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Wales is having a moment. Much of the BBC’s current and wildly popular iteration of Doctor Who is shot in and around Cardiff, doubling for London. There’s another BBC series that does the country one better, inspiring Wales’s transformation, in the words of one Times Online commentator, "from overlooked Celtic cousin to underwired erotic coquette." That show is the dark, sly and sexy Torchwood (Saturdays, BBC America). It is set and shot in a dim, damp Cardiff teeming not with horny choirgirls — the way I remember Cardiff from a high-school trip to a music festival — but with the next best thing: extraterrestrial beings who slip through a rift in space and time that happens to run through the city.


Torchwood (an anagram of "Doctor Who," from whence it spun off) is an ultra-special-ops unit of six investigators — "separate from the government, outside the police, beyond the U.N." — who track alien incidents in the city and look particularly hot in the rain. In the process, they scavenge extra-terrestrial technology to prepare humans for the next big bang. "The twenty-first century is when it all changes," warns Torchwood‘s boss, the charismatic enigma Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). He’s an American from the fifty-first century whose past and future appear to be equally checkered. "We’ve got to be ready." (British audiences were ready: it debuted in the U.K. to record ratings.)

Otherworldly beings walking among us, underground Scooby gangs, sophisticated humor, imminent apocalypse: yes, Torchwood is Buffy with aliens, Angel with gadgets, The X-Files with funny accents. That’s no accident. Executive producer Julie Gardner and head writer Russell T. Davies (Doctor Who, Queer as Folk) have credited those shows (along with Smallville and Battlestar Galactica) as inspiration. But what sets Torchwood apart — aside from the team’s super-tricked-out underground hideout; this is not Willow at her Mac, people — is the sex. Lots of sex. Actual sex, and plenty of innuendo, much of it among team members. Borderline sexual harassment, speaking of which. There is ongoing speculation about Captain Jack’s orientation: "Period military is not the dress code of a straight man," says louche genius Dr. Owen Harper (Burn Gorman). "He’ll shag anything if it’s gorgeous enough," adds lady techie Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori). There is some serious mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, performed by Jack on team lackey-with-a-secret Ianto Jones (Gareth David Lloyd). There is girl-on-girl-possessed-by-alien-who-feeds-on-human-orgasm action. Sex (with the same alien) ends with the man actually dissolving to dust. (Captain Jack: "He came . . . and went.")

In reference to this preponderance of sex, reviews of Torchwood tend to label the show an "adult Doctor Who" and leave it at that. But all the shagging signifies much more than the show’s original post-9 p.m. timeslot. The constant thrum of desire is central to Torchwood‘s theme: the tension between the need for intimacy and the danger, perceived or otherwise, of getting too close. When police officer Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) joins the crew in episode one, it’s made clear that she’ll be a humanizing influence on the team, who spends so much time underground that they’re not sure how to have it any way other than furtive and fleeting. "How do you switch off from all this stuff? What do you do to relax?" Gwen asks Owen (who, in a major violation of house rules, takes home some sort of alien cologne that causes both men and women to jump his bones). His answer: "I torture people in happy relationships."

What’s especially interesting is that the show resists the implication that happy relationships are better than casual snogs — or even possible. Two other early episodes demonstrate the palpable danger of getting too involved, especially when your girlfriend has become half-cyborg and is threatening, quite plausibly, to destroy the human race. And tellingly, the show suggests that even when humans achieve the ultimate contact — evidence that we are not alone in the universe — they turn their backs. "I’ll tell you what I don’t understand. You’re going to rattle on with that ‘How can this be true?’ kind of shtick. What’s it going to take for you people?" Jack asks Gwen, referencing an alien attack occurring on Doctor Who that, narratively speaking, helped seed the existence of Torchwood. Replies Gwen: "Psychotropic drugs [in the water supply] causing mass hallucinations."

Ah, humans, Torchwood seems to say. We fear being alone. But we’ll find a way.  

Lynn Harris is author of the satirical novel Death By Chick Lit and its prequel, Miss Media, as well as co-creator of the award-winning website BreakupGirl.net. A regular contributor to Glamour, Salon, The New York Times, Babble and many others, she also writes the "Rabbi’s Wife" column for Nextbook.org. Visit her at LynnHarris.net.