BBC America Fires a Hit in Torchwood

I have become quite a Doctor Who fan since the advent of the new, reinvigorated series starring at times either Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant. So it was no surprise to me that I fell -- hook, line, and sinker -- for the Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood.

I should begin by saying that Torchwood is not similar to Doctor Who in tone, scope, or theme, or in anything. It approximates a winning combo The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, albeit with Welsh accents and a quirky, offbeat cast of characters, each with their own cross to bear.

Here's the skinny: John Barrowman (Doctor Who) stars as the bisexual adventurer Captain Jack Harkness, a former 51st century Time Agent and con man who has more than a few secrets of his own under his carefully coiffed head of hair and military issue overcoat. He leads a team of alien hunters and scientists known as Torchwood (itself, mind you, a famous anagram for Doctor Who), a covert, global organization determined to fighting the invisible war between earth and alien visitors.

Harkness is therefore in charge of Torchwood Three, a Cardiff-based Torchwood facility that houses a number of alien detainees and performs experiments on technology harvested from these incursions, hoping to arm the earth in order to fight the future. It's also home to its very own pterodactyl, a collection of alien ephemera, and a troika of genius outcasts -- Owen Harper (Bleak House's Burn Gorman), Toshiko Sato (Absolutely Fabulous' Naoko Mori), and Susie Costello (Rome's Indira Varma) -- along with receptionist/odd jobs-man Ianto (Gareth David Lloyd).

This isn't a lovey-dovey group of people. On the contrary, they are odd, plucky, and given to some rather serious eccentricities, not the least of which is stealing the alien technology they're supposed to be protecting and using it for their own ends. Owen is in possession of an alien pheromone spray that makes him desirable to anyone he meets; Toshiko uses another device to scan and speed-read books; Susie experiments on dead insects with a glove that brings dead things back to life.

Which is how this story starts in the first place. In the pilot episode ("Everything Changes"), written by Doctor Who executive producer Russell T. Davies, Police Constable Gwen Cooper (Doctor Who's Eve Myles) sees the Torchwood gang use the glove to bring a murder victim back to life. This isn't an altruistic assignment; Torchwood could care less about who killed the poor bloke as they are there to test the glove, bringing back the victim for two minutes of postmortem questioning. Gwen's terrified but equally compelled to get to the bottom of this mystery and sets out to find Torchwood and Jack Harkness.

I won't say anything more but, along the way, there's a drugging, some computer hacking, and a rather intense alien attack at a hospital that is both atmospheric and gruesomely horrific. It's rather obvious just what will happen to Gwen by the episode's end but there are some interesting plot twists along the way, including the resolution to that pesky serial murder plot and a rather fantastic bait and switch.

As for why the series is set in Cardiff, there's an interesting and plausible explanation going on that's derived directly from the mythology already existing in Doctor Who: the city is itself a site of a rift in time and space and the 21st century is the flash point for the coming war between the humans and the extraterrestrial denizens of other worlds and dimensions.

Ultimately, it's a battle that I cannot wait to see. Torchwood itself remains a smart, sexy series that never takes it too seriously, a lesson that many of Sci Fi Channel's series should take to heart.

Torchwood airs Saturday evenings at 9 pm ET/PT on BBC America.

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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.