The intersection of the alien and the human is front and center in “Combat,” as disaffected young men seek meaning, Fight Club-style. Our Torchwood team regulars struggle to deal with the accumulated consequences of actions we’ve seen over the course of the season, and Owen (Burn Gorman) becomes the nexus around which everything revolves.
Our first hint that this is an Owen episode comes from the opening credits sequence, with scenes from “Out of Time” spliced in; we even hear Diane’s voice-over (“Love, you’re always at its mercy”). It will take a moment before we check in on Owen, though. A Weevil, one of the bipedal aliens with piranha-like faces we met in the pilot episode, lopes through an industrial neighborhood, pursued by our Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). Jack’s back to his usual glib, confident self, but the Weevil attacks and eludes him; Jack notes that such things always happen when he has given the team the night off.
Elsewhere in Cardiff, Gwen (Eve Myles) is not exactly enjoying her night out with Rhys (Kai Owen). Her attention keeps wandering, and Rhys calls her on it; she’s always wishing she was elsewhere. Rhys can feel her slipping away, and asks what’s going on. Myles’ expression of flustered guilt is perfect. Gwen’s eyes are opened too wide in a simulation of honesty, but she isn’t fooling anyone as she tries to figure out what excuse to make this time. Her reprieve comes as Jack dashes in, all apologies, needing Gwen’s help to catch the runaway Weevil. Rhys, already upset, overplays it and rudely orders Gwen to sit back down. Gwen responds in the only healthy way possible: “Don’t ever speak to me that way again.” She heads off with Jack, but ultimately they fail. The Weevil is scooped up by unknown thugs, bundled into the back of a van as a ski-masked man confronts them with a sly grin before taking off.
Owen, abandoned, is in the depths of despair, out drinking alone; he’s right that you’re never more alone than when you’re surrounded by a crowd of total strangers. The lovely barkeep’s banter doesn’t penetrate Owen’s gloom, but it does draw the jealousy of her boyfriend, who unwisely attacks Owen and soon regrets it. But even beating down the two-bit thug doesn’t do anything to lift Owen’s spirits, who continues to ignore his ringing cellphone.
At Torchwood, Gwen’s leaving her third message for Rhys, and her pleading seems sincere this time. Rhys listens to her message as she speaks, but deletes it instead of picking up the phone to talk to her. Jack has already reprimanded Gwen over letting her personal life fall apart. A big part of her appeal to Jack, and one of the reasons he wanted her on the team, is that she was “normal,” and had a healthy outside relationship. But is Jack’s command—“Don’t let it drift,”—just more evidence of Jack’s fundamental disconnect with humanity? Is that a reasonable thing to demand of another person? On one level, we’re apt to reply, “Well, it’s not as if she wanted this to happen,” but that’s not exactly true, is it? Gwen did let it drift. She decided that Torchwood was more important than Rhys. When given the choice between work and Rhys, she keeps on choosing Torchwood.
Of course, Gwen also chose Owen, but that’s not working out well, either. The Owen we saw very early in the series, the sarcastic bastard, is back in spades. When he finally comes back in to work, he insults Tosh (Naoko Mori) and is cold to Gwen. Provoked, she asks him why they’re even continuing their affair, and he breaks it off with a crude insult, claiming boredom. This is such a stark contrast to the tenderness he showed her in “Countrycide” that Gwen is stung into answering his insult with one of her own: “You can be such a wanker sometimes.” It’s no consolation at all to Gwen that Owen agrees with her.
In the midst of all this personal drama, there’s still the Weevil situation to sort out. Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) has noted an increase in strange and severe injuries in the local emergency rooms; the natural conclusion is that Weevil attacks are up, as well. Tosh and Jack investigate the warehouse where the captured Weevil was taken, and find a body, obviously the victim of a Weevil. They are warned to stay away from things that don’t concern them via a call to the victim’s cellphone.
