Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) first met then-medical student Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) in Doctor Who’s third season pre-finale “Utopia,” when Jack clung to the exterior of the TARDIS as it raced to the end of time. Luckily, Jack was uniquely qualified to solve the technical problems that were keeping the remnants of humanity from reaching their final home, and it was Jack’s wrist jump-unit that got the Doctor and his two companions away in the nick of time in “The Sound of Drums.” But it was in “The Last of the Time Lords” that Martha Jones saved the world, and Jack Harkness is one of very few people alive who remembers it. It’s a great pleasure, then, when Dr. Jones arrives at Torchwood, where aliens may shuffle in and out, but the monster of the week is nearly always human.
We open with a routine, but nonetheless very nicely produced, Weevil hunt, which takes an unexpected turn when Owen (Burn Gorman) and Toshiko (Naoko Mori) stumble over the corpse of a middle-aged man. Back at the Hub, Owen doesn’t get too far in his investigation before they’re interrupted by the arrival of Jack’s “VIP visitor,” our old companion Martha Jones. Jack’s excitement is, frankly, adorable; Torchwood doesn’t get enough of the ever-smiling, flirty Captain Harkness. Barrowman’s come a long way in his capacity to brood effectively, but there’s no denying that the original Doctor Who vintage Jack is just a lot more fun. Business first, though, as Martha exposits that she’s found a pattern of murder among seemingly random, written-off deaths; the latest victim follows the pattern exactly.
This is the first Torchwood episode written by J.C. Wilsher, but you’d never know it. Wilsher nails both the characters and a crisply-moving plot, and gives everyone something plausible to do. I loved the pas-de-deux between medical wizards Owen and Martha, especially because we never got to see Martha do any real medical work when she was the Doctor’s companion. I know it was a bit over-produced and bordered on silly, but one of the charms of “Reset” is the balance it achieves with lighter moments relieving what could have been unrelenting horror.
The integration of Martha into the Torchwood team is gradual and believable; leaving aside why Gwen (Eve Myles) would be tagging along on Martha’s tour of the facilities with Jack, it was great when Gwen tried to pump Martha for more information on him. When Martha describes their time together as “brief but intense,” Gwen makes a not-unreasonable assumption, which Martha quickly corrects—and then both of them crack up and wonder what they’re doing wrong, as they must be the only two individuals on the planet that haven’t made it with Jack.
Martha’s no less curious than Gwen, though, and the conversation she has with Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) regarding his relationship with Jack is priceless. Gareth David-Lloyd has been so brilliant this season it’s hard to recognize Ianto as the same character; his lost-in-reverie descriptions of Jack (“innovative”, “approaching avant garde”) are perfectly delivered, and perfectly hysterical.
These light-hearted moments stand out amidst the grim background of the serial murders. Each victim’s blood was washed via injection to the eye, and if needles in the eyes aren’t enough to make you squirm, you need to have your humanity re-evaluated. Martha noted that each victim’s medical record had been removed completely, and that pattern continues with each new victim. Eventually they catch a break when a potential victim’s dog bites her would-be attacker, and she fends him off with a kick to the groin (Jack approves of her spunk.) The survivor links everything back to a government-supported medical research facility, The Pharm, and tells them about a drug called “Reset.” This drug is beyond a simple miracle cure; it fixes everything from diabetes to HIV. Unfortunately, everyone who has ever taken it ends up dead.
Including the lovely Marie, our lone survivor, who has some kind of seizure. Owen and Martha rush to the hospital, and as she begins seizing again, Owen medicates her, but she suddenly dies. Oddly, neither Owen nor Martha attempt CPR or any other type of resuscitation; they’re apparently too stunned by her death. Just moments later, a cloud of small buzzing insects billows out of Marie’s mouth; Owen, thinking very quickly, sounds the alarm, and he and Martha shrink back into the corner of the room, covering their mouths and noses with their surgical masks. The tiny bugs fall just as rapidly as they rose, a bizarrely gentle snow of beautiful insects. Martha and Owen realize they left their host, Marie, as soon as she died, but they themselves died quickly without a new host.
Jack and Owen pay a routine visit to the Pharm but they get nowhere with the snooty, impenetrable chairman Dr. Aaron Copley (Alan Dale). Jack even throws the words “infection of alien origin” around, but Dr. Copley remains unmoved. He’s dismissive of Jack’s demands for access, even as Jack asserts that he doesn’t listen to politicians anymore (another nice callback to “Last of the Time Lords.”) As they’re leaving, Jack’s wrist unit detects an enormous alien presence, proving Dr. Copley’s disingenuousness. That’s something Torchwood has to investigate, but how?
