Helen Raynor, writer of the solid first season episode "Ghost Machine," teams up with Torchwood series creator Russell T Davies to bring us another kind of ghost story in "To the Last Man." Here, we're haunted by the omnipresent shadow of war, and the vagaries that forge unwitting young men into heroes, and sometimes martyrs to the greater good.
We open in flashback, at St. Teilo's Military Hospital in 1918. (There really is a St. Teilo's in Cardiff, but it's a high school.) A man and a woman, obviously not medical personnel, are using a device, something like a Geiger counter, as they wander through the building; they surprise a nurse in the hallway. "I thought you were a ghost!" she exclaims; there's a bit of friendly back and forth before the pair get down to it: have you seen any ghosts? "Three today," comes the matter-of-fact reply; they follow the nurse into the ward full of wounded soldiers, where the ghosts have been popping up.
There are a couple of brief, but necessary history lessons embedded in this episode, so even if the exposition seems a bit dense, it's not that bothersome. The nurse comments that many of her patients see things anyway; they're shell-shocked. It doesn't matter, though, because they'll be sent like so much meat back to the front as soon as they're deemed well enough. Harriet (Siobhan Hewlett) repeats Field Marshal Haig's order, "Each position must be held... each one of us must fight to the last man, to the end," adding, "whenever that is." The sense of futility is palpable.
Just then the Rift opens, and we see Tosh (Naoko Mori) with a patient from the ward. "Tell them," she encourages the terrified young man, Tommy (Anthony Lewis). Eventually he succumbs to Tosh's pleading, which makes as much sense to us as it does to the pair witnessing this. Screwing up his courage, he stands and walks towards the pair, as if he knows who they are and what they'll do: "Take me!" He's in the ward, in 1918, and they have to take him so he can be there—here?—"now." We cut back to Harriet and her partner in the ward, telling Tommy he'd better come with them, they'll keep him safe. The patient is confused; who are these people? Here's the payoff: "We're Torchwood."
Back in the present, it's a red letter day for Tosh, who executes a charmingly fussy morning routine complete with dithering over her outfit. Her apartment is completely different from the one we saw in "Greeks Bearing Gifts"; the new digs better reflect what we know of her.
We find out why Tosh is flustered when she gets to the office; it's time to wake Tommy up. Since Gwen (Eve Myles) is relatively new, she's an excellent device for exposition. Jack (John Barrowman) explains that the young man they have in cryogenic suspension is one Thomas Reginald Brockliss, 24 years old when frozen in 1918. They have to wake him up every twelve months or so and make sure nothing has gone amiss; today's the day.
Gwen helpfully asks what we want to know: Why? Jack's "I don't know," isn't as disappointing as what comes next. He shows Gwen a container with orders in it, except they can't open it. It has a "temporal lock" on it, which is somehow keyed in to the frequencies of the Rift at the time of the event back in 1918. The idea is—Jack tells us—the box will open when the time is right. Isn't this an awfully risky proposition? What if the box opens and no one notices? I mean, what if they're all busy doing other things? This has to be the worst technobabble Torchwood has inflicted on us so far, especially since this temporally-locked box was supposedly left for them in 1918, when Harriet and Gerald were wandering around with a Geiger counter the size of a toaster oven. We're supposed to believe they had that kind of technology?
Aside from the stupid tech tricks (there will be more later), this episode is actually lovely and thought-provoking. It flows beautifully, with brief, bright moments of humor providing a counterbalance for the all the technobabble and serious discussions. It continues the character arcs we've seen building this season. Of all these, the best is that Jack is much more open about who he is and what he has been through. In explaining Tommy's existence to Gwen, he tosses off the line, "He's been here 90 years longer than any of us," but then corrects himself, "any of you."
For all that this story is about the necessities and effects of war, the most violent scene we see involves reviving Tommy (the name itself signifies "British soldier"); Owen has to use a defibrillator to get his heart going. When he finally comes around, Tommy decks Owen, and only calms down when Tosh leans in close to say, "It's me, Toshiko." Clearly, these two have a connection, an impression that's reinforced as Tosh hovers. Owen puts Tommy through the paces of his annual examination. Tommy doesn't miss a beat in telling him, "To you, it's once a year. To me, it's every day."
