BBC America's "Torchwood" returns with a weeklong miniseries, "Children of Earth," that begins Monday with an adrenaline-fueled hour that's more thriller than sci-fi. For the uninitiated, it offers an uncomplicated entry point.
"Torchwood," a spin-off from the venerable "Dr. Who," has been on the air for two seasons, but this miniseries doesn't depend much on the accumulated knowledge of what's happened before. (A recap, "Torchwood: Inside the Hub," airs at 8 p.m. Monday anyway.)
All viewers really need to know is this: Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) is the indestructible leader of a secret project, Torchwood, formed in 1879 by the royal decree of Queen Victoria and tasked with protecting England from alien menaces and changes to come in the 21st century.
Monday's episode begins in 1965 Scotland as children stop what they're doing simultaneously. It's an eerie, "X-Files"-worthy introduction that quickly moves to the present when the same thing happens. Kids go catatonic and later begin chanting, "We are coming."
Starring: John Barrowman
Jack and his team begin their investigation from their underground bunker, which team member Gwen (Eve Myles) calls their "big science-fiction super-base." They soon find their efforts thwarted, possibly by the British government itself.
This first episode has brief nods to the deaths last season of two series regulars -- Owen and Toshiko -- and it acknowledges advances in the relationship between bisexual Jack and Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd). But more than anything it's a propulsive action-adventure.
Tuesday's episode offers somewhat less excitement -- it's largely a rescue mission -- but "Children of Earth" gets back on track Wednesday as aliens arrive and Jack makes what appears to be a shocking end-of-episode confession.
Largely written by executive producer/series creator Russell T. Davies ("Dr. Who," "Queer as Folk"), these new "Torchwood" episodes expand the show's universe, introducing relatives of the main characters -- including Jack's daughter and grandson -- and reveals a coming alien invasion to the general populace.
In a recent phone interview, Davies said the inspiration for a miniseries rather than a third season of "Torchwood" came when the show moved from a digital channel to BBC1 in England.
"They wanted to promote it with a splash," Davies said, noting that the miniseries aired in England the week of July 5. "We wanted to do it with a size and scale to it. Plus, I've never told a story in five parts over five nights, so it was like doing something new. I had had this story in mind, but I'd been too busy. Now was my chance to tell this story."
"Children of Earth" exposes Torchwood more widely and expands the show's setting to the realm of the British government.
"Torchwood used to be more special and exclusive and have their secrets about alien life, and now that's gone public and it puts our team on the back foot, everything is under public scrutiny and it becomes a lot more real," Davies said. "I worried Torchwood had become too powerful with their super-base and technology and their powerful, big car. It was time to strip all of that away and show who they were, characters under extreme duress. The show is not about technology or technobabble, it's about these people going through these extreme circumstances. The fact of that being public gives perspective and makes the viewer feel more connected. The whole world becomes part of the fiction."
He said it was too early to say what form "Torchwood" will take in the future.
"In this day and age with budgets, I think nothing on the BBC will be commissioned for 13 episodes, but I'll do whatever -- another six, eight or five. I'm confidant this show fits any format. I'm just crossing my fingers that we'll get to do more," Davies said, eager for ratings to roll in. "It's in the hands of the viewers, which is always a good place to be. They will decide."
When: 9-10:15 p.m. Monday through Friday, BBC America
Starring: John Barrowman (left)
Contact TV editor Rob Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.