Ghost Machine

Story No. 3 It's Blake!
Production Code Series One Episode Three
Dates October 29 2006

With John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Burn Gorman, Naoko Mori and Gareth David-Lloyd.
Written by Helen Raynor Directed by Colin Teague
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.

Synopsis: An alien device allows a glimpse of the past and it isn't always easy to let go.


Superb by Joe Ford 1/12/06

Remember I spoke about potential in Everything Changes? Well, after a momentary moment of utter madness in Day One we are finally seeing what this series can do. And boy is it impressive.

From the opening seconds you realise this is the most confident and assured episode yet, a breathless chase through the streets of Cardiff that gets your blood pumping straight away. Suddenly Gwen is transported back in time to a spooky train station and confronted by a lost child, a chilling pre-credits sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the episode.

What is especially pleasing about Ghost Machine is seeing the team working together so well on an intruiging mystery. Some very strong personalities are starting to emerge, especially Owen and Gwen (who has more than a little chemistry it must be said) but seeing these people knocking on peoples doors, asking questions, strolling through police records... it feels as though if they put their minds to it they could do anything.

Another excellent option this episode takes is by focusing on the domestic side of the side of the series which is much more successful and interesting than the alien side. Ghost Machine features an alien device affecting the lives of real people who do horrific things (rape, murder, blackmail) and the realism is much needed after the comic book tone of the last episode. Visiting people in their homes grounds this episode very much in the here and now and helps audience recognition greatly.

Helen Raynor has written a fantastic script and if her Doctor Who script is half as good as this, we are in for a treat. The concept of an alien device that offers glimpses into the past and future is great but rather than the episode resting on the idea there is a very clever narrative woven around it. The pace of the episode is fast but it never skimps on explanations or terrific character interaction.

Colin Teague's direction is outstanding and never more so in the scene under the bridge, easily the most downright terrifying scene in the series to date. Whilst the suggested rape and murder of a young girl is pushing the boundaries again, it is acceptable in this instance because the event is essential to the structure of the episode. Great acting, writing, direction and music all combine to make this a really uncomfortable moment as Morgan teases Lizzie before pouncing...

Unlike everyone else I loved the gun scene. The Outpost Gallifrey forum was bristling with people who were appalled with the series equating sex with violence (huh, what about films like the Matrix that see sexily clad men and women walking around shooting left, right and centre?) but I thought this was a well considered moment, a horny scene that suggests a real spark (ahem) between Jack and Gwen ("Doesn't it get lonely at night?").

It's just one smashing scene after another and the set piece in Gwen's apartment is also worthy of a mention simply because it is so heartwarming, the episode expressing (at this point) a surprising number of potent emotions. It's also great to see the series using alien technology to explore the personal lives of the central characters. Eve Myles is once again brilliant in the central role; she brings such a great deal of humanity and naturalism to her part it is easy to see why she was selected.

But for once another member of the team is given special attention and I am pleased that it is Owen. The scene where he experiences Lizzie's rape is a breakthrough moment because we finally see through that smug exterior and realise there is a human being in there. Whilst people have questioned his terrified reaction to the rape considering he pretty much date raped a man and a woman in the first episode, I think it is perfectly timed; he can see through the device that what he has done is very, very wrong and his fear is mixed with the horror of this realisation. I still question who these people answer to when they decide to go off on moral crusades like Owen does here; it adds another layer to the script that explores some very grey areas. The sequence where Owen confronts the rapist in his home is almost unbearably tense, who knew that this series was capable of such gripping drama? Burn Gorman is superb in this episode; it demands quite a bit from him physically and emotionally and as a showcase for what he is capable of I can't imagine this being beaten any time soon.

The episode keeps throwing up surprises. The machine can see into the future as well as the past. Is Owen a killer? Did Bernie Harris already visit Ed Morgan? And, to top it all off, there is an exciting, well-thought-through climax that leaves you wondering for a second whether Owen will genuinely go through with it ("I've got the knife!").