Once up and dressed, Tommy is relaxed, handsome, and charming. His 90-year-old speech patterns are adorable, particularly his use of "daft" and casual use of "murder," as in, "I could murder a cup of tea." That line leads to a hysterical dialog-free bit: Tosh turns to Ianto, her expression clear: Bring tea! Ianto, as interested in Tommy as everyone else, and fed up with being the office boy, rolls his eyes as he goes off to fetch the provisions. I am really enjoying the development of Ianto's character this season.
Back to Tommy, who has been waking up, every year, for a day, for 90 years now; he's used to the drill. He hasn't lived through a lot—it has only been a few months for him, subjectively—but he has seen a lot, and I loved his take on late '60s fashion, "I thought all my Christmases had come at once." I don't want to oversell him, but he's an observant and thoughtful young man, caught up in a very weird situation, and taking every advantage of it. Gwen senses whatever is going on between Tosh and Tommy—she'd have to be an idiot not to—and remarks to Jack, as those two head out for "a drink, a film, maybe a pizza,"—"He's a frozen soldier from 1918." As clichéd as it is, I didn't mind Jack's reply at all, "Nobody's perfect," most likely because of the delicious grin John Barrowman was wearing when he delivered it. Owen, too, knows there's something there, and he cautions, "Be careful," after an obligatory, insincere "Have fun." There's the tiniest hint that Owen might be jealous of Tosh's affections here, but it goes by so fast we can't be sure.
Out of the confines of Torchwood, Tosh and Tommy get very personal, very quickly. They are comfortable together; anyone would think that they'd known each other a lot longer than four days. Tommy quizzes Tosh on all the things she said she'd do last year, and presses her when she says she never has any time for anything but Torchwood. He reminds her that she wasn't conscripted, and that she does have a choice.
Meanwhile, Gwen and Ianto continue looking through Tommy's case file. Ianto tells Gwen that Harriet died at 26, so young! "They all were," he says, somber. "Nothing changes." We don't know which "they" he's referring to: Torchwood's old team members, or the thousands who died in the Great War? Gwen decides to visit St. Teilo's, as much to get away from Ianto's dark musings as to see the place for herself. She heads out with a "Cheer up, will you?"
Tosh and Tommy, playing pool now, continue their courtship, both always mindful of the time, both wanting more, but neither wanting to overplay it and scare the other one off.
Meanwhile, Gwen has a very creepy encounter with a ghost of her own at St. Teilo's. As she wanders from room to room, the lights flicker. Suddenly they cut out altogether, and Gwen is startled by the arrival of a demolition crew. Jack joins Gwen at the hospital and reminisces for her (and us), how hospitals like this everywhere were full of soldiers, that the war was like "walking into hell," that a million British soldiers were killed in the Great War. Jack doesn't have to look any of this up; he remembers, he was there.
Back at the pub, Tosh and Tommy veer into more serious subjects when Tommy sees a report on the Iraq situation on the television over the bar. "It's not exactly a war," Tosh scoffs, and by some measures, it's hard to argue that Tommy wouldn't agree with her. By 1918, when Torchwood took Tommy, the war had been raging for over 3 years, and hundreds of thousands had been lost from Britain alone. It was an entirely different world, but it doesn't seem that way to Tommy: "There's always a war somewhere." He bitterly remembers how happy he was to hear the war had ended when he was first awakened, "Then three weeks later you had a second world war, after all that." It's a shock to hear it time-compressed like that, because of Tommy's frame of reference. It's still hard to comprehend, though. Only twenty-one years had passed, barely a generation later, and we were back to slaughtering each other again. It's a wonder we had anyone left to fight.
For the first time, Torchwood voices the question (which also figures prominently in Battlestar Galactica), "Are we worth saving?" It works, because it's Tommy saying it. Tosh's answer is immediate, "Yes, wars and all." Her faith in humanity is answered by Tommy's faith in her, and he declares he'd do anything for her. This is as close to "I love you" as this episode will get, and for me, it works. Two ordinary people can't say these kind of things to each other, because they have to live together afterwards. Tosh and Tommy are working under artificial constraints that enable them to say these things and allow us to believe them. Tosh believes it, too, as her shy smile demonstrates. Unfortunately the moment is interrupted when Tommy feels "something;" the helpful sound effects give us a clue that things are about to get interesting.
