“Torchwood. Outside the government, beyond the police. Tracking down alien life on Earth, arming the human race against the future. The 21st century is when everything changes. And Torchwood is ready.”
After the success of his revival of Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies set out to make a sexy adult-themed spin-off that would star the Captain Jack Harkness character. The result was Torchwood. Since its debut in 2006, the series — about a secret organization’s attempts to protect Earth from otherworldly threats — has undergone several format and cast changes. (The only consistent main characters are John Barrowman’s Jack and Eve Myles’ Gwen Cooper). Depending on your point of view, these production shakeups have either hindered or heightened the show’s appeal. Yet just as Captain Jack bounces back after every death, Torchwood also endures. As even casual fans will tell you, the most frustrating thing about the show is its inconsistency. Until the excellent Children of Earth mini-series rolled around, it was unclear whether or not you’d get good or lousy Torchwood from week to week. With that in mind, today’s Daily List will look at the five best — and the worst — episodes from the series. Just remember, if you disagree with the choices here you can always take some Retcon when you finish.
5) Random Shoes
The Plot: One of the most atypical episodes of the series to date, “Random Shoes” was the story of Eugene Jones, a nerdy teen obsessed with aliens and the Torchwood team. After he is killed in a hit-and-run accident, he becomes invisible and stuck between this world and the next while a troubled Gwen Cooper investigates his death. Think of it as a twee sci-fi take on Ghost that swaps out the Righteous Brothers for Anthony and the Johnsons on the soundtrack. Why It’s So Good: Given how unrelentingly bleak Torchwood tends to be, this life-affirming episode came as something of a welcome surprise. The installment’s admittedly clich?d message to make every moment count could have played out embarrassingly in the hands of a less capable writer. Instead, Jacquetta May’s script is peppered with moments of beauty that breathe new life into the tired “carpe diem” trope. (Just check out the devastating “Hope There’s Someone” sequence). With Jack and most of the main cast only making brief appearances, this was Gwen’s chance to shine. Yet it’s the one-off Eugene character who steals the episode away. Playing most of his scenes with a never-better Eve Myles, Paul Chequer’s performance is genuinely effective. Perhaps even more for certain members of the viewing audience. His take on Eugene is an understated one of a damaged soul whose geeky obsessions kept him from participating in life. Hmm, I wonder if there’s some subtext here?
4) Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
The Plot: The second season premiere has James Marsters blasting onto the series as Captain John Hart, a time agent with a serious Adam Ant fetish who happens to be Captain Jack’s ex. (Not to mention something of a complete and utter bastard). But when he fucks with the Torchwood gang, he discovers that Cardiff is a long way from Sunnydale. Why It’s So Good: Between Torchwood’s first and second season, Captain Jack made a few appearances on Doctor Who that allowed him to get some closure on why he was immortal. This plot development paved the way for the lusty Cap’n to lighten up a bit and have some fun in this episode. From his dispatching of an alien fish creature (see above) to a memorable makeout session-turned-brawl with Captain John, Jack is not so much chewing the scenery as devouring it here. Part of the criticism about the series’ first year is that it often took itself way too seriously when goofy shit was going down. That’s not a problem this time out. Episodes like this and “Something Borrowed” strive to be nothing more than big dumb romps. This is Torchwood at the peak of its campy stage. Cherish it.
The Plot: After Captain John causes an explosion that leaves Jack, Ianto, Tosh and Owen for dead, they each reflect on how they initially became involved with Torchwood. Why It’s So Good: Employing Lost-influenced flashbacks, “Fragments” is a fascinating info dump that finally clues us in to why these characters work for an organization that constantly puts them in danger. Of course, after providing significant insight into Owen and Tosh’s personalities, (four-year-old spoiler alert) the series goes and kills them in the very next episode. Man, those Torchwood producers are absolute sadists.
The Plot: Thinking that aliens that emerged from the Rift are responsible for a string of disappearances in the Welsh countryside, our heroes begin an investigation — unaware that cannibals are actually to blame. Why It’s So Good: This exercise in misdirection from writer Chris Chibnell proves that sometimes the biggest threats are homegrown. Viewers assumed that the culprit would be the same sort of weird E.T. that was Torchwood’s calling card up to this point. So to have deranged humans be the culprits was a welcome turn of events. The top-notch storytelling on display here illustrated how the then-nascent series was capable of more than just horny aliens. There are some genuinely creepy moments here worth mentioning too, such as Ianto’s discovery of the refrigerator packed with human flesh and the reveal that the seemingly helpful policeman is himself a cannibal. Further heightening the suspense is the direction by regular Doctor Who helmer Andy Goddard, who helps flesh out the episode’s claustrophobic feel (pun quite definitely intended).
