The two-hour American premiere of the revived “Doctor Who” (Friday, March 17, at 9 p.m. on the Science Fiction Channel) may be first honest opportunity this long-running British series has really had to appeal to Americans — that is, beyond the usual oddball cultists. In its current incarnation, the show is accessible and fun, with just enough darkness to add to the tension and intrigue. The series is renowned for the unusual formula in which the main character — the Doctor — is portrayed by a succession of different actors over the years. The Doctor’s latest face, Christopher Eccleston, brings a manic intensity to the quirky hero, pulling as much inspiration from films like “Trainspotting” as it does the Doctor’s earlier incarnations. Eccleston skirts animatedly between delight and despair and, sometimes, imparts both at the same time.
“Doctor Who” began in the early 1960s as a children’s show about a mysterious old gentleman who brings various companions on trips through time and space in his time machine, an old London police box. The scripts and performances were of high quality and these standards were mostly retained throughout its 20-year run and are now vibrantly on display in the new version. In fact, Americans don’t even need to see any of the original series to enjoy this one.
As helmed by the versatile Russell P. Davies, creator of “Queer As Folk,” this 2005 version has the Doctor appearing out of nowhere in a department store basement in order to save Earth from a bunch of killer mannequins. As it happens, store clerk Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) is being attacked by those mannequins and, though the Doctor saves her in a brief encounter, their paths cross continually and Rose begins to see the Doctor as her ticket out of an aimless existence.
In the second part of the two-hour premiere, the Doctor decides to blow his wad at the beginning of the adventure by showing Rose the actual end of the world. Of course, it all goes awry and Rose gets her first lesson in such diverse items as universal sexuality and social orders and how these relate to the denizens of her home planet.
The series captures, with a great degree of sincerity, the same rollicking male/female adventure dynamic that films like “Austin Powers” lampoon — if the Doctor and Rose aren’t the John Steed and Emma Peel of our time, then I don’t know who are — and it’s this dynamic that makes the series shine. The Doctor, a displaced alien whose only remaining calling in life is to show off his knowledge of the universe, and Rose, a bored teenager desperately looking for a better way to live, not only need each other, but love each other’s company.
It’s an infectious relationship that rarely succumbs to the typical romantic television cliches. This is a tale of equals with different strengths. Davies has transformed the old children’s show into a fairly sophisticated drama that manages to hold different levels of interest for all ages.
The show is also high on satire and, throughout its 13-episode run, examines political and social issues — nationalism, isolationism, consumer culture, war, class, sexuality, and justice — with great humor. There are also echoes of 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the corporate-controlled media, as well as natural human complacency in regard to the big picture.
“Doctor Who” is clearly one of the smartest TV shows around, but it doesn’t decrease its enjoyment level through heavy-handedness. There are still plenty of aliens and monsters and space ships — and, in the Doctor, we oddballs still have a hero we can believe in.