Demolition begins at St. Teilo's; a worker breaks through an outside wall. Jack sees a pair of ghosts, a nurse pushing a soldier, singing, in a wheelchair; Owen calls in that he's noticing activity there. Gwen, down a different corridor, sees another pair of ghosts, and is unsettled when one of her ghosts tries to shoo her away. Throughout these scenes, the lights are flickering. I get that flickering lights are an easy visual for "something weird's happening," but I don't get why a building that is in the process of being demolished would have live electricity.
Tosh and Tommy have forgotten whatever that fleeting "thing" was and have left the pub. They're chasing each other around in the most innocent kind of flirting; Tommy finally works up the nerve to kiss her. Tosh's reaction is typical Tosh; she pulls back and says "Thanks." Thanks? Tommy wonders about that, and Tosh, being Tosh, can't get past that she's older than him. Of course he brings up the fact that he was born in 1918 and he's old enough to die for his country, and so if she thinks he's not old enough to kiss her, well, "You're daft, lass." Tosh has no answer for his arguments. As to what they should do next, I loved this bit: "We could go back to mine, but there's only room for one and it's bloody freezing." Tosh, inwardly wondering what her apartment looks like after this morning's frenzy, agrees they can go back to her place.
That, of course, is when her cellphone rings and they get called back to Torchwood. The team is assembled around the table, and Jack explains what's going on. No matter how many times I watch this episode, it never makes any more sense, so I won't bother repeating it. It's enough to say pieces of 1918 are starting to drop into our timeline, and if they don't fix it, very bad things will happen. Jack does this thing with a crumpled piece of paper that convinces everyone else how Terribly Important it is to stop this process, but he never explains why or how this is happening, or how they're going to fix it—or even how he knows how to fix it. Again, the reliance on magic technology is annoying.
Tosh and Owen are dispatched to the hospital to put up Rift monitors, and Owen again warns Tosh about her involvement with Tommy. It's a bit more clear here that Owen is finally realizing what he could have with Tosh, and it's such a relief that they've decided to let Owen grow up a bit. As much as I never bought his devastation after Diane left him, I appreciate that they're using that loss to inform his character now. "You're close," he tells Tosh, and she acknowledges they are, that she doesn't have to pretend with Tommy. Burn Gorman's delivery of his next line is one of his best all season, "I don't want you to get hurt, if you have to say goodbye."
Gwen, combing the files for details they may have missed, sends Owen downstairs, and reads a detail from the file to him. Owen's able to match up the description to a colorful billboard visible through that new hole in the wall. Whatever it is that's going to happen, it's not in the future, it's now.
Tosh's Rift monitors all start beeping and the lights begin to flicker. Back at Torchwood, the sealed orders open. Happily, Jack is there when the cover pops off the temporally-locked box; and I'm reminded again how silly that is. What if no one was there? What if it were still stuck in a cupboard somewhere? As I said, happily, Jack's there, and he removes a thick envelope from the container. He opens it, and takes out several sheets of folded paper, each covered with small, densely-spaced handwriting. Ianto comes in, excited to see that the box has opened. "Instructions?" he asks. Jack nods, telling him, "For Tommy," he continues reading, "and Toshiko."
Once again the team is assembled around their conference table, and Jack tells them they've got 12 hours until the time fracture opens, making 1918 and their present co-exist for a brief time. Tommy has to go back, taking a Rift manipulator with him, and close the fracture. His life will become a "stitch in time" holding everything in place. Why? How? Don't ask, because really, who cares? What we care about now is Tommy and Toshiko, what's to become of them?
Jack takes Tosh out to speak privately while Ianto delivers Tommy's original outfit back to him: "I guess I'll be saving the world in some pajamas. How daft is that?"
