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Torchwood: Fragments

Previously, on Torchwood...

Despite his status as lead writer, this is the only episode of Torchwood Series Two in which Chris Chibnall could be said to have a free hand. Released from the responsibilities of providing the series’ opening, double-banked episode and conclusion, the author is here able to choose the story with the greatest need to be told, and his selection does him credit. Chibnall accepts responsibility for resolving the programme’s previous mistakes, striving to make the characters as we first encountered them consistent with the figures we now know.

In Everything Changes, Russell T Davies spent the entire episode using Gwen Cooper as his audience point-of-view character to introduce the team, but left little room for those introductions themselves. Only two of the Torchwood employees received much in the way of dialogue, and one of them was killed off at the conclusion of the story. This made for a rather jarring first half of the series, as writers struggled to script a regular line-up of characters that they hardly knew. By revisiting those initial interpretations, Chibnall is able to strengthen the integrity of the programme. His most pressing work is done in the story’s Ianto segment, where the writer seeks to overcome the feasibility problems and lack of foreshadowing that hampered Cyberwoman. He does this by making it clear that Jack did not take the initiative when recruiting his butler, and therefore may be excused for hiring such an unstable figure. The fight in the warehouse has Jones displaying just the right level of quiet courage for a staff member not trained for fieldwork, and it’s nice to see Torchy the Pterodactyl being used as more than a just one-line gag. Establishing that Ianto’s role in the team was not a regular position smoothes over one of the less believable aspects of the show’s original concept.

Toshiko’s story has more subtle implications. Retconning the character as effectively a prisoner of Torchwood is a bold step, but serves as a perfect explanation for the diffident shown attitude during her early appearances. The mini-thriller provides an unexpected burst of tension in the middle of the episode, and gives the viewer a welcome glimpse of how the Torchwood version of Jack operates when dealing with government powers outside of Cardiff. The introduction of the Ministry of Defence as a formidable force in the Doctor Who universe is, however, rather unfortunate. When combined with the various arms of Torchwood and the reborn UNIT, the UK is now suffering a surfeit of secretive organisations. The weakest of the backstories belongs to Owen, where Chibnall is only really successful in one of his two objectives. The story of his fiancé’s death is a clichéd explanation for the misogynistic figure of Everything Changes, and instead of reconciling matters, the story ends up adding another layer of complication to a character already explored in depth during this series. In contrast, Harper’s readiness to betray Jack during the climax of Series One is now much more believable in the light of events towards the end of his flashback. Gorman portrays superbly Owen’s frustration with the results of Harkness’s cover-up, and it’s clear that the opportunities of his new job does not outweigh his resentment.

As for the Captain, his tale is rather deceptive, with the superficial focus on how Jack came to work for Torchwood being secondary to addressing the issue of the darker version of the character seen during Series One. The story opens in a broadly predicable fashion, with a sadistic Victorian couple being a perfect link between the Institute as conceived in Tooth & Claw and the organisation seen in Army of Ghosts. Although it’s regrettable that the budget wouldn’t run to matte-paintings of the Hub during its varying stages of development, the set is dressed in a number of interesting ways, and Harkness’s initial torture is a good introduction to the imperialist ethos of the original organisation. By confirming that Jack has only seized control of Torchwood Three comparatively recently, Chibnall confirms that he has had to survive under the ethos of Hartman et al for over a hundred years, explaining the physiological armour the character displayed during Torchwood’s first run. The attention to detail in the execution of the script as a whole is superb, from Jack’s historical ruffian sideburns to the re-hiring of Naokio Aida to portray Toshiko’s mother for just one scene. Also welcome is the return to the semi-serial format of the programme, which the writer exploits to free himself of the need to expend much time in constructing a linking plot for the flashbacks. Duplicating the explosive trap concept from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a skilful method of foreshadowing John’s return, and Rhys being called upon for help with the team incapacitated builds nicely on his action scenes in Something Borrowed. Chibnall manages to combine his affinity with these characters and an effortless appreciation of what level of detail should be added to the story’s plot. Should Torchwood be recommissioned, hopefully his schedule on Law & Order: London will allow his return to the series as a jobbing writer.

Fragments is a remarkable episode. Prior to the climax of Doctor Who Series Three, an entire instalment of an Upper Boat drama being largely devoted to satisfying fan curiosity would have been considered highly unlikely. That this undertaking is performed in such an accessible and entertaining manner is extraordinary.

4 Stars

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> the UK is now suffering a surfeit of secretive organisations

and this is unrealistic how?

By performingmonkey
April 02, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

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>and this is unrealistic how?

Several have shown signs of competency!

By Julian Hazeldine
April 02, 2008 @ 7:56 pm

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Good review that I broadly agree with. I actually quite liked the Owen backstory *because* it explained the character's attitude towards relationships; it was a cliche but it was needed nonetheless to confirm things for the viewer. My only problem with it is that I think it contradicted the events in "Out Of Time" which seemed to suggest that Owen had never been in love before.

By Zagrebo
April 02, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

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This was one of my favourite episodes ever. Chibnall has actively impressed me this year (although I've not caught Adrift yet) and I'm greatlky looking forward to tomorrow's finale (and, by the way, since when did the BBC refer to series as 'seasons' like they are in the Torchwood trailers?).

It may be one big retcon, but at least the back stories made sense, had plenty of dramatic weight and were generally quite cool. Jack's fladshback screamed several shades of Angel at me, but for once it's quite a favourable comparison.

By Jonathan Capps
April 03, 2008 @ 11:26 am

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Having just seen both this and the finale, I can say with my confidence that Fragments is my favourite episode of a vastly improved series.

By Simon
April 06, 2008 @ 11:40 pm

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