Martha’s the obvious candidate to go in under cover, even though no one but Jack is comfortable with her going in there. They outfit her with some very nifty “kit”, as they say: contact lenses that turn her into a walking camera, powered by her body heat. Ianto’s explanation of the alien technology they take advantage of is head-spinnningly funny, as is Martha’s ready acceptance, “Oh, quantum entanglement of (unintelligible) particles, OK.” Martha’s job is strictly industrial espionage, though: get in, get access to their computer systems, get out.
The sequences featuring Martha’s lens cameras are just outstanding, as we switch from seeing Martha to seeing what she’s seeing, with intermittent sequences back at Torchwood. We’re on tenterhooks as Martha goes in as a creative writing grad student badly in need of cash, offering herself up as a research subject. She’s about to be rejected when she cooks up a story of a previous hepatitis infection, and then they sign her on the spot. They settle her into her own little room and then leave her for the night, giving her the perfect opportunity to go wandering around after hours.
Owen and Toshiko are monitoring Martha’s video when Owen unexpectedly asks Toshiko, whatever happened to that pool tournament? Tosh has given up on him as a bad job and admits it was never a tournament, it was supposed to be a date. Owen has the grace to look surprised at that; perhaps I misjudged him before. Maybe he really didn’t realize that’s what Tosh wanted. The writing here is delicate and funny, with Tosh feeling a bit self-protective and Owen insisting that no, it really would be OK for them to have a drink. I love the bargain they come to, that Owen will still flirt, and Tosh agreeing quickly, “You can be the king of flirts.” Indeed he is, as practically every other line he says to Martha involves at least one level of innuendo if not outright suggestion.
Owen segues us back to what’s happening with Martha to close out that scene. In a series of tense, dialog-light scenes, Martha evades the security guards and gets into Copley’s office, and then gets Toshiko into the Pharm’s computer system. With their new access, the team reviews all the Mayfly information, wondering what the Pharm is doing with these exotic alien insects. Gwen digs deeper into the Pharm’s records and uncovers the identity of their assassin, as well as his next likely victim. They’re able to apprehend him just as he’s about to inject the poor woman’s eyeball (shudder). There’s little to learn from him, though; he only knows he’s killing them before they die of something worse, leaving unwanted evidence behind. There’s a horrid, mercifully brief bit of torture-by-Weevil that gets the guy to talk, but Torchwood doesn’t need the Weevil for anything more than that. Unluckily for him, he breathed in one of those tiny insects, and now it has matured in his abdominal cavity, and it’s literally killing him. Owen tries to use the episode’s one weak spot, the “singularity scalpel” to remove it. I can’t help but compare this gadget, and its use, to Galaxy Quest’s transporter-like device that engineering chief Tony Shalhoub can’t use, until he suddenly can. The scalpel’s no use anyway; the beastie bursts, Alien-like, from the assassin’s chest, killing him and spattering everyone with blood. Fortunately the effort seems to have at least stunned the critter, which Owen carefully crates up.
Martha’s making her exit from the Pharm when an alarm goes off; something has escaped in the alien sector. For some inexplicable reason, Martha heads over there instead of off the compound, and comes face to face with the escaped Mayfly. There’s a tremendous flash, and Martha’s contact lenses are fried; she takes them out hurriedly just as a security squad rounds the corner. They go after the Mayfly but shoot Martha with a tranquilizer dart, and she goes down.
Pandemonium ensues at Torchwood, with everyone wanting to rush in to save Martha, with only Jack asserting she can take care of herself. Tosh argues that they should give it some time to see if they can re-establish contact. Obviously they can’t, but Toshiko comes up with a novel way to get them past the gate without arousing suspicion.
