To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.
OK, it may not be a perfect metaphor for the theme of this episode, but it works well enough. One of the overarching question being asked is: if things can fall so easily through the rift into our world, can’t things from our world be flung across the universe to places unknown? And what happens to them? The second question is equally as important; is it really worth knowing the truth, no matter the cost?
The set-up is a teenage boy is walking home late one night. His mom checks in on him and everything is fine, but suddenly there is a gust of wind and a flash of light and the kid is gone. Seven months later, Gwen’s old police friend Andy calls her for help as the boy, Jonah Bevan, is still missing. Andy has a special connection with this case so he asks Gwen for a favor considering their friendship (and Andy’s longtime crush on Gwen). He also called her because the disappearance was caught on CCTV, flash of light and all and it’s the kind of thing Torchwood likes to investigate. Also, because Jack Harkness showed up on the scene 45 minutes later.
Jack blows it off as coincidence and Gwen digs into the case further; interviewing Jonah’s mom, Nikki who has decided to set up a support group for people whose loved ones have gone missing. What was expected to be a small gathering ends up with the room being filled to the brim (and quickly running out of drinks and biscuits). Upon further investigation, Gwen discovers that Cardiff has an epidemic of missing people and the missing people are all tied to rift activity. Tosh discovered there’s a spike in rift activity when something comes through to Earth, but there is a negative too. That negative spike is objects and presumably people, falling from Earth through the rift. After cross-referencing dates and times of disappearances with those negative spikes, the pair learn that all those people were flung who knows where in the universe as they were caught up in the rift.
Gwen presents her findings to the rest of the team, thinking Jack will be all for it as this is what Torchwood is all about. She’s wrong. Jack vehemently rejects Gwen’s proposal. His reasoning is that there is no way to track anyone falling through the rift, which is a valid reason to not pursue this course, but his reaction is disproportional. He tells her to drop it immediately, though Ianto promises he’ll talk to him.
Gwen’s obsession, not just with this case, but with Torchwood in general is affecting every other aspect of her life, but most profoundly her marriage to Rhys. So much for listening to Jack’s admonishments for her to stay grounded and not drift. Rhys wants to talk about starting a family, which Gwen has been putting off time and again. When Gwen blows off Rhys’ chattering about ordinary stuff, he rightly calls her out on her disdain for “real life,” since it’s what she sacrifices so much of her life to defend. It’s no less important than her duties for Torchwood. Gwen’s hesitant to start a family precisely because of her job and Rhys is concerned that Gwen is losing touch with real life and with him. It’s a completely believable reaction and their scene together contains some really fine acting.
Gwen returns to the hub to tell Jack that she’s continuing the investigation as her own special project. She finds Jack and Ianto in the middle of naked fun time. I’ve never been so mad at a show for not showing more of something (though I’m sure there’s fan fiction about it somewhere). When she tells Jack she’s pursuing the case, he throws another temper tantrum and Gwen is left wondering what Jack’s problem is. As Gwen walks back to her desk she notices a package and some kind of device inside.
Gwen’s thinking it some kind of secret alien technology so of course she shows it to Andy who points out it’s not alien tech, it’s a GPS device (duh). There are coordinates uploaded, which lead to a small island in the Bristol Channel. The next day, Gwen and Andy hire a boat to take them to the island, though at the last second, Gwen bribes the captain to leave Andy behind.
Once on the island, Gwen spots Jack heading to what looks like underground bunkers. She follows and gains access to the facility using her Torchwood credentials and Jack’s name. The caretaker shows Gwen around and she notices names on the doors. It takes a few seconds, but Gwen realizes that the names on the doors match the missing people she’s been researching, including Jonah. At that moment, Jack decides to show his face. Given the reaction Jack had to Gwen’s investigation, she thinks Jack is harming these people, but he’s not; he’s helping them.
It turns out, the facility was built by Jack to help victims who were caught up in the rift and then thrown back. These people are irreparably damaged and need help. Before Jack built the facility, they were simply kept in the vaults below the hub. My main quibble with this episode (and I think the episode as a whole is one of the best in the series) is why all the secrecy? Despite a scene earlier where Owen agrees with Jack that aftercare isn’t their job, why couldn’t Jack use the resources Torchwood has at their disposal? Owen could run medical checks and they could gather intel from those who have returned (if they’re able) about what might come through the rift. But no, it has to be a great secret.
Jack lets her into see Jonah. Gwen finds a man in his 50s, badly disfigured. She thinks she has the wrong room, but it is Jonah. When the rift took him off the barrage he was dropped on a world on fire. He was pulled to a rescue vessel and watched as a solar system burned. Jonah had tried to get back for so long he needed Gwen to reassure him he was actually back and he wanted to see his mother. Jack is against it, saying that the 17 people in the facility are damaged beyond imagining, but Gwen argues that it’s better for Nikki to know, even if it’s unbelievable. Of course, we get a scene where Gwen tells Nikki, Nikki doesn’t believe her, and Gwen has to call Andy to vouch for her. That’s awkward given she left him at the docks earlier and she won’t recommend him for Torchwood, but he does what she asks and Gwen brings Nikki to the island.
When she first encounters the older version of her son, Nikki thinks it’s a cruel joke. She doesn’t understand how the disfigured man could be her 15-year-old son who went missing seven months ago, despite all Gwen’s warnings to her. But then Jonah tells her about the door to his wardrobe and all the little things you only know if you’re a son and close to your parent. Nikki believes him and it seems like it’s all going to work out for a happy ending, but this is Torchwood and things are never happy for long. The head caregiver tells them that they have to leave; Jonah is starting his downswing. Jonah starts shaking and apologizing to Gwen and Nikki. Then he starts screaming and he doesn’t stop. He screams for 20 hours a day. Apparently, before he returned, Jonah had looked into the heart of a dark star and what he’d seen had broken his mind.
This more than anything else reminds us that in the end, the universe that Torchwood inhabits is a far, far darker place than its predecessor Doctor Who. The universe of Doctor Who is often drawn as a magical place. Yes, there are dark and dangerous things, but the overwhelming theme is wonder. The universe Torchwood is dark with very little magic; just things that will kill you or break you.
In the end, Nikki learns that sometimes it really is better not knowing, when the truth is almost too much to bear. She begs Gwen not to tell the family of the others who are locked away for their own good. I wonder why Gwen didn’t offer ret-con to Nikki or maybe she did and Nikki refused. I don’t know, but the saddest part of the episode for me was seeing Nikki take apart Jonah’s old room; a visible metaphor for the hope she lost.
The same could be said for Gwen, who we see taking down the missing posters of everyone caught in the rift as Nikki is taking apart Jonah’s room. Is it really worth it to reveal the truth at all costs? Is her job worth sacrifice to everything else? By the end, Gwen starts introducing balance back into her life by setting up a candlelit dinner for Rhys so they can talk about having kids. Except Rhys knows something is wrong and he does what all husbands should and listens while Gwen tells him everything.