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We'll always have freebooting

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Torchwood is stronger on style than story

How do you resist a show whose first spoken line is "have you seen a blowfish driving a sports car?" The question is addressed by the occupants of a speeding taxi to an old lady at a pedestrian crosswalk, and her reply is in the affirmative. Indeed, we ourselves have just seen her seeing it. She doesn't appear in the least fazed either by the question or by the vision that occasioned it. All she says, in a tone of familiar resignation, is 'bloody Torchwood." It seems this kind of thing happens all the time in Cardiff, Wales.

Torchwood is a sci-fi series from BBC Wales, named for an elite five-person force ("separate from the government, outside the police, and — the ultimate cachet — "beyond the United Nations") dedicated to preventing aliens from taking over the Earth, a threat that presents itself regularly once a

week. The crew, which resembles an elite franchise of Ghost-busters, is headquartered in Cardiff because that town, or a sliver of it, sits astride "a rift in time and space." (And I used to put it all down to those ethereal Welsh accents.) It's also where the aliens, showing remarkable consideration, always seem to launch their attacks.

The show is announced as a spinoff of the venerated kids'-series-turned-cult-classic Doctor Who. How and how far it has spun, I couldn't say, not having watched the parent show in years. Even with Torchwood itself I'm a bit out of touch, since what's about to hit our screens is the second season, and I've never seen the first. However, it's fairly easy to latch on to, and the show is obliging about supplying background information.

7brchwood is the brainchild of Russell T. Davies, who was also the creator of Queer as Folk. (It shows.) Its protagonist is Captain Jack Harkness, who's a cross between Jack Bauer and Batman, but with a sense of humour. He's glamorously played by John Barrow-man, best known for his work in musicals and most recently seen in these parts as the acting coach on How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? Jack is kind of an alien himself but has seen the light. He still has unearthly powers: "I can't die, ever," he says, which rather spoils the suspense if you ask me. Of course, your average superhero never dies, but it's always a comfort to feel that he just conceivably might.

Jack is also hungrily bisexual, but if you're going to live forever it obviously makes sense to try everything. Episode 1 ("Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang") brings him up against an extraterrestrial ex-companion, and ex-lover, Captain John Hart (James Marsters, once of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and hence in congenial territory). Apart from seeking power and riches for himself, Captain John wants to woo Captain Jack back to their old existence, freebooting around the galaxies. "How can you stay tied to one placer he asks, casting a contemptuous eye on the lights of downtown Cardiff. But Jack, it seems, is not to be tempted from his principles. "I worked my way up through the ranks," he boasts, to which his former buddy replies, "I'm sure the ranks were very grateful."

This episode is stronger on style than on story. The techies (not trekkies) on Jack's team are chock full of unlikely data, but their efforts to explain themselves tend to be drowned out by the constant whooshing noises on the soundtrack. Also they mumble, very fast. I got the drift but not the details. Still, nobody on screen seemed to be taking it very seriously. The most prominent among Jack's subordinates, meaning the one most regularly exposed to threats of a violent end, is Gwen (Eve Myles), a sensitive ex-copper. My favourite, though, is the wonderfully named Burn Gorman; I very much liked his performance as the earnest Mr. Guppy in Bleak House and was therefore delighted to find him repeating it here, in the guise of a keen-as-mustard medic. I'm not sure why he and his chums travel by taxi, but maybe it's meant to sound an ironically comforting everyday note, like Dr. Who's phone booth. The blowfish, by the way, turns out to be a red herring.

I preferred Episode Two ("Sleeper") which introduces us to an alien with human interest. She, given a lovely performance by Nikki Amuka-Bird, is an apparently normal and loving young wife, torn between her acquired and inherent natures: think Third Rock from the Sun, played straight. The invaders in this one really mean business, rolling up their sleeves to get to work, they reveal horrendous canal-like abrasions, wherein reside all their malevolence. (They're probably also good for flashing at reunions.) This being a BBC show, I was taken back to what may have been the Beeb's first attempt at science fiction, a real macabre masterpiece, done live at that, called The Quatermass Experiment with which I was unwisely left alone when I was a smallish child. There was a traumatizing moment in that one when a character removed the coat wrapped over his hand to reveal that the hand had turned into a cactus. Yes, he was an alien plant. I've never screamed so loud in my life. Looking back, though, the continuity between then and now seems almost reassuring. Here we are in the 21st century, a point of which Torchwood makes a very big deal, and the extraterrestrials still want to take us over. It's nice to know that we're still desirable. 1 The second season of Torchwood premieres tomorrow at 10 p.m. on Space.

Caption: It only took 45 years of Doctor Who for producers to dream up this spinoff featuring John Barrowman.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Cushman, Robert (2008-08-07). We'll always have freebooting. National Post p. AL3.
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