Tony looks at his shoes.
Random Shoes is an unusual Torchwood story, dealing as it does with someone who to all intents and purposes is a geek, a hanger-on, a boy who, to deal with early trauma in his life and the idea that his failure in a simple childhood trial made his father leave home, becomes an amateur authority on alien artefacts, pursuing a childish dream. The dream that one very special artefact, given to him by a teacher as a consolation for his pivotal failure, might lead him to a contact with the alien to whom it belonged.
An eye. A strange, alien eye.
Jacquetta May’s script though gives us more than that. It’s an intriguing detective story of back-to-front storytelling, with geek Eugene Jones waking up dead by the side of his body, unable to remember anything leading up to his death. All he knows is that Torchwood, and in particular the wonderful Gwen Cooper are on the case, looking for reasons why he’d be dead at the side of a motorway, with pictures of ‘random shoes’ on his phone.
The storytelling style is reminiscent of the Doctor-lite episode of Doctor Who, Love and Monsters, relying heavily on narration from the character at the centre of the mystery, and a combination of present action showing the course of the investigation into Eugene’s death, and past action, showing us how Eugene got to where he ended up. It’s an elegant double-helix that uses the investigation to prompt remembrance, and links the remembrance to take us forward with the investigation.
What we discover is the story of a young man scarred, but with no appreciation of his scars, a young man who takes his life forward on the thread of a golden hope, but who’s prepared to give up that hope, to sell the eye that keeps him feeling extraordinary, for the simple power of kindness, for the chance to do somebody else a life-changing good turn. That’s Eugene’s impulse once he finds out the truth about his father, where he’s really gone and why.
The mystery of Eugene’s death and the random shoes on his phone is cruel and petty, people who mean him well and people who think he’s ripe for fleecing coming together to take him for a ride, for profit or a laugh, leading to a struggle, a chase, and the involvement of Torchwood in the investigation. It’s ultimately an essay in worth, how it’s defined by people for themselves, and how others define it behind their back – Eugene initially feels his worth is tied up in his mathematical ability, and when that fails him, the unfortunate coincidence of his father leaving means he needs something else to make him feel special. The eye his teacher gives him almost immediately afterward stops Eugene falling into a self-esteem hole, but becomes a replacement source of specialness for him, as he clings to the belief that he has an artefact that its alien owner will want back, and that he, Eugene Jones, will have a meeting with the greater universe that will elevate him above the mundanity of a life spent selling things nobody wants. The eye is his avatar of success, of something bigger. It’s what reconciles Eugene to the disappointments and failures of his life.
When he finally discovers that his father hasn’t gone off to America for his important job – the convenient cover story that’s been told both in the family and to the world – Eugene decides to trade in the eye to help a friend achieve her dream. That’s the key: his response to the collapse of part of the illusion of his life is an act of kindness. That’s what saves Eugene, and what elevates him, what makes him genuinely special. He’s not the loser people see him as, but it takes the destruction of what Eugene thinks makes him special in order for the real quality of the man to shine through.
That’s a lesson shown again one more time before the end of the story. When we discover why he’s still alive in a ‘spiritual’ form, everything makes a certain alphabetical sense – Torchwood’s involvement, particularly. But he doesn’t simply disappear, as logic dictates he should, when the source of his life beyond the material is revealed and removed from him.
It plays into familiar spiritualistic notions of ghosts having ‘unfinished business’ that he sticks around beyond what should be the end of his logical extension, and he proves his particular specialness one more time by an act of kindness – for getting to the bottom of the mystery of his death, but more because he’s carried a torch for her both living and dead, Eugene saves Gwen from a speeding car, saves her life from the very thing that took his own, and gains, for those briefest of moments, enough of a corporeal body both to affect the rescue, and to be seen, both by Gwen and by his family and friends, who’ve gathered for his funeral. This overlooked, too-often invisible young man proves he has a right and a reason to be seen, one more time, before ascending, literally, into whatever afterlife awaits him. We’re not sure what that would be, especially since this episode follows hard on the heels of They Keep Killing Suzie, where Suzie Costello tells us there is no afterlife for her but darkness and the thing that moves within it, but perhaps that’s the message of this pair of episodes – a reinforcement of traditional afterlife ideas. Be Suzie, murderous, conniving Suzie, and only the darkness awaits you. Be Eugene, be kind despite life’s trials, and you can at least dream of something better. If that’s the message of these episodes, it’s worth noting that Torchwood took Suzie into its team, whereas for Eugene, it had little time and little pity while he was alive, making us wonder in the long run whether saving the world and being good people are actually compatible goals.
Random Shoes is an episode that’s elegant, clever, and emotionally rewarding, for all it’s a little simplistic in its moral lessons and a little traditional in its rewards. It’s worth another watch, to remember how much you’ve forgotten as it’s frequently overshadowed by darker, harder-edged episodes, and for the glow of moral happiness it’ll give you long before you reach the end.