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After a pair of variable character pieces, Torchwood gets brutal and bloody again with 'Combat', written by actor Noel Clarke. Having earned some popularity as Mickey in Doctor Who, Clarke here earns even more popularity by wiping the floor with the professional writers who have written the rest of the series: Torchwood has proved itself a shaky and erratic venture despite its usual entertainment value and 'Combat' is easily the best episode of the series to date.

The plot of 'Combat' is basically Fight Club with Weevils, but Clarke makes it work very well by taking it in unexpected directions. It is fairly obvious to the audience from the title and other clues what is going on almost from the start, and waiting for Jack and the team (who think that the Weevils are being used as weapons to murder people) catch up might have been frustrating. But once Owen goes undercover and meets the mysterious Mark, we get the unexpected development of Mark guessing that Own is connected to "those two in the SUV" and not really caring; he still shows Owen what he wants to know, and although he tries to force Owen to enter the cage, there is no indication that he actually wants to kill him. Mark himself is a great character, with actor Alex Hassell perfectly cast in the role: he's simultaneously charismatic and oddly repulsive and the overall effect is of a charming thug. The motivation of the fighters ("too much disposal income, not enough direction, that's us") makes an effect contrast with the recent spate of megalomaniacs and psychopaths.

'Combat' is really Owen's episode and Burn Gorman, who has shown promise despite the fact that his character is intentionally but sometimes overwhelmingly annoying, finally comes into his own here. With Owen falling apart following after falling in love and then being abandoned in 'Out of Time', Gorman conveys his emotional turmoil very well, as Owen gets involved in bar fights, rudely and rather cruelly ends his affair with Gwen, and eventually becomes so nihilistic that he talks the gun out of Mark's hand with a smirk and casually steps into the cage, standing still as the Weevil tears into him. The fact that he berates Jack for saving his life at the end suggests that the character isn't going to quickly become all sweetness and light again any time soon, and suggests interesting directions for him the remaining two episodes of the season.

The rest of the team is not forgotten though, Clarke demonstrating a fine grasp of characterization. Gwen's relationship with Rhys starts to reach breaking point, from the pre-credits sequence in which they are having dinner together and Rhys realizes that she is ignoring him. He angrily tells her, "You're just absent" before swearing at her and thus causing her to furiously leave with Jack. Despite Jack repeatedly warning her not to let her life outside of Torchwood "drift", things are clearly reaching breaking point, as she doses Rhys with retcon so that she can tell him about Owen without permanently ending their relationship, before returning to the Hub alone and weeping into a pizza. Eve Myles is very convincing in these emotional scenes, as is Kai Owen as Rhys.

Jack meanwhile continues to play the leading man with panache, and is clearly enjoying himself when he answers the dead man's phone and casually promises to stop the group kidnapping Weevils. The team work well as unit here, with Toshiko gleefully monitoring Mark's background check on Owen and pointedly asking Jack if he'd be prepared to let a human get beaten up and abducted as bait in the way that he is with a Weevil. Ianto gets the least to do here, but even the Weevils get some development, as one of those help in the hub weeps pitifully in its cell as its fellows are tormented.

Director Andy Goddard does a fine job with the episode, the "Fight Club" scenes in the house and Owen and Jack's bar brawl looking convincingly brutal, although bar far the most unpleasantly violent scene is Mark's punching of the helpless chained Weevil, which is really rather disturbing. The best thing about 'Combat' however remains the near-perfect balance of plot and character, and the fact that the episode has a consistent tone throughout; Owen's fake jellied eels business adds a flash of humour, but it neither detracts from nor clashes with the drama. Sadly, Torchwood has proved that it can't maintain this level of quality, but with a second series already commissioned I fervently hope that Noel Clarke gets to write for the series again.

Filters: Television Torchwood