“Small Worlds” presents an undeniably affecting story. The problem is, it has practically nothing to do with Torchwood.
Well-established series can throw a one-off into the mix and suffer little, if at all—recall “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which had nothing to do with Star Trek, or its flagship of the United Federation of Planets—but in a new series, an episode like this is more likely to cause head scratching among the viewers: What is this show about, again?
For this one episode, Torchwood is about ancient magic, enduring love, and tragic loss. Forget all that business about protecting the planet from aliens and investigating alien technology. We have to make do with Jack’s (John Barrowman) pre-WWI flashbacks, which reveal that whatever’s going on now, he’s seen it before. We never see how he learns what little he does know, either; the use of the flashback/memory scenes is frustratingly limited.
Last week, Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) called Jack a monster and asked if he’d ever loved anyone. In short order, “Small Worlds” delivers the answer in the person of the lovely, elderly Estelle (Eve Pearce), a long-time fairy hunter and former love of “Jack’s father”. Viewers immediately understand that it wasn’t Jack’s father, but Jack himself; former cop Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) reserves judgment until she’s able to ask a few pertinent questions and confront Jack himself about it. Maddeningly, we only get to hear about Jack’s love-at-first-sight with the 17-year-old Estelle; I would gladly trade a few CGI fairy-demons to have seen it. Jack’s immortality is the slender thread connecting this story to Torchwood, but he’s caught up on two fronts: his old love is seeing, and photographing, fairies in the wood; and people are turning up dead, asphyxiated by rose petals, reproducing exactly the bizarre deaths of his squad aboard a troop transport train in 1909.
“Small Worlds” remains a well-constructed episode in spite of these few backstory lapses; exposition is always cheaper and often quicker, too. Writer Peter Hammond’s decision to skimp on the Jack/Estelle story gives him plenty of time to focus on little Jasmine (Lara Phillipart), her mum and step-dad, and her new friends, the fairies.
As much as I felt cheated by the scenes between Jack and Estelle, I have no complaints at all about the entire Jasmine storyline. We first meet her in a series of intercut scenes: Jasmine at school, waiting to be picked up at dismissal; her mother chiding her step-father for being late as he leaves the house; an unmistakable pedophile (Roger Barclay in a fantastic performance) keeping watch from his car as the school children disperse. When Jasmine decides to walk home, the sense of dread is inescapable; she’s an innocent child, what’s going to happen to her? The man in the car tries the old trick, “I promised your mum I’d bring you home,” but Jasmine runs off to a short-cut through some woods. The man in the car reappears when Jasmine comes out to the road again, and this time he is determined. Jasmine starts to fight him off but in the end, she doesn’t have to: the wind picks up and whips at the man, leaving Jasmine untouched; we hear unnatural voices commanding him to leave “the human child” alone.
Earlier green-tinged point-of-view scenes from high in the trees were eerie and unknowable, but now it seems as if these creatures are benevolent. They saved Jasmine, after all; how bad could they be? That momentary sense of relief—Jasmine is safe, the creatures are good—evaporates almost instantly, as we see the pedophile pursued relentlessly through an indoor market; eventually he stumbles out into the arms of a female police constable, and begs her to arrest him. Credit to everyone involved for making me feel afraid for this pervert; we segued neatly from being terrified for Jasmine to being terrified for her would-be attacker.
Back at the station, he admits to having done bad things; “It’s the boys and girls, you see,” he says quite simply, and chills run down your spine. The constables are only too happy to lock him up; how they prevented themselves from beating him to a pulp is beyond me. Some unspecified time later, he is visited in his cell by one of the horrific fairies, who sucks the life right out of him.
So, for the second time, the field team finds itself back in this small town. Earlier, Jack and Gwen had gone to visit Estelle after Ianto identified some strange weather patterns. Estelle shows off her new fairy photos while Gwen remains skeptical, recalling the Cottingley hoax. Now, the team is called in to investigate the locked-door death of the pedophile. The closed-circuit footage shows him having some kind of a fit, but of course you can’t see fairies on video. Gwen’s examination of the body, either an homage to, or outright stealing from, The Silence of the Lambs, has her saying, “Wait a minute,” peering into the dead man’s mouth, reaching for a set of long tweezers, and extracting rose petals. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Death’s Head moth chrysalis. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” the local officers say, but Jack has.
