Considering how much I truly dislike Owen Harper, I’ve really quite enjoyed this little trilogy of episodes that are ostensibly about him being a whinging little baby. At least he’s got something to whinge about now, and this episode did a really good job of getting into the specific details about exactly how his new zombie life works – he can’t eat or sleep, he doesn’t heal, he has to exercise to stave off atrophy, and he can’t breathe. But he can talk, so I’m not sure exactly how this works in conjunction with that last one.
This episode was the most successful of the three, which is quite remarkable considering that it’s the one that’s had the highest concentration of Owen – he’s barely off the screen, and the rest of the team are merely peripheral characters. It does help that he’s assisted by two notable guest stars; Mel from Early Doors did an excellent job as the co-lead in the framing device, much better than the previous one-off protagonists the series has managed.
And then of course you’ve got the caretaker from Paradise Towers, appearing in his more familiar guise as the lovely, doddery old posh man. It’s something he did so well in the latter stages of his career, although rarely was he called upon to mix in quite so much nihilism or references to lying in his own piss. I greatly enjoyed his line about Owen being “a very violent doctor” – reminiscent of the Fourth Doctor enthusing about a butler – and his strange, somewhat colonialist flirting with Toshiko.
His role in the story was the guardian of the MacGuffin. It was clear that the alien device was there to function as a reason for Owen to go on a mission of self-rediscovery, and when it led him to his failure to save Richard Briers, it seemed like job done. But then it slightly misfired, firstly because of the aforementioned thoughts about how weird it is that Owen can’t breathe at all considering everything else he can do, but also because they didn’t leave the MacGuffin alone.
It felt like a bit of a cop-out to be told that something is about to blow up and kill untold numbers of people, only for it to turn out to be some sort of intergalactic nightlight – the equivalent of firing a gun and a “bang” banner unfurling. Either make it a genuine threat and have the team quietly neutralise it, or have Owen discover it’s harmless straight away; having the emotional goodbyes ahead of a heroic sacrifice that doesn’t happen is just having your cake and eating it.
Which is a shame, because all the other emotional notes hit home; this was, for the most part, a rare example of Torchwood getting the tone spot on. One of the things the series gets right, for me, is its attitude towards death – it’s characteristically bleak and pessimistic, but it’s also a philosophy I subscribe to. There’s absolutely fuck all waiting for you afterwards, so you might as well cling on to life for the occasional joy like the first sip of tea in the morning.
And finally, this episode concludes Martha Jones’s secondment to Torchwood, and it’s a shame that she didn’t feature nearly as heavily in the second two episodes as she did in the first. She had a decent amount of screen time, but when she first arrived she went out and got involved in adventures; thereafter, she mostly just stayed in the office and did some admin. Here she’s got nothing to do but perform tests on Owen, and then snog Jack as she says her goobyes. I didn’t like that – we’ve just been told she’s got a new boyfriend. What is it about Torchwood that does that to anyone who happens to drop by? I suspect Owen and his alien sex drugs.