Sunday, 24 January 2016

Fragments written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Jonathan Fox Bassett

This story in a nutshell: How did I join Torchwood? I'm glad you asked...

Hunky Hero: 'I don't exist, and for a man with my charisma that is quite an achievement.' I love how the rest of the team walk around the warehouse quite slyly whilst Jack cannot resist melodramatically turning each corner with his gun poised, like a child playing cowboys and Indians. This guy just cannot resist making a show of himself. The caption 1392 deaths earlier for Jack's flashback brings a smile to my face every time. Only on Torchwood. Waking up with a bottle in his stomach is a quick and dramatic shorthand for the kind of life (or rather death) that Jack has had to suffer over the years. It is surprising that he isn't more psychologically unstable given the number of undignified and brutal murders he has been forced to endure. It explains a lot about how he seizes each day as it comes and behaves so radically over the top. When you cease to fear death, the rules of life change. Jack was convinced that if he lived through the 20th Century and met up with the Doctor again then everything would be put right. His curse of immortality would be put to rest. Jack cuts quite the figure in his grey cloak and bushy sideburns, working for Torchwood post Tooth and Claw. I'm so pleased that this important segment of Jack's life is sketched in, it fills in so many of the gaps between The Parting of the Ways and Everything Changes (or if you are only including Doctor Who - Utopia). Jack is the only member of Torchwood to survive long term but that is only because he cannot die. Otherwise the life expectancy of it's staff is not hopeful. What is fascinating about the sequence where Alex murders the Torchwood team (the one assembled before the one we currently know and love) on New Years Eve is that he might have a point that they were mercy killings. In the next year Jack would lose Owen, Tosh and Ianto. Who is to say that if he slipped them a pill it wouldn't be a more humane way to go?

Dangerous Doctor: You'll never see Owen so warmly or loosely played by Burn Gorman as you do in the scenes before he joined Torchwood. He was deliriously happy with his life, engaged to be married and loving his work. He's a completely different person. The fact that it is his first experience of Torchwood that tears down his picturesque existence and shits all over it goes a long way to explain his severe attitude problem, why he goes to such extreme lengths to feel things and the huge chip of bitterness on his shoulder. It must eat him inside to be working for the organisation that fail to save his sweetheart. This is the most essential element of this episode for me as I have always seen a great deal of potential in Owen (mostly because Gorman is such a fine actor) but was irritated at how he was so often characterised in a way that made me want to push him away. He was, frankly, quite the shit in season one with very little let up. I thought it was just because he was seduced by the lifestyle and that he was a weak man but Fragments reveals that he was a victim of circumstance and that there is a genuinely nice person locked away inside all that resentment. This is sterling repair work and allows you to see his journey in a whole new light. It also makes sense of how he has been softened this year. It's not Owen finding the love, it is remembering who he used to be. Gorman's performance after Owen's fiancé dies is fantastic, Chibnall is asking him to convey a breakdown (shock, grief, angry acceptance) in about 2 minutes worth of material and he is more than up to the task. Suddenly that anger towards Jack in the finale of season one makes a lot of good sense whereas at the time it felt unnecessary and reactionary. In context, it is perfectly natural.

Shy Geek: At first Fragments looks as though it is only going to tell us that Tosh is really clever. Big whoop, we know that already. However the purpose of the sequence where she infiltrates the Ministry of Defence is to reveal that she was convinced into working for Torchwood. A splinter group threaten her mother to harm her mother if she doesn't put her skills to good use and UNIT walk in on that operation, capturing what they think to be a terrorist. The shot of Tosh alone in a barren cell with big brothers eye looking down on her exposes the bleakest moment in her life. Toshiko is essentially blackmailed into joining Jack's team, given the unenviable task of helping with the hunt for alien technology or being made an example of by UNIT. It is a good thing that she ultimately learns to love her work because it was never the path she would have chosen. I've always said that Tosh works best when she is portrayed as a victim (it works to Mori's strengths as an actress too, pulling at the heartstrings) and her tale proves that she has always been the underdog, the one who is pushed around and mistreated. What a life. Jack sees something in Tosh and thinks he can bring her out of her shell. She's certainly more confident as a part of Torchwood than she was in her life before. It isn't an entirely altruistic act (after all he wants her skills) but the fact that he sees potential in her is very sweet and step in the right direction for her.

The Butler: Astonishingly Chibnall somehow manages to provide some kind of context to explain away his abysmal Cyberwoman episode. Colour me impressed. It doesn't mean that the season on turkey is any better as a result (because it is still one of the most retarded piece of television I have ever seen) but it does at least explain why Ianto joined Torchwood Cardiff in the first place was to be able to move his partially converted girlfriend in and perhaps get her some help. He goes to some extreme lengths to get Jack's attention, everything but sucking him off to arouse his interest. Ianto is so desperate to infiltrate Torchwood he is willing to offer any service; coffee boy, guard dog, prostitute...he's even willing to work without pay. Gareth David-Lloyd has come on in leaps and bounds in season two, from the most invisible member of the ensemble to the most adored. That's down to some nifty repair work by the writers and an increasingly confident and comedic portrayal by David-Lloyd.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'By the way... love the coat.'

