Chris Chibnall puts that old chestnut, your life flashing before your eyes just before you die, to good use in “Fragments,” managing to avoid most of the clumsiness inherent in the typical origin story. It doesn’t sit well that we’re finally learning how Jack (John Barrowman) built his team just as it appears we’re about to lose them all. “Fragments” is satisfying in that it answers many questions about our Torchwood Team, but ultimately it suffers from being nothing more than an extended setup for Chibnall’s pull-out-the-stops season finale.
The episode opens with the team, sans the over-sleeping Gwen (Eve Myles), arriving in the SUV to round up the four or five aliens that Toshiko (Naoko Mori) has detected during routine scans. Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) calls Gwen to meet them ASAP; the other four enter the deserted warehouse to take the aliens into custody. The warehouse is completely still, leading to speculation that the aliens are sleeping; Ianto thinks they may be hatching, which would explain the silence. Jack rounds a corner and sees a small, blinking device, and realizes that there are no aliens. The whole thing was a set-up, and the readings Tosh registered were in fact being emitted by explosive devices. The timers count down to zero, and an impressive explosion blows out all the windows. How could anyone survive that? We have to wait until after the credits to find out.
Gwen finally wakes to her cellphone’s signaling Ianto’s message; she’s all tangled in the bedclothes and swears softly as she hauls herself out of bed.
Jack revives half-buried in rubble. There’s no mistaking that gasp, it’s not a normal coming-to breath. The on-screen graphic reads “1392 deaths earlier,” and there’s Jack, reviving again, this time with a broken bottle stuffed into his gut. He’s wearing the most hideous sideburns; they don’t help his overall presentation. “Ah, oh, not again,” he sighs, and pulls the bottle out. Two well-dressed Victorian women survey this scene silently, then move and subdue him with chloroform. They’re no more gentle in bringing him back to consciousness, dousing him with a bucket of water.
In rapid succession this mysterious pair of harpies electrocute our hero and then shoot him. Nonplussed by his refusal to stay dead, they finally ask him point blank: “Why aren’t you dead yet?” They remark that he’s been killed fourteen times in the last six months. Obviously, they’ve been keeping an eye on him.
The interrogation continues: “Who’s the Doctor?” They read a transcript of his drunken ramblings, his hope to meet the Doctor again and get himself sorted out. Finally they inform him that he has been apprehended by Torchwood Cardiff, the Welsh branch of the organization that was formed to combat the threat posed by the Doctor and other extraterrestrials. Jack gives up a bit of information—the Doctor refuels the TARDIS from the Rift that runs through Cardiff, but mostly tries to defend the Doctor’s honor. The girls aren’t interested in that; they have an assignment for him.
Jack, more or less resigned, asks what he’ll have to do, and the reply is a bit cryptic: not exactly a missing person. Turns out to be a Blowfish, possibly even the same idiot that Jack capped in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”. Or maybe it’s a species thing, and all blowfish like to joyride. Jack brings in the alien, expecting the Torchwood ladies to keep him locked up somewhere. When the brunette executes the Blowfish, Jack is disturbed, but not enough to leave Cardiff and give up his chance to run into the Doctor again. The blonde counts out cash and offers his next assignment. She’s cold, informing him that his liberty is at their discretion. He takes the assignment but then tosses it back at her and stalks out. The tall brunette comments on how very pretty he is.
Jack seems to have put his wages directly into a bottle. He’s drunk in some dive pub when a girl, the same girl from “Dead Man Walking”, comes to read his cards. He doesn’t want his cards read, but that doesn’t stop her. “He’s coming, the one you’re looking for,” she tells him, replaying the old “good news first” routine. The problem? It’s going to take a century to find him. Jack wonders how he’ll keep busy in the meantime, but we already know the answer; it’s all documented in a very thick file folder.
We jump to New Year’s Eve, 1999, still in Cardiff, of course. Jack strolls into the Hub babbling something about the Millennium Bug actually having 18 legs and being poisonous to boot. He stops mid-sentence, realizing he has walked into a bloodbath; his entire team has been assassinated. One man is still alive, though. Alex (Julian Lewis Jones) quips “Just in time,” as he sees Jack. Jack asks, “What happened? Who did this?” Alex confesses easily, “Me.” Jack doesn’t understand; how could anyone? He asks why. “We got it wrong, we can’t control this stuff,” Alex laments. He found a pocket watch and looked inside, and it showed him the future. “They were mercy killings,” he begins. “The twenty-first century—everything’s going to change and we’re not ready.” He blows his own brains out, splattering blood on Jack’s face.
In the present, Rhys (Kai Owen) and Gwen extract Jack from the debris. Rhys is astounded; he knew Jack was dead, he didn’t have any pulse. Gwen brushes it off, saying it’s OK, and then sends the two men to dig out Toshiko while she goes to find Owen (Burn Gorman).
Toshiko is still alive, but fully trapped, pinned under a heavy beam. We hear her ragged breathing, and when she returns to consciousness, she screams, bringing us into her flashback.
