Torchwood Series 1 (Jan 25 - Feb 4, Feb 7 - Feb 8)

January 25: "Everything Changes"
January 26: "Day One"
January 27: "Ghost Machine"
January 28: "Cyberwoman"
January 29: "Small Worlds"
January 30: "Countrycide"
January 30: "Countrycide" (Second Attempt)
January 31: "Greeks Bearing Gifts"
February 1: "They Keep Killing Suzie"
February 2: "Random Shoes"
February 3: "Out of Time"
February 4: "Combat"
February 7: "Captain Jack Harkness"
February 8: "End of Days"



January 25: "Everything Changes"

So.  Series 2 of Doctor Who concluded on 8 July 2006.  But between then and its return at Christmas, a brand-new spinoff came out (on 22 October, to be precise) -- not a one-off, like K-9 and Company had (fortunately) been, but a full-fledged series: Torchwood.177  And unlike its parent show, Torchwood was designed to be a post-watershed show (so late night after the kids have gone to bed), with a lot more swearing, sex, and explicit violence than you might find in Doctor Who.  So, not exactly the sort of thing the general audience would go for.

Based on this first episode though, by Russell T Davies, they might actually pull it off.  Far and away the best thing about Torchwood is the return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack.  He's not quite as great as he was in series 1 of Doctor Who, as he has to be more of the straight lead here rather than the rogue he was with Eccleston, but he still does a good job.  But "Everything Changes" focuses primarily on PC Gwen Cooper, who's investigating a murder when this outfit called Torchwood comes along and takes charge.  Gwen spends the rest of the episode trying to find out more about Torchwood and what they do.  It's all very "pilot"-y.

We do learn some things, though; this is explicitly set after "Doomsday", and while the Torchwood in London (Torchwood One) was completely wiped out, the Torchwood in Cardiff (Torchwood Three) is still around -- even if there doesn't seem to be a central authority for Captain Jack and his team to answer to anymore.  We also learn that this is after "The Parting of the Ways" for Jack: "Something happened to me a while back," he tells Gwen.  "Long story and far away.  But I was killed, and then I was brought back to life.  And ever since then, I can't die."

But as far as first episodes go, this one isn't too bad.  It doesn't assume that the audience has seen Doctor Who, which means that it does take some time to set up Torchwood for that new audience, with the "we take care of alien stuff".  It's sort of like a reverse X-Files, dedicated to covering up alien involvement instead of exposing it.

Suzie confesses to Gwen while Jack stands on the perception-
filtered lift. ("Everything Changes") ©BBC
They make some good moves (such as the gag about letting Gwen inside the base and then being unable to stay in character, or how the actress playing Suzie is treated like one of the main cast -- with a credit and everything -- only to be killed at the end), but there are some problems as well.  The aforementioned Suzie is shown to be a killer (even if this is shown as a hazard of the job), and while she gets her comeuppance at the end, Owen Harper (Torchwood's doctor) is shown to be a date rapist, essentially, with no consequences -- indeed, it's hard to shake the feeling that we're supposed to find this funny.  Still, at least Gwen, Toshiko, and Ianto come out more or less okay.

It's not the best episode ever, but "Everything Changes" does a decent job of setting the series up.  It's nothing incredible, but it does the job it was meant to do -- even if you're still not quite sure at the end what sort of show Torchwood will be.



January 26: "Day One"

Generally speaking, the first episode of a new show is there to set up the premise of the show and introduce the main characters.  The second episode is the first chance for a show to set out its stall and say, "This is what this show is going to be like."

So what kind of show does "Day One" suggest Torchwood is going to be like?  The answer, worryingly, seems to be, "Not a very good one."

Russell T Davies stated on Torchwood Declassified (the sister show to Torchwood in the same way that Doctor Who Confidential was to Doctor Who) that "when we're launching a new adult science fiction drama, it's kind of inevitable you're going to do the sex monster."  Setting aside the fact that that doesn't really seem to be true (to pick a couple shows at random, there's not really a sex monster in Star Trek (unless you want to count the Salt Vampire in "The Man Trap", but that's more about seduction) or at all in Babylon 5 -- but on the other hand, it comes up pretty early in The X-Files, which is what Torchwood looks like it wants to be like), it suggests that the definition of "adult" that Torchwood wants to be is closer to the pornographic side.  It's not an encouraging decision.

The (sigh) sex monster enters Carys Fletcher. ("Day One") ©BBC
But alas, you can't just wish this episode away.  "Day One" (and it's rather painful to write this bit) features the team dealing with a gaseous sex monster (entertainingly, the TARDIS wiki calls it "Sex Gas") that feeds off orgasmic energy -- specifically male orgasmic energy, as Gwen apparently is no use to it.  To this end we get a number of scenes of the possessed Carys absorbing men as they climax (plus one of a bouncer masturbating to a CCTV feed inside the women's lavatory), as well as a make-out scene between Gwen and Carys -- apparently because of the intense pheromones that the sex monster emits.  This also leads to the first indication that the members of Torchwood Three are all idiots.  So first they capture Carys, who's possessed by a gaseous alien -- and Torchwood know that, because they're the ones who accidentally released the alien in the first place, when Gwen tossed a "chisel" (that looked more like a spike) to Owen and missed -- and lock her in a cell in their base (which is disgustingly filthy, by the way -- doesn't Ianto ever go in there with a hose and some bleach?) with great big holes in the wall, perfect for gas to seep through.  (Not that the creature ever tries to escape that way.)  But anyway, Gwen goes in to talk to her and ends up making out with her -- something Owen notices on the CCTV and calls Jack and Tosh over to see.  Do they immediately realize that Gwen's in danger from a monster that kills people while having sex with them?  No, they all just stare appreciatively at the camera output for a while (even Tosh) before Jack decides to go stop it.  And then later the sex monster gets out because Owen went to talk to her alone and was seduced by it, leaving him naked and in handcuffs.  It's sort of hard to feel remotely bad about Owen, though, given that he spends the entire episode as an asshole and a scumbag and less likeable than anything we've seen in this show yet.  It's not remotely clear what they're trying to achieve with this character, but they're doing a superb job of pushing the audience away.

