Torchwood: Miracle Day starts tonight on Starz, bringing the Doctor Who spin-off to a new world, a brand new channel and, everyone involved hopes, a wider audience. So, for all those discovering the show for the first time, what is Torchwood all about?
What Is Torchwood (The Series)?
A 2006 spinoff from Doctor Who, created by the man responsible for that show's resurrection as something more clearly aimed at the adults in the audience, Torchwood's first two seasons are notable more for their uneven quality than anything else. There's definitely a sense of the show finding its feet and dealing with its ambition outstripping its abilities in the first season and, I'd argue, the majority of the second, as well. For all that, if you can imagine a goofier, more horny X-Files, you've pretty much got the idea behind the first couple of years of Torchwood; for the show's third season, everything changed, including the format of the series: Out went the goofiness (for the most part) and the horniness (again, for the most part), and in came something more in tune with Battlestar Galactica's grimness and seriousness, but what remained was the idea that the Doctor was far from the only person saving the world from the impossible -- or, at least, trying to.
(And for those wondering why "Torchwood": It's an anagram of "Doctor Who." No, really.)
What Is Torchwood (The Organization)?
Torchwood-- or, to give it its full title, the Torchwood Institute -- is a secret British governmental organization created in 1879 to defend the Earth from extraterrestrial threats, with a secondary mission to reverse-engineer alien technology in an attempt to give Britain a technological advantage that would return the British Empire to its former glory -- a secondary mission that even some members of Torchwood don't know about.
Established on the order of Queen Victoria, following a meeting with the Doctor in the 19th century, the organization works in secret for more than a century before failing to protect the world from an invasion from Cybermen from an alternate dimension and being closed down by royal decree in 2007. However, two satellite Torchwood hubs remained in operation for some time -- Torchwood Two, based in Scotland, and Torchwood Three, the operation the series revolves around, in Wales. By the end of the third season, both of those hubs have essentially ceased operation.
Do I Need To Have Seen Doctor Who To Understand The Show?
Not at all. In fact, Torchwood probably works better if you're not that into Doctor Who, because it removes the "Wait, why isn't the Doctor appearing right now to save the day?" feeling from every episode (especially the third season, which also feels too nihilistic to really fit into the Who universe). Even without the series essentially rebooting itself with the move to America in this new season, it's pretty much a plug-and-play show: "They're an organization that keeps track of aliens on Earth. Go."
What's All This About Captain Jack, Anyway?
The central character of Torchwood -- well, one of two; Gwen Cooper is the other, but her backstory is easily explained away as "Sensible cop who joins the team after getting mixed up with one of their cases" -- Captain Jack Harkness came to the show from appearances on Doctor Who, where he continued to appear irregularly right up until showrunner (and Torchwood creator) Russell T Davies left the series. He has two particular characteristics: He is bisexual and he is immortal. These are not linked, but both tend to get mentioned a lot.
Where Do I Start?
Honestly, ignore the first season and just jump into the second; things are still trending towards the silly and melodramatic at times, but it's not quite reached the depressing inevitability of the mini-series third season, Torchwood: Children of Earth, and there is something very appealing about the gleeful thinning of the ranks the show goes through as it decides who it's going to keep around.