Since the only lead they have is the empty warehouse, Tosh and Jack decide to send Owen out to investigate the leasing agent. His cover story as a jellied eel distributor is just out-there enough to be believable; who knows anything about jellied eels? Check out Owen’s cover, it’s hysterical. And since Tosh is the one who dreamed up it all up, I think it’s safe to interpret her choice of something slithery and slimy as a direct commentary on Owen himself.
Cover firmly in place, Owen meets with Mark Lynch (Alex Hassell), ostensibly to find a warehouse near the docks for his booming export business, but actually to give Torchwood access to his computer via some of the alien tech we saw in “Day One.” Mark and Owen hit it off in a testosterone-laden way, and Mark’s interest in Owen is cemented when they meet later for a drink, and Owen is confronted by the bartender’s boyfriend again. This time he has brought a few friends, and Mark helps Owen handily dispatch them. Mark is obviously excited by the fight, and his respect for Owen has increased. Mark invites Owen back to his place for a drink, and normally, with this show, and Owen in particular, you’d expect them to be going for sex. But Owen is as disaffected as ever, and there’s a feral quality to Mark’s personality that’s impossible to ignore. He’s not trawling for Owen, he’s recruiting him.
Mark responds to Owen as an equal: successful but aimless, rich but empty. Hassel’s performance is a stand-out in a series that consistently features extraordinary guest actors, and he’s able to sell his particular line of bullshit about the futility of ordinary life and the emptiness of success exceptionally well. The recurrent theme—something’s out there, in the dark, and it’s coming—is voiced again, but Mark doesn’t care what it means for humanity, he only cares about what it means for himself. Mark has all the fervor of a true believer while disavowing faith in society, religion, and his own accomplishments. So where does he find his meaning?
Among the Weevils, of course. He has one chained up in his apartment, and he uses it as a punching bag. This brutality finally shakes Owen out of his apathy; he would no more punch a Weevil than he would kick a dog. But it’s so much more than one Weevil chained up for one man’s amusement. Mark scoffs when Owen accuses him of using the Weevil as the perfect murder weapon, and Owen sees how wrong he was when Mark takes him to yet another empty property, where scores of successful men have gathered to fight each other and, if they’ve got the cash and the nerve, go into the cage with a Weevil.
Mark blathers about stripping away everything to get down to their essential essence, but Owen isn’t buying it. Mark explains that the dead man went into the cage and gave up, “He didn’t want to live enough.” None of Mark’s philosophizing is enough to justify what they’re doing, though, and Owen turns to leave. He only stops when Mark pulls a gun on him, and insists he get into the cage. Turning the situation on its head, Owen tells Mark to put the gun down, and promises to go in, if he does.
A neatly choreographed sequence of events has the rest of the team breaking into the fight club just as Owen has entered the cage. The Weevil seems to recognize him, and for the first time in the entire episode, Owen lets the tension run out of him, closing his eyes and exhaling. It seems as if the Weevil won’t attack him, but it is startled by the sudden commotion surrounding Torchwood’s arrival, and dives for Owen. Gwen screams for Owen, and Jack ends up shooting the Weevil in the arm to get it off the man. They get Owen out of there, but while Jack is issuing his cease-and-desist orders, Mark enters the cage with the now-wounded and frantic Weevil. Asked what he’s doing, Mark laments, “It’s over.” Jack watches the scene in the cage for a moment, unreadable; he turns away as we hear Mark’s shrieks.
Our coda begins with a pretty beat-up Owen, in hospital but on the mend; Jack comes in and tosses a bag of grapes on his table. Owen says he shouldn’t have; he really hates grapes. But that’s far from Owen’s biggest problem with Jack; suicide by Weevil seemed like such a good idea at the time, in that tiny moment of peace he felt in the cage. Owen questions Jack’s certainty that he’s always doing the right thing; at least in this case, we can see that Jack is rather arbitrary in his decisions. Owen was saved, but if Mark Lynch wanted to die, that was OK by Jack. Perhaps Jack thought Mark’s death by Weevil was appropriate payback for the torture that Mark inflicted on the Weevils he captured.