Good bits?  The way in which the main cast treats these events is surprisingly straight -- despite the premise, they manage to treat this as a serious threat, and Gwen excels by being concerned about the girl the gas has taken over.  The scene where they're eating Chinese food and discussing Jack's mysterious past is rather nice.  Meanwhile, Kai Owen as Gwen's boyfriend Rhys is just about the best thing in this, but John Barrowman still does a good job as Jack -- and his extreme paranoia over a severed hand in a jar is interesting.  There are also some nice directorial choices -- such as the scene illustrating all the sexually-charged advertising that Carys walks past, which works significantly better than it has any right to -- which make it at least interesting from a purely visual standpoint.

But ultimately "Day One" feels like a tawdry and tasteless attempt to show that Torchwood is different from its parent show: "Look how adult we are!" it seems to be yelling.  There are some good performances, but there's nothing really meaningful being expressed here -- no commentary on the nature of sexuality or anything like that; that advertising montage is the closest we get.  It really does look like they just said, "Hey, let's do an episode about a sex monster!  We'll work out why later," and they never really did.  Throw in some truly unlikeable moments (seriously, why does anyone in there tolerate Owen Harper?) and the result is an unpleasant mess.



January 27: "Ghost Machine"

Well, it's certainly better than the last episode...

So I understand that they're still finding their feet with these characters and this set-up, but the episodes seem to be all over the map stylistically.  "Everything Changes" was an attempt to create a secretive but fun organization, but show some of the consequences of that kind of life, while "Day One" just looked like a way to get some cheap thrills while pushing the boundaries of good taste.  "Ghost Machine", on the other hand, feels like it's somewhere between these two approaches.

Owen watches (via the quantum transducer) Ed Morgan prepare to
kill Lizzie Lewis back in 1963. ("Ghost Machine") ©BBC
One of the good things it does is it pulls Owen's character back from the being the right bastard he was in the first two episodes.  He's still kind of a prick here, going to a murderer's house and confronting him about it to "put the fear of God into him", but at least we can understand his reasoning behind it -- and making him so affected by the events of the past that he witnesses, it's not too hard to sympathize.  He's still something of an asshole, but at least he's not completely irredeemable.

It's still a story that requires its main characters to behave like idiots at times, though.  The scene with Gwen using the quantum transducer in her flat is bad enough (given what's happened with the device so far, why would she a) take it with her at all, and b) expect to experience anything but unhappy memories inside her flat?), but at least it doesn't adversely affect things.  Much worse is the resolution of the main storyline, which needs to have both Gwen use the completed device -- even though the only other person she knows who's done this saw his own death -- and to hold the knife pointing out once she takes it away from Owen.  That might be more forgivable if she wasn't a trained police officer; you'd think they'd cover what to do with weapons when you've taken them from people (such as "don't brandish them at people"), even if they don't train you how to use them.  But then the same thing happens earlier when she points a loaded gun at Jack's face (to his alarm), so maybe they don't train them for these sorts of situations.  It still seems contrived, though.  (And making Morgan walk straight into a knife pointed at him doesn't help; Tosh later says that he wanted to die, but that sure doesn't look like what's happening.

However, while "Ghost Machine" has its flaws, it's not nearly as unpleasant as "Day One" was.  Of course, it's no standout either; despite some good performances (particularly from Blake's 7's Gareth Thomas as the old Ed Morgan -- but if we're discussing characters, why is Captain Jack so angry for large parts of this?), this is an entirely forgettable and average episode.



January 28: "Cyberwoman"

It's really hard to see what the point of this episode is.  I can see what director James Strong is going for -- he wants to make this a scary episode, with lots of handheld camera shots and dark shadows for Lisa the Cyberman to get lost in.  He even partially succeeds.  But what is Chris Chibnall trying to do with this script?

In some ways the script wants to be tense and claustrophobic and terrifying, and those are probably the moments where "Cyberwoman" comes the closest to succeeding.  The moments that pit Jack against Ianto work surprisingly well, even if Ianto's repeated accusations that Jack is a monster and "worse than anything locked up down there" ring rather hollow (they want it to be like Margaret's accusations against the Doctor in "Boom Town", but works even less well here because Jack's trying to stop a rampaging alien monster from destroying them the way Torchwood One was destroyed, so it's really hard to keep sympathizing with Ianto by the end).  The tension as they point guns at each other is very effective (even if it's hard not to see this as a success on Strong's part rather than Chibnall's).

