Random Shoes, to some extent, falls into the same weird category as Countrycide: it's an experimental episode before the show has really found its footing. On the one hand, it doesn't have the same impact that it should - we're not breaking out of the show so much as lost on yet another rabbit trail. But on the other hand, it's good to see Torchwood's ambition. It's trying to take hard paths, and even though it's struggling to take easy paths, points for trying.
And, anyway, given what a mess the normal show is, it's nice to have a break from it and just have Gwen doing her thing. Also, none of those obnoxious "Aren't we the coolest?!" shots that plague this season.
Random Shoes plays the dark side of Love and Monsters. Both are about in-universe fans whose lives turn to tragedy when they actually meet their idols. In Love and Monsters, Elton Pope becomes obsessed with the Doctor. This leads him to join the LINDA group, and the social misfit finds friends and love. And while his love, Ursula, is a victim of the alien they run afoul of, she lives, and they do have a happy ending of sorts. In Random Shoes, Eugene Jones is obsessed with Torchwood, and finds death. He doesn't make friends because of it; all three of his friends are from work, and two of them betrayed him. Torchwood basically ignored him as a looney; Gwen seemed interested, but had more important things to attend. (presumably one of Owen's muck-ups.)
Torchwood's first season revolves around death. Like They Keep Killing Suzie, Random Shoes has moments of real power in showing a person react to his death. In this case, Eugene was a gifted, intelligent man who let his obsession keep him from living up to his potential. Because he put his obsession with the alien eye ahead of everything else, he died alone and with little to show. Eugene was so lost in his dreams he failed to live.
On the other hand, he was a good-natured, upbeat sort, and his ghost isn't too depressed about it. He's sad at times, but focused on solving the mysteries around his death and finding meaning. He comes to a similar conclusion as Suzie - the meaning is in all the little things you do, in the life you do live. But where Suzie's death led her only to the darkness of the Void, in the end, it's left for us to wonder if Eugene, in fact, did find a better place. Granted, Torchwood seems to have a pretty downbeat, Athiestic viewpoint. Souls exist, but all we explicitly know of an afterlife is the Void. But if the Void is Hell, is there a Heaven? The upbeat ending leaves just enough room to see a happier way after, without undermining its message of the importance of living here on Earth.
Eugene's ghost follows Gwen, who seems somehow subconsciously aware of Eugene - whether it's her connection to the Resurrection Glove or her Power of Heart, she's subtly guided by him. He gets to see the Hub, and is awed by it. ("And... wow! A... hand... in a jar.") There's a quiet, low-key fun to Eugene, and you imagine he could have been quite happy if he'd only lived long enough to let go of the eye. And I like how their relationship is played - Gwen hears him without realizing he's hearing it. It shows just how much more effective this show is when it employs a measure of subtlety.
Also unlike Suzie, when given a second chance, he saves someone else from meeting the same fate he did - saving Gwen from a hit-and-run of her own. And, unfortunately, that's where the episode trips up. Up until the finale, it's fine: low-energy and imperfect, but likable and thoughtful. But the last several minutes are so treacly, so overplayed, and so overlong that it falls flat. His actual conversation with Gwen is fine, but the funeral and family issues aren't. It doesn't help that Eugene's family came across as too one-dimensional and was never really convincing. Nor did his backstory seem real; it felt like a writer's invention, and this really needed to feel like a real man's life to work.
So while the rest of the episode has a lot to like, it's not strong enough to overcome such a belly-flop of an ending. Yes, it's occasionally funny and touching and built on a great idea, but it never really rises above fairly good even at its best. It's just not original or imaginative or clever enough to actually rise above a weak ending.
Still, like Love And Monsters, it's an experiment with moments that are simply lovely, and it's difficult to hate. Paul Chequer acquits himself nicely in the main role. Gwen is the heart of the show, and here she gets to quietly shine. Eve Myles is as wonderful as ever. And Random Shoes is one of the most thoughtful episodes of Torchwood's first season, and worth praising for that, even if it doesn't quite work.
* * ½