This was a bit more like it. In most series, a format-breaking episode is often a risky proposition, diverting from established best practices out of some practical necessity or the urge to experiment. On Torchwood however, it’s just nice to not have to watch another bog-standard episode of Torchwood, as we’re presented with four short origin stories, explaining how the band got together. I mean, ideally, this kind of backstory would have been useful to know a little earlier – say, more than one episode before half of them die – but you can’t have everything.
Let’s take those stories one by one, then…
Jack – It’s always good to see glimpses of olden days Torchwood, and this is very much the version of the organisation that Queen Victoria founded, with its zero-tolerance approach to the presence of aliens. Jack too is recognisably closer to the version from Doctor Who Series 1; the wise-cracking whilst in peril is one thing, but also the morally dubious decision to accept Torchwood’s bounty hunting missions is far more in keeping with the rogue Time Agent mentality than the version of the character we have today.
So the how-Jack-got-recruited bit was all well and good, but the bit explaining how he took command was a bit weird. It makes sense that it would come after every other bugger had died, but you’d hope for something a little more epic than one of the team going mad and killing everyone, following a glimpse at an unspecified future event. It seemed like it was mostly there to serve as an origin story for the notion that the 21st Century is when everything changes. In fact, given the date, there was a brief moment where I hoped it would be something to do with The Master pissing about in San Fransisco, but it wasn’t to be.
Toshiko – Yep, could very much have done with a bit of backstory at any point prior to this. We finally know why she’s there in the first place – she was just an ordinary woman who got caught up in some alien-related shit – although the way it panned out made it seem slightly less voluntary than you’d hope. Jack basically blackmailed by giving her the choice between working for him and rotting in a UNIT facility for the rest of her life. Since when did UNIT treat people like that anyway? They’re the good guys, always have been – it’s like someone was getting them and the pre-Jack Torchwood muddled up. The Brig would never have stood for that shit.
Ianto – We basically already knew Ianto’s story, as it’s all documented in Cyberwoman, if you can bear to look. Therefore, this was a much lighter and more comedic story than the others, and also the most enjoyable. Ianto basically fanboyed his way into the organisation by turning up and doing the job anyway, and it was nice to see the origin of the pterodactyl too, just to complete the set. Note how Jack didn’t relent and offer Ianto the job until after they’d rolled around on the floor and nearly snogged. The dirty get.
Owen – This was always going to be the tricky one – can they come up with a decent justification for this guy being a complete prick for the entirety of the first series? As soon as you saw him with a long-term partner, you knew it would end badly. I thought they were going to go down the route of her leaving him or cheating on him, thus setting him off on a spree of revenge against womankind. But actually, the story of her illness was a lot more touching and sensitively-handled that I’d have thought.
So ultimately it’s the trauma of losing a loved one that makes Owen like he is, which I’m not sure is justification for his rampant misogyny; the same thing happened to Ianto and he wasn’t a prick about it, plus if his experiences gave him an irrational hatred of anything, it should be aliens, not women. But at least there is now a reason to feel sympathy for Owen – some element of humanity to soften his personality and help us to accept his flaws. This was urgently needed about 23 episodes ago. Ah well.
Oh, and the reanimated corpse of Owen was completely fine after standing next to an explosion and being buried in debris, by the way, despite how we’ve previously been told that he might as well be made of glass. The framing device was perfectly standard Torchwood fare – walk into a massive trap, nearly get killed, figure out who set the trap – but a decent way to set up the finale. Just a shame it’s Captain John again. The big bad of the series is not an alien invasion, or an all-powerful monster, or a power-hungry evil genius – just a petulant git who wants Jack to give him some attention.