevil was taken, and find a body, obviously the victim of a Weevil. They are warned to stay away from things that don’t concern them via a call to the victim’s cellphone.

Since the only lead they have is the empty warehouse, Tosh and Jack decide to send Owen out to investigate the leasing agent. His cover story as a jellied eel distributor is just out-there enough to be believable; who knows anything about jellied eels? Check out Owen’s cover, it’s hysterical. And since Tosh is the one who dreamed up it all up, I think it’s safe to interpret her choice of something slithery and slimy as a direct commentary on Owen himself.

Cover firmly in place, Owen meets with Mark Lynch (Alex Hassell), ostensibly to find a warehouse near the docks for his booming export business, but actually to give Torchwood access to his computer via some of the alien tech we saw in “Day One.” Mark and Owen hit it off in a testosterone-laden way, and Mark’s interest in Owen is cemented when they meet later for a drink, and Owen is confronted by the bartender’s boyfriend again. This time he has brought a few friends, and Mark helps Owen handily dispatch them. Mark is obviously excited by the fight, and his respect for Owen has increased. Mark invites Owen back to his place for a drink, and normally, with this show, and Owen in particular, you’d expect them to be going for sex. But Owen is as disaffected as ever, and there’s a feral quality to Mark’s personality that’s impossible to ignore. He’s not trawling for Owen, he’s recruiting him.

Mark responds to Owen as an equal: successful but aimless, rich but empty. Hassel’s performance is a stand-out in a series that consistently features extraordinary guest actors, and he’s able to sell his particular line of bullshit about the futility of ordinary life and the emptiness of success exceptionally well. The recurrent theme—something’s out there, in the dark, and it’s coming—is voiced again, but Mark doesn’t care what it means for humanity, he only cares about what it means for himself. Mark has all the fervor of a true believer while disavowing faith in society, religion, and his own accomplishments. So where does he find his meaning?

Among the Weevils, of course. He has one chained up in his apartment, and he uses it as a punching bag. This brutality finally shakes Owen out of his apathy; he would no more punch a Weevil than he would kick a dog. But it’s so much more than one Weevil chained up for one man’s amusement. Mark scoffs when Owen accuses him of using the Weevil as the perfect murder weapon, and Owen sees how wrong he was when Mark takes him to yet another empty property, where scores of successful men have gathered to fight each other and, if they’ve got the cash and the nerve, go into the cage with a Weevil.

Mark blathers about stripping away everything to get down to their essential essence, but Owen isn’t buying it. Mark explains that the dead man went into the cage and gave up, “He didn’t want to live enough.” None of Mark’s philosophizing is enough to justify what they’re doing, though, and Owen turns to leave. He only stops when Mark pulls a gun on him, and insists he get into the cage. Turning the situation on its head, Owen tells Mark to put the gun down, and promises to go in, if he does.

A neatly choreographed sequence of events has the rest of the team breaking into the fight club just as Owen has entered the cage. The Weevil seems to recognize him, and for the first time in the entire episode, Owen lets the tension run out of him, closing his eyes and exhaling. It seems as if the Weevil won’t attack him, but it is startled by the sudden commotion surrounding Torchwood’s arrival, and dives for Owen. Gwen screams for Owen, and Jack ends up shooting the Weevil in the arm to get it off the man. They get Owen out of there, but while Jack is issuing his cease-and-desist orders, Mark enters the cage with the now-wounded and frantic Weevil. Asked what he’s doing, Mark laments, “It’s over.” Jack watches the scene in the cage for a moment, unreadable; he turns away as we hear Mark’s shrieks.

Our coda begins with a pretty beat-up Owen, in hospital but on the mend; Jack comes in and tosses a bag of grapes on his table. Owen says he shouldn’t have; he really hates grapes. But that’s far from Owen’s biggest problem with Jack; suicide by Weevil seemed like such a good idea at the time, in that tiny moment of peace he felt in the cage. Owen questions Jack’s certainty that he’s always doing the right thing; at least in this case, we can see that Jack is rather arbitrary in his decisions. Owen was saved, but if Mark Lynch wanted to die, that was OK by Jack. Perhaps Jack thought Mark’s death by Weevil was appropriate payback for the torture that Mark inflicted on the Weevils he captured.

