John Barrowman, Torchwood
Credit: Adrian Rogers

A recent installment of the breezy, genially sleazy British sci-fi series Torchwood found the dashing Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and his titular team of supernatural sleuths investigating an edible extraterrestrial. During this adventure the following exchange occurred between Torchie Gwen (Eve Myles) and the celestially promiscuous Harkness, who has bedded at least one female member of his Torchwood crew, one male member, various comely outer-space creatures, and a smoochy ”Time Agent” played by guest star James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer):

Gwen: ”You ever eaten alien meat?”

Jack: ”Yeah.”

Gwen: ”What was it like?”

Jack:He seemed to enjoy it!”

Torchwood, now in its second season, is the Benny Hill version of Blade Runner. Jack’s character is spun off from Doctor Who, the long-running British-TV equivalent of Star Wars, Star Trek, and H.R. Pufnstuf all rolled into one. Torchwood, set in the present day, is both more dramatic and even campier. In Jack regalia, Barrowman looks like Tom Cruise with suspenders, but minus the Scientology. (Except for when he starts musing about ”alien intervention,” ”mind probes,” and ”sleeper agents…ready to take over.”) Captain Jack tracks down — and occasionally beds — ETs with the help of his quartet of bedazzled groupies?slash?Experts in Their Fields: One’s a doctor, one’s a cop, one’s a scientist, and one…makes tea piping hot. It’s like the Justice League of Extended-Pinkie Nerds.

Torchwood can be jolly, if winceable, fun, but it’s also tonally weird. The cheesy special effects (the alien-meat creature’s mouth clapped shut like a ventriloquist’s dummy) and cheesier heroic proclamations (”The 21st century is when everything changes, and Torchwood is ready!”) make the series seem aimed at kids. Yet there’s also lots of bloodletting and rather explicit sex, along with florid, romance-novel subplots, such as team scientist Toshiko (Naoko Mori) falling madly in love with a cryogenically frozen World War I soldier. The series’ attempts to cross X-Files monster suspense with Buffy-style wisecracking just come off as endearingly goony: Jack interrogates an alien by bellowing, ”Why do you give off electromagnetic waves? Why?!” And apparently in the U.K., it is inherently amusing to locate Torchwood HQ and the time-space rift that sets loose so many alien subplots in the bleak-looking town of Cardiff, Wales; I gather this is comparable to, say, locating Lost in a Paramus, N.J., park. As with P.G. Wodehouse novels and Robbie Williams songs, you have to be either British or adolescent to commit to this stuff; for the rest of us, it’s a head-scratching lark. B

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