“Random Shoes” plays as if an episode of Doctor Who wandered off and got lost, only to find itself somehow on Torchwood. Part police procedural, part ghost story, this episode presents a structural, if not thematic pair to Who’s late season two episode, “Love and Monsters.”
In the role of “Monsters” Elton Pope (Marc Warren), we have the hapless—and dead (no worries, that’s not a spoiler)—Eugene Jones (Paul Checquer), victim of a hit-and-run. Torchwood is called in because they had an acquaintance with Eugene, who has an unusual interest in alien artifacts. The relationship consisted solely of Eugene approaching Gwen with this artifact or that theory, and Gwen & co brushing him off. Eugene was a hapless pest and not worth their time or trouble when he was alive; now that he’s dead, Owen (Burn Gorman), ready to move on, summarily declares “No alien involvement” and therefore, nothing having to do with Torchwood.
Gwen (Eve Myles) feels differently, though, and refuses to drop it. Clever blocking and intercutting lines make us believe that Gwen at least feels Eugene’s presence, even if she can’t see him. These Sixth Sense-like interactions between the physical and spiritual worlds are smoothly pulled off in several scenes, as Eugene narrates to Gwen the events leading up to his death.
The episode is dominated by flashbacks, extending all the way back to Eugene’s pivotal failure during a mathematics competition. From Eugene’s perspective, his failure drove away his father, who abandoned the family soon after, but also led him, indirectly, to his life’s passion, the collection of alien artifacts. A kindly professor, finding the dejected boy sitting alone in a lab, gives him a strange artificial eye that he believes is of extraterrestrial origin. From that moment, Eugene’s interests and hopes become tangled up in The Eye; he sees it as something marvelous, and figures that something as wonderful as this must be important to its owner, who must someday come looking for it. With the patience of a fanatic, Eugene settles in to wait, broadening his interests just enough to collect a few more pieces of intergalactic ephemera, and to occasionally hound Torchwood with his ideas. But now, Eugene’s dead, and no one is exactly sure why.
Team Torchwood barely makes an appearance, save Gwen; her interactions with Owen seem to indicate their affair has cooled off. Owen castigates her for thinking she’s the only one with a heart, and while he’s right that they are all human, he’s also being deliberately obtuse here: right now, Gwen is the only one who cares. Gwen’s no more tolerant, and tells Owen to sod off, an expression few Americans understand (“sod” refers to sodomy, not pre-planted strips of grass). Later we see Gwen sleeping alone, which raises the question, whatever happened to Rhys (Kai Owen)?
We never find out, at least in this episode, because it’s all about Eugene. Gwen manages to track down his father, interview his perpetually weeping mum, and canvas his workplace, a perfectly rendered telemarketing floor, complete with cubicles and bored, loopy co-workers. When these obvious leads turn up little, Gwen turns to Eugene’s cellphone, which contains the photos of the titular random shoes, as well as the numbers of Eugene’s friends. Gwen is able to track them down and piece together the story of a quietly desperate life, until the day Eugene realizes he has to stop waiting and get on with the business of living. Stop waiting for his dad to come home, stop waiting for the alien to come and claim The Eye. To this end, he resolves to sell The Eye on eBay and give the proceeds to a kind woman in his office. (Here, it’s obliquely revealed that Eugene nurses an unrequited loved for Gwen.)
The auction languishes but suddenly takes off, and everything comes to a climax when Eugene sets a meeting with the winning bidder, giddily anticipating finally meeting his alien and collecting ?15,005.50. How crushed he is to see his friends Gary, a schlub but not bad-hearted, and Josh, who is morally compromised at the very least. Gary and Josh were bidding on The Eye to give Eugene a bit of a boost, but they were not the ?15,000 bidder. They outbid that guy by ?5.50 and thus won the auction. There is no possible way to spin this in a positive direction; they had neither the intentions nor the means to pony up ?15,005.50, and thus they robbed Eugene of a significant amount of money.
Eugene doesn’t take it well, and takes it even harder when Gary and Josh insist that he fork over The Eye for the measly ?34 they’re offering. A brief slapstick sequence starts with Eugene swallowing The Eye to prevent Gary and Josh taking it, and proceeds through their abortive attempts at the Heimlich maneuver. Eugene manages to escape as they’re trying to force-feed him a banana milkshake, and he takes off across an open field. As he pauses to catch his breath at the roadside, a car rounds the bend and plows into him.
So now we—and Gwen—have an explanation for why Eugene is still around, because we all know that on Torchwood, when you die, there’s Nothing. (Except for Suzie Costello, who can discern something moving in the Nothingness.) It has to be The Eye, which means that it must actually be a genuine alien artifact. A helpful mortuary worker retrieves The Eye from Eugene’s body and delivers it to Gwen, and for the first time in the episode, she speaks directly to Eugene, telling him she’s got it now, and so he can go.