Jack exposits to Gwen, and us, that fairies are real and far from benevolent. He calls them “elementals,” and says that they can control water, air, and fire; they can move backwards and forwards through time. Most significant is the fairies’ “love” of human children; Jack tells us that at one time, every fairy was a human child, a “chosen one” taken by the fairies. As edifying as Jack’s speech may be, it grinds everything to a halt, and we’re left wondering how he knows all this. How much better it would’ve been to have shown us how Jack figured all this out, or something, anything, other than having him speechify it to Gwen. Talking about fairy elementals is boring, whereas the creatures in action are frankly terrifying: unstoppable and truly alien, even though they are of this earth. Having warned Estelle of the fairies’ uncertain, possibly malevolent nature, Jack must endure her loss when the fairies strike out at her, drowning her in her own garden.
Since the fairies have manifested their presence, Jack realizes they must be after a new child, and the team quickly identifies Jasmine as the Chosen One. Throughout the episode we get brief scenes of Jasmine’s parents, who come across as typical loving, imperfect parents. They’re clueless at first, but Jasmine’s step-father, Roy (William Travis) notices her isolation from everyone, and that they never hear her laugh any more. Her mother, Lynn (Adrienne O’Sullivan) tries to draw her out, but fails. It is Roy, decent and well-meaning if gruff, who takes steps to try and reclaim Jasmine from the wood.
Everything comes crashing down at Roy and Lynn’s anniversary party. Roy has put up a fence to keep Jasmine from going into the woods, and Jasmine reacts with rage. The fairies arrive to claim their child, killing Roy while Lynn looks on, terrified and uncomprehending. The field team arrives in the midst of the chaos, but they have no weapons or technology that can help them. Jack tries arguing, “The child isn’t sure,” but that’s so obviously a lie that the fairies scoff at it. Lynn, devastated by the murder of her husband, must now bear the horrific spectacle of her daughter’s rejection: Jasmine chooses the fairies over her mother.
The team follows Jasmine and the fairies into the sparse wood, which Jasmine asserts is the old forest to her and the fairies. Jack pleads for the child, but the fairies insist that they have her, or else they will destroy everything. What must be understood is they can do it, and nothing that Torchwood has could ever stop them. Jack asks them what good that would do, because they are in the world, also; Jasmine reminds him that they can always find the forest “back in time.” This scene is one of unrelenting despair; Jack, in agony, lets Jasmine go to the fairies. In a moment she is transformed and the band of elementals disappears.
“How could you?” the team asks Jack, and he makes the only answer he can: “How could I not?” Weighing the whole world against the life of a little girl, what choice would you make? But that’s not the choice, really: Jack weighed the whole world against the pain of a mother who has lost her child. Jasmine didn’t die; she would never die, now. But Lynn would live forever with the pain of her daughter’s rejection and the knowledge that she had chosen to become something immortal and terrible, rather than stay with her. Lynn is left with nothing.
Performances were spot on in this episode; this is the first time I’ve felt Barrowman come across convincingly as something other than glib. Jack’s obvious love for Estelle and the anguish he felt in having to let Jasmine go were the best we’ve seen out of Barrowman yet, offering relief to my worry that they’d wrapped this series around the weakest actor in the ensemble. The rest of the Torchwood team is barely evident, aside from Gwen’s use as an exposition target. The guest actors are all outstanding, particularly Travis and O’Sullivan as Jasmine’s parents. O’Sullivan’s hysterics when the fairies invade their party strike exactly the right note; as a mother and wife suddenly stripped of child and husband, she has every right to fall apart. I know I was very hard on Gareth David-Lloyd for his portrayal of Ianto’s desperate love in “Cyberwoman;” I didn’t feel that any of it was earned. Hammond used the briefest of scenes to establish that both Lynn and Roy loved Jasmine and wanted her to be happy, they just didn’t know how to get there.
Special effects were convincing on one level but cliché on another. Estelle first sees the fairies as small glowing winged things, but when she turns away they morph into something human-sized and fierce. This dual nature of fairies has a long history. Although there have always been a few who advocated for beneficent fairies, over the long haul, fairies have most often been mistrusted. It feels as though Hammond wanted to surprise us with evil fairies; that effort failed.
I’ll forgive the lack of surprise for the thoroughness with which the fairies themselves are portrayed, mostly through those point-of-view shots and the other characters’ reactions to them. The use of the CGI creatures is wisely limited; seeing what they can do is scary, and convincing, enough. Their voices are appropriately haunting, particularly in the final voiceover recitation of Yeats’s classic The Stolen Child: Come away, human child…for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
The unevenness of this episode frustrated me; a few minor changes could’ve made it brilliant from start to finish. Jasmine’s story was a tremendous reminder that no matter how we advance, there will always be forces against which we’ll remain powerless. For all that we’ll testify to the power of love, it offers little protection against the passing of time, which inevitably drives children from home, and lovers to their graves.