Torchwood: "Captain Jack Harkness" and "End of Days"

Reviewed by Iain Clark

Torchwood DVD cover

Let's face it, Torchwood was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. Not only is it a spin-off from one of the most popular dramas of the day, but it exists to fill a niche on UK television which has stood derelict for years. British SF drama for adults is all but extinct: with the exception of a few aborted X-Files clones and Sixties remakes, UK television has entirely failed to serve a grown-up audience starved of intelligent tales of the fantastic. Into this barren wilderness Torchwood emerged, bawling, an only child with no siblings for competition and every reason to win unconditional devotion. Instead, it turned out to be a monstrous brat that only its mother could love.

Torchwood's two-part season finale perfectly exemplifies the spoiled excesses of this fledgling series, but not before surprising us with one of its occasional charms. The pivotal moment in its penultimate episode, "Captain Jack Harkness," comes as two military men share a passionate kiss on a dance floor in 1940s England. It's a contrivance which completely ignores the social taboos of the era for dramatic effect. (In reality such an event would probably have resulted in lynchings all round.) It's also an example of the way the series tends to self-consciously flaunt its post-watershed status at every opportunity, repeatedly and defiantly mistaking swearing, smut, and petulance for cutting-edge adult drama. And yet in the context of the episode the moment is a rare exception to the rule: touching, sincere, and one of the more genuinely mature relationships the series has depicted.

The remainder of "Captain Jack Harkness" is also an uncharacteristic success. It concerns two of our lead characters trapped in the 1940s by an enigmatic gentleman, while their colleagues 60 years later race to pull them back. The premise, reminiscent of Sapphire and Steel, is developed well and makes for a solid, if unspectacular, piece of SF television, marred by technobabble but invigorated by the poignant relationship between the two men. It also benefits from an unusually good performance from John Barrowman, and a creepy guest-villain turn from Murray Melvin. Like writer Catherine Tregenna's earlier instalment "Out of Time," it buoys a generic premise with human drama, using sympathetic guest stars to hold a mirror up to the often unlikeable main characters.

There's a telling flaw in this penultimate episode, however, one which is far more typical of the season as a whole. It comes in the form of Owen Harper, who wants to use the situation as an excuse to open a rift in space-time and find the woman who dumped him, risking the entire world in the process. Time and again over the course of the season the characters have been revealed to be emotionally wounded and needy individuals who seek solace in sex and who are prepared to sacrifice anyone and anything for the sake of their lovers. In concept this approach could still produce touching tales of individuals driven to the brink of desperation by loss and need; people we can all recognise in our own darkest moments. In practice Torchwood's writers never know when to stop at the brink. Its characters never conquer their weaknesses in redeeming moments of self-awareness or nobility. Instead, they remain slaves to their emotions, spiralling ever downward and seldom lifting a finger to avert or set right the damage they cause along the way. In "Cyberwoman," for example, Ianto sides with his murderous girlfriend to the bitter end, while Toshiko repeatedly betrays her colleagues for her manipulative lover in "Greeks Bearing Gifts." Even when snatched away from their own destructive folly their typical reaction is not remorse, but anger and resentment. These are not adult characters but spoiled adolescents, hormones raging, lashing out at everyone around them, rolling swear words around their tongues for the sheer novelty of getting away with it. And so Owen, the ostensible bad boy among anti-heroes, does indeed open the rift—although not before his colleague Ianto is forced to shoot him in another of the series' trademark weaknesses: ludicrously overwrought melodrama. Their confrontation is so overwritten and overplayed that it becomes a sublime moment of unintended humour.

Which leads us to the second part of this season finale, an episode which spends most of its length pitched at the exact level of that Ianto and Owen scene. If the penultimate episode was a solid tale blighted by flaws, the final episode, "End of Days," showcases every one of the show's worst excesses and precious few of its redeeming features. Although both parts aired in one continuous block, the concluding episode is really a separate story spinning out of the previous instalment's conclusion. We learn that Owen's actions have caused cracks in time, causing people from the past and future to be unceremoniously dumped in the present day, and threatening to bring about the end of the world. It's a concept that underlines the show's ultimate irony, for while Torchwood notionally exists to protect the Earth from threats, almost every problem it has solved has been initiated or made worse by the team's own short-sightedness. The premise of different eras becoming tangled is not without interest, and the idea of people from the past carrying a deadly plague is a good one, even more so the fear of some incurable futuristic disease. However, this is all background: the real focus is on the regular characters being tormented by visions of their loved-ones who exhort them to fully open the rift.

We're then treated to a litany of the series's greatest self-indulgences. In a short space of time the characters have a collective emotional breakdown and come to blows, screaming at one another in needlessly ramped-up conflict. Insubordinate, they turn on Captain Jack, who has spent most of the season suffering repeated accusations of being a monster despite being one of the least nasty characters in the show. Jack, as ever, demonstrates his dazzling leadership skills by flinging personal insults and pointing his gun at people's heads. Not content with having amped things up to ten, the show's lead writer Chris Chibnall can't resist going one louder by having Owen shoot Jack in the head—not knowing that his boss can't die. The team, blessed with neither common sense nor self-restraint, then proceed to open the rift. Naturally this makes things worse, releasing a god of death which promptly massacres most of the city. But that's okay because at least the team's loved ones are safe. The sight of a massive CGI demon stalking the skyline like Godzilla while Torchwood's car alarm goes off is another moment of quite remarkable hilarity. Finally, the demon is destroyed in a scene of pure pulp adventure as Jack Harkness sacrifices his immortality to the beast's unquenchable appetite for death. Quite why this kills it is anyone's guess.

On one level I'm being a little unfair. Although it devolves into an exercise in sustained hysteria, the final episode is heir to the myriad unresolved tensions and neuroses which the characters have exhibited over the course of the season. It's perhaps inevitable, and even part of the point, that these should take over the episode and turn a crisis into the ultimate personal showdown. The cathartic nature of the story for the characters (albeit at the expense of most of the population of Cardiff) is highlighted in the closing scenes as the characters sob and hug and make up with their resurrected boss in a series of touching moments of forgiveness. What's lacking is any sense that this forgiveness is earned. None of the characters' flaws have been examined in any depth. No special insights or resolutions have been reached. No one has learned from their selfish mistakes. On the contrary, in this episode they blunder into their biggest atrocity yet, and their hugs appear to be nothing more than relief that everything has turned out for the best. Forgiveness feels particularly unearned for Owen, who is only fortunate that Jack turns out to be immortal so that he can have his moment of catharsis by shooting his boss in the head and still get a big hug afterwards. The rest of us should be so lucky.

This lack of rehabilitation cements the unfortunate impression that Torchwood is a self-help group which exists to provide therapy to its deeply disturbed members at the expense of the world's safety. To focus a television series on such a dysfunctional group is not in itself a bad idea, but the depiction of the disorganised and amoral team sits uncomfortably at odds with the very traditional premise of the series, which establishes them as the planet's elite line of defence.

By the end of the episode it's hard to imagine a season finale which better captures the show's joltingly disconsonant tone. At heart the series is an old-fashioned horror-adventure series like its parent Doctor Who, but one overlaid with gleefully adolescent attitudes to sex and violence, and with characters who—like many adolescents—are the centre of their own universe to the point of being sociopaths.

It's a hard show to love. Perhaps Torchwood is what Doctor Who looks like when it gets acne, swears at its parents, and starts leering at the opposite sex.

Maybe it's just a phase.


Iain Clark has always written a great deal of nonsense, but increasingly feels the need to inflict it on other people. He lives in the North of England with his wife and two cats.