1) The Entirety of Children of Earth
The Plot: In 1965, the British government — aided by Jack Harkness –secretly exchanged 12 children for a powerful flu cure with an alien race known as the 456. When the beings return to the UK in 2009, they threaten to wipe out mankind unless the human race sacrifices 10% of their offspring for them to use as a drug. In order to destroy any evidence of their previous encounter with the 456, the British government sets out to put an end to Torchwood. After the Hub is destroyed, Jack, Gwen, Ianto and Rhys go on the run and try to figure out how to avoid a global catastrophe. Much death and sadness follows. Seriously, this one is the TV equivalent of Debbie Downer. Why It’s So Good: After the events of the second season finale “Exit Wounds” it was clear that when Torchwood returned it would be a much different show. But with the possible exception of Russell T. Davies, no one expected that the series could remake itself so completely. Replacing the gratuitous sex and weird tonal shifts of the first two seasons was a mature rumination on redemption and sacrifice that was previously unseen on Torchwood. Or Doctor Who for that matter. In Children of Earth we truly witness the consequences of Jack’s actions. By the time the credits rolled on the final installment he had lost his lover/co-worker, sacrificed his grandson for the sake of the world’s children and utterly destroyed his relationship with his daughter. His experiences here leave him a broken man who takes the drastic action of leaving Torchwood — and Earth itself — behind in an effort to escape from his pain. This mini-series marked the moment when Torchwood surpassed its genre roots and became an example of something much greater: the artistic power of television. When it concluded, it left audiences breathless with anticipation for what the future of the series held. As you’ll soon see, this goodwill didn’t last long.
Hit the jump for the worst Torchwood episodes ever made.
5) Day One
The Plot: An alien that lives off of orgasmic energy possesses a young woman and humps dudes to death. See, this show is way more mature than Doctor Who! Why It’s So Bad: As if Owen using a space roofie to get laid in the pilot wasn’t bad enough, the second episode of the series devotes its entire running time to sexual hi-jinks. As subtle as leaving a turd in the toilet of the girlfriend you want to break up with on a hot summer day, “Day One” may as well be 45 minutes of Captain Jack screaming “ALIENS LIKE TO FUCK TOO” while Owen and Gwen gyrate in the background to Enrique Iglesias’ “Tonight (I’m Fuckin You).” Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with gratuitous sex on TV (Game of Thrones, anyone?), but when it’s handled stupidly like this I’d rather just tune out. Well, at least we were spared having to watch Weevils doing it.
4) From Out of the Rain
The Plot: The sinister members of a traveling carnival escape from an old film and begin stealing the breaths (i.e. life energy) of unfortunate schmucks throughout Cardiff. Why It’s So Bad: While I applaud the production staff for using this episode as a forum to point out the inherent creepiness of carnies, way too much time was spent here developing atmosphere instead of compelling storytelling. To its credit, this episode does look great: it’s 45 minutes of rain-soaked Gothic tragedy. Unfortunately, primary villain The Ghostmaker (portrayed by Julian Bleach, who would further vamp things up as Nu-Who‘s Davros) seems about as menacing as your typical Hot Topic employee. Like Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Sub Rosa” and Being Human‘s “In the Morning,” “From Out of the Rain” focuses on elements of ghostly mysticism that are never given the chance to, um, breathe.
The Plot: Remember the Doctor Who two-parter “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday?” Well you’d be better off watching them instead. Anyways, it turns out Cybermen partially converted Ianto’s girlfriend Lisa into a, wait for it, Cyberwoman (!) during the events of those episodes. When the threat ended, Ianto secretly stored her in the Hub. Naturally, a danger like this can’t be hidden for long. Or maybe it can. Jack is really stupid sometimes. Why It’s So Bad: For all the talk of what a great leader Jack was, dude had absolutely no control over his people. The first couple of episodes are packed with examples of characters using Torchwood tech and resources for their own purposes. Then there’s the little matter of him being oblivious to a Cyberwoman being stowed away right under his nose. I understand that Jack was preoccupied by his immortality and all at this point, but you think he’d at least have an inkling that a synthetic killing machine was chilling in his basement for a few months (I mean, if nothing else it was someone new for him to screw). But the contempt for the audience doesn’t stop there! Ianto’s punishment for his crime of harboring a being who could have potentially deleted mankind? Absolutely nothing. Okay, his girlfriend did die and all. But given how quickly he rebounded with Jack that wasn’t much of a hardship, now was it?
