Tony Fyler goes back in time.
Great drama, and great TV, is all about character. But character is what the events of life dictate about us all, rather than a linear explanation of why we act the way we do. By the time Fragments hit screens as the penultimate episode of Torchwood, Series 2, we’d been with our familiar team of alien investigators for what felt like a long, relatively comfortable time. While knowing the dangers they faced were great, we had confidence that ‘Torchwood was ready’ to take on whatever came. Hell, even technically being a dead man didn’t seem to put Owen Harper down.
We had little idea what was coming.
Before it came, and our familiar, safe Torchwood team was put through the wringer, losing Tosh, and Owen, and even in Series 3 losing Ianto, there was Fragments.
We’re not sure whether the characters of our Torchwood regulars were backstoried in the minds of Russell T Davies and Chris Chibnall before the series began, or whether Fragments was written to give them all backstories that fit the characters we’d come to know. Either way, it works extremely well, feeling right but also giving us in several cases an additional twist on what we thought we knew about our team.
The premise of Fragments is simple – an everyday investigation of alien life signs leads the team to a horrible trap, each of them discovering a bomb that drops a sizeable bit of building on their heads. In their unconscious states, we see the backstory of how they each came to be recruited to Torchwood, these ‘fragments’ of their lives being directly responsible for their current predicament.
Fragments is essentially a gift. We’re near the end of the second series when it comes – if we were going to drop out of our affiliation to Torchwood because we didn’t understand the way each of the team were recruited, we’d have done it a long time ago. But still – Fragments gets the majority of its action, the majority of its reason for being, from showing us these slices of backstory, almost as a reward for liking the team as they are, and, though we didn’t know it when it was broadcast, perhaps as a way of deepening our emotional investment in the team before everything began to change, with major characters being killed off and the safety of the Torchwood world vanishing forever.
Captain Jack’s tale is redolent with verve and attitude as he wakes up after his fourteenth death in the space of six weeks in Victorian England, confronted by a pair of diabolical Torchwood ladies who view aliens as an immediate threat to the Empire, and who shoot if not first then sooner or later, with none of Jack’s qualms about the correct treatment of alien species. Going right back to Torchwood’s roots as laid down in Tooth and Claw, the Who episode that saw the Institute established, these are not particularly ‘nice’ operatives, even by 21st century Torchwood standards, and their approach to recruiting Jack is very much in the ‘we’ll shoot you if you don’t’ school of diplomacy. Through the handy expedient of a creepy kid with a gift for fortune telling, Jack learns he’s going to be waiting over a hundred years for the return of ‘his’ Doctor, and his need to make a living makes him sign on with the original Torchwood crew. Flash forward and we see Torchwood Cardiff at the turn of the millennium, its then-leader despairing having seen the future and understood that his team aren’t ready to cope with what is coming. He’s killed them all, and once Jack arrives to ask him awkward questions, he turns his gun on himself, leaving Jack in nominal charge of the
hub, facing the task of rebuilding it from scratch, as well as burying his
friends. With so much to do in the space of one episode, Jack’s story is
possibly not covered with the kind of depth that hardcore Harkness fans would
prefer, but then, the story’s called Fragments, rather than The Illustrated
History of Jack Harkness. Besides, when your character’s immortal, you almost
don’t want to know everything – you want room to dream up other adventures, as
indeed was done in Children of Earth. The fragments we get are pivotal in terms
of his Torchwood story – we get to see how he joined, and how he took control
of the Cardiff
hub, delivering tantalising glimpses of other Torchwood teams that we’ve never
Toshiko’s story is perhaps the oddest of the tales in Fragments, showing Tosh under duress, stealing plans, making technology that shouldn’t exist for people who threaten her hapless mother as a way of putting pressure on our resident tech genius. It’s probably closest to the sort of thing that could happen in real life, but almost because of that, it feels out of kilter. It does though give Tosh a chance to shine from which she normally demurs. If Jack was a reluctant recruit to the Torchwood team, for Tosh, it’s a case of biting his hand off because the alternative is to be forgotten, locked away without trial, denied her basic human rights in, rather worryingly, a UNIT prison. It’s slightly sad though that Toshiko appears only ever to have been valued – by the thugs who threatened her mother, and by Jack – for what she can do, rather than necessarily who she is.
We know a little of Ianto’s backstory already because it became necessary in Cyberwoman, but here, we get the beats played out – his essential stalking of Jack, trying to get a connection to the Cardiff Hub. We understand why already – he’s keeping his semi-Cyberised girlfriend Lisa alive somewhere, and needs the resources of Torchwood if he’s ever to stand a chance of restoring her humanity. But it’s here that the most rewriting of history seems to take place, establishing a slightly awkward, sizzling chemistry between Jack and Ianto from the beginning that didn’t seem to be there in Series 1 as we watched it. A handy pterodactyl capture and a couple of sassy comments about each other’s appearance shouldn’t really cut it as the key points of an origin story, but the lingering sizzle between these two characters as they’re written in Fragments pulls it through and pulls it off.
If Tosh’s backstory is the oddest of the bunch, it’s Owen’s that’s the most surprising, and yet when you understand it, it serves the fundamental purpose of backstory well, letting you click things into place and think ‘Oh, of course – well, that explains a lot.’
Owen as we’ve seen him is a fairly cynical, life for the moment kind of man, but he wasn’t always that way, Fragments tells us. Once he was on the verge of happily married life – or at least married life, the happiness soured slightly by a mysterious case of early-onset Alzheimer’s in his fiancée. It’s here that the world of personal tragedy and the world of Torchwood overlap callously, as Owen’s fiancée dies on the operating table, taking her surgeons with her. Jack arrives, explaining it wasn’t Alzheimer’s but an alien parasite. He retcons Owen and makes the whole thing go away – except Owen’s love and anger are too strong to let his ghosts lie, and he hunts Harkness down, demanding answers, demanding healing, demanding the truth. It’s a story that makes us teary-eyed for the usually acerbic Owen, and makes us like him for an entirely different set of reasons to the ones we normally use.
Fragments ends, after all this, on an oddly inconsequential note – Captain John reappears (always a pleasure to see Spike (sorry, James Marsters) to claim the credit for planting the bombs, and to tell Jack he’s working for Gray, Jack’s brother, who wants a little more than a word for what he sees as Jack’s betrayal in leaving him in danger on their home world. Yes, technically, it’s another fragment, but it feels relatively lightweight after everything we’ve seen, and would probably have worked better in a private scene between Captain John and Gray, as a foreshadow of the chaos and destruction to come.
Fragments is by no means an essential episode of Torchwood. What it certainly is though is a rich one, a bag of backstory sweeties for the ardent fan, and the last Torchwood of its type – the type we’d grown so used to after nearly two series. After Fragments, we discover that Torchwood may be ready – but readiness comes with an awful cost attached.