Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Ghost Machine written by Helen Raynor and directed by Colin Teague

This story in a nutshell: The first decent episode of Torchwood...

Hunky Hero: Jack has an annoying habit of talking down to his team in these early episodes which probably didn't help to cement over the cracks that are starting to make themselves aware in the organisation. The tension between them all would go on to weaken the foundations and threaten to topple Torchwood come the end of the season.

Jack's Crew: Amazing how effective this bunch of nomads can be when they are seen to be working together, not at each others throats or trying to shag each others brains out. Who ever thought it would be this easy to show this organisation working so well together? This is precisely the sort of Gwen material that we should have been enjoying from the very beginning, allowing her to be portrayed as a competent investigator, a decent human being and somebody who has real time for the public without ramming it down our throats. Despite seeing her tongue another woman in Day One, this where we really start to see the cracks in her relationship with Rhys with her work keeping her from having any decent leisure time with her boyfriend. Coming straight after the negligent scene with the gun practice is the glorious sequence where Gwen has an overwhelming feeling of euphoria when her relationship with Owen is driven home via the device. You get a sense of chemistry and shared history between the two of them that I certainly never felt before. Owen's house on the harbour is sterile and impersonal, clearly this man has issues that he has personal never resolved. It's a shame it takes for him to experience a sexual assault and murder to get there but it is nice to see Owen more emotionally involved in their work. Owen shows how emotionally unstable he is at the climax, holding the knife and threatening to bring Ed Morgan's reign of terror to an end. These are the early signs of his breakdown throughout the first series.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Splot' 'Splot?' 'I believe estate agents call it Splough...'

The Good: After two episodes that seemed to have stunted the growth of this show before it had even had a chance to flourish, here's a story that literally hits the ground sprinting. Colin Teague slides around the streets of Cardiff at quite a lick, fluidly capturing Gwen as she pursues Bernie. It is a smart pre-titles sequence because it shifts from sheer adrenalin to an eerie silence as Gwen activates the machine and stands alone on the chilly, wartime train station. The change of pace highlights both well. It surprises me that Ghost Machine isn't the episode that was written by PJ Hammond and not Small Worlds because this episode offers nods to his previous work in a way that the next episode never dares to. The chilling railway setting is one great example, the shifts through time unexpectedly are another. Tom Erasmus Flannigan (played so gently by John Normington) is the first real character I spotted on Torchwood, somebody who I could entirely believe in. Raynor does the show a great turn in that respect, truly getting it out on the streets of Cardiff and giving it an urban realism. All the flashbacks to the past have a chilling edge to them but none more so than the rape and murder of Lily. It's quite discreet for Torchwood (happening off screen through sound effects, thank goodness) and has even more of an impact because it is experienced by tough-as-nails Owen Harper who has shown relatively little human emotion at this point (aside from some movement in his trousers). The way Ed Morgan playfully taunts her under the tunnel is quite unnerving. The ghost machine is one of the more frightening artefacts to have sprung from Torchwood (and far less melodramatic than devices such as the resurrection glove) because it connects with all its victims senses, forcing them to experience the memories it provokes but also to feel the emotions that the individuals were going through. Whilst that is a positive experience then the device is perfectly safe but it can generate feelings of anxiety, fear and paranoia too. I love the idea of driftwood coming in through the Rift...there are a wealth of storytelling possibilities which could be covered with an explanation like that. Let your imagination run wild. Raynor has struck upon an awesome notion with the ghost machine, one half showing you the past and the other half showing you the future. Again, so many possibilities. Because we have already seen how badly Owen is responding to this case there is every possibility that the episode might end with him stabbing Ed Morgan, as the vision of the future Gwen experiences revealed.

The Bad: What is the scene with the shooting practice all about? It is completely superfluous to the episode, shows Gwen cosying up to another man who isn't her boyfriend and only serves to highlight how dysfunctional she is to the rest of the team. There's nothing impressive about firing a gun but Torchwood includes a sequence that suggests it has the seduction and satisfaction of foreplay. A hugely irresponsible sequence on all counts and uncomfortable to watch. Owen reacts strongly against his exposure to Ed Morgan's attack on Lily which is healthy development of the (so far) clinical, aggressive character. However how is Ed's appalling actions any more sick than Owen's who administered a date rape drug in Everything Changes on a couple and took them home to service him? Where the early direction is so good, Colin Teague seems to run out of enthusiasm by the climax and the face off between Ed, Bernice, Gwen and Owen is unimaginatively shot and looks like a bunch of friends meeting on a street corner.

Standout Scene: Watch the intense scene between Owen and Ed Morgan where the investigator lets the rapist know he knows what he has (so far) gotten away with. For once this show isn't relying on quirky technology or kinky exploits. It all boils down to the performances (which are excellent) and the strained emotion intrinsic to the material. It is remarkably discomforting to watch and pushes boundaries in a very new way for the show. It is always nice to see Gareth Thomas of Blakes' 7 fame and he truly embodies this role, one which many actors probably would have shied away from.

Result: Ghost Machine should have been the second episode that aired on Torchwood's debut night on BBC3 and not Day One. I'm not saying that it would have resolved all the lingering problems left by Everything Changes (because there was plenty of issues still to come in season one) but it would have offered an intelligent alternative take on the series. It's the first signs of true potential; a frightening, smart, dramatic and well judged episode. Helen Raynor has written a script that mixes urban life in Cardiff with some intriguing alien technology and solves a chilling mystery from years gone by. Add in Colin Teague's strong direction, which shifts tone vividly as each person activates the device and you have a piece which is far more convincing and interesting than anything else we have seen of the show to date. It doesn't quite come together as a cohesive whole (there are too many distractions of gun foreplay and the ever rocky relationship between Gwen and Rhys) but there is a string of very scenes that work very well (pretty much anything to do with the central mystery and the machine) and show that there is genuine hope for this bizarre hybrid of urban drama and science fiction madness. What a shame that the episode runs out of steam before the climax and what should have been an impressive dramatic crescendo splutters out like a candle in the wind. Teething problems though, and it doesn't take away from the fact that Helen Raynor has captured something unique in this show that doesn't make me want to gouge my eyeballs out. I'll take very good over piss poor any day of the week: 8/10

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