Ianto looks at the partially-Cybernized Lisa. ("Cyberwoman") ©BBC
But there are some massively stupid things going on in "Cyberwoman".  The first one is the appearance of Lisa herself.  They bend over backwards to explain why her body is still there when we saw in "Rise of the Cybermen" / "The Age of Steel" that all the Cybermen were taking was the brain (because they needed to move fast or something), just so they can present us with this bizarre sexualized creation.  It's not just the literal breastplate, or that fact that the Cybermen cut a groove on the butt plate to make it look like she has a butt.  It's not even the way the bellybutton is highlighted and exposed.  It's the fact that she's wearing Cyber-heels, for heaven's sake.  It's like a technofetishist's wet dream.  There's also no explanation as to why she wasn't sucked into the Void along with the rest of the Cybermen in "Doomsday", beyond a passing reference to using "Earth technology", which could mean anything.  (The associated website tried to explain this -- and it's not a good sign when you have to explain plot holes on your official website -- by arguing that the Cybermen started using our resources to convert people, and that only things that had originated in Pete's World were pulled into the Void.  Fair enough, but that doesn't explain why Lisa seems to be the only person made entirely with "our" Earth parts, or why there's only one Cyber-conversion unit made with our resources. -- or why they decided to start giving their fellow Cybermen defined breasts.)

There's also the stupidity of Ianto hiding this thing in Torchwood's basement -- it's understandable, entirely human stupidity, but it's still stupidity -- and the longer it goes on, as he refuses to see the evidence of his own eyes, the less we feel for him.  Owen snogging Gwen while in the mortuary cooler is in keeping with what we know about Owen.  What's not in keeping is Gwen deciding to kiss him back.  Lots of people stop and stare at Lisa even after being told to run and do things as quick as they can while others buy them time that they're currently wasting by stopping and staring.  And the fight between Lisa and the pterodactyl is also daft -- and it doesn't seem to have done a damn thing one way or the other.  And why do all the doors to the top-secret base obligingly open for Annie the pizza delivery girl?

Here's the thing: you can forgive stupid things if there's a good reason behind it, or if it adds to the drama in some meaningful way (such as the fifth Doctor not drinking the queen bat's milk right when he gets it, because his impending death overriding just about everything else is part of the reason the end of The Caves of Androzani works so well).  But there's no sign of that here.  There's no point to any of this.  At least Chibnall's last script ("Day One") had something to say about sexuality in Western culture (even if that something appeared to be little more than, "Hey, Western culture is sexualized!").  There's not even that here.  This looks like it was designed to have a sexy Cyberwoman scare everyone and nothing else.  There don't even seem to be any real consequences at the end of it, as we see Ianto back to work and cleaning things up.  It's unbelievably shallow, worryingly misogynist, and ultimately pointless.



January 29: "Small Worlds"

It's nice to finally get an episode that doesn't feel vaguely mean-spirited in some way.  One of the problems with Torchwood thus far is that it's a very negative show -- very dark and unhappy.  "Small Worlds" is still rather unhappy, but it stems more from the stories being told than because they're artificially trying to be "adult".

It's not perfect in this regard; we still get a paedophile following a young girl, and while we see him apparently attacked while in the process of luring in a young girl and later killed by these same somethings, it's hard to feel any real worry or regret about his death.  Still, at least he wasn't successful in his attempted kidnapping -- it's all too easy to envision a version of this story where that happens -- and so it's nice to see a bit of restraint.

Those "somethings", by the way, are Torchwood's take on the Cottingley fairies, a hoax from the early 20th century where two girls had claimed to have taken photos of fairies.  As Gwen points out, both women admitted that the photos were a hoax, but at the time they had taken hold of England's imagination -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was just one of many convinced of their veracity.  (Houdini wasn't one of them, though -- Owen gets that wrong.)  But Jack says that's just a way to make people comfortable with their existence, and that they're actually evil "from the dawn of time" (just like Fenric, eh?).  He also makes an offhand reference to the Mara, which may or may not be the Mara from 20th-century Doctor Who.178

Jack and Estelle. ("Small Worlds") ©BBC
This leads to probably the most interesting parts of the episode: its exploration of Captain Jack.  The stuff in 1909 Punjab is intriguing for the hints it gives us of other things Jack has done, but it's his relationship with Estelle that is the most touching.  The implication is that Jack has been on Earth for a long time, and it's sweet how he visits the girl he loved in the 1930s now, even if he tells her he's the son of the man she knew.  It shows us a tender side of Jack, one that's been largely missing from Torchwood, which seems to want him to be a brooding loner instead.  It's a good move, showing him vulnerable as he stays the same age while the rest of the universe moves on but still in love with the people he's known (and I have to say, it works a lot better for Jack, who had immortality thrust upon him, than it does for the Doctor, who's a member of a race of incredibly long-lived people), and it gives Estelle's death -- poor, sweet Estelle, who thought the fairies were benign creatures -- a greater impact.  This is in fact the most emotionally involving episode we've seen yet.  "Ghost Machine" and "Cyberwoman" both tried really hard to pull on our heartstrings, but both efforts felt too calculated, with not enough substance behind them.  "Small Worlds", on the other hand, does this quietly and sweetly with Jack's reactions to Estelle.

I also like the ending, which feels right even if it's a bit bleak (and, to jump ahead here, this isn't the first time Jack's had to sacrifice a child for the good of humanity; see Children of Earth).  The idea that fairies aren't good is hardly a new one -- that idea's as old as the idea of fairies itself -- but they do a decent job pulling it off here.  It doesn't always succeed -- there's a slight issue with making most of the targets of the fairies' wrath not nice people, which dulls their impact somewhat -- but "Small Worlds" is finally an episode of Torchwood you can watch without cringing.



January 30: "Countrycide"

What the hell was the point of that?



