So there I am, bleating on about how you can always rely on Torchwood‘s show runner Chris Chibnall to produce an offensively bad piece of rubbish, when up pops Fragments, which can be described as lying in the "Okay" to "Pretty good" range of the writing spectrum.
What’s up! Have I entered some sort of parallel universe?
No, no, dear friend. Although at first sight it might appear that something hitherto unexplainable has just occurred, further examination will reveal that the natural laws of physics and writing are still in effect.
A booby trapped building explodes and knocks the team unconscious. As their lives flash before their eyes, we learn how each of them was recruited to Torchwood. Capt Jack’s initiation into a shocked Victorian Torchwood in1899, Toshiko’s daring mission to trade alien technology for her mother’s life, how Ianto woo’d Jack with coffee and a flair for alien-catching, and the medical revelation that changed how Owen saw the world.
Was it any good?
How then do we square this particular circle? I think we have to look at what Chris Chibnall’s flaws are
- Plots: they’re always derivative of the worst movies, are full of holes and never make much sense
- Characters: are always bent out of shape to fit the plots and never behave in a normal way
- Tastelessness: in an attempt to liven the plot out of clichés and to fit the show’s mandate, Chibnall will add things to the script purely to shock or to be different, not because the script actually requires them.
As you can see, the big problem here, from which everything else follows, are the plots. Encumbered with "big idea" plots that fall apart in their details, Chibnall episodes are like a constant series of writing Band-Aids, designed to cover up problems caused in trying to get from A to Z via XXX andthe number 1, for some reason, even though it doesn’t naturally follow any of the other elements of that thing known as "the alphabet".
Fragments, in that sense, was not really that much different from a standard Chibfest. Captain Jack’s arc-nemesis and jealous ex- Captain John sets a cunning trap for the Torchwood crew. He lures all but the late-rising Gwen to a deserted warehouse where he sets off some bombs. Only four mind, because he obviously knew that Gwen was going to oversleep. Erm, how?
Now despite these being very big bombs, every member of Torchwood standing right next to one when it went off, and Captain John being a time traveller from the 51st Century with access to technology the size of a rice krispie that could vaporise Wales if he wanted, no one is killed, maimed or fatally wounded. Instead, they get buried under some rubble and all decide to remember how they joined Torchwood. Then Rhys and Gwen save them and they all walk away with nothing worse than a broken arm, although Owen’s bound to be a mass of bruises – forever now, since he’s dead and can’t heal.
I can’t place the exact movie or TV episode that plot’s from, although Press Gang did something similar once, as did The Professionals, but it feels like something Jungian, embedded in our collective trashy TV race memories.
But that’s more or less it as far as the plot goes. Rubbish though it is, it’s merely, as you might expect from a Chibfest, a series of necessary, calculated, "tab A in slot B" moves intended to get all the characters doing the things Chibo needs so he can put forward his big message of the episode.
Except, there isn’t really a big message. Chibo does the sensible thing – "Chibos – know your limits" to misquote Mr Harry Enfield – and goes into full fanboy mode. The vast majority of the episode is merely Chibo filling in gaps in character backstory, trying to explain how various things came to pass, and trying to square Torchwood continuity with Doctor Who continuity. He basically gets out a great big tub of Nerd Polyfilla™ and goes to work.
And at this, he’s not bad. We end up with four separate stories: Jack joining Victorian Torchwood and waiting until the Doctor turns up; Tosh being blackmailed into stealing secrets then blackmailed into joining Torchwood; Ianto trying to be all Shaolin wannabe in order to get hired by Torchwood Cardiff; and Owen losing his fiancée to an alien infection. The plots for these have to come from the characters, which is the right way round, of course.
Each of the strands is of varying quality. Victorian Torchwood, despite being set up by that great disbeliever in such things herself, Queen Vic, turns out to be a Lesbigay haven, quite keen on recruiting the polysexual Jack for their midnight frolics. Massively historically inaccurate (What? You want research? Go get Helen Raynor, then, but be careful what you wish for), it’s a typical piece of Chibo fun and massive stupidity, with a few good moments, and shows how Jacky boy got to be boss and reconfigure Torchwood Cardiff into a less Empire-loving, more Doc-friendly form. It also shows why Torchwood Cardiff is just so pants, given that he never had a proper training budget or resources to work with.
Tosh’s is probably the weakest in terms of developing the characters: it turns out she was always a complete spoddy feeb. But after UNIT sticks her in its own version of Guantanamo for stealing the plans for and making an Ice Warrior gun, Jack offers to let her out in return for lending him her unique spoddy gifts. This, again, has uniquely Chibo moments – a sonic weapon that can cause you to bleed, but can be foxed by headphones (invisible ones, in UNIT’s case)? Tosh being forced not just to steal plans for a weapon, but to make the weapon as well? But it’s quite bleak and nasty at points, which are pluses in my book.
The Ianto bit is designed to explain why Ianto gets promoted to field work after being the coffee boy (turns out he was trained by Torchwood London, so could probably run the whole thing a whole lot better than Jack’s trainees), why he ends up repeatedly shagging the man who killed his girlfriend (he always fancied him, it turns out) and why he wears suits the whole time. It’s a bit lame and is all played for laughs. It also suffers from some poor pterodactyl CGI and John Barrowman’s reversion to poor acting after a full 20 minutes of "not bad" work. But again, it’s a nice tub of Filla™.
Owen’s is easily the best segment. Overlook the Chibo crassness of equating Alzheimer’s with having an octopus stuck in your brain. Or why an alien would evolve a poison gas defence mechanism to protect itself in case of brain surgery – happen a lot in the particular oceans it grew up in, does it? Talented sharks where it comes from? Also ignore the fact that it can apparently grow five inches in the space of a day after failing to be picked up by MRIs previously. And the fact that there are Chibo "I’ve seen it in a movie so that’s how people must behave in real life" moments like Owen being by a graveside, seeing Jack, picking a fight, then breaking down midway through or Captain Jack, who can hold his own in a fight with Captain John, not being able to think of anything to do to defend himself when someone belligerent runs at him from over 200 metres away (Step out the way? Move behind a tree? Spinning back kick? The Captain Kirk fave, tomoe nage? Do something, dude, even if you are immortal – it’ll be less painful that way and you’re more likely to be able to explain things if you’re conscious).
Instead, revel yet more in Owen hurt-comfort. He never seems to have a good time of things – no wonder he’s such a major, grade A screw-up in series one, and a clinical depressive in series two. And even though it’s a Chibo-story, seeing our Owen losing his fiancée to apparent Alzheimer’s should provoke a tear or two, since Burn Gorman can be a bloody good actor at times.
I think what we have here is our first instance of "distributed" Chibnall. Probably the same amount of Chibnall as in a normal episode, but spread over five separate plots makes it seem like only 20% Chibo and therefore bearable. Quite enjoyable, particularly for long-time viewers who can fill in more gaps with their own knowledge. But Chibo – know your limits.
PS We also get the standard Chibo-episode plot narrative device in spades this time: the montage. I lost count of how many there were, but there was a big long one in Jack’s strand, another in T
osh’s. Where are the South Park boys and Team America when you need them?