Doctor Who #741: Ghost Machine

"I'm sorry, it's just ... I don't even kill spiders in the bath." "Nor do I, not with a gun."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.29 2006.

IN THIS ONE... The team tracks a machine that manifests moments of intense emotion as ghost images and feelings.

REVIEW: That's more like it! Though it could do with an extra dose of levity perhaps, Ghost Machine is a much better example than Day One of how to inject more adult material into the Whoniverse. While Doctor Who could conceivably have done a story about the episode's MacGuffin, it could not have included the notion of a rape, nor as callous a protagonist as Owen to bounce the idea off of. This is a strong episode for him because for the first time, he actually cares about something. The feeling was artificially transmitted, but the way of dealing with it is his own, terrorizing Ed Morgan with the knowledge he has, and ultimately driving the man to suicide (at Gwen's hands, just so she can literally get bloodied, because this is Torchwood and no one escapes the taint). Take out the rape and it could be a Doctor Who plot, but would the Doctor telling some bigger-than-life villain he knows what genocide he committed last summer have the same visceral frisson? Probably not. And it's not all EXTREME! The idea that Gwen's job is causing problems in their home life is also a mature idea, one that makes sense and appeals to adult viewers, stuff the kids want to fast forward through. That's a much more important part of making a show for adults than wanking to inadvertent snuff films.

It was the B-plot in Everything Changes, but here it's at the forefront - the idea that Torchwood doesn't just track down alien artifacts, it also explores their uses, and by doing so, something of the human condition. It makes Torchwood a theoretically more cerebral show than, say, Warehouse 13, where while this also sometimes done, the whole point is bagging and tagging the object. In Everything Changes, they asked if there was an afterlife, and whether we had the right to bring anyone back from there. Having barely touched the surface, it's something Torchwood will address again (and again). The ghost machine isn't just used to resolve the Bernie and Ed Morgan plots. Gwen gets a taste of it with the kid at the train station, and later brings it home where she reminds herself of the best parts of her relationship with Rhys by invoking those memories. The very fact their apartment would have "recorded" these memories means something, and it creates a bright spot in the middle of an otherwise fairly bleak story. It's not the only one mind, but Gwen's visit to the charming old man who used to be the boy at the station is merely sweet, and the comedy in the scene where Jack teaches her to fetishize firearms is sexy, but slightly perverse. The world, as much as Jack, is seductive to Gwen, and it's good to see her reminded of what she could lose by giving in. Of course, for nerds, the other bright spot is seeing a fake UNIT i.d. in Owen's stash.

For Tosh and Ianto, we're still waiting. Ianto's got the memorable line about Splott being pronounced "Splow" (which I believe is correct), but that's it. When Tosh isn't being a computer jockey, she seems to be Owen's confidante. With hindsight, that scene is filled with her melancholy as well as his. Either she keeps his secret out of her secret love for him, and betrays Jack, or it's the reverse, but either way, being told the secret seems to hurt her. Personally, I think Jack found out some other way. But while Tosh is for now more of a bouncing board for other characters, she at least gets in on the action. Well, sort of. But the direction makes her typing and switching from one CCTV camera to the other as exciting as the foot chase she's coordinating. Foot chases are a British tradition in film, and we get two of them here. One played for tension and excitement, the other for laughs as Owen jumps through various gardens after the much hated Bernie. I won't give Ghost Machine an entirely clean bill, though. It hits things a little too hard on the head via flashbacks towards the end (and this is already a story where flashbacks are used as plot device), and Jack comes off as particularly cheesy when trying to deliver end-of-episode, Doctorish speeches. But it comes close to what a prototypical Torchwood one-off should be like.

VERSIONS: The DVD's deleted scenes restore the opening moment of the first foot chase, when the team spots Bernie for the first time, and a long scene where Gwen discusses her vision of the future and Jack compares the ghost machine as an emotional GPS.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Series 1 is full of ups and downs, but this is definitely an "up", dark and adult, but not without hope and humor.



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