January 30: "Countrycide" (Second Attempt)

All right.  For all the cheap shock value and dread that "Countrycide" gives us, there does seem to be a point at its heart: namely, that humans can be bigger monsters than actual monsters.  The problem with that point is that a) we don't really learn it until near the end, and b) it's not exactly the most original point ever -- Torchwood's parent show makes that point every three episodes or so, and they don't have to put it in a wannabe slasher movie to do so.

The Torchwood team approach a seemingly deserted village.
("Countrycide") ©BBC
Up to the point where we learn it's just (just) cannibals in rural Wales, rather than an alien threat, "Countrycide" (which is a rubbish title, by the way -- yes, puns and all that, but taken at face value, it means "killing the country") keeps trying to have it both ways: suggesting there's an alien presence/influence at work while trying to play out a slasher flick at the same time.  Now I'm not the biggest fan of slasher films, so I might not be the best person to judge, but it seems like this one pulls most of its punches.  We get some gore in the form of human carcasses, a bunch of blood and a few unidentifiable entrails, and some severed limbs.  And that's about it.  No on-screen killings (or even attempted ones -- unless you count the scared kid Kieran shooting Gwen in the stomach with a shotgun), no sense of people tempting fate or disregarding warnings, no examination of what made the villagers this way... it's like Chris Chibnall wants to ape the conventions of slasher films without putting any real reason into why.  Now, it's likely there are BBC guidelines for what can be shown on television, even post-watershed, that prevents the production team from going all out on this.  But then why bother?  If you can't go full out, and you don't have a deeper purpose behind your slasher episode than "Let's see if we can," what's the point?  It's like the thought of an alien presence is enough justification to go through the motions without putting in any deeper context, and we should applaud them for trying.

And while "Countrycide" does a decent job of building up tension and making the audience nervous (so at least director Andy Goddard is trying), it never follows through on any of its threats.  It doesn't even kill Kieran, who seemed for sure like he was there to be the token victim, to demonstrate just how dangerous the cannibals are.  It's the televisual equivalent of one of those haunted houses people put on in October: lots of stuff that might startle you or make you nervous, but nothing that will ultimately hurt you.  When you don't know that, on first viewing, that might be enough.  Every subsequent time it's frankly boring.

Then, as if to rub salt in the wound, we learn at the end that Gwen is cheating on Rhys with Owen (that's the same Owen who's back to prick mode in the first part of this episode and looks like he's on the verge of sexual assault in the forest scene, is it?) because "I can't share [these new things I'm experiencing] with anyone."  Ay yai yai.  What is wrong with these people?  (Oh, and as long as we're wondering about stupid things... why is is necessary for everyone in Torchwood to head out to rural Wales -- overnight, it turns out -- to investigate some disappearances?  What happens if something occurs back in Cardiff?  Why is Ianto out in the field at all, given he appears to be little more than a glorified page?)

I said at the beginning that there seems to be a point buried in "Countrycide".  But that's not strictly true.  It's more like an afterthought, a way to try and rationalize the last forty-five minutes.  And that's not enough to justify the meaningless episode we've been subjected to.  This almost works if you've never seen it before, or if it's been long enough that you've forgotten most of the details; then some of the surprises and the "is it aliens?" angle might actually keep you interested.  For everyone else it's a tedious slog through a story that has nothing to say and no clear point.  It's a hotly-contested title, but "Countrycide" might be the worst episode Torchwood has ever put out.



January 31: "Greeks Bearing Gifts"

Finally, an episode that isn't embarrassingly stupid.  That's not to say that there aren't stupid moments (as well as some excruciating ones), but as a whole "Greeks Bearing Gifts" is less offensively idiotic than most of what we've seen before on Torchwood.

In fact, the main plot of this episode is really rather good.  Having given all of the other characters a spotlight episode, it's finally Tosh's turn -- and the show decides to tear her down.  To be fair, this is so that she can be in a vulnerable state and ready for Mary to take advantage of, but it still has the unhappy side-effect of making Tosh seem like an outsider on the team -- and the fact that Owen and Gwen have started shagging and are bad at hiding it certainly doesn't help, since it seems that Tosh has a crush on Owen for some unfathomable reason.

Mary threatens to kill Tosh unless she gets her way. ("Greeks
Bearing Gifts") ©BBC
So while the decisions that Tosh makes regarding Mary and her pendant are rather stupid, they're all too easy to sympathize with.  We don't shake our heads at Tosh, wondering what in the world she's thinking; no, writer Toby Whithouse (who, you may remember, wrote "School Reunion" for Doctor Who) gives us a clear path to see, one that it's not too hard to see ourselves walking down.  All right, maybe without the lesbian kiss and implied sex, but that looks more like an effort to keep up Torchwood's "adult" reputation than a logical conclusion of what we're presented.

In fact, that tendency toward "adult" content (rather than actual adult -- as in "grown-up" -- content) hurts things somewhat, because without that aspect "Greeks Bearing Gifts" actually has one of the most grown-up storylines the show has yet provided: what would it be like to eavesdrop on other people's thoughts, and would that be far worse than reading someone's diary?  What would it be like to hear the thoughts people don't even want to admit to themselves?  It's an interesting idea that they have some fun exploring -- notably with Tosh stopping the ex-husband who's going to kill his family; the pendant can lead to positive results as well as negative.  There's also a welcome discussion about Torchwood's rather xenophobic tendencies: "You'll examine me, assess whether or not I'm useful, whether I'm a danger, then lock me in a cell," Mary tells Tosh after revealing she's an alien.  "You're not interested in understanding alien cultures.  It's just as well you haven't got the technology to reach other planets yet.  Yours is a culture of invasion."  Both questions are ultimately sidestepped, as Mary is revealed to have been killing people for 196 years (according to Tosh's analysis at the beginning179), but as the first question isn't one that there's an easy answer to, its unresolved nature is okay -- and the fact that Tosh and Jack discuss it a bit afterwards also helps.  (And they can't really explore the second question without fundamentally changing the nature of the show -- something that it looks like they're unwilling to do.)

