The Brits have seldom excelled in science fiction relative to their strides in other genres, but this semi-spinoff of the new “Dr. Who” from its writer, Russell T. Davies, yields “X-Files”-ish charms with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” bite — a smart, occasionally salacious hour wryly populated by cheesy monsters. Built around another one of those crack teams assigned to protect the Earth, the quirky interaction within the group (which loses members here and there) elevates the material, as does John Barrowman’s “Who”-originated perf as intrepid and mysterious Yank leader Capt. Jack Harkness.
Following a familiar pattern, the premiere introduces a local cop, Gwen (Eve Myles), who stumbles across the activities of Torchwood, an enterprise operating outside the government to apprehend alien invaders. The twist is that Torchwood has access to “scavenged” alien technology, providing them with all kinds of cool toys and gadgets with which to ward off the various threats.
Gwen is noticed by Harkness, and he quickly takes her into his confidence, telling her that Torchwood has taken up residence near “a rift in space and time,” and that the 21st century will provide the key to safeguarding Man’s future. Yet all this silly dialogue sounds somehow acceptable as delivered by Barrowman, who portrays Jack as a fellow with a shadowy past and devil-may-care attitude — an adventurer who laughs at danger like something out of “Gunga Din” and keeps a pet pterodactyl in his cavernous, batcave-like HQ.
Jack’s team includes the horny Owen (Burn Gorman), tech wizard Toshiko (Naoko Mori) and right-hand gal Suzie (Indira Varma). Their banter mostly offsets the uninspired nature of the bogeymen, which include a toothy killer in the opener, a sex-addicted alien in the second episode and a Borg-like concoction in the fourth.
Davies and the other lead writer on the series, Chris Chibnall (“Life on Mars”), play much of it for laughs, but there’s a bit of an edge in this British-Canadian coproduction as well. Beyond just a monster of the week, there’s also a continuing element as Gwen adjusts to the team (and keeping her new gig secret from her boyfriend) while Capt. Jack drops bread crumbs about his murky history.
Briskly paced if relatively unimpressive in its sets and effects (one “alien” more than anything resembles a Vegas showgirl), “Torchwood” has the fixings of a thinking-man’s sci-fi series that doesn’t take itself too seriously — as it should be, really, dwelling as the show does in that existential rift between really good and just OK, a treacherous zone if there ever was one.