Then things get very bizarre, but for just a little while: Torchwood’s SUV comes barreling around the corner, and would’ve plowed into Gwen except that Eugene suddenly becomes corporeal and tackles her out of the way. Gwen’s vindicated, everyone else is astonished, and then Eugene’s given one last soliloquy as he fades to black, admonishing the audience to recognize that life can be both dead ordinary, and truly amazing.
Having evoked “Love and Monsters” at the top of this piece, the most obvious thing lacking in “Random Shoes” is a soundtrack (like “Love and Monster”’s use of ELO) to push this sentimental story completely over-the-top. Writer Jacquetta May is channeling series creator Russell T Davies here, and almost reaches the same delightful, delirious height that Davies achieved in “Love and Monsters.” We fall just short of the mark, here, mainly because Eugene’s already dead when the episode begins. The only redemption available to him is a retroactive one, the realization that his life wasn’t useless after all. It tugs at the heartstrings to hear his dad’s a cappella rendition of “Oh Danny Boy” at Eugene’s funeral, and it’s wonderful to see his dad return to his wife and surviving son in the final scene; we get the sense that they at least will learn something from Eugene’s death.
But what does Eugene get? Is it enough for him to know that The Eye was a real alien artifact? Did learning the truth about his father absolve him of his lifetime of guilt? Were his few sweet days floating around Gwen Cooper enough to compensate for a lifetime of rebuffs? I’ll grant that a dramatic life-saving would be the high point of anyone’s life, but Eugene barely has a moment to savor it. It’s lovely, really, that Eugene goes out on such a high note, so optimistic about the possibilities of life. But there’s a lingering sadness that he only realized this after he was dead, and never got a chance to do much of anything in his own life.
Were I to reduce this story down to its most absurd, I’d point out that this is yet another tale wherein we see the perils of human interaction with alien technology. Eugene’s obsession with The Eye can be seen as the cause of his death, but that’s missing the point. This episode is no more about alien artifacts than it is about banana milkshakes, or random shoes. The alienation here is self-imposed by a bright young man who had a very bad day once, and thereafter never seems able to live up to his potential. He misinterprets a series of events, and with the self-importance of every adolescent, he blames himself for everything. With luck and diligence, most of us grow up, though, and realize that we don’t wield that kind of influence, and can’t, even if we want to. Sadly, Eugene never did, until he died.
And what of The Eye? Jack (John Barrowman) babbles something about its capabilities, confirming its authenticity, but there’s no explanation even attempted to explain how Eugene’s consciousness—his soul—could survive his corporeal death. His sudden heroic return to the physical plane, even though his body no longer encloses The Eye, barely registers a reaction. They’ve just seen a dead man save Gwen and then evaporate, and they barely exchange astonished looks. How quickly one becomes jaded to the wonders of aliens tech.
There is a lyrical quality to Eugene’s little speeches, and Checquer does a great job with Eugene’s post-mortem spiritual development. Even Myles’ quiet competence and gentle but persistent questioning are perfect here, and I like how the pieces of the puzzle all eventually come together. The only significant problem here is that the tone of this episode is so wildly different from everything that’s come before it. There is very little character development of the regulars (even Gwen), but that’s OK because they don’t contradict anything that has happened before, either. Gwen’s substantial role anchors the plot to the series, but a sweet funny little story like this just doesn’t seem like it belongs here.
At some point, I’m hoping the show runners make a decision on where they’re going with this series, because right about now I’m suffering from thematic whiplash. I’m not saying a show can’t do terror, gore, sex, and tenderness—it’s just that if they’re going to give us sweetness, there has to be an edge to it somewhere. The only bite in “Random Shoes” is that it sucks that Eugene is dead, and frankly, that isn’t enough for a show that has the potential that Torchwood has shown in the past. If ”Small Worlds” can so brilliantly portray the agony of losing a child, why play down the importance of Eugene’s death to Eugene? Yes, we see everyone around him affected by it, but Eugene is all too ready to accept it, and goes off happy because he got to save Gwen. Where is that raging against the dying of the light? Why isn’t he more angry? Shouldn’t his friends have been arrested for defrauding him, assaulting him and ultimately causing his death? Alas, all that’s swept under rug.
In the end, Eugene is snuffed out, his cheery little flame flickering right up until the darkness consumes him. Although his final words are meant to be inspirational, it’s hard to come away with anything other than the impression that nothing really matters, because we’re all headed for the void. A lifetime of pain and loneliness can be undone in hours, and vindication and validation are more important than justice and loyalty (or lack thereof). Even in a fantasy series like Torchwood, we need something we can believe in; I’ve always thought “nothing is easy” sounds about right. In “Random Shoes,” everything’s easy, and everything’s wrong, but you can only see that if you penetrate the smokescreen; we’re supposed to believe that everything came out right in the end, but it didn’t. Eugene’s still dead. I guess May felt accepting a full-blown resurrection would be asking too much of the viewers; she was probably right.