Really, the main problem with "Greeks Bearing Gifts" is the relationship between Gwen and Owen.  Owen seems about as much of an ass as ever, but Gwen is now heading in his direction as well.  The teasing of Owen feels like it's overdone, and while it's admittedly her thoughts that we're privy to (with the catty thought about jeans in boots -- was that true in the UK?  Because it was the exact opposite in the US...), they don't do her any favors.  And her attempted justification to Tosh at the end is lousy as well.  "This should be my wake up call," she tells Tosh.  "I should stop, but I won't.  What does that say about me?"  "That you're a bad person," my wife and I simultaneously yelled at the screen.  So much for the audience having any sympathy for Gwen.  I guess that leaves Tosh and maybe Captain Jack.

So other than the ongoing train wreck that's most of the main characters (but Owen and Gwen in particular), "Greeks Bearing Gifts" is a decent episode.  Somewhat miraculously, Tosh's character comes out of this unscathed (in the audience's eyes, if not necessarily in her own) -- that alone is cause for celebration.  Now that they've finished examining each character, maybe they can get on with telling more interesting stories -- and in that respect, "Greeks Bearing Gifts" is certainly a large step in the right direction.



February 1: "They Keep Killing Suzie"

I'm not even sure what to make of this episode.  It's incredibly dumb, but there doesn't even seem to have been any sort of point to it.  The best guess I have is that someone said, "Hey, let's bring Indira Varma back!  We don't need a good reason!"

Gwen and Jack bring Suzie back to life. ("They Keep Killing
Suzie") ©BBC
I mean, it's sort of nice to see her back, but they've bent over backwards to do so in such a way that it's very hard to believe this is how these characters normally act.  Why else is Gwen suddenly advocating using that resurrection glove that drove Suzie mad?  And why is Jack okay with this?  This leads to a plot entirely driven by technobabble, where the authors, Paul Tomalin & Daniel McCulloch (and incidentally, where did these writers come from?  This is one of only four author credits for Tomalin, and the only one for McCulloch.  Apparently they were a "gift" from Davies' friend Paul Abbott...), simply invent a new bit of technobabble to get from moment to moment.  Suzie won't come back to life with the glove?  That's okay, stab her with the knife she was killing people with because it's made of the same material -- that'll work!  (You know, just like how you can use a kitchen magnet as a speaker.)  Need the rest of the Torchwood crew out of the way for a bit?  Just have some sort of lockdown!  Need them out of it?  Have Tosh suddenly start babbling about ISBN numbers.  Oh wait, we cut all the power (except for all the lights and things, but never mind) -- so just say that the membrane on the keyboard might recognize the code (!) and we'll be good to go!  Oh, and we need to have some sort of connection between Suzie and Gwen, so let's make one up, such that Suzie is slowly leeching life energy from Gwen (and, for some reason, transferring her wounds) -- but make it so that it instantly snaps back when Tosh destroys the glove.

The net effect of all this is to try to suggest that all of these events are part of some elaborate plan Suzie put into action back when she was still (properly) alive, but even when you set aside the huge number of unlikely decisions that would have to coincide for this plan to work, the ultimate point appears to be...what?  A way to kill her father?  The whole thing is built up like some sort of master plan, complete with locking down Torchwood and drugging some guy for two years just so he'll go mad and put this plan into action, but it's never clear what the payoff is supposed to be.  It doesn't look like she wants to achieve anything she couldn't have done while she was alive.  (They could have gotten around this by suggesting that she wanted to see what there was after death, but they don't.)

But all of the gaping logical problems might have been acceptable if there'd been a point to it all, some statement Tomalin & McCulloch were trying to make, or some idea they wanted to explore.  But there isn't -- at least not in the episode as broadcast; it's possible there was a point to it all that was edited out at some stage, but that's not what we get.  Instead we get a series of increasingly unlikely coincidences, and for what?  To show that Suzie was dangerous all along?  To show that Gwen is easily manipulated?  Or is the entire episode just to set up the idea that there's "something moving in the dark" that's coming for Jack?  It's hard to tell what they were going for, and thus even harder to tell why they bothered.

(Oh, and apparently Ianto and Jack are shagging now?  Ianto recovered pretty quickly from "There isn't an inch of me that doesn't hurt" last episode, didn't he?)



February 2: "Random Shoes"

And finally, just like that, the clouds open and we get an episode of Torchwood that's worthwhile.  In some ways it's like "Love & Monsters" from series 2 of Doctor Who180, in that the majority of the episode is told from the perspective of an outsider -- in this case Eugene Jones.  The difference here is that the episode opens with Eugene dead, while his ghost (for lack of a better term) follows Gwen around, trying to piece together the circumstances of his death.

It's not an overly saccharine story: Eugene's life isn't shown to be anything special.  In fact, he appears to have wasted most of it, waiting for an alien that never arrived.  His friends don't seem terribly close with him (in fact, the owner of the video store, Josh, is something of an asshole when it comes to Eugene -- but then it's not immediately clear if he's actually Eugene's friend, or just Gary's), and no one beyond his mother and Linda at the call center seems to really miss him that much.  In other hands this could be really depressing and sad -- but because Eugene's narrating it for us, and because he seems accepting of it all (even if he's not thrilled by it), it's OK.

