Wow. The latest Torchwood episode was amazing, and not just for this chloroforming, nipple zapping scene. If only "Fragments" had aired during season one, preferably as the second or third episode. It would have made the BBC's Doctor Who spinoff seem like a much cooler show, and might actually have improved the other episodes. Spoilers ahead!
If we'd gotten to see this look at the secret origins of Torchwood much, much earlier, the whole show might have been better. Either the other episodes of season one would have actually been better, thanks to this episode clarifying the show and its characters. Or at the very least, they would have seemed better because we'd already care about the characters and the backstory.
Before anybody else jumps in and points it out, I know "Fragments" is a total retread of the Firefly episode where Serenity breaks down and Mal gets shot and then we see flashbacks of how the crew came together. But "Out Of Gas" was one of the best Firefly eps, and it seems to have inspired a similarly great Torchwood installment.
It's just sad that this is the penultimate Torchwood episode, instead of the second or third. Yes, I know the show isn't cancelled. But if all the rumors and half-announcements are to be believed, the show is getting such a drastic makeover in its third season that it might as well be a different show. This is the first time I actually really wanted to get to know these characters and this universe better.
Each of the four main characters — apart from the already overexposed Gwen — gets a lengthy flashback showing how he/she ended up joining Torchwood. And none of the flashbacks were quite what I expected. I had a pretty clear idea of how they were going to go, and this episode actually managed to subvert my expectations. Mostly by showing me a different side of the characters. We got to see Tosh being a resourceful spy, Owen actually showing human emotions, and Jack not having all the answers for a change. Ianto was still pretty much Ianto, but that's a good thing.
Because all of these characters managed to surprise me and show me different facets, I found myself caring about them much more. I still don't really care about Gwen, but I do care about Rhys. So she gets some emotional attachment by proxy.
The other reason this episode excited me so much is because it helped me understand what Torchwood is about. Why the organization originally existed, and why it exists now. I didn't realize until just now how frustrating the show's muddle backstory actually is.
Here's what we already knew: Queen Victoria founded Torchwood in the Doctor Who episode "Tooth And Claw," because Rose and the Doctor giggled too much during a werewolf attack. Torchwood's original charter includes keeping an eye out for the Doctor. When we next see Torchwood, it's the early 21st century and it has a huge London headquarters, and it's an imperialist organization that's tampering with forces it can't comprehend.
So how do we get from that set-up to Jack's cozy little gang in Cardiff? The newest episode finally shows us how. We get to see the sadistic Victorian ladies of the original Torchwood recruiting the devil-may-care Jack, and then around 1999 one of the members of Torchwood Cardiff becomes distraught at the way things are going and shoots himself and his colleagues. So Jack severs all ties with Torchwood's main London branch and sets about remolding the organization into a genuine force for good. All of this is backstory that you could have gleaned from the occasional aside during previous episodes, but it made a huge difference to see it actually laid out.
So that makes two great Torchwood episodes in a row. I'd say the season has been about half-and-half great and mediocre, which makes the season finale, airing April 4, the tie-breaker. Sadly, I don't hold up much hope, because it's about Spike coming back and going on a killing spree because he wants Captain Jack to pay attention to him. And it features the return of Captain Jack's long-lost kid brother. But this episode pleasantly surprised me, so maybe the next one will too.