Sunday, September 23, 2007

“Bernie Harris, the Scarlet Pimpernel of Splott” – Torchwood

I feel like Torchwood has gotten much negative attention and criticism thrown at it that every time I write one of these reviews, I feel like I should try and be more positive. If only the show’s writers would make that a bit easier. This week’s episode ('Ghost Machine') was written by Helen Raynor, a former script editor and now writer on Doctor Who. I intensely disliked her Who two-parter this season (as did pretty much everyone else), and ‘Ghost Machine’ isn’t much of anything either, although like last week’s ‘Day One’ there is some good mixed in with the bad.

As per usual, everything good involves Captain Jack. His scene at the gun range with Gwen shows off his charisma and their wonderful chemistry. It ends with a nice moment where Jack reveals to Gwen that he doesn’t sleep, and when she asks if he gets lonely, the grin fades from his face. If only moments such as these were peppered throughout the series, they would have a much bigger impact – the problem is that when taken with all the other stuff going on, this moment is a comparatively light one. As such its impact is severely weakened. ‘Ghost Machine’ is also the most extreme example so far of how much Torchwood under-uses its best character. The logic behind pushing Jack into the background so often continues to beggar belief – just, why? Even at his moodiest, Jack is still a far cheerier presence than anyone else in Torchwood’ ensemble. Every scene involving him is by default better than any without him.

The plot centres around a new alien device which the team discover, and which does varying things as different people use it throughout the episode. For Gwen it shows her a traumatic event from the past; for Owen it’s a past murder; for Gwen again it’s a happy scene from earlier in her current relationship; for Bernie Harris it’s his own murder in the future; and finally Gwen sees a different future murder to round it off. That the gadget’s function is never clearly defined is a central flaw to the whole premise, and gives the episode a disjointed feel. Through the scenes listed, Torchwood again vigorously attempts to pull off dramatic moments of tension, horror and sadness, none of which it sells. Owen’s shock and anger following his witnessing of a past murder is entirely unconvincing, despite the best efforts of Burn Gorman (a great actor who’s giving it his all, but just can’t make Owen sympathetic). When he later confronts the murderer, director Colin Teague uses lots of zoom-ins and close-ups to show us how intense and emotional the scene is supposed to be, but weak material means the scene doesn’t even come off as unintentionally funny – it’s just dull.

It all concludes pathetically with Gwen accidentally murdering the past murderer when he tries to hug her and walks into the knife she’s holding. I wish I was kidding. It’s probably the lamest conclusion Torchwood ever tries to sell (although it has plenty of competition). Nor is it helped by Eve Myles’ performance – after unintentionally stabbing this guy, her eyes go wide and she begins to speak like a five year old. This is one of the many instances in ‘Ghost Machine’ when Gwen’s previously well-established character is messed around with and made to look like an idiot. The writers seem to be forgetting that Torchwood didn’t just pull Gwen off the street – she used to be a police officer, for gods sake! She has enough training to know not to play around with unidentified objects or point a gun in Jack’s face!

Finally, I have to mention an early scene in ‘Ghost Machine’, right after Gwen sees an apparition of a young boy who has gotten lost while being evacuated during World War II. Gwen finds the boy, now an old man, and goes to see him. Then, with no explanation from Gwen of why she’s there or of what she wants to know, the man proceeds to go on a long monologue in which he vividly describes the exact event Gwen had seen, including several details confirming that the boy was indeed him which it’s unlikely he would even remember anyway. Someone needs to tell the Torchwood writers that long, unprompted monologues which serve only to advance the plot are, in this day and age, nothing less than laughable.

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