Eugene saves Gwen's life. ("Random Shoes") ©BBC
The fact that Eugene doesn't remember what happened until Gwen finds out about it is a nice touch -- that means there's no excessive foreshadowing or brooding about what's coming; instead, Eugene is just as curious as the rest of us to learn what happened.  This gives the episode a fresh quality, as we all learn together.  And it certainly helps that Eugene, despite being something of a loser (as he himself admits), is so likeable.  You just wish that he'd been happier while he was alive, instead of constantly waiting -- either for an alien or for his father, who his mother said was working in America but had actually simply left and was working as a clerk nearby.  But Eugene's death does seem to have caused one good thing: his father has come back.  It may not be permanent and it may not be "happily ever after", but as the handshake at the end between Eugene's father and younger brother shows, it might still be the start of something.

And that's the point, ultimately, of "Random Shoes".  It's not necessarily that you made a huge impact while you were alive, but even the small effects you have on others, both while you're here and after, can lead to different things.  It's a bittersweet episode, but a lovely one -- it's not cynical or stupid.  Jacquetta May is probably better known as an actress than a writer, but if she writes other things as lovely and honest as this then she's got a good career to fall back on.  It's a shame they didn't bring her back to write for the show again, because this is easily the best episode we've gotten yet, and possibly the best episode of the entire series.



February 3: "Out of Time"

Wow, another decent episode!  That's a Torchwood record!  Maybe they should be getting more women writing for the show -- they seem to be the ones writing the better installments.

Emma, Diane, and John find themselves in the 21st century. ("Out
of Time") ©BBC
The premise for "Out of Time" is very simple: what would happen if three people were suddenly transported fifty years forward in time?  It's not a new concept by any means (Captain America is only one of the more famous examples), but author Catherine Tregenna makes the most of it, by thoughtfully examining some of the effects this sudden wrench would have on those affected.  As such, this is more of a character study than an action tale, and it's all the better for it.

We're given three different people -- a headstrong, independent woman pilot, a successful businessman, and a young woman off to visit relatives -- and we're shown how they attempt to adjust to this new life.  John quickly makes friends with Captain Jack -- another man out of his own time, who also gets a chance to shine and become a more nuanced and interesting character in John's company -- but seems ultimately unable to cope; less with the changing times and more with the fact that everyone he knew and loved is gone -- except for his son, who has Alzheimer's and thus doesn't recognize his father or almost anything else around him.  He seemed like the most likely to survive, but he ends up being the one who commits suicide, as he has nothing to live for in the 21st century.  Emma, the young woman, seems to cope best -- she's surprisingly comfortable hanging out and fitting in with two modern young black women, and while she's a bit naïve, on account of being used to the 1950s, she adapts very well.  Meanwhile, Diane is less distressed by finding herself in a new time and more feeling a wanderlust, unwilling to be tied down to one place and time.

It's actually Diane who is in some ways the most interesting character here.  She's shown as incredibly independent, and her frustrations in being unable to fly without a current licence are palpable.  (Although, given that Torchwood faked up three passports for them, why couldn't they forge a flying licence for Diane?)  But the change she brings in Owen is the most surprising.  She somehow transforms Owen -- that's Owen, the womanizing bastard who's never less than an asshole in just about every scene he's in -- into a more complex and nuanced character.  It gets to the point where you genuinely feel for him at the end, and he ends up defined by his relationship with Diane, much how Diane isn't defined by her relationship with Owen.  It's really well done.

In all honesty, the only duff note in the whole piece is Rhys getting mad at Gwen for lying to him; this feels more like setting up events in the next couple episodes than a natural extension of what we see here.  It's not a flashy or thrilling episode, but "Out of Time" provides us three interesting contemplations on the question of what would happen to time-displaced people.



February 4: "Combat"

"Combat" is a bit of an odd episode.  It doesn't actually do too much wrong, but let's face it -- the episode boils down to Alien Fight Club.  But if you can look past the derivative-yet-loony premise, there are some good moments in this.

Owen in the cage with a Weevil. ("Combat") ©BBC
Although the episode starts with involving most of the team, this turns into Owen's episode.  He's still hurting from Diane's departure and is apparently "even more erratic than usual" as a result -- which translates to refusing to answer his phone and getting in fights in bars (though, to be fair, that guy was clearly asking for it).  However, he ends up being the person trying to infiltrate the Weevil-stealing operation and find out where the Weevils are being held.  What's interesting is how friendly Owen is with Mark Lynch (the guy helping run the fights).  Mark (played very well by Alex Hassell) is every inch the bored rich guy looking for thrills -- the way he fights in the bar and demands that the one guy get up is quite compelling to watch.  It's a world that Owen seems quite tempted by -- and, interestingly, one that Mark is willing to show him, even after Owen's cover is blown.  And it's interesting to see how much Owen seems to be drawn into this world -- even though he insists that this is wrong and needs to be stopped, he's seduced by the idea of "stripping things back to the core".  It's a neat idea well-realized, and it makes sense for Owen to be the one drawn in.

Where this episode doesn't succeed is with Gwen.  I'm not sure how they managed it, but they've transferred the label of "least likeable character" from Owen to Gwen.  She's pissy and self-absorbed when talking with Owen about their relationship, and the way she tells Rhys about her infidelity but then drugs him so he'll forget she told him is pure cowardice -- and the way in which she tries desperately to get Rhys to say he forgives her before he slips into unconsciousness is truly unpleasant.  One scene of her crying while feeling bad about the whole situation doesn't redeem her at all.

