After the overwrought silliness of 'Cyberwoman', 'Small Worlds' sees a marked improvement in Torchwood thanks largely due to a script from Sapphire and Steel creator P. J. Hammond. In contrast with previous episodes, 'Small Worlds' sees the series step back from the supposed science fiction approach of the series and roots itself more in fantasy; in common with Sapphire and Steel, the episode sees ill-defined, almost magical entities with a curious relationship with time (and a smattering of technobabble to explain their nature) menacing the heroes. Interestingly, as in Sapphire and Steel's 'Adventure Two', 'Small Worlds' also has a similarly dark ending, with the male lead sacrificing an innocent human life for the sake of the whole world in both.
This approach works rather well in Torchwood, although with Captain Jack and the team up against an unstoppable foe in the form of the faeries, it is probably for the best that we don't get this sort of thing every week, or they wouldn't last five minutes. Hammond's script thrusts the regulars into what is literally a fairy tale, and they find themselves completely out of their depth; although Jack again fulfills the role usually occupied by the Doctor in Torchwood's parent series, armed with handy foreknowledge of the faeries and providing whacking great infodumps when the plot requires, the difference here is that whereas it is hard to imagine the Doctor sacrificing a child to save the world, Jack is forced to do just that. He's obviously wracked with guilt, and the understandable anger expressed by Gwen and Owen in particular will no doubt serve to further jam the gears of this utterly dysfunctional group. What is really notable about 'Small Worlds' is that the team is utterly unable to cope from start to finish; Jack knows what's going on, but despite chasing around after the faeries and eventually identifying their "Chosen One", he's unable to stop a single death here, from Estelle, to luckless stepfather Roy.
Ah yes, the deaths. When I reviewed Sapphire and Steel, I noted that Hammond is big on atmosphere, but doesn't always have the most watertight plots and often seems to be making things up as he goes along. This is, to an extent, the case here, with things happening seemingly for no other reason than to prompt responses in the regulars; thus, there is no obvious explanation for why the faeries kill Estelle except to give John Barrowman the chance to do some emoting, nor is there any reason for them to trash Gwen's flat but not, for example, the Hub or the homes of any of the other Torchwood members, except to give Eve Myles the chance to do some shouting. And also, perhaps, to engage the audience; 'Small Worlds' is atmospheric and interesting, but it is curiously uninvolving for much of its length. When the faeries' victims include a p?dophile and a man who has just backhanded a small girl, it is difficult to really feel a great deal of sympathy, despite actors Roger Barclay and William Travis both putting in enthusiastic performances. It's an interesting characteristic of Hammond's writing that he often includes morally dubious or at least deeply flawed supporting characters (Sapphire and Steel 'Adventure Three' for example), which here juxtaposes with the fantasy aspect of the story but tends to invite the audience to sit in judgment rather than empathizing. There's also no real explanation for why the faeries don't actually kill the girls who are bullying Jasmine, although it isn't too much of a leap to assume that they generally draw the line at killing children.
That said, this is also what the regulars are for, but with Ianto, Tosh and Owen largely sidelined and Gwen playing the role of companion so that Jack can explain the plot, it is only Jack who gets any real benefit from 'Small Worlds'. Torchwood has shown us his charm and a also a ruthless streak, but 'Small Worlds' shows us his human side, and Barrowman is very good at conveying Jack's warmth and affection for Estelle, and showing his barely-controlled grief at her death. He's not quite so good however when Jack is recounting the deaths of the fifteen men in his past at the hands of the faeries, since he tends to use a monotone which is presumably meant to sound haunted but just sounds like someone talking in a monotone. Incidentally, the opening sequence of Jack having nightmares about faeries whilst tossing restlessly does rather raise the question of what script-editors actually do, since Jack announced matter-of-factly that he doesn't sleep in 'Day One'. Brian Minchin might not have noticed that, but I did and so I suspect did other viewers. More on the subject of script-editing when I review 'Countrycide'.
The guest cast is generally very good, including Adrienne O'Sullivan as Lynn, who seems genuinely distraught when her husband is choked to death in front of her eyes, Eve Pearce as the likeable Estelle, and Lara Phillipart in the timed honored role of creepy little girl. Roger Barclay makes Goodson seem utterly pathetic as he stumbles through the market vomiting rose petals, even though the natural tendency considering that he's just tried to abduct a young girl is think that it serves him bloody well right. Director James Strong does a fine job of the episode, with some very creepy sequences, especially the moment when the faerie hiding in Estelle's shrubbery opening its eyes, which actually made me jump. The faeries, when they finally appear, also work rather well, looking utterly malevolent and quite repulsive.
On the whole, 'Small Worlds' isn't quite as a good as 'Ghost Machine' was, but it is a step back in the right direction. Unfortunately, the next episode doesn't just step back in the wrong direction, it actually starts running.