Screen Savors: Creatures over Cardiff

Torchwood proves that not all spin-off shows are necessarily dreck.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Beware the deadly spin-off, my son, the jokes that bomb, the plots that die. Yes, generally speaking, shows that spring from other shows don't fare too well in TV land. See under: Joey. So it was all the more pleasant to catch a spinoff that not only works, but is a wonder onto itself, YES Stars 2's new Torchwood, debuting locally at 22:30 starting a week from Monday. We didn't even really know about this series's noble heritage until we checked it out on the Web after being dazzled by the sci-fi/detective show hybrid. For Torchwood, dear Watson, is an anagram of Doctor Who. What? OK, if you're not a Brit or a dedicated sci-fi nerd, you may not have heard of the legendary series, which ran from 1963-89 originally, featuring a time-traveler known as "The Doctor," who was replaced by a different actor each season, and is part of British cultural history. The series was relaunched in 2005 by Russell T. Davies, the creator of controversial series about homosexual life Queer as Folk. Davies built Torchwood around a character from the new Doctor Who series, one Captain Jack Harkness, a bisexual Mulder type assigned to track the misdoings of aliens in beautiful Cardiff, which just happens to be the place where "there's a rift through space and time" allowing "creatures, time shifts, space junk, and debris" to reach its shores. Harkness is the commander of the Torchwood Institute, a team of specialists working together to keep Cardiff and the world safe, but we'd never know any of this if policewoman Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) hadn't stumbled upon them while investigating a homicide one rainy night. Climbing up to a parking garage above them for a better view, she watches as one woman member of the team uses an iron glove to revive the patient for a few minutes of questioning. But before Cooper can figure out what's going on, the team is off in a Hummer, leaving her with more questions than answers. After picking up their trail at her office and confronting a strange-looking beast, Cooper trails a man in a long, dark coat until she gains entry to Torchwood's headquarters, where she meets Captain Jack and his crew: nerdy Dr. Owen Harper (the wonderful Burn Gorman, who played Mr. Guppy in the Bleak House production shown on Xtra HOT recently); computer specialist Toshiko Sato; and Ianto Jones, who "cleans up" after the team to ensure total secrecy. Played brilliantly by John Barrowman, who grew up in the US before moving to the UK, Harkness has one special feature which Cooper discovers when one of the Torchwood crew turns out to be bad: He can't die. Barrowman himself is also openly gay, and Davies has made it clear in interviews that the Harkness character will remain true to his bisexual past. The writing, acting and effects are excellent, with all the little bits just right. Making her goggled-eyed way through Torchwood's elaborate headquarters, Eve blinks as something flaps past. "What was that?" she gasps. "Pterodactyl," explains Harkness nonchalantly. Introduced to what she can hardly comprehend, Eve's taken to a bar, where she tries to get more information from Harkness. "You catch aliens for a living?" she inquires. "Yes, we do," comes the response. "You're an alien-catcher." "Yes, I am." "Caught any good aliens?" "Tons of 'em." Before long, Eve's signed on, replacing a team member who went bad. Liaising with the police, she works with the Torchwood team to solve mysteries Cardiff's regular cops can't crack. While Harkness explains that no one ever takes home any alien artifacts from the office, that's of course false. For when nebbish Dr. Harper decides to go out on the town, he first sprays some alien-produced pheromone-type stuff on himself. First rejected by a blonde he chats up at the bar, he tries the stuff on her, and suddenly she's dragging him back to her place. Accosted by her boyfriend on the street, Harper shrugs and sprays the guy, who suddenly wants Harper too. Comic touches like that plus the cool technology, the smooth acting, fine music and a fast-moving plot make Torchwood a hot addition to YES Stars line-up, proving that not all that is spin-off is necessarily dreck.