...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Day 2126: TORCHWOOD: Ghost Machine


Shhh! Do not tell Daddy that I have been watching "Torchwood" on the DVD recorder!

Appropriately for Halloween week, "Torchwood's" third episode is a ghost story, in the form of an homage to Nigel Kneale's classic "The Stone Tape".

If you're not familiar, that story concerns the discovery of an "explanation" for ghosts as the recording of events, usually highly charged emotional events, into the physical surroundings of a location. And jolly terrifying it is too!

Here, the Torchwood team discover for want of a better term a "Stone Tape Player": an alien device that reawakens those emotional memories connected to a place. It is not intrinsically bad, either – Gwen's first encounter, a small lost boy from the evacuation in World War II is poignant but hardly malevolent (though it might be foreshadowing future Captain Jack related events, as he has a connection to the blitz too, remember); and she later uses the device to recall happy times with her partner Rhys, recorded into their home.

But the device can bring back negative emotional memories too, and here the episode focuses on Owen and his reaction when the ghost machine shows him a rape/murder from forty years ago. Interestingly, given the amount of speculation that Owen himself is culpably a rapist from using the alien "cologne" spray in "Everything Changes", Owen becomes obsessed with bringing justice – or more likely vengeance – to the killer, even though he is now old and frail and played by Gareth "Blake" Thomas. Is this exaggerated response perhaps an indication that he recognises something of himself in the other, something he wants vicariously to destroy?

Later on we discover that in fact the device comes in two halves: one for the past, which they have already discovered, and one for the future. In some ways this is a shame, because the question "what would you do with knowledge of the future?" deserves a whole episode of its own to explore properly.

Gwen, of course, is the one who actually kills the old man: more blood on her hands from another mistake, she is certainly one dangerous lady to be around. She's also a victim of the old "misinterpreted prophesy" cliché – a necessary ambiguity, because genuine foresight obviously precludes free will. The question is: was it inevitable that Gwen would end up being the killer once she had seen the future echo? Or does she have choices left, even after seeing the future, choices that determine whether it is Owen or herself who ends up doing the deed?

Burnie on the other hand does seem to change his future, as he does not end the episode dead in the street as he foresaw. Alex suggests that by understanding what he has seen, and how it will come about, Burnie manages to avoid the possible future seen; by failing to understand, Gwen actually causes her future vision to be fulfilled. Or is this just a loose end that should have been tied off by the writer?

Even so, the episode is nicely constructed – for example, an early line, seemingly a throwaway joke, about Owen finding Ed Morgan in the phone book quicker that the Torchwood super-computer cleverly turns out to be a crucial clue. You see if Owen can find Morgan in the phone book then so can Burnie, and we know he's a self-confessed blackmailer. We get to put these clues together along with Gwen: a good "show rather than tell" moment.

Of course, good construction should come naturally to writer Helen Raynor as she has spent the last two years being script editor on Doctor Who. She's also been given a two-part story to write for the Doctor's third season of adventures, to be shown next spring, and based on "Ghost Machine", things are certainly looking promising for that.

Meanwhile, it seems increasingly difficult to reconcile Torchwood Cardiff (or Torchwood 3 – as seen on BBC3) with the original Torchwood at Canary Wharf (or Torchwood 1 – as seen on BBC1).

The down at heal Cardiff office, formerly part of Torchwood's secret network of Underground tube lines – hence looking in part like a Victorian station – seems miles away from the unlimited resources used to build a skyscraper just to reach a breach in space/time. The small cast contrasts with the busy and well staffed Torchwood Tower, full of scientists, soldiers and other Dalek canon fodder. But most of all, Torchwood 3 are scavengers, scrabbling around in the dirt for any leftovers they can find where Torchwood 1 would merrily shoot down passing Jathaa Sungliders in order to strip them down and steel their technology. The people of Torchwood 3 are, as Alex pits it, quirky; the drones of Torchwood 1 are like the lawyers of This Life if they happened to be running a secret fascist conspiracy. Jack says that their mission is to obtain alien technology to protect the human race – the whole human race – and that no one power should have it; Yvonne Hartman's drive was to arm the British Empire, full stop.

How can they be so different?

It seems to me that there are two possibilities (apart from the obvious dramatic reason – Torchwood 1 were out and out villains in "Doctor Who", but Torchwood 3 are anti-heroes in "Torchwood").

First, it could be that each Torchwood is very much created by the guiding influence of the single person who is put in charge: Yvonne is a management consultant so obviously Torchwood 1 is an evil power-crazed empire-building management-speak babbling monstrosity; Jack is a dark and brooding try-to-do-right kind of fellow so Torchwood 3 is kind of ambiguously trying to help. I remark that when Jack described the other Torchwoods he talked of Torchwood 2 as a "strange man" in Glasgow. That could mean that it is a one-man office – that's the obvious reading – but it could mean that Torchwood 2 is defined by the "strange man" who is running the show up there. Alex pointed out that it would be very appropriate for Torchwood's management structure to be monarchical!

The second possibility is that Torchwood 3 has in fact gone rogue; Jack has taken over and taken them off in his own direction, subverting a bad organisation to try and make something good out of it. That in turn leads to possibilities: Jack night not actually succeed and this could come back to haut him, or the other Torchwoods might decide that Cardiff have stepped too far out of line and come in to put them back on track – or put them down.

Having said that, why (apart from the anagrammatical connection) is this "Torchwood" at all? There's no particular need for Jack to be working for the Cardiff branch of Imperialists-R-Us, handy as it is for being able to get through police and army lines. (Yes, mentioning "Torchwood" is the equivalent of the Doctor's psychic paper – but actually Jack had some psychic paper of his own, back in "The Empty Child"). Why tie him to that other Torchwood at all?

It is as though Russell had this idea for a Torchwood (sinister organisation that is opposed to the Doctor) and this other idea for a Torchwood (mysterious organisation with Captain Jack, possible spin-off) and forgot that he'd used the same name twice.

1 comment:

Will said...

After the disaster of Torchwood 1, perhaps there have been some cutbacks so now none of the Torchwoods are as impressive.

Or its just a typical example of how an organisation based in London treats the provinces?