It’s a Torchwood episode! And it’s written by a woman! “Ghost Machine” written by Helen Raynor feels more like what I anticipated from Torchwood. The first episode was all setup and the second sex-monster based story seemed very much like it was trying to prove how adult the show was. “Ghost Machine” is a spooky, nuanced story filled with little gems.
The premise of the story is a machine that converts the energy and electrical signals into visuals. Essentially the machine opens windows to the past in areas that are fraught with human emotion. I love how this very simple device is used to show the power of the past, the fragility of human life, and how even the experienced Torchwood team can’t avoid being pulled into human tragedy. Owen is deeply disturbed by what he sees in the past and drawn into a tragedy from years ago — this episode did a lot in terms of pulling on Owen’s human side and does a tremendous amount to recover Owen’s character from the poor decision in the first episode to show him using an alien artifact to seduce people.
Part way through the episode the team discover that they initially only found half of the alien object. The other half allows the holder to see into the future. Gwen has a vision and works desperately hard to stop it from coming true. She changes the future but the result is still the same. It’s heartbreaking and the narrative is incredibility well written.
One of my favourite parts of this episode is a part that isn’t directly tied to the plot – I loved the part where Jack takes the time to show Gwen how to shoot a gun. The segment is a bit over the top but it establishes Gwen as a quick learner and an essential member of the team.
It also highlights the fundamental differences between policing in North American and Britain. There is no way a North American police officer wouldn’t know how to use a gun, but that’s the norm in Britain. I love that they stayed true to this reality in Torchwood. This scene also plays with the idea of Jack and Gwen as a pairing – it never develops past the flirtation stage but you can feel the tension between the two characters in these early episodes.
This is a great ghost story with layers of revenge and moral challenges on top. It’s well written and an excellent example of blending bit of SF/F with other genres. The tiny piece of alien tech is just a stepping stone for a much larger more human story told in this episode.