It’s five years ago, and Toshiko is drabber and mousier than we’ve ever seen her. There’s not a hint of self-confidence or attractiveness about her; kudos to Naoko Mori for portraying the de-evolution of her character so convincingly. Tosh is slaving away at her computer in a cube farm, making small talk with her boss as he leaves for the night. She’s the only one left, and she seems to be just another nerd drone, too absorbed in her work to have any kind of life. As soon as the boss leaves, though, she becomes a different person, sly, capable and determined. She slips into his office and hacks into his computer to get a security code, then she navigates the stairs and hallways, expertly avoiding both the swiveling security cameras and the complacent security guards. She uses the code to access an archive room, and pulls a set of plans marked “For Your Eyes Only.” She stuffs them under her sweater and sneaks out again.
As she leaves the building, the grandfatherly security guard teases her gently about her late nights, and flirts with her completely insincerely. Tosh replies to his banter kindly but distractedly, and soon enough is out of the building, the Lodmoor Research Facility, a defense department think tank.
Once home, she unfolds the plans, puts on her glasses, and gets to work, snipping wires and assembling components. We have no idea what it is she’s building, but it looks like advanced stuff; this is a very sexy tech montage if you like that sort of thing. Whatever it is she’s building, it works, and once she’s sure of that, she takes off with it.
She knocks at an unmarked door, saying “I’ve got it.” She’s ordered inside, where she faces an older, very severe woman. Tosh is frantic. “I want to see my mother, I want to know that she’s safe, NOW.” The other woman demands to see the piece, and Tosh hands it over. The woman declares it a “perfect sonic modulator,” just as one of her thugs brings out Toshiko’s mother. “Let her go!” she demands, but the older woman laughs and declares her a victim of her own success. She and her people have headphones, but Toshiko and her mother do not; the woman activates the modulator and it makes a horrendous noise, obviously very painful to the two unprotected women. It’s not clear what happens in this scene, as Toshiko’s mother’s wounds and expression look very similar to those we saw in the “End of Days”. Toshiko’s mother collapses, but before Tosh herself succumbs, the place is raided by UNIT.
Toshiko is arrested and made an un-person. She’s being held without charges indefinitely by UNIT, having been informed that her rights as a citizen have been withdrawn. We don’t know how long she was imprisoned, but these brief, wordless scenes convey the passage of time with simple shifts of light, the slanted beams coming through the high window marching around the room. Toshiko’s days have melted into a nightmare of isolation, until one day, the announcement: “Prisoner Sato. Inspection.” “What for?” she asks, but, “Prepare for inspection,” is the only reply she gets.
It’s Jack, of course. They’re meeting one on one in the midst of a vast, empty space. Jack tries to joke but quickly abandons his usual shtick when he sees how damaged Toshiko is. He assures her that her mother is safe, but perhaps goes too far when he admits to RetConning her to erase her memory of the kidnapping and assault with the sonic modulator. He tells Tosh that UNIT wants to keep her forever, to make an example of her; this is no surprise to Tosh. Suddenly he holds up the sonic modulator, and asks her, “You made this?” Tosh demurs, “I just followed the plans.” But Jack stops her; the plans were wrong, which is why they were shelved in the first place. He knows what her abilities must be, if she could accomplish what she did with those plans, and he proposes a deal to her: she gives him five years, working with him, and she can have her life back. Tosh can scarcely believe what she’s hearing. “Why would you trust me?” Jack’s reply is simple and immediate, “Instinct.”
Gwen and Rhys have found Toshiko, and work to get her out. We cut away to Ianto, clawing his way out of his own pile of bricks and dust. Just twenty-one months earlier, Jack’s fighting a Weavil and not doing so well, when Ianto happens along and beats the thing over the head with a large branch. Jack sprays the alien with Weavil repellent, then puts a bag over its head and cuffs it. Ianto expresses concern, but then stops: “You were bleeding,” he says. He continues, “It looked like a Weavil to me.” Jack plays dumb, charmingly, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” It seems nothing will come of this, and the two men go their separate ways. Ianto can’t help but call out, “By the way, love the coat.”
The next morning, it becomes obvious that the previous night’s encounter wasn’t by chance. Ianto’s waiting for Jack, cup in hand. “Coffee?” he asks. The whole coffee thing is a great little joke, especially since Ianto has become so much more than the coffee boy this season. He abandons subtlety, declaring, “I want to work for you.” Jack states flatly there are no vacancies, even though he knows that Ianto used to work for Torchwood London—the ones who almost ended the world in Doctor Who’s “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday”. Ianto remains positive, even to the point of complimenting the great coat again.
We know that Ianto’s going to end up on the team, so the question is, how did he break Jack down? It turns out that befriending a pterodactyl is exactly the kind of thing that can get you a job with Torchwood Cardiff. The tone of this scene is so far removed from the rest of the episode that it sticks out like a sore thumb, but I still appreciated Ianto’s quips to the big flying reptile as he tossed it a chocolate bar. The scenes of Jack being carried aloft really are too much, but all’s well, etc etc. He gives the bird the multi-species tranquilizer, and it drops him right on top of Ianto. The two men share a moment—not a kiss—and Ianto, suddenly self-conscious, says he should be going. Jack calls after him to report to work first thing in the morning, and then he compliments his suit. Ianto is overcome by his success.
