Torchwood offered Whovians a glimpse of the Doctor Who universe from a more adult perspective, and in the process conjured up a few very poignant episodes. In my opinion, Torchwood’s best episode is Out of Time, a tale about three passengers stepping off a plane over fifty years from when it took off.
The institution of Torchwood is located beneath a rift in space and time. Their mission statement is to handle whatever falls through that rift. Sometimes it’s monsters, or aliens, or something worse. Sometimes it’s just people ripped from their time, forced into a future they could never conceive.
Out of Time’s plot based on the question of how people from the past would react to being thrust in the future. This episode does a great job of showing the characters’ inner turmoil, and the wrenching discord caused by being forced to adapt to a life where what they knew as normal is totally gone. Each of their unique experiences is a struggle to hold on to the people they are amid a life-shattering event that finds them undefined, and ultimately alone.
The three passengers are a girl of eighteen, Emma, a pilot named Diane, and John, a middle-aged salesman. The story focuses on each of their attempts to cope with the reality of their situation. As expected, it’s a rough transition. Luckily, each of the passengers finds their way into the guidance, and in one case, the arms, of a different member of Torchwood.
Each of the passengers’ “caretakers” provides what they need to make what sense they can of the experience. Emma spends time with Gwen, who always soldiers through adversity, looking forward to the good that might come. Diane develops a quick and passionate relationship with Owen, who, like her, finds something he never expected, love. John develops a strong bond with Jack, who is also a man knocked out of time, and can sympathize with the despair such an event can cause.
No puzzle to solve, no enemy to fight. Just three lost people… – Captain Jack Harkness
Out of Time shines by showing how someone might choose each of the only three possible outcomes to an experience like this; stay and adapt, try to go back, or die. That’s it, those are the only options, and with “going back” never a safe bet, this really becomes a story of how one person chooses to live, while the other two choose to die.
Emma undergoes the most positive changes. While her journey might be filled with culture-shock, and her coming to accept being alone, by the end of the episode her outward appearance only begins to mirror the internal evolution she has already begun. She and Gwen’s conversation about modern attitudes towards sex is a fantastic little scene filled with humor and good intentions that anyone could easily imagine having in the very same situation.
Dianne genuinely seems like she wants to adapt to life in the future, but she suffers from a sort of reverse wanderlust. After having spent her life looking for adventure she finally found the ultimate adventure, but can’t help running away from it. As much as Owen tries to make her happy, and does to a point, Diane just can’t be tethered. Perhaps it’s the fear of falling in love with Owen, the fear of settling down, or just her inability to deal with her new reality, but when she tries to go back into the past we are left wondering a great many things about her.
Right away John attempts to adopt the role of father to Emma with disastrous results. Missing his own son, along with Emma’s rejection, sends him on a path that has only one possible outcome. John may have been able to live out the rest of his life with just a nagging sense of nostalgia, but the encounter with his son saps all the strength he was holding on to since the plane landed. The scene where he meets his now elderly son is one of the most heartbreaking scenes science fiction has ever produced. The idea of seeing your child old, close to death, and suffering with advanced dementia, is too horrible a thought to even entertain. It’s no wonder John chooses to end his life, and Captain Jack’s choice to sit with him while he dies is an exceptional piece of writing.
Jack’s revelation to John about his origin to keep John from committing suicide not just a geek-out moment for Doctor Who fans, but also serves as the defining moment of Captain Jack Harkness as a character in his own right. When John reassures Jack that nothing will change his mind, Jack decides to sit next to him in a car filling with exhaust. Knowing he won’t die, he takes on the role of ferryman, and holds John’s hand as he dies. It is a superb scene that, in my opinion, justified Torchwood as a stand-alone series.
I can’t help but compare Out of Time to the Star Trek: TNG episode, The Neutral Zone, where three people have been cryogenically frozen at the moment of their death, preserving them in hopes of being revived in the future. Well they are, and similar storylines as on Torchwood play out, only in Star Trek the mood is much lighter. Star Trek, especially TNG, was an idealized vision of the future, and so the experiences of “out of time” characters was generally positive and optimistic. Torchwood, on the other hand, shows us a much more realistic outcome to the scenario. The young girl most easily adapts, seeing the experience as an opportunity. The free-spirited pilot who can’t cope, no matter how hard she tries, attempts to go back when the has the chance. And most importantly, the man left with nothing, his child suffering near death, living in a world he can’t fully comprehend, decides he doesn’t want to live.
Time travel is one of the most difficult themes to tackle, yet a philosophically critical topic in science fiction. It is the ultimate wish. With such power one could change the past, fix the future, and be witness to all of history. But there is also the potential for disaster, both on the large scale, and the individual. What if the trip isn’t your idea, and isn’t to some space paradise? Some people today might welcome the chance to see the future irregardless of who they leave behind. Others, like Emma might struggle at first, and simply adapt over time. It isn’t hard to imagine some might react the same as John.
Imagine being thrown into the past, no WiFi, no internet, no devices, no refrigeration, no medicine, and suddenly you might be able to sympathize not with Emma, but with John. Out of Time makes us consider the horror of being lost in the future in a touching, and deeply personal way. It’s a really great episode that is a fantastic introductory episode, and a total joy to revisit from time to time.