The situation for Martha is dire; her blood test results came back revealing changes that can only be explained by the kind of radiation exposure you get traveling through space and time—although how the Pharm folks knew that is well beyond explanation; they don’t even try. Dr. Copley is fascinated, and wants to know how Martha will react to Reset, regardless of the fact that it’s a near-certainty that the drug will kill her when the incubating Mayflies no longer need their host. Martha is strapped down, arms spread, and can do nothing to stop the IV feeding the drug into her veins. Copley’s assistant has qualms as she sees Martha struggling, but Copley continues to channel Mengele and tells her to keep her nerve. Apparently, the changes to Martha’s system have accelerated the process, because the Mayflies are already incubating. Somehow or other, Copley is able to observe that the larvae practice sibling cannibalism, so only the strongest larvae survives. Martha seems destined for a Ripley-esque death when Jack and Owen burst in, guns at the ready. The guns don’t help; Copley doesn’t know how to stop the process.
Meanwhile, Toshiko, Ianto, and Gwen investigate the alien sector, and find not just Mayflies but other aliens, too, including Weevils, kept in giant glass tanks, hooked up to various tubes and jars. The Pharm is milking the aliens for the various unique chemicals they produce; apparently Weevils are good for pesticides and a chemical defoliant. But it’s the Mayflies that offer the most promise; Reset could be the biggest medical miracle in the history of history, if they could just decouple it from those pesky Mayfly larvae. (Since it’s the larvae that need, and thus create, that perfect environment, that will probably prove rather difficult.) There’s a lovely little scene between Gwen and an imprisoned Mayfly; the giant insect mimics her postures in a way that makes us think that there’s some sentience there. Regardless, what’s happening to these creatures is horrific, a clinical, sterile version of the kind of alien abuse we saw in “Meat.”
When Jack hears about this, he orders Toshiko to initiate total shut-down, and he describes in detail how the Pharm will be dismantled. Copley is still obstinate, clinging to his ends-justifies-the-means rationale. Jack won’t have any of it, and declares what Copley has done “a war crime.” Interesting choice of words, there, especially as Copley had just accused Jack of being a cyber-terrorist. Martha is writhing in pain as the accelerated growth of the Mayfly continues. Owen, desperate, chooses the singularity scalpel over the more traditional route; I’m still not sure why cutting the bug out would be such a bad idea, but obviously it wasn’t one he was willing to try. For some reason, he needs Jack to hold down Martha while he calibrates the machine, and this gives Copley a chance to slip out. Neither Jack nor Owen notices; their attention is focused solely on Martha. This time, of course, the scalpel works, destroying the Mayfly and leaving Martha unharmed. She did flatline there for a few seconds, though. And again, no one attempted resuscitation. She didn’t need it, but still, I’m wondering about British medical protocols.
Jack and Owen walk Martha out as the rest of the team herds Copley’s assistant out to the SUV. Tosh is juggling her laptop, typing in the commands that will shut everything down, when Copley appears with some kind of handgun leveled at the team. Owen steps up, trying to reason with him, and takes a bullet to the chest for his trouble. Owen goes down hard, gasping, and Jack drills a hole through Copley’s forehead before he can get off another shot.
Martha fumbles around in the medkit and gives Owen some kind of shot; they’re all around him as he bleeds profusely, begging him to stay with them, but he doesn’t. Martha squeaks out, “He’s dead,” and Jack whispers, “Owen.” The camera pans from Gwen, stunned, to Toshiko, crumbling, and then it pulls straight up over the scene, Owen surrounded by his friends with Copley’s body laid out, alone, just a few feet away, and then we’re out.
I was spoiler-free when I saw this episode. The last time a Torchwood death shocked me this much was when Susie Costello committed suicide in “Everything Changes.” But Owen’s a far cry from Susie, and I couldn’t stop myself thinking, “You killed Owen! You bastard!” From there it was a very small step to, “But this is Torchwood. Is he going to stay dead? Did Burn Gorman want to leave the show? Damn. I was looking forward to that date between Toshiko and Owen.”
Previews and upcoming episode titles throw us back into Torchwood’s death-obsession. I’m dreading revisiting that old “there’s nothing out there when we die” idea, but if it gets Owen back to us with minimal bullshit, I won’t mind too much. But I’m getting way ahead of myself; let’s get back to “Reset.” In a season showing strong characterization and nicely executed plots, “Reset” is still a stand-out. The addition of Freema Agyeman to the cast is brilliant, the plot hangs together, the pacing is excellent, and what little reliance there is on sci-fi clichés is easily overlooked. Even without Owen’s unexpected death, “Reset” would rank first on my favorites-so-far this season. I worry that we’ve peaked too soon, and the upcoming death-exploration episodes could drag the season under, but I’m trying not to be negative. Whatever comes next, the first half of Torchwood’s second season has been seriously good stuff.