BBC America's sexy sci-fi `Torchwood' back for second season

by Diane Werts

Newsday (MCT)

25 January 2008


Immortality and sexuality - you’d be happy, wouldn’t you?

But not Capt. Jack Harkness, the undying American hero of “Torchwood,” even as he flirts with every person on the planet, including cult hunk James Marsters in Saturday’s second-season BBC America premiere.

The ex-“Buffy” fave is an old space mate of our ambisexual alien hunter, who greets his return with a serious lip-lock and a buoyant fistfight.

I think they need a cigarette. But they’ll settle for booze. It’s another of dashing Captain Jack’s penchants, which when he isn’t busy with some babe (or his strong-but-silent male office administrator) also include corralling outer-space species who’ve crashed the gates of Earth.

If Jack is ambisexual, “Torchwood” is ambi-everything. This adult adventure has kick-butt action, serious sensuality, brisk wit, soulful introspection and high-tech science fantasy. It’s also got an ambi-hot leading man in Chicago-raised actor-singer-dancer John Barrowman, whose Captain Jack charms the pants off every kind of person he meets.

Every kind that watches this show, too.

“Torchwood” is grown-up work from writer Russell T. Davies, who reworked the British family fantasy perennial “Doctor Who” for the 21st century. But Davies earlier created Britain’s original “Queer as Folk,” a somewhat rawer/franker gay exploration than Showtime’s American adaptation. Those are great adjectives to describe “Torchwood” now, too, as it builds its mean feats on a bedrock of intense human drama.

Easy to do when your swashbuckling hero is so busy and so ambivalent. Poor Jack, drowning his sorrows in physicality and space-age CSI-ing, all because he “can’t die,” the result of a save-the-world resurrection in the “Who” franchise from which this show was spun off. While that series’ regenerating hero traverses time and space to thwart varied villains, Captain Jack has planted himself in the evocatively filmed metropolis of Cardiff, Wales, giving up his galactic con job to take a more adult approach to his unending days.

And we mean “adult” in every way. “Torchwood” is more “X-Files” than “Who,” all dark, edgy and complicated. Jack is no rogue agent, but a leader of young human enforcers who scavenge alien technology for heroic use. Their Torchwood team, complete with “sewer-chic” underground lair and high technology, is “separate from the government, outside the police, beyond the United Nations.” All powerful and having outrageous escapades - what’s not to love?

Nothing, and nobody, as it turns out. Since smart young police officer Gwen (the acutely potent Eve Myles) crashed the team in the “Torchwood” premiere, joining computer wiz Toshiko (Naoki Mori) and hotheaded doctor Owen (Burn Gorman), she has become more than a little entranced by Jack. She wants to know all about this dashing dude with the duster coat, quick quips and killer smile. As does everybody. Jack doesn’t explain himself - his origins, his valor or his appetites - which, of course, only makes him more tantalizing.

For his part, Jack envies what Gwen has. A regular life, with a boyfriend and an apartment. He only has that supercool lair and, well, everybody. She’s going to die someday. He’ll never see The Other Side. But “Torchwood” isn’t broody about it. It’s earthy and playful, and Jack’s no-boundaries lust actually moves his every relationship beyond the physical to a distinctly spiritual connection. Because Jack doesn’t make distinctions of gender or race or anything else (“You people and your quaint little categories,” scoffs our 51st century man), he’s everybody’s soul mate.

His lust is for life itself - and death, too - which means he doesn’t rule anything out. He’s fearless and feisty. Having disappeared in “Torchwood’s” season 1 finale (for a guest arc in “Doctor Who’s” season 3), Jack returns to find his deserted team resentful and former playmate Marsters newly sprung from galactic rehab. Buffy’s Spike makes a challenging match, trading “Star Wars” jokes, rage and passion. Next week’s second episode offers “Murder, She Wrote” references and “Alien”-type ickiness, in an emotional, brutal tale of humans who are actually alien sleeper agents. And really distraught about it.

As bizarre as things can get, “Torchwood” still feels more like sci than fi, and more ego/id than alien vs. human. The Gwen character in particular radiates intelligence, and empathy, and curiosity, about what’s out there and what lies inside Jack. We can’t help but share her, um, enthusiasm.

Topics: torchwood
//Mixed media