Shiny Shelf

Torchwood: The Ghost Machine/ Cyberwoman

By Mark Clapham on 08 November 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The third and fourth episodes of BBC Three’s cheap and cheerful ‘Doctor Who’ spin-off go through all the motions you expect early episodes of a new show to go through, demonstrating the different story types the series will stretch to, while focussing more on the supporting cast.

‘The Ghost Machine’ is by far the better of the two. Helen Raynor’s script is a decent SF twist on a traditional haunting narrative, and there are some very nice contemporary urban touches, including a couple of wonderfully unglamorous chase sequences between Torchwood and their hoodie quarry. By concentrating on the stronger members of the regular cast, particularly Burn Gorman’s compellingly dodgy Owen, the episode gets good character mileage from the concept, with the scene where Owen witnesses the build-up to a decades old crime particularly well executed. Casting is one of this series’ strengths, and guest roles for ‘Doctor Who’ alum John Normington and ex-Blake Gareth Thomas round out the acting side nicely.

Unfortunately, the ending is slightly scuppered by relying on that old chestnut ‘a prediction comes true, but with an unexpected twist’, while also expecting us to care as to which of two totally unappealing characters will die. Gwen may be thrown into bug-eyed histrionics, but the ending falls slightly flat. Still, this bodes very well for Raynor’s two-part ‘Doctor Who’ story, coming next year.

‘Cyberwoman’ is by ‘Torchwood’ showrunner Chris Chibnall, the second after his earlier ‘Day One’. Unfortunately ‘Cyberwoman’ is twice as stupid and half as fun as his previous script. As with ‘The Ghost Machine’ the story takes for granted audience sympathy where none is to be found, which in the earlier story was a flaw but in ‘Cyberwoman’ undermines the whole episode.

The premise is that besuited teaboy Ianto has hidden, tortured depths, but unfortunately this isn’t a thrilling adjustment of our expectations that gets us excited about the character so much as an unwelcome, grim emphasis on a character we’ve so far been given no reason to take an interest in. Ianto has been an amiable presence so far, but Chibnall’s script seems to think tormenting the poor lad will get the audience interested. Unfortunately this is all the wrong way around – you can only get emotional mileage out of a character’s plight once the audience cares, not just start torturing them and expect this to make viewers desperately interested.

Ianto’s dark secret, and the basis for the plot, is that the titular CyberBird is his girlfriend, partially cybernised during the ‘Doctor Who’ episode ‘Doomsday’. With the later timeslot and adult audience of the spin-off, this is ‘Torchwood’ getting to show us the gory implications of cybernisation, with heads being split open and stuff welded to Japanese blokes in nasty ways. Unfortunately, doing all of this in a direct sequel to ‘Doomsday’, which was new ‘Who’ at its breezy, family friendly best, is as jarring as getting David Cronenburg to sequelise an episode of ‘Balamory’.

Furthermore, directly linking the two with continuity reveals that, for all its adult pretensions, an episode like this just isn’t anywhere near as clever or well thought through as the average kid-friendly ‘Doctor Who’. Compare the deft writing of Russell T Davies in ‘Doomsday’ with the motivation-deficient histrionics of ‘Cyberwoman’ and there’s no contest as to which is the more mature story.

In spite of all of this, ‘Cyberwoman’ is not without entertainment value – any episode which features a part-robot-woman fighting a CG pterodactyl is at least worthy of one viewing, and there are some fairly cool moments and gags. Unfortunately, the emotional heart of the story is neither convincing nor particularly involving, and without that weight the episode is just gory, stupid fluff.

Although the latest episode may not be all that great, ‘Torchwood’ is nonetheless settling in as a flexible format for doing cheap UK SF/horror stories, and retains an admirable willingness to do things that would have been considered unthinkably weird or silly on British TV a few years ago. As such it continues to be a worthy experiment in popular, inventive television, even if it produces the occasional dud episode.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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