Okay, so, let's be fair. Sometimes, episode 2 doesn't quite work out. The show's still trying things out, fumbling in the dark. I mean, Doctor Who had The Cave of Skulls trilogy, and even people like me who like it aren't exactly crying out that it's a lost classic. But eventually, you've gotta settle on something. For its third story, Doctor Who came up with the Daleks. And with Torchwood, the signs should be good: it's written by Helen Raynor, who was a script-editor on the very strong first two seasons of New Who and was now script editor on Torchwood, and the director, Colin Teague, went on to do a very nice job directing The Fires of Pompeii and the second and third parts of Last of the Time Lords. So it should at least be decent.
It's not. Not only do we have a lead writer who has good ideas and is completely lost at actually getting those ideas working properly, but we have a script editor whose contribution to the season is a muddled, boring set of the usual cliches.
What's striking to me on the second viewing is how all the little details are wrong. Every now and again, there's a nice touch, like Owen finding the "ghost" in the phone book. But mostly, it's just really sloppy. Take the opening, when Gwen takes the mysterious alien object that could be a weapon or a bomb and just immediately pushes one of the buttons at random. Yes, she's new, but she's not stupid, or at least she's not supposed to be when she's written correctly.
There are other ways to get to this point. You could be simple, and she touches it accidentally when she picks it up, though that veers a little toward the incompetence scale. Better, she could bring it in, and they could all examine it in their various ways, allowing for nice character development and interaction in a plot-driven scene. After looking at it, they could eventually decide that it's definitely not directly dangerous, and then decide to push the button. Done that way, they come across as professionals.
As it is, they come off as amateurs. Gwen actually is, but Jack pretty much lets it slide, which would be fine if he didn't let everything slide. (This will only get worse.)
A story can get all the little things wrong and still work if it's slick and compelling in the big picture - Revenge of the Sith is a good example. For all the flat dialogue and uneven characterizations, it still offers a complex, human, and deeply powerful story with a truly staggering sci-fi/fantasy backdrop.
But Torchwood is a fledgling, low-budget show. It can't afford to be slick (or it hasn't figured out how yet). So it has to rely on good stories, good characters, and things that set it apart from every other sci fi show out there. But this story goes through the most basic motions of a ghost story with a sprinkling of sci-fi without ever coming up with its own twist on things. The characters are still good actors in search of a script worth half their talents.
And if all it can do is serve up are the same old cliches, it's not terribly compelling. Up to this point, the show has yet to come up with a single idea that sets it apart from any of a hundred other sci-fi shows, possibly excepting its approach to sexuality. Which, as we saw last episode, it doesn't really pull off the way it means to.
Ghost Machine isn't bad. It's basically competent. There's just nothing interesting here.
The next episode, though, is definitely... interesting.
- Yeah, the scene where Jack teaches Gwen to shoot, and there's supposedly all that sexual tension and stuff? Incredibly forced and way too obvious. Look, conceptually, the concept isn't that bad, but it just plays out terribly.