Tosh gets the worst of this deal by far. Alone with Jack, she immediately asks, "What happens to him?" Jack explains that Tommy dies three weeks after he's sent back, executed for cowardice. More than 300 WWI British soldiers were executed. (Posthumous pardons were granted to the executed men in 2006.) Toshiko is devasted by this information; she insists that she can't send Tommy back just to die. Jack replies, "It has to be you," showing her a sketch from the sealed file. It is, of course, Tosh. She agonizes that Tommy doesn't know, and what she will do if he asks. Jack knows she's strong enough to do what must be done.
Now that the plans are set, they've got the whole night to kill. There's a great "let's ignore the elephant in the room" conversation where Gwen, Owen, and Ianto all pretend that they'll play cards and drink till the morning with Tommy, when they all know exactly how he wants to spend that time. Tosh, emerging from her conference with Jack, sweeps the pretense away and says brightly, "He can spend the night with me." No one dares exhale until Jack gives it the OK, telling them to meet tomorrow at 6:30AM.
At Toshiko's apartment, she tells him, "I worried that you'd see me getting old." They have no time for games now, and are completely open to each other, knowing this is the only time they'll ever have together. They embrace, and the camera pulls back to Toshiko's antique digital clock. The numbers trip over from 23:59 to 00:00; it's Tommy's last day at Torchwood.
We cut away to Jack and Ianto, in Jack's office. Ianto muses that they're sending Tommy back to his proper time, and segues to asking Jack if he would go back to his own time if he could. Jack's answer is perfect in a rambling, round-about way, talking about things he has seen, people he's loved that he never would have met if he had stayed home. "I wouldn't change that for the world," he says, looking into Ianto's eyes. There's the slightest of pauses, just a breath, then they kiss, and it's every bit as passionate and tender as the kisses that Tommy and Toshiko shared.
In the darkness, Tommy asks Toshiko, "What happens to me?" Tosh lies just a little, telling him he'll be redeployed to the front lines. So she lets him understand he'll die, but not how, sparing him that, at least.
Soon enough it's time, and they're all at the hospital, but only Tosh and Tommy can be there when the Rift opens. As the time approaches, Tommy loses his nerve, and Anthony Lewis, who up until now has been tender and funny and sweet, really sells this speech, Tommy finally unloading everything he has endured. "I can't go back," he says. He knows he's going to die. "Why me?" He drops the manipulator, rejecting his mission. Jack repeats that it has to be him, he's the one who's here, now, the only one who can go back. Tommy looks from Jack to his beloved Toshiko, and excoriates them, "You're no better than the generals, sitting safely behind the lines, sending us over the top." This is so hard on Tosh, especially his last, "All this time I've had, it means nothing." He sinks, defeated, to the floor.
Jack tries to get Tommy up, but Tommy resists. Tosh sends Jack away, and goes to Tommy herself. She remembers what he said in the pub, and tells him, you're a hero, you save us all. But Tommy rejects that, quite sensibly. He doesn't want to be a hero. He wants to stay with Toshiko—and then the Rift opens, and Harriet and Gerald are there, and Toshiko is once again pleading with Tommy to tell them, tell them what to do. Just as before, he does.
The Rift closes, but our Tommy's still in 1918, which shouldn't be possible but we'll just ignore that for now. The nurse comes in and sees Tommy there; she's quite annoyed that he has wandered so far and hustles him back to the ward. As they come in, we see Harriet and Gerald lead 1918's Tommy out; the bed is still warm when our Tommy gets into it. He's still holding the Rift manipulator, but he doesn't have a clue what it is, because once he got back to 1918, everything that had happened to him in the future was lost. He's back to being poor shell-shocked Tommy, and he's more confused than ever now.
In the present, the fracture's not closed, and time is leaking through "all over the place." Jack is prepared to step through the Rift to close the fracture, but no one likes that idea, he'll be stuck in 1918—again. Owen gets an idea, which apparently will only work because they know exactly where and when Tommy is, and because they have his blood. They don't even bother to explain how this works, or where this technology comes from, and it's just as well, because no one would buy it anyway: somehow or other they can make a psychic projection from someone in our here-and-now to Tommy back in St. Teilo's in 1918, and only he will be able to see and hear it. Got that? If so, you're better than I am, but I'll repeat, the technology is not the point here.
