When Torchwood gets it right, we can really get some great episodes. It’s a shame the quality was so up and down during the first two seasons because episodes like From Out of the Rain really prove how good Torchwood could be. Peter Hammond uses antiquity to be downright scary.
Let’s face it, old reel-to-reel film should not be scary, nor should an old pipe organ. And a man in a top hat and silly mustache … no, not normally scary either. Yet this episode, whose trailer looked a bit lackluster, really delivers on the fear factor. The simple idea that people on film are in some way able to step out of the film is strange, maybe even a bit silly, but it’s in the execution that nails it. Black and white film coupled with old piano music and Julian Bleach as The Ghost Maker are iconic. Maybe it’s the ever-so-slightly out of sync movements captured by old time video recording equipment that really gets into our souls, or perhaps the big eyed villain beckoning us to some dark carnival. It conjures images of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes along with hints of The Illustrated Man renamed here as The Tattooed Man. Whatever it is, the visuals are striking and I love them. I want to find a Dark Travelers road show that only plays at night. I want that sense of wonder and a thrill of fear that maybe this is a group that exists outside the bounds of reality. Even the scene with the “supporting villain” in a bathtub gives us the chills of any big budget horror movie. This episode was very close to a perfect horror story.
There are a number of great moments in this story, but most are the visuals. That said, I do love that Owen’s undead nature has not been forgotten. The Ghost Maker is totally confused by him and Owen’s broken fingers are still wrapped in bandages. The opening with the vanished child is very effective and the shadows that run past Ianto when the video stops are simple but effective. They sent a shiver down my spine, I don’t mind telling you. I’ve very pleased with so much about this episode.
Now to go big on fear, you probably need some items to cut the tension and there are a surprising number of great lines to make us laugh. I’d take issue if it took anything away from the episode but they are all quick enough to make for a chuckle before getting back to the “freak show”. Jack saying to Ianto that he needs his “local knowledge” gets a quick reply from Gwen, “Oh, is that what you’re calling it these days?” And speaking of freak shows, Owen says Jack was part of “this freak show”. Jack replies, “some things never change.” (Owen’s realization is even better; “Are you being rude about me?”)
There are some things that still needed work. Thankfully, only one scene took me out of the episode and it was a shame because otherwise this might be a perfect Torchwood episode. So, while I liked the reference that Jack’s eyes are older than his face, I am getting a little tired of the “long story” responses he gives his team when they clearly know he’s been around longer than a normal lifespan would allow. His backstory keeps going and that’s alright, but gets a bit tired at a certain point. Also, with the amount of rain falling, why didn’t Team Torchwood go to the Electro with an umbrella? Too low tech? Were the hoping to get pneumonia? The scene that did take me out of the episode however was the “lounging villains” scene. The Ghost Maker and Pearl are just too eerie to show them sitting around splashing in puddles. I kept feeling sorry for the actress since it was clearly a cold day as her breath can be seen on camera and she had to play in puddles rubbing water on her face and arms. I kept hoping they used clean water for it all. And I was sort of disgusted when she asks The Ghost Maker to taste the water and he licks her hand. (I suspect future filming will be greatly changed by our present reality!)
The entire story behind the ghosts is weak and their motivation is never really understood, but the presentation makes up for a lot of it. I was just bummed to have the lounging villains; the episode would have been better without it. Like all of Torchwood, the story does not have a happy ending. When The Ghost Maker is defeated (using a brilliant visual effect of overexposing film), he drops the flask that captured peoples last breath. Jack has to return what’s left to the one surviving child. Jack’s “welcome back” is entirely too happy because his next (unseen) sentence should have been, “the rest of your family is dead, kid. Sorry.” So it’s a very empty victory made to look more positive than it really could have been.
Like I said: a near-perfect episode. The final shot is of someone else finding a film reel and potentially releasing the ghosts all over again. I love those endings especially when we have a great villain, but I have a feeling they’d never catch lightning twice. ML