Everything comes together to create a gripping piece of drama and easily the best thing Torchwood has done so far; had the series started out on this note I would have been very impressed. There are two great guest performances from John Normington and Gareth Thomas and a brilliant chase through the gardens of Splot that I haven't mentioned yet as well!

I've got a taste of what Torchwood can achieve now. I want more!

Ghost D.O.G. by John Nor 11/12/06

In this episode the team encounter another piece of alien technology. It allows them to see "ghosts" of past or future events.

I noted in my review of the second episode Day One, that it would be interesting to discover whether future episodes would be like Day One, with a clear case for them to solve each week, or whether the format would be as unlimited as the first episode suggested.

This episode, Ghost Machine, repeats the pattern set up by Day One: the team chase after an alien item and an implied mission is presented to them as an accidental byproduct of this investigation. Their mission here seems to be to stop both the Hoodie being harmed by Morgan, and Owen harming Morgan (although this mission is revealed slowly through the episode.)

Like the first two episodes, there is a "bad guy", (in episode Day One this is the alien), and like the first two episodes, at the end here the "bad guy" is dead, though not necessarily at the hands of Torchwood.

This Wild West justice, with no judge or jury, is not really the focus of Torchwood's actions. It is just something that happens when they try and investigate aliens. Jack points out during the episode that the crime in the 60's that Owen now knows about cannot be presented in a court as the evidence relies on alien technology. Solving crimes is not the purpose of Torchwood it seems. Their purpose is to gather alien tech (so that mankind is ready for the future.) Jack repeats in this episode his phrase "The 21st Century's when it all changes, and you gotta be ready" from the first episode.

The team as such do not set out to "solve crimes", but they are presented with situations where certain members of the team feel compelled to do just that. It is a "sci-fi crime thriller", but crime-solving is not the business of Torchwood. Which is: hunting down alien tech.

The series is no more or less entertaining because of this, but I do find it interesting how the conventions of the crime show are used when they are not really a crime unit. Will the show continue to follow these conventions?

One slightly ridiculous scene stands out in this episode. The erotically charged firearm lesson on the shooting range between Gwen and Jack is over the top. When Gwen raises her arms in exultation after progressing excitedly from tentative aims to spectacular John Woo-style gunplay, you can't help but laugh. They can't really be wanting that scene to viewed as a parody of similar seductions, but that is how it comes across.

This scene of Gwen's temptation is nicely counterpointed though with the "ghosts" (past strong emotions to be found in her flat by the machine) of her relationship with her boyfriend, and she is not abandoning his lasagnas quite yet it seems, if indeed she ever will.

Quite a good episode then, but it really makes things hard for itself by conjuring up unfavourable comparisons with the superlative The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (with its very first scene featuring a spooky second world war kid!) Sheesh.

A Review by Finn Clark 14/4/10

It's really, really good. I don't just mean "Torchwood good", which translates as "passable TV with the odd decent bit, but for which the audience will still need some kind of Torchwood tolerance". On the contrary, Ghost Machine probably works better if you've never seen the rest of the show. You'd go away wondering where the Gwen-Jack relationship stuff might be leading, for a start.

Judging by this, it's a real shame that the Doctor Who team keeps asking Helen Raynor to write the big dumb kiddie two-parters. I like The Sontaran Stratagem and even find a lot to enjoy in Daleks in Manhattan, but this is much more interesting. I'm looking forward to her series 2 Torchwood episode, To The Last Man.

We start with a ghost machine. The Torchwood crew are chasing a teenage lout through a shopping centre, which ends with Gwen laying her hands on an unknown alien artefact. Naturally she presses its button. Hey, it's Torchwood we're talking about here. Unfortunately, the object is neither a flesh-shredder, a clothing disintegration ray nor a teleporter aimed at the heart of the sun, but instead it shows her images from the past, specifically a little boy being evacuated from the Blitz to Cardiff back in 1941. He's lonely. This is important.

