The third season of "Torchwood," the "Doctor Who" spinoff about a team of supra-government agents fighting aliens and monsters in and around Cardiff, Wales, has been conceived as a single-story, five-night event, "Torchwood: Children of Earth." (It begins tonight on BBC America and runs through the week.) I take that title as a play on the old alien greeting, "People of Earth," though the substitution betokens something more chilling.
The dramatic, traumatic end of Season 2 saw the death of Torchwood agents Owen (Burn Gorman) and Toshiko (Naoko Mori). Now they are three: immortal man from the future Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), ultra-serious yet deeply sensitive computer guy Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) and soulful leather-jacketed action heroine Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles). We join them on a day when all the children of the world begin to chant, "We are coming."
It isn't giving too much away to say that the "we" talking through the kids is alien and where it's coming from is outer space. Considering the four seasons of the re-nascent "Doctor Who" and two of "Torchwood" that precede "Children of Earth," nobody on the screen or watching should expect anything else. There are plenty of other surprises in store, however; the first episode is so full of misdirection that to describe it at all is possibly to say too much.
But I will at least tell you that Ianto and Jack are exploring, or not exploring, their relationship, and that Gwen and doughy regular-guy husband Rhys (Kai Owen) are looking at buying a house. (It makes me happy that "Torchwood" has not killed him off, as had once been planned, as insufficiently glamorous.) And though this is a show known for pan-sexual heavy breathing, everyone will be too busy this week to really get busy.
Much of the plot takes the form of a government conspiracy thriller, into which is embedded a drama about a midlevel civil servant (the very fine Peter Capaldi). The script plays thematically with class attitudes and Britain's vestigial sense of self-importance. But there is also a lot of running and shooting and typing really fast on computer keyboards.
"Children of Earth" includes the first "Torchwood" scripts its creator Russell T. Davies has penned since the pilot. Some of his choices have angered viewers in the U.K., where the series has already aired -- their curses may be read all over Twitter -- but none is out of character for "Torchwood," which has always been heavy on dark themes and collateral damage.
Indeed, "Children of Earth," which tries realistically to imagine what sort of moral resolve you can maintain in the face of an enemy you have no clear way to beat, can be seen as a kind of comment on the way that sci-fi often avoids a tough choice with a last-minute deus ex machina. (Or just a lot of rockets.) Although the new series resorts to technobabble at the end, it at least makes it dramatically relevant, and costly. It's a conclusion that seemed to me both contrived and honest, if that makes any sense, and it left me disturbed, though not, as "Doctor Who" often has, a sobbing wreck.
Given that it's basically a five-hour feature film, it's not surprising that the series flags around night four. (It recovers.) Not all of it makes sense, and the ending feels rushed, but the spell largely holds, no small thanks to the crisp direction of Euros Lyn and a supporting cast that includes Cush Jumbo as a Nancy Drew figure, Katy Wix as Ianto's sister, Liz May Brice as a government hit woman and Ian Gelder as a self-preserving old technician. The alien is beautifully presented and quite frightening, and its motivation when revealed is a genuine shock -- yet, of course, brilliantly familiar. For nothing alien is inhuman to Russell Davies.
'Torchwood: Children of Earth'
Where: BBC America
When: 6 and 9 tonight
Rating: Not rated