Jack doesn’t respond to Owen’s challenge. His face hardens, though, and he leaves Owen with orders to return to work the next day. Taking us out of the episode, Ianto lets Owen into the cell block where the Weevils are now in residence; Ianto’s worried, but Owen asks for just a minute alone. Owen’s prior research had speculated they might have some kind of low-level telepathic connection, able to communicate primitive emotions. When the Weevils see Owen, they become aggressive, but when Owen hisses at them, they retreat into the shadows of their cells and begin their odd lowing. It’s obvious they’re terrified of him, and Owen’s grin shows that he’s satisfied with that.
All in all, “Combat” stacks up to be a terrific episode, with touches of humor nicely balancing the deeper and more painful scenes. I was delighted to see that it was written by Doctor Who regular Noel Clarke, aka “Mickey the Idiot,” who wasn’t, of course. Clarke provides some of the best character development we’ve had since the Russell T Davies’-penned episodes, and he skillfully paces the separate plotlines, ultimately bringing them together for maximum effect.
Even better, everyone has at least one good line; Tosh and Ianto are both appalled at Jack’s plan to release a Weevil so they can see where it ends up, and Tosh is even more distressed when she sees how the Weevil’s captors treat it. Jack doesn’t care, believing in their ability to protect the innocent of Cardiff from random Weevil attacks, and also to ultimately figure out what’s going on. This is the Jack that’s easy to like but hard to trust; since the ends justify the means for him, you’ll always have to worry that his means may someday steamroll you, exactly as happened to Owen, who didn’t want saving. Barrowman is blessedly comfortable in both modes, charming and grinning one moment, flinty-eyed steel the next. Every so often he has to remind this team that they have a boss, and he’s it. They tend to wander when left to their own devices too long.
Eve Myles has a couple of fantastic scenes, one in which she confesses her affair to Rhys, knowing he won’t remember any of it because she has given him Torchwood’s amnesia drug, RetCon. Pre-Torchwood Gwen would never dream of anything like this kind of morally compromised idiocy, but now we see how corrupted Gwen has become. Her attempt to have it both ways fails, though. Her dosing is off, and Rhys passes out before she can get even a hint of absolution. With Rhys out for hours, Gwen drifts back to Torchwood, Jubilee Pizza in hand, just as in the pilot. But this time, there’s no one there, and Gwen struggles to contain her emotional turmoil. Myles’ use of hand gestures to ward off tears is classic. She teeters on the brink of a complete breakdown for a moment, but then is saved by the Weevil victim’s cellphone, signaling a new text message.
The soundtrack, along with everything else for this episode, is a keeper. That text message chime is expertly worked into the soundtrack of that series of scenes, adding immeasurably to the atmosphere of building dread. The bar scenes are scored with electro-pop from Hot Chip, while the fight club features a song by prog-metal group Muse; both sets support the action without drawing attention to themselves.
This is such a solid episode, I can’t even criticize Mark’s deeply shallow philosophy. I never bought the nihilistic impulses at the center of the original Fight Club; pain hurts too much for repeated beatings to hold lasting appeal for anyone except masochists. But the aimlessness of men who’ve done everything they’re supposed to do and still feel empty resonates anyway. Doesn’t everyone want to escape his (or her) own life at some point? The trick is finding the meaning in the every day, and not everyone has the desire or means to do so. It’s odd to be quoting philosophy from John Corbett’s Northern Exposure disc jockey, but I think he nailed it: “Having things doesn’t make us happy. Being a part of things makes us happy.”
Why a typical fight club could provide a sense of belonging that, say, a bowling league couldn’t, was always beyond me, but an alien fight club? That’s something else altogether, a test beyond anything a typical man could anticipate. Owen’s description of how the police would react—their “minds would implode if they saw this”—is what we could expect from the average Cardiff resident, as well. The fact that these men didn’t freak out really is to their credit, though it could never be enough to make up for the torture they carried out or the bizarre rites they forced the Weevils into. Our impulse to attack and destroy The Unknowable Other remains as strong as it was in our most ancient ancestors, even when that Other is a simple beast. We should be happy that Owen is content with intimidation, for now.