Torchwood: Ghost Machine

TOSH: Transducers convert energy from one form into another. They’re in headphones. They convert electrical signals into sound, and they’re in this device too, converting quantum energy and amplifying it.
GWEN: Into ghosts.
JACK: Of course. It’s emotion. Human emotion is energy. You can’t always see it, or hear it, but you can feel it. Ever had deja vu? Felt someone walk over your grave? Ever felt someone behind you in an empty room? Well, there was. There always is.
GWEN: A ghost.

As far as I know quantum transducers are a thing of fiction, though who knows what the American military is secretly working on…(NSA I swear, I know NOTHING! Haha). And to be honest when it comes to ghost, I am a skeptic. I have never personally encountered a ghost, and most of the stories I have heard have been sketchy and seem to be based on tropes, rather than on any actual experience. Yet despite my skepticism, I find the notion of ghosts to be fascinating. They are often used to provide a link to some past person or event-a past that most would often rather forget. They often serve as a reminder of pain and suffering. A consumerist society-based on buying and discarding has very little use for the past-especially for a past that is unpleasant and painful. New things that are representative of the future are often touted as a panacea for what aids the loneliness and despair that many individuals feel. But ghosts interrupt that narrative and provide a counter narrative that hints at how the past can never simply be thrown away and discarded. They are an embodiments of the past that serve to haunt those that would rather forget. Yet conversely, some become so obsessed with the past, that the present holds very little meaning. Some ghost stories for instance, focus on revenge and somehow righting some past wrong.

For torchwood, ghosts are not to be thought of as simply a nonphysical presence comprised solely of those who have died-instead they are, as Jack describes them, echoes of a moment.

In the beginning of the episode, the transducer transports Gwen to the very same train station-decades earlier. Where she sees a little, lost boy, whose fear and confusion is palpable. But she not only sees the little boy, but she is experiencing the very same emotions-fear, confusion, and helplessness. And she is unable to help him. The torchwood team eventually track down the little boy-who has now become an old man and he shares his story with Gwen-a story that still impacts him decades later:

TOM: We were taken to the countryside from here. My mother packed me a suitcase, big sister wrote my name on a card. They put me on a train at Paddington. Kept saying I had to go, had to be a good boy. Telling me not to cry, and the pair of them were crying their eyes out. That was the last I saw of them, though I didn’t know that then of course, waving goodbye.
GWEN: How old were you?
TOM: Eight.
GWEN: You must have been very, very frightened.

The one moment that Gwen was privy too, was part of a larger tale of war, death, suffering, and new beginnings. The very modern station that she and the torchwood team was running through at the beginning of the episode-was the setting of a tragic story, a story in which war separated families-some forever. The stories of World War II have been told so often that the war and all that happened in it seem to be regulated to a time long ago. Yeah Hitler was evil, the Japanese were evil, lots of people were killed, but the “good” people won, the end. Yet Gwen was able to go beyond that bare bones narrative for a brief few seconds and experience the fear and confusion of one lost little boy-a boy who turned into a man yet who was able to vividly recount his experiences. But for Gwen, as disconcerting as this experience was-she was able to have some form of closure. The lost little boy made himself a new home and a new life. Gwen is able, perhaps, to learn from her brush with the past, but does not become obsessed over it. Owen’s experience with the transducer is vastly different.

Owen witnesses a heart rendering scene where a young woman is cornered by a young man. Her fear is palpable as Owen hears the young man repeatedly calling out to her: Lizzie! The young man, who we soon find out is named Ed is manipulative and dangerous. Yet Owen can do nothing but watch in horror as the scene unfolds before him:

