Empty9-10 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 8
As sci-fi fans go, I'm what you might call, um, not one. I'm not big on the whole aliens/fantasy thing in general, so it takes something particularly enthralling in this genre to grab my attention and keep it. This is the highest praise I can give to "Torchwood," a new BBC America sci-fi/thriller that's so good and unsettling and creepy that even grumps like myself can't help but be in its thrall. The genius of the hour from creator/executive producer/writer Russell T Davies ("Doctor Who" and "Queer as Folk") is the way it takes the audience's natural skepticism and stands it on its head as we watch all manner of outrageousness unfold through the eyes of a disbelieving cop. It also doesn't hurt that the male lead, the mega-intense John Barrowman, is a near dead-ringer for the young Tom Cruise. He even sounds like Cruise. This in itself is a form of science fiction come to life.
Compelling, convoluted and camp all at once, "Torchwood" tells the tale of a British crimefighting team that works independently of all law enforcement and government oversight. They operate by their own rules, but not in a Dirty Harry kind of way. It's far more sinister than that. They work for good under the guise of evil, privy as they are to Area 51-style alien info and absurdly advanced technology as they battle the monstrous flotsam and jetsam of both the extraterrestrial and human worlds here on Earth.
The charismatic mystery dude who presides over this motley crew, Capt. Jack Harkness (Barrowman), looks 30 years old despite having apparently been killed during World War II. He works in Episode 1 to control the damage when an overly curious policewoman, Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), stumbles onto their futuristic underground lair after having witnessed the resurrection of a murder victim using a special reanimating glove. What she finds is a team of dedicated young oddballs whom nobody in the world seems to know exists: a charming hedonist of a medic (Burn Gorman), a beautiful tech geek (Naoko Mori), a brainy alien expert (Indira Varma) and a shifty receptionist (Gareth David-Lloyd). Yes, I said "shifty receptionist." You don't see one of those every day.
Hour one, written by Davies, smartly sets the table by giving us a taste of the savage monsters, sci-fi theatrics and all-around spooky vibe that define this "CSI" for sci-fi geeks. The second hour, from scribe Chris Chibnall, is even better, delving into the dark underbelly of the Torchwood gang and the freaked-out but cooperative Gwen as they track a homicidal sex-addicted alien (think Black Widows, but much more vile and messy). The leads demonstrate a winning chemistry, with director Brian Kelly keeping the blend of action and edgy dialogue interchanges seamless and riveting. And I mean, you've got to love a show whose title is designed as an anagram of "Doctor Who."
One part "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and one part "The X-Files," "Torchwood" is well worth adding to your Saturday night TiVo schedule -- which, let's face it, can't be too extensive to begin with.
Creator: Russell T Davies
Executive producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner
Producer: Richard Stokes
Writers: Russell T Davies, Chris Chibnall
Director: Brian Kelly
Director of photography: Mark Waters
Editor: William Webb
Music: Murray Gold
Casting: Andy Pryor
Captain Jack Harkness: John Barrowman
Gwen Cooper: Eve Myles
Owen Harper: Burn Gorman
Toshiko Sato: Naoko Mori
Suzie Costello: Indira Varma
Ianto Jones: Gareth David-Lloyd
Rhys Jones: Kai Owen