So far, Torchwood has dished up the pilot episode (“Everything Changes”) and the fish-out-of-water episode (“Day One”). Now, with “Ghost Machine,” the first “regular” episode, it gets down to the brass tacks of what happens when humans interact with alien technology.
“Give me the aliens any day,” doesn’t just sum up this episode; it may be the theme of the entire season.
Let me get my nitpick out of the way: they’re running around again. In fact, we open with a chase scene. Seconds in, I was already rolling my eyes, but I got past that initial reaction quickly. There are only two chase scenes, and the first is a nicely choreographed piece of action, particularly the bit with Gwen (Eve Myles) rolling under a descending gate, catching up with her prey only to lose him. The second chase, featuring Owen (Burn Gorman, giving an Emmy-reel performance here) and the same idiot boy, is helped considerably by the wryly self-aware score and an amusing shot of the running Owen, evocative of The Six Million Dollar Man. Gwen’s frustration at having the boy get away is mitigated as Tosh (Naoko Mori), supervising via their own surveillance tech as well as CCTV, insists “You got it!” What she actually has is his jacket, and in the jacket, she finds the alien gadget that was transmitting the signal they were following. As Gwen turns the gadget around in her hand, it starts flashing lights. Seeing this, Gwen presses the button, and the present day fades away.
This episode’s most significant weakness is its treatment of Gwen. From the beginning, she has been shown to be solidly sensible as well as smart and quick on her feet, but here, she does the absolutely unthinkable and presses that damned button. She could have been detonating a nuclear device for all she knew. Shouldn’t the first rule of contact with alien technology be, “Don’t mess with what you don’t understand”? Even worse, later on the episode, she does it again, even though she had witnessed everyone else shouting at Jack not to press the button, along with his reply, “As if!” Jack knows better, but, like Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca, Gwen Cooper may be too stupid to live.
Having pressed the button, she’s all alone in the railway station, and a little boy carrying a suitcase and a teddy bear wanders out of a tunnel, clearly lost and alone. From his clothing we can see that he’s from the past, and that’s confirmed when we get a close-up of a tag that has been tied to his jacket, naming him and his destination. Gwen, stricken by the boy’s situation, tries to talk to him, but it seems he can’t hear her; the vision fades, and she’s back to reality. That scene gave me chills, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m the mother of an eight-year-old. It was too real, even while we knew it was something that had happened long ago. I imagine that scenes like these, calling to mind the thoroughness with which the Blitz tore at the fabric of British life, are even more powerful in the UK. The idea of having to send children away from home to protect them from bombing raids should evoke intense feelings in anyone.
As badly as Torchwood stumbled with Gwen in this episode, the ghost memory scenes are fantastically written and shot. Burn Gorman owns this episode, as Owen witnesses a scene leading up to a 1963 rape and murder. Descriptions can hardly do justice to the atmospheric dread and terror the scene evokes. Owen is paralyzed by the girl’s fear just as Gwen was overcome by the little boy’s loneliness. And just as Gwen seeks out the boy (handily located by Owen in the phone book), Owen is driven to find the rapist/murderer and see what has become of him. Of course, he’s in the phone book, too.
So many scenes are well-written that I don’t know what to make of the lapses they wrote into Gwen’s character. The follow-up interviews are barely less intense than the ghost memory scenes. Gwen finds the little boy, an old man now, who tells his story in just a few sentences—how he lost everything in the war when he came to Wales, and so he never left. There may be people who can hear such stories and be bored by them; such people are heartless. But Owen’s interview of Ed Morgan (Gareth Thomas), the rapist/murderer, was so fraught with menace and the threat of violence—from both men—that I found I was holding my breath.
All that intensity is balanced by a hysterical montage of the field team’s interviews as they try to locate the young man who had the gadget, Bernie Harris (Ben McKay). Not one of Bernie’s friends or neighbors has anything redeeming to say about him, including his Mum. (My favorite: “I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire.”) Another montage scene has Captain Jack (John Barrowman) training Gwen on weapons. Even though she was a police constable, she never had a gun because she was on the beat, as nonsensical as that may seem to Americans. The array of weapons laid out is intimidating, but Jack is encouraging, although his training technique has no respect for the concept of personal space. The montage starts out fairly realistic but ends with Gwen pumping away with a gun in each hand; we can only hope that those ridiculous John Woo moves will go out of style eventually.
The training scene had an intimacy that played well; Gwen and Jack have chemistry. But I still don’t feel that Jack has earned that intimacy from Gwen; he just takes it for granted. And Gwen goes along with it up to a point, almost as if she’s hypnotized by it, until she shakes herself awake and realizes what she’s doing. Jack is lonely, and Gwen has affected him in an unusual way; why else would he share his secrets with her? It’s almost as if Jack doesn’t know what to do with his own feelings. He’s not used to having feelings, and he doesn’t have relationships as much as encounters; up till now, he has been OK with that. But I got the feeling that the late-night training session was scheduled partly out of Gwen’s need to know how to shoot and partly out of Jack’s loneliness and desire to spend more time alone with Gwen. I liked that we saw a more emotional Jack this time around, particularly when he let his annoyance show when the field team failed to find Bernie. His response underscored that this isn’t Mystery, Inc; Torchwood is a professional organization with a job to do and no excuse for not getting it done.
Gwen has some great scenes with Rhys (Kai Owen), particularly one in which she snuck the ghost machine home and is using it to see all the happy memories inhabiting her apartment. She loves Rhys and wants to stay with him, but she is also drawn to Jack, and eventually she will have to choose between them. (Please, for those of you who’ve seen the rest of the season, no spoilers!) It’s telling that Gwen turns to Jack for comfort in the final moments of the episode, but that scene somehow doesn’t play as intimately as the training scene did. There, the sexual element was unmistakable; here, Gwen is looking to Jack as a friend and mentor, and he responds that way. She’s overwhelmed by all these events, and for the first time, we glimpse that Jack does love humanity after all, in spite of the horrors we perpetrate.
“Ghost Machine” is a mature investigation of human emotions facilitated by a piece of alien technology. It was never about the machine, it was always about what the machine revealed about us. Where do we put our energy, what impressions do we leave on the world? Small-time sleazebags like Bernie and monsters like Ed Morgan are part of humanity, not the whole. Gwen has to learn to live with that; so do we all.