Toshiko says she'll go, displacing Jack yet again. In no time at all, there she—or at least a projection of her—is, sitting at the edge of Tommy's bed. "It's me, Toshiko," she says, and it has to hurt when Tommy says, "Who?" Even shell-shocked, Tommy manages pretty well. "Is this yours?" he asks, holding up the Rift manipulator. Toshiko explains that it's his, and that he has to use it to fix what's happening. In 1918, they're experiencing the fracture as an earthquake, with the requisite flickering lights. Tommy admits he's scared, insisting he's a coward; he doesn't know what he's fighting for. Tosh answers steadily, "For the future. For me," and then reaches back to that pub conversation and says those words he promised would work, "because you're my brave, handsome hero." Tommy works the key, and we see some Rift pixie dust flutter away. Tosh says "Thank you," but Tommy answer "Good-bye," as if some part of him recognized something. Then the Rift flares, and Tosh is enveloped in white light, and she comes back to Torchwood.
Back in our time, the fracture closes, eventually pulling all those random time bulges back in. The world is safe, but that doesn't make Tosh feel any better about sacrificing Tommy. She carefully folds and repacks Tommy's street clothes, originally purchased for him in 1919 or thereabouts, a fine commentary on the timelessness of classic British menswear. Owen sees her and thinks better of saying anything. As she's leaving, Jack thanks her, but she can only nod. We see her at the waterside, at the railing she and Tommy had been flirting at just the day before. Owen goes to her. "He trusted me right till the end," she says, unable to forgive herself. "Because you were strong," Owen counters, "All of this is still here, because of you." But Tosh refuses to be comforted. "Because of Tommy," she corrects him. "Let's hope we're worth it." She walks away, the play of emotions across her face continuing until she passes the camera.
Characters make this episode, plot devices nearly destroy it. I'm fine with Rift detectors and the occasional alien artifact. I'm even willing to give them a pass on cryogenics, but I'm not fine with a 90-year-old temporal lock on a box that sits in cupboard until it doesn't, and coincidentally that's the day it opens. I'll give them a pass on the wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff (another reason Jack's crumpled paper ball analogy failed me) but psychic projection? Owen's idea, which Jack immediately recognized? I feel like I missed a meeting. Could Davies and Raynor throw us a bone and toss in an unrecognizable alien name to explain where this capability came from? We've slid way too far down to the "magic" end of the technology/magic continuum.
With all that out of the way, I can admit I enjoyed this episode for several reasons. Torchwood is British science fiction and thus has a completely different historical perspective than American sci-fi, which usually, narcissistically, reflects only American history and influences. But World War I was fought mostly without us, and the US lost roughly a tenth of the men that Great Britain did. Most Americans now can live their entire lives without hearing or seeing a reference to the World War I; it's good to get a reminder.
Our national character is shaped by our history, and Torchwood calling back to WWI informs the series' recurring theme. As Tommy said, there is always a war on somewhere, and Torchwood's war is strictly covert but every bit as serious. They're the tiniest army with the most significant mission. But what about those huge armies, all the boys the generals sent over the top? We can never forget them, for without them, we wouldn't be where we are today.
I admire the skill with which Davies and Raynor boiled all this down into two characters, one familiar, and one new. Guest casting was once again superb; it consistently delights in this series, and here, Anthony Lewis had excellent chemistry with Naoki Mori. And it was delightful to see Toshiko emotionally involved without becoming fatally weakened by her feelings, as she was in "Greeks." Of all the regulars, only Gwen was stuck being the exposition vehicle; everyone else got to advance their character arc a bit. We can see Owen's increasing interest in Toshiko, and Ianto and Jack's relationship continuing to deepen past banter and sex.
Best of all, I love how Torchwood can take a fracture in time that threatens to undo our reality and use that crisis to frame a story about love and sacrifice, the horrors of war and the burdens of command. Why are we fighting? In every war, the answer is the same, for the future. Are we worth it? I agree with Toshiko: yes, we're worth it, wars and all. Last season I complained that Torchwood was too ambivalent in its view of humanity; so far in season two, they've found a good balance. I'm fine with Torchwood pointing out our horrific weaknesses as long as they don't decide we're too far gone to save.
Joan O'Connell Hedman sometimes blogs about movies and television.