A dark and splendid "Dr. Who" spinoff with overtones of "Men in Black" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Torchwood" (premiering tonight on BBC America) concerns a super-secret organization "outside the government, beyond the police" whose job it is to keep an eye on visiting aliens and, when possible, steal their stuff. Specifically, it concerns the Cardiff branch -- Torchwood Three, out of four. (The main branch has been destroyed, and another has just gone missing.)
As to why Cardiff, one might as well have asked, "Why Sunnydale?" As with that city's pesky Hellmouth, there is a pan-dimensional rift running through the city, and all manner of things come through it. So there you go.
Of course, it might also have something to do with the fact that Russell T. Davies, who revived the "Dr. Who" franchise in 2005 and created "Torchwood," is from Wales, just as there might be some connection between his earlier having thought up "Queer as Folk" and the fact that the heroes of "Torchwood" are unusually elastic in their sexuality. (This is not a kiddie show -- the alien in next week's episode feeds off of human orgasms.) Indeed, as opposed to the vaguely sinister, wholly corporate and patriotically misguided, London-based Torchwood One featured in last season's "Dr. Who," the Scooby Gang of Torchwood Three is an able if not always stable crew whose personal issues drive the stories as much as do troublesome extraterrestrials or strange beasties. (Although they do keep a nasty thing called a Weevil locked up in the basement, Hannibal Lecter-style, and a pterodactyl has the run of their fortuitously high-ceilinged underground headquarters.)
"The 21st century is when it all changes," says mysterious team leader Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), and he should know, being that he comes from the 51st. (This is not clearly spelled out in "Torchwood" but was established in the first season of the Davies "Dr. Who," in which the character first appeared.) Barrowman, who is adventure-hero handsome, has a background in musical comedy, and there is something in the way the part is written and played and even the way he's dressed that seems purposely big and stylized and Old Hollywood. For reasons I won't explain here, even if I understood them, he doesn't sleep and he can't die, which is great for getting work done. But he seems less than happy about it.
"Dr. Who" itself, although basically child-friendly, can be both surprisingly tense and melancholic. Although it's often funny, "Torchwood" (an anagram of "Doctor Who," incidentally) pushes those qualities to the point that ordinary objects generate dread: An answering machine is photographed as if it were a weapon from space; the electric noise of a pinball machine from across a pub sounds like a sudden attack. At the same time, the fact that it's shot on video -- even though quite beautifully shot -- links it in a way to its low-budget forebears. As dark as it gets, it's still very much a run-around-and-shoot-'em-up sort of show.
Making up the rest of the Torchwood team are Burn Gorman (the aggressively obsequious William Guppy in the BBC's recent "Bleak House") as the medic; Naoko Mori as the computer whiz; Gareth David-Lloyd as the quietly stewing support staff/tea boy; and Gwen Cooper as Eve Myles, a local police officer whose Nancy Drew sleuthing leads her to join Torchwood. As the female lead, we expect her to hook up with Jack -- they both seem to understand this too -- but we root for her very nice and perfectly average boyfriend (Kai Owen) as well. It's one of the strengths of "Torchwood," and of British drama in general, that even in the grip of the fantastic it doesn't undervalue the ordinary.
Where: BBC America
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)