For many of us, the first reasonable question to ask when confronted with a series like the new Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood is something on the lines of, "As someone who doesn't give a hang about Who, can I follow this new series?" Well, on the basis of the show's first episode, which was broadcast this week on BBC-America, the answer is a qualified yes.
As a churlish American, I've long proved immune to the time-and-space traveler of many incarnations. But I still found myself quickly caught up in the new series – even if (as more than one fan site has pointed out), its title is an anagram for "Doctor Who." Though series creator Russell T. Davies occasionally slips in references to Who mythology (at one point the show's roguish adventurer, Captain Jack Harkness, indicates that it'd require the "right doctor" to make sense of his immortal physiology), this doesn't interfere with our enjoyment of the basic story.
Set in Cardiff, Wales, the series concerns the activities of the Torchwood Institute, a top secret organization devoted to finding and catching alien visitors, pocketing whatever technology it can cull from the visitors for its own undefined research purposes. Our entry into this organization is through Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), a gap-toothed Welsh policewoman who stumbles onto the Torchwoodians as they're trying out a piece of confiscated technology – a metal glove capable of reviving the newly dead for up to two minutes – on a recent murder victim. When Gwen (somewhat contrivedly) later comes upon a hideous fanged creature on a sealed-off floor of a Cardiff hospital, she's spurred to investigate the mysterious organization and its seeming leader Harkness (John Barrowman).
She discovers the location for Torchwood Three's Cardiff headquarters and uses a pizza delivery to slip into the building. In one of the debut's funnier moments, our heroine makes her way into the Institute, where several obliviously serious types are all seemingly puttering about at strange business – only to have 'em all suddenly crack up over the fact that they've been watching her from the very start. The very full-of-himself Harkness (played by Barrowman as a more openly sexually ambiguous Tom Cruise type) gives her a tour of the place, knowing full well that he'll soon be slipping her an alien mickey that'll make her forget everything she's seen. But since Gwen is our gateway to the Institute, this can't last. By the end of the pilot, our spunky lady copper has been asked to join the organization. How this will affect her relationship with her schlubby live-in boyfriend (Rhys Williams) will doubtless fuel several subplots as the season progresses
The Torchwoodians, starting with their leader, are an engagingly eccentric lot. Though it violates the Institute's regs, for instance, we're shown several of 'em "borrowing" alien technology for their own home use. In one enjoyable scene, Medical Officer Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) uses an attraction spray to pick up a blond babe in a pub; when her PO-ed boyfriend shows up, he utilizes the same spray on him, taking them both back to his place.
As for the aliens, the only one to pop up in the premiere is that toothy hospital worker chomper. A host of these creatures, called Weevils, have shown up in Cardiff – which appears to be a hub for space/time anomalies – most of 'em living in the sewers and dining off the waste. Why the only visitors to fall to Earth prove to be murderous scum and bottom-feeders like the Weevils is a question very much on the mind of second-in-command Suzie Costello (Indira Varma). Perhaps our planet is the galaxy's answer to Atlantic City?
A darker series than the one that introduced it (the language is noticeably rougher, the sexuality more explicit), Torchwood has been sandwiched onto BBC-America's misnamed Supernatural Saturday schedule an hour after the good Doctor's current series and right before comedian Graham Norton's "adult" chat fest. Per the fan sites, the series has been picked up a second season, which will feature a cross-over appearance by one of the Doctor's companions, Martha Jones; whether this multiple episode guest shot will require a quick cram session by us non-Whovillians is a question that will remain for season two. For now, at least, Torchwood's first season should suit both cognoscenti and newcomers searching for science-fantasy television with an X-Files/Sunnydale vibe.