Torchwood: Exit Wounds
The positive mainstream reaction to this episode is unsurprising. With major changes to the series’ status quo, and the return of a popular guest star, Chris Chibnall’s swan song is a textbook crowd-pleaser. Yet, rather curiously, the consensus in describing this episode reaches for one particular word: shocking. This seems a rather strange verdict. Gripping? Yes. Eventful? Certainly. Shocking? It’s hard to see how. In sharp contrast to End Of Days, the story that unfolds here is the utterly logical conclusion of the events and themes of this series.
A major focus of the show’s second run has been that of developing a healthy relationship with the part, and using elements of it as propulsion towards a desired future. Gwen and Rhys, in their own ways, have managed to strike this balance. Where initially Cooper was haunted by the wonders and horrors of her new job, slowly driven away from her calling-card “normal life”, Exit Wounds sees her willing to take charge in order to preserve the world she grew up in. Meanwhile, her husband’s discovery of her earlier deceptions only makes him determined not to allow Torchwood to continue to place limits on their lives. Owen’s living death saw him on a downward spiral, consumed by memories of what he’d lost, until a series of chance events gave him the strength to move forward. Toshiko’s fleeting relationship with Tommy, who perfectly embodied a time long gone, gifted her the courage to deal with her feelings for Owen in an adult fashion. This concept has even extended to the opposition the team has faced; from Beth’s use of her memories to resist her conditioning to the Night Travellers’ pitiful failure the reconcile themselves with a brave new world. It was Torchwood’s most powerful enemy who embodied this concept most perfectly: Adam showed how we are made of memories, and select what we want from them to drive us to be who we want to. In this context, it’s entirely predicable that the series would end with Jack, after so long denying his past, confronted by its demons.
Gray has been perfectly threaded through this series, as direct references in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Adam, while lurking in the motivation behind others. Jack’s memories of losing his brother clearly played a part in both the character’s reluctance to let Owen rest in peace, and his actions towards the rift victims in Adrift. There’s a grim irony here- Jack’s team have risen to every challenge, only to fall before the one he brought to their door. When interviewed about the episode, Chibnall has admitted that John was originally the main enemy, with Gray a subservient minion. Although the broadcast form of the story obviously owes something to a desire not to turn a popular guest character into an irredeemable villain, it’s easy to support the final incarnation of the plot. Although the implication that anyone tortured for long enough becomes a monster is an unfortunate one, its believable that Jack’s failing of Gray would loom as large in the mind of the latter as the former. By taking charge of the situation, Jack gains the capacity to forgive himself, even if his brother’s acceptance must still be won. Unfortunately, the story occasionally over-reaches, with the most acute problem being John’s motivation. Until the plot depends on it, we’re never given any demonstration of Hart’s love for Jack, leaving Marsters’ protestations sounding flat and unconvincing. Also a difficulty is the perpetual suffocation accepted by Jack as his penance for abandoning his sibling. After nineteen centuries of unimaginable horror, it’s hard to imagine the Captain still being sane, let alone able to quickly devise a plan to save the day. A minor niggle is Gray’s addressing Jack as “brother”- given this series’ willingness to expand on Harkness’s past, the reluctance to give his real name feels a little childish.
Although the episode does more than any other to further develop Jack’s character, most discussions of it have centred on the deaths of Owen and Toshiko. It’s odd to think that the lives of these initially second-string characters have been spread across more screen time than either Rose Tyler or Martha Jones’s adventures. Gorman gives the high quality performance we’ve come to expect from him, conveying both Owen’s instinctive immaturity and his underlying compassion, but it’s Mori’s work that leaves the greatest impression. Finally given material she can get her teeth into, the result makes the viewer speculate on what she might have achieved if not relegated to a plot device so frequently. Her video epilogue is note-perfect; played with modesty and humour while underlining that there’s only one way of leaving Torchwood. The pair will be mourned by the series’ fans, but probably not missed. Such wholesale changes are the inevitable destination of the path the show has walked down this year. Rather than change the format or enlarge the cast, the creative team have firmly adhered to a policy of taking the format of Series One, and making it succeed consistently. Unlike its parent show, Torchwood cannot rely on a new location every week or so to take the viewers’ breath away, and so is forced to use the emotional development of the regulars far more prominently. This detailed work with such a small set of characters, charting their relationships with each other so intensely, has taken its toll. The opening character line-up has been wrung dry, with new dynamics needed if the show is to continue.
These changes are a wrench, but the story never descends into melancholy. There’s a playfulness in Chibnall’s script that makes what would otherwise be a horrifically bleak turn of events bearable. Having introduced a nuclear reactor in meltdown, the perfect sci-fi shorthand for immanent death, the writer toys with the viewers as to which characters will be dispatched to the scene. It’s hard not to laugh out loud as Chibnall devotes some of Owen & Toshiko’s final words, not to giving emotional closure to their relationship, but to fixing the continuity error in Aliens of London concerning Tosh’s area of expertise. In the presence of these winks to the viewer, John’s wisecracking doesn’t seem at all out of place. The writer also displays skill in coping with the limitations of production. Aside from the signature shot of John’s bombs exploding across the city, this episode was clearly written with a tight budget in mind. With the exception of the (superbly realised) scythe-wielders, the monsters raging across the city are of the bargain-basement variety. After the return of the army of Weevils seen in Dead Man Walking, not the mention the Hoix, the viewer is left waiting to see if Ianto will end up wrestling a Graske before the end of the episode. This approach, however, is sensible, as it presumably freed up funds for episodes without the alliance of James Marsters with the deaths of two regulars to supply drama in abundance.
While Fragments saw Chibnall acknowledging the series’ as-built flaws, here he addresses its worn out elements, thoughtfully carrying out maintenance ready for a new owner. With the underlying themes of Series Two brought to such a well-crafted conclusion, it’s hard to share its survivors’ gloom.