This is a great beginning and things only get better. What I love about this is the way it gives an opportunity for a lovely old actor to come in and charm the pants off us for a scene that's theoretically a waste of script space but in practice is simply enchanting. Gwen tracks down this boy, you see. He's now in his seventies and being played by John Normington. They could have just filmed him reading the telephone directory and still had something better and more human than almost all of Torchwood.

Better yet though, next Owen Harper gets a vision from the ghost machine and turns into a crusader for justice. I loved every moment of this. Burn Gorman rules. Notice how often he's underplaying everything, yet still clearly showing all his conflicting motivations. The comedy shit on the side of righteousness! This also pays off in the fact that you'll have no idea how far Owen might be willing to go, up to and including the murder of a helpless old man. Every so often, Torchwood accidentally turns out strong drama and this is a prime example of that. Now, in fairness, Helen Raynor couldn't have known when she was writing the episode that Gorman would turn out to be so clearly the best actor in the cast. In contrast, Cyberwoman and Greeks Bearing Gifts are focused on Ianto and Tosh respectively, which doesn't do them any good at all. Nevertheless, the fact remains that an Owen-centred episode of Torchwood will tend to be successful and this is one of his best. Raynor gives him strong material and he plays the hell out of it, helped considerably by the fact that he's going after a real villain.

Owen's vision is pretty powerful, too. It shouldn't be too hard to scare the audience with a rape/murder scene, even if we don't see the final deed. The perpetrator will be played by Gareth "Blake's Seven" Thomas which, combined with the presence of John Normington, suggests to me that someone in the casting department was fond of old BBC SF.

I'd better stop summarising the plot because that's a terrible habit for a reviewer to get into, but note that I haven't got even halfway through. What I've described so far would have been more than enough for a perfectly good episode, but there are twists built on that which end up taking the story somewhere completely different. I haven't yet talked about Bernie, who manages to be very human and yet also a despicable piece of trash. Note that this episode ends up being about the fates of two worthless men whom you'd happily see die, yet this doesn't hurt the drama in the slightest. Gwen finds herself facing issues she'd never before even imagined, all of which pays off in a climax that, in the end, becomes black comedy. I laughed. This probably makes me a bad person.

Oh, and I loved the Owen-Bernie chase scene. It's like a tongue-in-cheek Welsh parody version of macho action nonsense, often American. There's a paddling pool, a little girl and even funny twinkly music. Go on, tell me that wasn't deliberate.

The episode isn't flawless, of course. There's some ugly editing in the pub scene, for instance. More damagingly though, the Gwen-Jack relationship scenes aren't so great if you're familiar with Torchwood and so know in advance that all this setup won't be going anywhere. My interest level dropped for these scenes, but in isolation they're not bad. Gwen has a nice little character arc over the course of the episode involving her relationship with Rhys, with Jack and her life with Torchwood being a kind of flipside. Admittedly, their seductive gun scene looks a bit silly, but that's mostly the result of giving the scene to Barrowman and Myles.

At first, the only reason I could think of for disliking this would be its Torchwoodiness. This series is a bit dreary, after all. However, if we leave aside factors stemming from the parent show rather than this particular episode, I could hardly think of anything negative to say about it, yet on posting this review to say so, someone immediately came back calling the episode "yawntastic" and "deeply, deeply boring". In fairness, it is low-key. There aren't any evil aliens, or indeed any aliens at all. You know, now I come to think of it, that's true of all four of the 2006 Torchwood episodes written by women. Hmmmm. It starts out like a ghost story and can hardly be said to have an overall threat. Gareth Thomas is in his sixties and looks older. The machine itself never hurts anyone. I can't really argue with those for whom the episode tripped their "I don't care" switch.

However, personally, I loved this episode. It's charming and gentle, but also dark, sinister and willing to get laughs out of tragedy. It's one of Owen Harper's best outings, which makes it worth watching in itself. It is indeed an episode of Torchwood, but despite this it's also genuinely strong.