It's not a stand-out episode and unlikely to be fondly remembered, but given how easily this could have been yet another incredibly stupid episode, we should be thankful that things didn't spiral out of control.  Writer Noel Clarke (who you might remember as Mickey Smith) does a good job with keeping things realistic and more or less grounded.  If it weren't for the Gwen moments, this would be a much better episode; as it is it's merely OK.

So that's three reasonable episodes in a row; has Torchwood finally turned the corner?



February 7: "Captain Jack Harkness"

After a couple days away it's back to Torchwood to finish up the rest of series 1.  This episode is written by Catherine Tregenna, who also wrote "Out of Time", and fortunately it's also a decent episode.  Seriously, it seems if you want Torchwood to come out all right, have a woman write it.

Jack and Tosh meet the real Captain Jack Harkness. ("Captain Jack
Harkness") ©BBC
Tregenna's script does two interesting things: first, it causes Captain Jack and Tosh to become victims of the Rift themselves, as they suddenly find themselves transported back to 20 January 1941 (hey, 44 years, to the day, before my brother's birthday!) and unsure of how to get back; and second, it brings Jack face-to-face with his namesake -- after all, the identity we've known since "The Empty Child" was an assumed one, a way for the con man to make his con easier.  It's an interesting move, and much of the episode focuses on the relationship between these two men, which starts out as almost fraternal but then changes into something more romantic.

This is the first concern with this episode; there doesn't really seem to be a good dramatic motivation for this burgeoning romance.  The fraternal aspect is fine, even laudable; Jack knows the real Captain's future, and he wants to ensure that he makes the right choices before he dies.  It's just not clear why this would cause the Captain (as the credits call him) to suddenly want to start kissing Jack.  If he thinks he's going to die (which might be the case, but if so it's very subtle), then fine, maybe, but it still seems both weird and superfluous -- the story doesn't gain anything from Jack sharing a kiss with his namesake.183  And what did the Captain's men think of this?  (Or the Rift suddenly opening up, for that matter.)

The other storyline involves Toshiko's attempts to provide the present-day Torchwood team with the mathematical formulas they'll need to safely open the Rift and bring Tosh and Jack home.  So while Tosh is trying to hide papers with numbers on them, Gwen and Owen are looking for ways to bring them back.  Owen seems hell-bent on getting them both back, to the point that he doesn't question any of the increasingly strange coincidences going on.  The 21st-century team realizes that the current caretaker of the building, Bilis Manger, is the same person as the one in 1941, which leads Owen to realize that Bilis can travel back and forth through the Rift.  (Or maybe he's incredibly long lived, like Jack, but that doesn't seem to have occurred to him.)  But does he interrogate Bilis, or grab and throw him into a holding cell?  No, Owen looks through Bilis's office, finds the missing piece of the Rift Manipulator (without stopping to consider why on Earth Bilis would have this in the first place -- and in fact this point isn't touched on at all), and decides he's going to use it to open the Rift.  There's loyalty and then there's blind loyalty, and Owen seems to be falling into the second category.

That stuff seems to be setting up the series 1 finale next episode, though; the primary focus of the episode is in 1941, in that relationship between Jack and the Captain.  And up until the point where it starts to turn romantic, it works really well.  There's an interesting exploration of what you do if you know someone's going to die but can't tell them, and there's also a nice discussion of what it means to be a leader, and does that mean you have to be brave in front of your squadron all the time?  Are you allowed to be scared, and is it OK to be scared?  It's a question deftly handled by the script.

Really, except for the strange resolution of the 1941 storyline and Owen's unquestioning use of specifically Rift equipment found in unlikely places (so, SOP for Torchwood members, then), "Captain Jack Harkness" does a good job of balancing its points of view in a way that doesn't make you hate everyone on screen.  It even takes a bit of time to indulge in some racism against Tosh, just to demonstrate that we really are in 1941 (compare with reactions to Martha in, say, "The Shakespeare Code").  It's not a knockout success, but it is another in a line of decent stories that you can watch without too much difficulty.



February 8: "End of Days"

Sigh.  I suppose it was too much to hope for a decent ending to the season.

This deals with the fallout of opening the Rift last episode, and they give us a potentially interesting set-up of people from various times all showing up in modern Cardiff, bringing various diseases and things with them.  We even get some good drama coming out of it -- the Roman soldier is whatever (and why isn't he pronouncing all his /v/'s as [w]'s?), but the stuff with the Black Death is really nice.  Owen's worries about smallpox or future diseases is also worth exploring.  And at the heart of everything is Bilis, the caretaker from last time who makes a living bringing timepieces from their original eras into the 21st century and selling them as antiques (yes, just like Edward Waterfield back in "The Evil of the Daleks").  They could have gone in a lot of intriguing directions with this, and a show that was freely mixing and matching time periods could be fun.

But alas, that's not what we get.  Instead we get various people having visions of dead/missing loved ones telling them to open the Rift, but rather than attempt to work out what it all means or tell anyone about them, they just spend their time yelling at each other and not listening at all -- and apparently they're all more willing to listen to inexplicable visions than their leader.  So much for loyalty.  The way Owen shoots Jack is a bit shocking (and he gets a good line: "I'm sick of people doubting me"), but as we know he can't die it ultimately feels more convenient than anything else.

