An alien that feeds on the climactic orgasmic energy of men, lesbian snogging, and nudity: welcome to 'Day One', the second episode of Torchwood. The premise of the episode sounds so bad on paper that I was expecting to hate it, but in fact writer Chris Chibnall handles it in entirely unexpected ways.
Make no mistake, there is much in 'Day One' that is puerile; the nude Owen scene and the gratuitous lesbian snogging (and the others' lecherous reaction to it) do little to advance the plot and are nowhere near as amusing as Chibnall seems to think and the episode finale in the sperm donor clinic (including yet another obligatory gay reference) boarders on the farcical despite the seriousness of the situation. And yet for all of this there is, as in 'Everything Changes', a remarkable level of restraint; although the episode does feature a sex scene in a toilet, Gwen snaps things into perspective by reminding us that unfortunate victim Matt had parents who have just lost their only child. The security guard's wanking over the CCTV footage of the pair having sex is disgusting (albeit entirely, seedily believeable) and played for laughs, but his near-hysterical reaction to an inexplicable death prevents the intended humour from going too far. Ultimately, 'Day One' focuses not on the sexual appetites of the parasitic alien, but on the human cost of its activities. Carys' sheer guilt and anguish is well-conveyed by actress ???, and the character's desperate decision to try to satisfy the alien by sacrificing a loathsome and emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend seems perfectly natural.
The focus on characterization also benefits the regulars. The episode opens with Gwen going bowling with Rhys, but significantly she can't or won't tell him what her "secondment" really is - he thinks it's just special ops. This incompatibility of her relationship with her new job looks set to be a recurring theme, especially when she discovers, to her surprise, that none of her new colleagues have partners nor much of a life outside of work. Gwen again brings a human dimension to Torchwood, pointedly forcing Jack to acknowledge that the alien's host is in fact a human victim, and she determinedly sets out to create a character profile of Carys to remind them of that fact. She is also prepared to sacrifice herself to save Carys, offering to take the alien into her own body to buy more time. She also continues to show her strong moral streak in other ways, automatically snapping, "This is the police computer system, you shouldn't have this!" to which Jack responds, "You might want to stop saying 'you' and start saying 'we'". She's still adjusting to Torchwood (as indeed is the audience) and unleashes the alien when she tries to join in with Owen and Jack's casual throwing of equipment before later getting an awkward moment when she bumps into her former partner, who resentfully asks, "Boss of me now, are you?" She's also quite horrified that Torchwood has a supply of corpses to cover up mysterious disappearances.
Meanwhile, both the other members of Torchwood and any members of the audience who are new to the character continue to learn more about Captain Jack, and the mystery of the severed hand is probably quite intriguing to anyone who doesn't know of his connection to the Doctor and/or hasn't seen the Tenth Doctor's hand get amputated above London in 'The Christmas Invasion'. The man of mystery angle continues to play out as we also learn that his colleagues know little about him and aren't even sure of his sexuality (Owen notes "Period military is not the dress code of a straight man", Toshiko notes, "He'll shag anything if it's gorgeous enough"). Barrowman continues to impress, especially when Jack gets very agitated when Carys steals the hand, although the fight scene in which she escapes from him isn't terribly convincing. Notably, he seems increasingly drawn to Gwen, as she becomes emotionally involved with Carys' plight, and is very probably going to end up shagging her at some point, which is a depressingly predictable situation.
As for the others, Ianto and Toshiko again get very little to do here, whilst Owen treats the whole thing as a joke, a very juvenile response that is perfectly in character. This again brings him into contact with Gwen, who furiously asks him, "You think it's a joke! We should be helping her.
"On the production side, Brian Kelly's frequent aerial shots of Cardiff here at least seem to have a point, tracking the path of the ship/meteor over the city, and the special effect of it crashing works quite well. The exploding rat and the alien also look rather good, even if the meteor itself looks suspiciously like a prop made out of polystyrene. I should also note here, as I didn't when I reviewed 'Everything Changes', that despite Murray Gold's involvement the incidental music, whilst somewhat pompous and overblown is massively better that the aural excrement that he smeared across Doctor Who and generally succeeds in underlying the episodes without becoming overly intrusive or nauseating.
Overall, 'Day One' takes a potentially disastrous premise and makes a surprisingly good episode out of it, despite the inevitably juvenile humour and a contrived deus ex machina ending in which the alien handily expires inside a convenient McGuffin as soon as Carys is safe. It's nowhere near as good as 'Everything Changes'; fortunately however, any fears I might have had that it marked a downward trend in the quality of the series were swiftly alleviated by the following episode?