Jack doesn’t respond to Owen’s challenge. His face hardens, though, and he leaves Owen with orders to return to work the next day. Taking us out of the episode, Ianto lets Owen into the cell block where the Weevils are now in residence; Ianto’s worried, but Owen asks for just a minute alone. Owen’s prior research had speculated they might have some kind of low-level telepathic connection, able to communicate primitive emotions. When the Weevils see Owen, they become aggressive, but when Owen hisses at them, they retreat into the shadows of their cells and begin their odd lowing. It’s obvious they’re terrified of him, and Owen’s grin shows that he’s satisfied with that.

All in all, “Combat” stacks up to be a terrific episode, with touches of humor nicely balancing the deeper and more painful scenes. I was delighted to see that it was written by Doctor Who regular Noel Clarke, aka “Mickey the Idiot,” who wasn’t, of course. Clarke provides some of the best character development we’ve had since the Russell T Davies’-penned episodes, and he skillfully paces the separate plotlines, ultimately bringing them together for maximum effect.

Even better, everyone has at least one good line; Tosh and Ianto are both appalled at Jack’s plan to release a Weevil so they can see where it ends up, and Tosh is even more distressed when she sees how the Weevil’s captors treat it. Jack doesn’t care, believing in their ability to protect the innocent of Cardiff from random Weevil attacks, and also to ultimately figure out what’s going on. This is the Jack that’s easy to like but hard to trust; since the ends justify the means for him, you’ll always have to worry that his means may someday steamroll you, exactly as happened to Owen, who didn’t want saving. Barrowman is blessedly comfortable in both modes, charming and grinning one moment, flinty-eyed steel the next. Every so often he has to remind this team that they have a boss, and he’s it. They tend to wander when left to their own devices too long.

Eve Myles has a couple of fantastic scenes, one in which she confesses her affair to Rhys, knowing he won’t remember any of it because she has given him Torchwood’s amnesia drug, RetCon. Pre-Torchwood Gwen would never dream of anything like this kind of morally compromised idiocy, but now we see how corrupted Gwen has become. Her attempt to have it both ways fails, though. Her dosing is off, and Rhys passes out before she can get even a hint of absolution. With Rhys out for hours, Gwen drifts back to Torchwood, Jubilee Pizza in hand, just as in the pilot. But this time, there’s no one there, and Gwen struggles to contain her emotional turmoil. Myles’ use of hand gestures to ward off tears is classic. She teeters on the brink of a complete breakdown for a moment, but then is saved by the Weevil victim’s cellphone, signaling a new text message.

The soundtrack, along with everything else for this episode, is a keeper. That text message chime is expertly worked into the soundtrack of that series of scenes, adding immeasurably to the atmosphere of building dread. The bar scenes are scored with electro-pop from Hot Chip, while the fight club features a song by prog-metal group Muse; both sets support the action without drawing attention to themselves.

This is such a solid episode, I can’t even criticize Mark’s deeply shallow philosophy. I never bought the nihilistic impulses at the center of the originalFight Club; pain hurts too much for repeated beatings to hold lasting appeal for anyone except masochists. But the aimlessness of men who’ve done everything they’re supposed to do and still feel empty resonates anyway. Doesn’t everyone want to escape his (or her) own life at some point? The trick is finding the meaning in the every day, and not everyone has the desire or means to do so. It’s odd to be quoting philosophy from John Corbett’sNorthern Exposure disc jockey, but I think he nailed it: “Having things doesn’t make us happy. Being a part of things makes us happy.”

Why a typical fight club could provide a sense of belonging that, say, a bowling league couldn’t, was always beyond me, but an alien fight club? That’s something else altogether, a test beyond anything a typical man could anticipate. Owen’s description of how the police would react—their “minds would implode if they saw this”—is what we could expect from the average Cardiff resident, as well. The fact that these men didn’t freak out really is to their credit, though it could never be enough to make up for the torture they carried out or the bizarre rites they forced the Weevils into. Our impulse to attack and destroy The Unknowable Other remains as strong as it was in our most ancient ancestors, even when that Other is a simple beast. We should be happy that Owen is content with intimidation, for now.

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4 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Torchwood: Series 1

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