This episode of Torchwood effectively does two things really well: it gives us backstory into Jack (pre-Doctor Who) and it gives us a really disturbing view of how memories define us. Without them, we are not who we think we are. That sort of philosophizing is mind candy, but that doesn’t carry an episode to classic heights on its own. It needs a cast to shine and luckily, we do get a lot of that. But perhaps not quite enough…
The episode opens with us getting a view of Gwen and Rhys together and we see how great they are as a couple. Season two really has given new life to this pair. When Gwen’s memories are replaced by Adam, it devastates her world. It’s hard not to feel for Rhys during this sequence because he has no idea what is going on. What impressed me was that the episode felt like a sci-fi way of looking at dementia: what Gwen goes through is both heartbreaking and terrifying. Memories are all that defines who we are; a compilation of all that has ever happened to us. Take those away and who are we? For Rhys and Gwen, we’re given the chance to get to know all about them, and it flows well within the story but to see it stripped really is shocking. Adam becomes a truly evil villain and what he is responsible for feels like rape – of the mind, but still forcing oneself where he is not wanted. This is a very strong part of the episode.
We also see a role reversal for Tosh and Owen because Adam has planted new memories for them. Owen is happier and not a snarky jerk, while Tosh is confident and no longer pining for Owen, but the result is that neither are more likable this way. Owen comes off as a sniveling nerd in the worst caricature of what nerds are perceived as. We later discover that Owen’s mom is largely why he’s the selfish jerk that he is. Meanwhile, Tosh ends up being bitchy and difficult to watch. Her demeaning attitude towards Owen is despicable, even if he has deserved it upon occasion. Ianto has a strong sequence where he is forced to remember being a murderer after false memories are implanted. His story is short but incredibly well acted. His “I’m a monster” line is chilling, while equally heartbreaking as the viewer clearly sees the memory as a lie. Jack ends up being the star of the story remembering his youth in the Boeshane Peninsula. He remembers the loss of his little brother at the hands (claws? beaks?) of the “most horrible creatures” imaginable. (So Daleks are not the worst? Good to know!) But the problem I had with this is that it felt too tacked on. The story we were originally given about Jack was that he was a “time agent” and I think we still would be happier with that than the whole kid-missing-dad-and-brother story. Still, it’s well executed and does give us a hint that more is coming regarding Jack’s background.
My issues with the episode vary: one is the way Adam plants memories. I’m not uncomfortable being touched but if someone insisted on touching me every few minutes, I’d shift back a bit now and then. Adam has to get very close and touch his targets. Once Jack understands that touch is the method of erasing memories, he makes it pretty clear that Adam can’t touch him, but the minute Jack gets mad, he grabs Adam and hoists him off his feet. Adam touches Jack’s hand! Did he forget? Did the writer? Or was it that it has to be more premeditated and memories can’t be implanted that easily?
While I loved that Rhys shared that he always though Gwen would “settle for” him, I had an issue with this part as well. If the episodes preceding this showed us anything, it’s true: she certainly seems to be settling for him. Even in this episode, she tells Jack “I do love him. But not in the way I love you.” What the hell does that mean? Is that to let Jack know that she loves him but just differently, because there was a far less seductive way to say that. If anything it should have been reversed: “I do love you Jack, but not in the way I love Rhys” – that’s how to make your soon-to-be husband come out at the top of the list, not as the man you’re settling for! So this was poorly executed for me and it’s probably because Jack is difficult not to like. He’s sort of the central point of Torchwood, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have characters with other love interests.
Now, if I’m being fair, these are more about nitpicking than being taken out of the episode. I think it’s a very good episode. I love that Gwen is defined by her love for Rhys (at least mostly). Tosh just wanted to be noticed and Jack was there for her. Owen wants to be saved and Jack is willing to do that for him as well. And Ianto seeks meaning; something else Jack can give. The episode does paint Jack as the savior to all of his team but I don’t know if he comes off as such but it centers the series again to remind the viewer who the hero is. He does save his team, but the bit with Gwen leaves something to be desired because it intrudes on her connection to her fiance. Sometimes, less is more.
The final scene has Jack unlock the mystery box that was setup earlier in the episode and all that comes out of it is sand. Sand that the viewer knows is from the Boeshane Peninsula. But the whole team has lost their memories of the last 2 days, so it shouldn’t mean anything to them. The truth is, there should be an episode to follow this where they try to unravel the mystery of the missing 2 days because that’s what would happen if the story opened with them missing memories. Alas, the image is still a good one, as the grains of sand fall through Jack’s fingers; a metaphor, perhaps, for the fleeting nature of our lives and our memories. A fitting image to end the episode, if maybe a bit too bleak for my liking. But this is Torchwood; it’s not a happy show like Doctor Who and sometimes the darkness wins. ML