The cast of 'Torchwood'

The cast of 'Torchwood'

Fox Mulder had it wrong. When it comes to understanding aliens, the truth isn't out there; it's in -- Wales?

The Welsh capital city of Cardiff is the setting for "Torchwood," the sexy new sci-fi series premiering Saturday, Sept. 8, on BBC America. A spinoff (and anagram) of "Doctor Who," "Torchwood" stars John Barrowman as iconic hero Capt. Jack Harkness, the enigmatic leader of a team of investigators who use scavenged alien technology to solve crime.

Handsome and clever, Captain Jack has traveled back from his own time in the distant future to the present day, where he frequently unnerves his co-workers with the phrase he repeats like a mantra: "The 21st century is when everything changes -- and you've gotta be ready."

Captain Jack also apparently can't be killed. And, when it comes to amorous dalliances, well -- in the words of a colleague -- "He'll shag anything if it's gorgeous."

"In episode two, we have an alien who survives by feeding off energy from orgasms," Barrowman reveals. "We have boy-on-boy, girl-on-girl, boy-on-boy-and-girl, human-on-alien -- every type of sexuality within the 'Torchwood' sci-fi world. And one of the wonderful things is we don't look at it as being weird. It's very matter-of-fact. We're a group of young, sexually available human beings."

That's not to suggest that the show is "The XXX-Files," adds executive producer Julie Gardner, who points out that the various liaisons on the series grow out of the situations in which these characters find themselves.

"The idea was that they are a really young, sexy, fun, clever team who every single week risks their lives trying to save the world," Gardner says. "It's like a pressure-cooker environment. In that world, you want to fancy your colleagues. You want to go to work, and you're going to spend 24 hours a day there: Let's just have sexual tension as you save the world!"

Series creator Russell T. Davies actually had the idea for "Torchwood" even before he began working on his brilliant reinvention of the "Doctor Who" franchise currently airing on both the Sci Fi Channel and BBC America. It was only after Captain Jack, a role created with Barrowman in mind, was introduced in a five-episode story arc on "Doctor Who," however, that Davies saw the character as a logical link to the other series.

"When the character of Jack was introduced in episode nine of series one of 'Doctor Who,' he wasn't liked very much in the beginning, and I intentionally wanted that," Barrowman explains. "I wanted people to see the change he went through over those five episodes, becoming more in love with humanity and the people he was around, becoming a better person. When that happened, when the audience fell for Jack, I think that's when they decided that he would be the leader of this new show."

"Torchwood" has been a critical and audience smash in the United Kingdom, where Captain Jack has become a TV icon rivaling the Doctor himself. In the United States, the Scots-born Barrowman, 40, is best known as a highly regarded musical theater star, but TV stardom has been more elusive.

Born in Glasgow, Barrowman moved to Illinois with his family in 1976.

"My father was at that time a plant manager of a Caterpillar tractor company in Joliet, Ill.," the actor says. "He was the first non-American citizen to be employed to run an American corporation. He was honored by Ronald Reagan, and it was a big deal for my parents to come over here."

When his new classmates made fun of his Scottish burr, Barrowman began polishing what would become a pitch-perfect American accent, although he lapses into Scots when at home with his family. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1985 ("I'm proud of that," he says), although he remains a British subject as well.

In 1989, Barrowman moved back to London to study Shakespeare but unexpectedly landed a job starring opposite musical star Elaine Paige when he attended an open audition on a whim, the start of his long and distinguished theater career.

His first American TV series gig was the ill-fated 1995-96 CBS nighttime soap opera "Central Park West."

"The writing wasn't as great as it could have been, and the focus was kind of off," he recalls. "They kept telling me not to smile. I thought, 'Why? Is it really all about smiling at the end of the day?' But it was a great experience and gave me a taste of American television."

He had a happier experience playing a dapper villain in the 2000-01 NBC flop "Titans," where he was ecstatic to find former "Dallas" star Victoria Principal playing his TV mom. In the large cast, moreover, Barrowman was virtually the only actor who clearly understood how to handle the show's campy dialogue and situations.

"I grew up with that stuff," he says. "I read [the script] and I got it. I understood that it was camp, over-the-top drama, and you have to play it in that manner, but believably. I am a product of 'Dallas,' 'Dynasty,' all those '80s dramas we all watched, so as an actor, I desperately wanted to do one of them.

"Once Aaron [Spelling] and the other producers saw what I was doing with the material, directors would come in and see something I'd do in rehearsal and say, 'Oh, I don't know if we can do that,' but someone would take them aside and say, 'Mr. Spelling says that John has free rein to do what he likes because it works.' I overheard that one day and thought, 'How f***ing great is that?!' "

Between "Central Park West" and "Titans," Barrowman came oh, so close to landing the role of Will Truman in "Will & Grace" before network executives deemed the openly gay actor "not gay enough."

"I actually took it as kind of a compliment, that they didn't find me stereotypical," he says in hindsight. "It also probably boiled down to the American public not being able to accept a gay man playing a gay man. It'll be a nice little three-quarters of a chapter in my autobiography."

That autobiography, "Anything Goes," is due to be published in early 2008.