2) End of Days
The Plot: Experiencing some unstable activity, the Rift unleashes people from different points in history and one very shitty looking CGI demon upon Cardiff. While this is going on, the Torchwood crew once again proves they are the most undisciplined team in genre television by adopting an every man for himself stance during the crisis. Meanwhile, Jack discovers that he’ll have to sacrifice his immortality to save the city from the B-movie refugee running amuck. He does and promptly dies. Fortunately, Jack is resurrected by a kiss from Gwen. Love conquers all! The only thing missing is Take That’s “Back for Good” blaring over the end credits. Why It’s So Bad: The most aggressively stupid episode from Torchwood’s first season (trust me, that’s saying something), “End of Days” suffers from trying to juggle too many dire threats… as well as a general lack of coherence. You’ve got the problems caused by the Rift’s weird behavior, Owen, Ianto and Gwen contemplating saying a great big fuck you to society in order to ensure their own romantic happiness, and the ill-defined villainy of Bilis Manger (a fascinating character who was given no development and then forgotten after this episode). It’s all somewhat of a glorious mess, but apparently one that can be fixed by the simple addition of Pat Benatar’s “Invincible.” Awesome.
1) The Entirety of Miracle Day
The Plot: No one on Earth dies during a 24-hour period that comes to be known as “Miracle Day.” When the lack of death continues, it places the entire planet on the brink of societal and financial ruin (or so we’re told). Jack and Gwen team up with CIA agents Rex and Esther to figure out what is happening. There’s also a bunch of stuff involving Captain Lone Starr, Newman, Q, Major Kira and Claire Fisher, but please don’t make me tell you about it or I may begin weeping. Why It’s So Bad: After the artistic, critical and ratings success of “Children of Earth,” Torchwood seemed unstoppable. A co-production deal between the BBC and Starz meant that the series would have a larger budget and potentially a bigger audience than ever before. Russell T. Davies came up with another idea for a limited series, this time about what would happen if everyone one Earth suddenly became immortal (with the exception of Captain Jack, of whom the Miracle had an opposite effect on). The main problem with Miracle Day is that there simply isn’t enough story to sustain 10 episodes. As such, insignificant subplots — the insufferable one about Esther’s sister, Dr. Juarez’s entire arc, etc. — were introduced. Not only did these draw attention away from the central mystery, but they also took attention away from Jack and Gwen. Although they get lots more to do in the second half of the series, initially both of the characters suffer from their reduced screen time. In their absence, new characters such as pedophile/killer Oswald Danes, CIA agents Rex Matheson and Esther Drummond, and smarmy PR expert Jilly Kitzinger are introduced. None of these folks are anywhere near as interesting or even remotely likable as the familiar Torchwood faces. Especially annoying is how the series flip flops on how we are supposed to feel about Bill Pullman’s deplorable Danes character. As such, viewers never become invested in his — or any of the other newbies’ — storylines.
The series also completely violates the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing. Miracle Day constantly mentions how the world is thrust into chaos. Yet there’s not nearly enough on-screen evidence to back this up, which is especially odd given the increased budget. Further adding to the disjointed feel is how Captain Jack makes frequent mentions of the Doctor. Interesting, as the Doctor could solve the problem of the Miracle with ease, thus making Jack and his cohorts looking like amateurs. And that’s not even going into the continuity issues raised by Miracle Day sharing a timeline with Nu-Who. Sure, it’s a bit cheap to lump the entire season in as an example of Torchwood at its worst. Yet the fact remains that none of these episodes can stand on their own. Miracle Day feels like a cautionary tale about network interference, self-indulgence and disjointed storytelling. It’s unclear exactly where Torchwood will go from here (especially given the bullshit cliffhangers this ended with). Let’s just hope it does go on. Captain Jack and Gwen deserve better.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.