Jack prepares to confront Abaddon. ("End of Days") ©BBC
Look, all of this is just about OK.  The interpersonal dynamics among the team take significant steps backwards (all the yelling, remember -- and then there's Gwen's decision to tase Rhys and lock him in a filthy Torchwood cell), but at least there's some semblance of drama, even if some of it feels oddly manufactured -- in particular, Bilis's murder of Rhys (who's still the best character on the show) looks designed to make Gwen act than anything else.  But then, once they decide to open the Rift (which sends all the anachronisms back, apparently), things take a left turn into Stupidland.  Apparently, there's a giant crap CGI beast called Abaddon living under the Rift since "before time" who is the son of the "Great Beast" (so they're clearly trying to tie this in with "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit" for no obviously good reason), whose very shadow kills anyone it touches, and opening the Rift unleashed it.  How to stop it?  Make Captain Jack keep dying until Abaddon can't take it anymore.  "If Abaddon is the bringer of death, let's see how he does with me," Jack says. "If he feeds on life, then I'm an all-you-can-eat buffet."  Even though no one's mentioned that Abaddon feeds on life, or that he uses his shadow to feed, or that too much life will kill him, or that Jack's "can't die" ability will actually have any effect whatsoever.  Yeeeaaahhh...  There comes a point where you just have to accept that this isn't going to make any sense at all and to just go with it.  (Although, if we're going to discuss things that make no sense... why is Rhys back alive at the end of this?  He wasn't killed by an anachronism, he was stabbed in the gut by Bilis.  Why was that sufficiently Rift-y to be undone?)

But yeah, Jack saves the day (incredibly quickly, actually -- they brought up Abaddon just to take care of him in the next scene) and eventually comes back to life -- Tosh actually only says it's been "days" since he died and not actually "three days", but you get the idea -- just in time for an end-of-season cliffhanger: that severed hand starts beeping and bubbling, and then we hear the TARDIS materializing.  Next thing we know, Jack has disappeared.  Guess we'll have to wait for Doctor Who to find out what happens there.

This episode isn't very good, sad to say.  It could have been a lot more interesting than what it was, but instead a lot of potential was squandered in favor of a resolution with a terrible effect.  (Seriously, Abaddon is really poor-looking -- usually visual effects company The Mill is much better at this sort of thing.)  But while "End of Days" is really dumb, bordering on nonsensical, at least it's not offensively dumb.  That might make it Chris Chibnall's best script yet.

That brings an end to Torchwood's first series, and to be brutally honest, it hasn't been a very good run.  The scripts started out really really bad, and while things got a lot better by the end of the series, it wasn't enough to make this show really worthwhile.  Part of the problem lies in the characterization of the main characters.  I'm not sure why they thought it was a good idea to try and systematically make every member of Torchwood an unlikeable sod, but they did.  Gwen suffers particularly because of this, and while Owen's character improves greatly over the course of this first year, he's still kind of a dick.  But the biggest problem might be Captain Jack.  This isn't to cast aspersions on John Barrowman, who plays the character he's been given (and who gives the lines a twinkle here and there that they sorely need), but rather on Torchwood's conception of the character.  The reason Jack was so popular on Doctor Who was that he was a charming rogue who nevertheless was totally loyal to the Doctor.  Here they've turned him into a brooding, tragic character for some reason -- as if what we really wanted was John Barrowman doing his version of Buffy's Angel.

The ratings were good enough that Torchwood was renewed for a second series (and a shift from BBC Three to BBC Two), but it's hard to shake the feeling that they shouldn't have bothered.  The saving grace is that it does start to look as if they know what they're doing by the end of this series; if they stay on this trajectory Torchwood might become worthwhile.  But as is, it's sadly not really worth your time.

(Still, if you want to be cheered up after this, you can pull out your Ultimate Foe DVD and watch a young Chris Chibnall complain about The Trial of a Time Lord being too formulaic and clichéd on the "Open Air" special feature.  It's oddly satisfying, knowing he'd later be in charge of this.)









Footnotes

177 As you may already know, Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who.  The name was originally used as Doctor Who's codename during series 1 (à la Return of the Jedi and "Blue Harvest"), but Davies liked it so much he used it for the top-secret organization we see here.
178 It's not clear if this is a reference to Doctor Who's Mara or the one from folklore.  Jack's description suggests the latter, but it's just about possible that author Peter J. Hammond (best known as the creator and main writer of Sapphire and Steel) is trying to tie them both together.  After all, he'd been tapped to write one of the segments of The Trial of a Time Lord (the third one -- his story was known as Paradise 5 but was rejected because Nathan-Turner disliked it), so it's conceivable that he'd done some research on the show and knew of the Mara.  Producer Chris Chibnall definitely would have known about the Mara, so this is likely an intentional decision to tie the two together, rather than a coincidence.
179 Our first major dating conflict: series 1 of Torchwood is supposed to occur in 2007 or so, but Tosh's inexact dating of the soldier's body places this episode in 2009 or so.  We're forced to conclude, based on all the surrounding evidence (much of which we haven't seen yet, so you'll have to take it on faith for now), that Tosh is even less exact than she thought.
180 For the same reason, it turns out -- this, like "Love & Monsters", is a "double-banked" episode, where filming occurs on this at the same time as another episode.  That's why this episode focuses primarily on Gwen and a new character.
183 We later find out in "Fragments" that our Jack has super-charged pheromones, and so the Captain's response to Jack might just be because of that.  But obviously that explanation isn't anywhere to be found in this.