Owen has somehow escaped being buried only to find himself in immediate peril of being bisected by a huge pane of glass that is poised above him. Four years earlier, a much more relaxed and playful Owen is on a bed with a pretty blonde woman, planning the seating arrangements for their wedding reception. The sad violin music tells us this isn’t going to end well, but we knew that already, since this is a flashback. How did Owen go from being such a sweetheart to being the prat we’ve come to know? That story is one and the same with the story of how he came to Torchwood. We see his fiancée, Katy, staring, apparently lost in thought. She was making tea, and Owen reminds her gently that she needs water; when Katy goes to draw it from the tap, Owen nudges her softly, “From the kettle.” Katy’s short-term memory is impaired, and she was having an episode.
Later, at hospital, Owen is talking with a colleague, Jim, who can’t believe that the couple are still going through with the wedding. “I promised her a summer wedding,” Owen says simply. The two discuss Katy’s Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, although Owen pushes back at the diagnosis, refusing to brush away the anomalies Katy’s case presents. He pushes for more scans, more tests. “What’s the point of me doing this job if I can’t help my own fiancée?”
Owen watches Katy sleeping, his expression would be enough without the sad, sad music to know how painful it is for him to see his love disintegrating before his eyes. Later, Katy says to him that her illness is “Like being lost in a place you know really well.” She apologizes, as if she had some responsibility for what was happening to her.
Impossibly, that last scan revealed a previously-invisible tumor. As Owen and Jim discuss surgery to remove it, Katy looks at Owen in panic, “I can’t remember your name.” Jim performs the surgery as Owen paces the halls, waiting for news of its outcome. But instead of Jim coming out of surgery, suddenly Jack is there, gently telling Owen to prepare for the worst. Barrowman does a good job with the speech, but it’s too exposition-heavy in this otherwise emotion-driven segment. Anyway, Katy’s brain condition was caused by an alien, who incubates in other animal’s brains. When it perceives a threat, such as brain surgery, it releases a cloud of toxic gas. Indeed, Katy and the entire operating team are dead, and there’s a alien-octopus sticking out of her brain. Jack is quite horrid here, telling Owen that he’ll have to take the brain for study.
In the days that follow, no one believes Owen’s story about the American. He’s told that Jim died in a car accident, and that Katy’s tumor was inoperable. Even the hospital’s CCTV has no record of Jack’s visit; Torchwood’s clean-up crew was thorough as ever. Owen’s department head prescribes him three months of rest.
Owen, visiting Katy’s grave, spies Jack at some distance and takes off after him. “You could have saved her!” he rails. Jack is earnest in his reply, “I couldn’t, I really couldn’t.” He tells Owen that his life doesn’t have to end with Katy, and tells him he’s building something, and he needs a medic. Owen’s skeptical, declaring there’s no such thing as aliens, thinking he’s calling Jack’s bluff. But of course Jack’s not bluffing, and because he really wants Owen, he brings him to the Hub. Owen thinks he’s having a breakdown, but Jack reassures him. Owen echoes his confession from “Adam”, “I thought if I could save one life, mine would be worthwhile… you can never save enough.” Jack replies, “Maybe here, you can.”
And Gwen pulls Owen free just as the glass comes crashing down.
With the team all extricated, and all the backstories told, everyone assembles outside the building. The SUV is gone—didn’t they learn from Countrycide not to leave the keys in the car? They know they were setup, but who would do this to them? Just then, Jack’s wrist unit bleeps, and a message from Captain John Hart (James Marsters), introduced and last seen in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” comes through. He is bitter, and angry at Jack: “All that time, and you can’t spare any for me.” He continues, “Say hi to the family,” projecting an image of another man. “Gray?” Jack exclaims, unbelieving, hurting. Hart taunts him, “Been a while since you’ve seen your brother.” Hart is apparently mad with jealousy; he threatens to destroy everything Jack loves, tearing it apart. We close on a shot of Jack’s face, determined to stop this threat.
There were a lot of “so that’s why…” moments in this episode, and some really top-notch acting, but the parts add up to something less than an entire episode. Nobody died in the conventional sense, and while that’s easily explained—after all, Jack did die, and we have no basis on which to judge Owen’s condition—it seems a bit too easy that all four of them should walk out of that building, with the worst injury being Toshiko’s broken arm. I enjoyed all the flashbacks, but the tonal swings, from the drunken Jack to the imprisoned Toshiko, from the pterodactyl-keeping Ianto to the bereft Owen, were enough at times to induce emotional whiplash. But overall, I like the idea of filling in the gaps in these character’s histories; it makes it that much easier to like them, and that much more likely that we’ll care for them deeply. In that regard, “Fragments” succeeds in making Hart’s final threats that much more menacing; we can’t help but think he’s going to go after the Torchwood Team first. He almost got them this time; will Jack be able to protect them all?