The Good: What a phenomenal teaser that takes the ultimate Torchwood image of the team turning up in their SUV and snazzy clothes to take charge of a situation and punctures it by setting of several high explosives and bringing them all down in one blow. The shot of the warehouse windows exploding outwards is very impressive and it is a dramatic kick start into an episode packed full of vital character vignettes that reveals how each of the team first joined Torchwood. The debris that has fallen on the team in the warehouse looks genuinely dangerous and the characters reactions to be confined and injured feel very real (especially Tosh's claustrophobic screams). That it is vital to making this episode work, we have to feel that this could be their last day on planet Earth in order for the story of how they were recruited into Torchwood to really impact. The Blowfish character in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang didn't do much for me, driving about Cardiff in his sports car and insanely overplayed by Paul Kasey (mind you I'm not sure if you can underplay an alien Blowfish). Here the character is put in context and his history with Jack is revealed. It honestly makes all the difference. We also get to meet the young fortune reader who turned up in Dead Man Walking, giving her presence in the season additional depth. Jack's story skips wonderfully from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth. How many shows can do that and not batter an eyelid. We never quite learn who these dead members of Torchwood are...but I would love to find out more. That melodramatic mission statement is given its foundation as Alex commits suicide and asks Jack to give Torchwood Three a purpose. The episode is structured so that we see how the Torchwood team before our set of regulars were slaughtered so it can move on to showing how each new member was conscripted. In Tosh's story it is astonishing to see the darker side of UNIT, the methods they use to co-erce people into helping them is a far cry from their cuddly public image. I wouldn't mind seeing a little more of the sinister underbelly of the organisation. Cutting from Tosh being told her work with Torchwood will be dangerous to her trapped under a pile of rubble screaming is superbly done, Chibnall bridging the gap between the vignettes and the framing narrative with dramatic flair. Jack and Ianto bringing down the Pterodactyl in the warehouse is one of my favourite Torchwood set pieces; silly, exciting and horny.  I don't think I have ever experienced such an extended gasp of breath as I did when I first saw that eye watering shot of Owen staring up at a shard of glass that is threatening to fall and slice him in two. He's never coming back from that. How gruesome is the idea of the brain leech that poisons those it comes into contact with and causing the carrier to suffer amnesia? Just one of a large number of stunning ideas in Fragments. The fact that the explosions are the work of John Hart from the beginning of the season brings the whole year to a cohesive whole and promises a reunion in the near future. It's an tantalising note to leave the episode on because it also promises a reunion between Jack and his brother, the back story of which has been seeded earlier in the season. This season of Torchwood feels so much better plotted than the last. Plus more James Marsters is always a bonus.

The Bad: It's a small niggle but if Jack had been waiting to catch up with the Doctor throughout the 20th Century and has all the resources of Torchwood at his disposal (who are also looking for their enemy) then wouldn't he have caught up with him during his exile? Continuity be damned. There was an actor in Army of Ghosts that was the spit of Gareth David-Lloyd. What a shame it wasn't him because that would have been a wonderful link between the two shows.

The Shallow Bit: Hands on hips, flirtatious and unafraid of their sexuality, the ladies of Torchwood in the Victorian era are clearly infected with the same lack of sexual inhibitions as the current lot. Perhaps there is something in the water. It strikes me that everybody that has ever worked for this organisation is bisexual. That isn't a criticism, just an observation made because there is a relative dearth of bisexuals on television and so it really stands out.

Result: My favourite episode of the first two seasons, bar none. It astonishes me that it has taken this long for this episode to be told and that is because the first season was far too obsessed with Gwen and her journey with Torchwood to worry too much about how the others were brought into the fold. That is rectified brilliantly here. If this had been the first episode it would have salvaged so much of the first season, it shows all the characters at their best and explains an awful lot about why they are how they are. Something I was completely in the dark about in the debut year as they behaved so appallingly. As we hop from story to story the tone and genre shifts with absolute confidence; thrilling, silly, funny, heartbreaking, claustrophobic, dramatic...this is what the show should have been all along. Better late than never. What I love most about Fragments is that it fills in so many gaps in continuity and so many vital nuggets of information about the regulars that it provides an incredible amount of context to the first and second seasons of the show, effectively answering a lot of the criticisms of the series with some very satisfying answers. Some of my strongest grievances about the show are addressed; Jack's melodrama, the Pterodactyl, Cyberwoman, Owen's bastard behaviour...Chibnall has taken a look at what hasn't worked in the first two seasons and sought to give it an explanation. The fact that it does this just as the status quo is about to be shaken up irrevocably is perfect timing, leaving the first two years of the show as a cohesive story in its own right. Fragments manages to tell stunning individual vignettes and a gripping framing narrative and ends on a whopper of a cliff-hanger that left me begging for more. What a turn around for the show: 10/10

1 comment:

Martin Hudecek said...

Fingers crossed this sublime stuff is order of the day in 2018.