LIZZIE: You’re a bad one, Ed Morgan. The girls said not to go with you, and they were right.
EDDIE: Am I bad? Am I a bad boy? You’re a big girl now, Lizzie. You can make your own decisions. That’s why I like you. You’re not like the others. You don’t follow the herd. You’re smart. Don’t you like it that someone can see how smart you are, hmm? I can see you, Lizzie, the way you really are.
(Eddie kisses Lizzie. She tries to break free and he slaps her, then gets out a flick knife.)
EDDIE: I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t.
LIZZIE: I, I told my mum I’d be home by nine.
EDDIE: Shush.
LIZZIE: Please! Oh, God, someone help me. Help me. Help me!
When the vision ends, Owen is in shock.
GWEN: Owen? Owen, are you all right?
OWEN: She, she was so scared. I couldn’t, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t help her.
The torchwood team discovers that Lizzie had been raped and murdered and that no one had been charged in her death. Owen, becomes obsessed with providing some sort of justice-even though-as Jack points out-there is no way for the police to become involved-not when alien technology is involved. For Owen, the past gnaws at him with an intensity that prevents him from sleeping. He wants some sort of justice. And yes, I am a firm believer that justice is necessary-that wrongs from the past cannot and should not be ignored and discarded. But the thing about justice is that it does nothing to change the past. And since institutional forms of justice are closed off to Owen since he can’t very well go into a police station with the transducer in hand, he becomes fixated with revenge. Justice, at least in theory, is about addressing past wrongs, (without believing that the past can somehow be made ‘alright’ by future action), taking measures to prevent it from happening again, and seeking to remember the past without becoming fanatical about it or using the past as an excuse to commit overt wrongs. Jack, wants him to forget about what he witnessed and experienced and move on, but he is unable. The only recourse he feels he has access too is revenge. The problem with revenge is that it obsesses over the past. Living in the present becomes impossible, and unlike justice, revenge suffers under the illusion that if only one could make the party responsible for causing injustice suffer then somehow what happened in the past becomes all right.

Yet it’s not only the past that can hold us hostage. Towards the end of the episode it is discovered that the transducer can also present a version of the future-Jack is careful to point out that the vision may not happen-it is only showing one of many possible futures. Yet the transducer shows Gwen a vision of her covered in blood, in shock, apologetic that she is unable to save someone. She becomes determined to not let that happen. This is another echo of a moment-one from the future that may or may not happen. Yet the pull is just as strong as if it had happened in the past-if not more so because once something occurs in the past-it is unalterable. Lizzy was killed in 1963 and no matter how unjust her death was-she is still going to be dead-whether Owen exacts his revenge or not. But the future is malleable in a way that the past is not. As a result Gwen becomes desperate in preventing her vision from coming true. The torchwood gang figure out the sequence of what they think might happen-that Ed would kill another character-Bernie, but they manage to stop Ed in time. There is a tense moment where Owen seems as if he will kill Ed but he doesn’t and he hands Gwen the knife. And Gwen is so happy that the vision seems to have been thwarted. Yet Ed ends up killing himself by walking into the knife. The vision ended up occurring, just not in the manner that she nor anyone else had accepted. And Gwen is understandably devastated by the turn of events and she feels guilty-despite any reassurances from Jack.


One interpretation of this episode is fatalistic-one could say-well since the past is unchangeable any injustices done should be forgotten-especially if there is little chance of legal redress. And one could view the future as a set course. But to make such an interpretation is easy because it requires little self-reflection or action. A more fruitful interpretation is one that requires critical self-reflection. The ghosts of the past and future, moments that are gone and moments yet to come can become prisons, if we obsesses over them. Holding onto a painful past and agonizing over the future, causes anguish and suffering without contributing anything positive. Yet at the same time-one cannot-should not ignore the past. One shouldn’t try to suppress the memory of horrible actions or events. For instance, while the rest of the world might have forgotten the Rwandan genocide-the reality is that the memory of the genocide lives on in the Congo-as it may have helped fuel some of the many problems going on, it may not have caused them-but it most likely did not help. Not to mention that the survivors of the genocide are haunted by the slaughter that they witnessed. The past impacts the present and future. Ignoring situations such as what occurred in Rwanda is not the solution-intentional acts of remembrance that dos not just give lip service to the atrocities but seeks to ensure that I does not happen again is what is needed. A violent reaction-in which the perpetrators or those who belong to the same ethnic group as the perpetrators would be slaughtered in turn, is also an inadequate response-it would be an attempt to ‘right” what occurred in the past-yet in reality it simply continues the cycle of pain and suffering and it perpetrates injustice.

Conversely, fearing the future can also be harmful. Now, to be fair, if one knows that one has the possibility of stopping something bad from occurring, one has the obligation to do it. Gwen saw that someone was going to die-as a result she had to do something. She couldn’t just sit back and think- “well maybe someone will die, or maybe not.” Yet despite her best actions, someone ended up dead. She wanted to avoid creating another painful ghost-or echo of a moment. Yet she couldn’t-despite her best intentions. While of course, we should do everything in our power to prevent pain and suffering and injustice from occurring, the fact is pain and suffering will occur. Violence will be perpetrated. The question becomes-how do you balance that knowledge without resulting to fatalism? How do we continue to do all we can to prevent injustice-while recognizing that there will be times where we will fail? How do we prevent ourselves from living in fear of the future? How do we allow the ‘ghosts’ that surround us serve as reminders to propel us to engage in justice work without consuming us or causing us to fall into despair?


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