‘Your life will be like a thread stitching time back together.’ A year after Doctor Who did its own First World War sacrifice story, Torchwood presents its own version, with Tommy Brockless plucked from 1918 by Torchwood, defrosted once a year for a check-up until the time comes when he’ll need to be sent back to meet his destiny, saving the future, and his reward, death in front of a firing squad. The complication: Tommy has found a reason to live in Tosh, and so heroic sacrifice holds very little appeal.
This lacks the comfort of Human Nature’s conceit that John Smith was the Doctor’s invention and therefore the questions it raises, of sending young people to die on our behalf – and whether our lives justify their deaths – become not only moving, but troubling as well. It’s most effective when it focuses on Tommy’s doomed romance with Tosh – giving Mori her first substantial material for a while – and Owen’s perception of what is happening, the first true tenderness between them occurring when Owen tells Tosh he doesn’t want to see her hurt, and then seeking her out at the end to offer some words of comfort.
The climax, Tosh dismissing Jack (whose influencing skills basically involve shouting “You have to!” at people – come back Yvonne Hartman, all is forgiven) and persuading Tommy to metaphorically go over the top is her Joan Redfern moment, as both characters sacrifice their own relationship for the greater good. Sadly, the episode doesn’t end there, but finds time for an extended sequence of Tosh having to psychically project herself back to 1918 to make sure a shell-shocked Tommy goes through with the plan when it would have been much more effective to end with the time loop closing with a repeat of the pre-credits sequence.
And that’s the weakness of the episode: many of the sci-fi elements intrude on the emotional central plot. Having the rest of the team encounter ghosts from the past in a creepy abandoned hospital does advance the story – it establishes the time for Tommy’s sacrifice has arrived – but I’d have lost some of this for more Tommy and Tosh. Still, it’s a minor weakness, and the strengths of the central ideas – Torchwood, 1918; the man who gets to live one day a year and experiences the whole 20th Century in the space of a few weeks – more than carry it. That’s three good episodes, and a continuing sense that Series Two is a huge improvement.
Next Time: Meat