“Have you never seen something so mad, so extraordinary, that just for one second you think that there might be more out there?”
In my review for season one of Torchwood, I wrote “It might show it’s age, but there are stories here to rival the best Doctor Who has to offer.” I stand by that. Torchwood is one of the most interesting science-fiction television shows I’ve seen. Season one had some really great episodes, but admittedly it did suffer a bit from being “adult Doctor Who”. And they never quite knew what tone to go for. But here, Torchwood is back and ballsier than ever, with a far more sure-footed tone and a lot more self-awareness.
Captain Jack Harkness vanished at the end of season one, to go on adventures with The Doctor. As I said last time, I think it’s vital to watch the three-parter from the end of Doctor Who series 3; “Utopia”, “The Sound of Drums”, and “Last of the Time Lords”. That epic three-episode arc really influences who Jack is as a character. Gone is the more morose, sad Jack from season one. Now we have the fun, camp, Jack – who isn’t afraid to be serious when the situation calls for it, but is far more enjoyable overall. This season delves a bit more into his past, as we see a few flashbacks from his childhood, as well as learn more about his very long life and many deaths.
The supporting cast are all back (though not all of them make it through to the end in one piece). Gwen (Eve Myles) is still the protagonist but she’s become a lot more confident in Jack’s absence. A big theme of this series is her increasingly stressed relationship with Rhys (Kai Owen), especially in the lead up to their marriage. These moments of domestic strife help to ground the series, taking us back to the idea of the mundane living side by side with the extraordianry. Her job with Torchwood is causing a rift (pun intended) between them, leading to her coming clean about the whole thing. Their relationship isn’t completely fixed by this, but I do think the pair become a lot more enjoyable when they’re both in on it. There’s only so many times Gwen can lie to Rhys, and luckily the show knew when to stop. It also means that Rhys can join them on the odd mission, which is always a laugh.
Tosh, Ianto, and Owen all come into their own this season too, thanks to episodes that delves deeper into their backstories and personalities. The episode ‘Fragments’ gives us a glimpse of how each of them first got involved with Torchwood, and I think it might be the best episode of the season. This sort of episode, as well as episodes like ‘Adrift’ and ‘A Day in the Death’, proves that the show is adult and mature without having to resort to sex and swearing. It’s adult because of the heavy themes it deals with. Death, grief, the loss of a loved one. Sure Doctor Who has dealt with these things, but has always been shackled by that tea-time timeslot. Torchwood delves deep and the answers aren’t always satisfying. But that’s okay because in real life these extraordinary problems wouldn’t have neat happy endings. It’s taking a real look at some age-old science-fiction tropes and plots, but is having fun along the way.
The standout part of this season is the three-part arc around the “death” of Owen Harper in the middle of the season. Owen (Burn Gorman) dies after getting shot in the course of a mission. But that’s not good enough for Jack, who resurrects him with a gauntlet. Owen is alive, but also dead. His brain is active, but he no longer needs to eat or drink, and has no blood pumping around his body. He doesn’t feel anything, including pain, but he can’t heal his body either, so if he gets hurt he fix it – demonstrated through one particularly gross scene with his finger. Owen was my favourite character in season one and he is outstanding here in a surprisingly dark story that goes to some uncomfortable places. Season two is worth watching for these episodes alone.
Another thing that really improves this series is the array of recurring characters. You can really tell the show got bumped up to BBC Two. Firstly is James Marsters as Captain John Hart, who appears in the first episode of this season and the last. A former partner of Jack’s at the Time Agency, John is basically what Jack would be if he was more of a dick. Far more narcissistic than his former partner, and with a sociopathic streak, Captain John really shakes things up in a very good way.
As well as him, this season also features the return of Dr Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), now with UNIT and seconded to Torchwood to offer her help in a case. Watching the last three episodes of Doctor Who series 3 to prepare for this, I was astounded by how great of a companion Martha Jones was. Not only did she save the world from the Master, she left the Doctor on her own terms. No convoluted science fiction reasoning, not tragic death. She walked away. A move I always found compelling when compared to other companions. Like the other characters and the season itself, Martha is back and is more confident than ever. It feels like a really worthwhile epilogue to a character that deserved more attention.
I can’t easily explain it, but I’m in love with this show. The special effects are still a little wonky, and things can and do get hammy, but it’s like no other show I’ve seen. I’m not sure if it’s because the episodes were being broadcast once, and then repeated in a family-friendly edited format later, but this season has figured out how to be the very best version of an “Adult Doctor Who”. And with all the hype for season 3, or Children of Earth, I can’t wait.