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Doctor Who Comes To SCI FI...

Ask the average guy on the street about Doctor Who and you'll get the obvious dumb joke in response. Maybe the more clever will riff on the Abbott & Costello routine. Despite years of on and off syndication in the U.S. (not always on PBS), the BBC series hasn't really penetrated the mainstream consciousness here, though many have dim memories of horribly cheap-looking special effects.

This Friday, March 17, that will change as the SCI FI channel imports a new Doctor Who for American audiences. They're gambling that fans of the just finished for the season Battlestar Galactica will tune in to that timeslot and get hooked. If I could lay money on it, I'd join SCI FI in that gamble.

After a more than fifteen year absence from the BBC (though ten years ago Fox did a TV movie), the show was revived, remade and reborn last year by producer Russell T. Davies, who also created the original British version of Queer as Folk.

Just in case absence hadn't made the heart grow fonder, Davies made sure that the show had higher production values than ever before, or perhaps it's simply a reflection of how easy it is to make cheap look damned good in the CG age. But it isn't just the effects that have gotten better.

The show always had a surfeit of imagination and a fun sense of storytelling, but modern audiences' tastes have grown a bit more sophisticated. For genre fans especially, a show benefits from tight continuity and a sense that maybe these guys know where they're going with this. Of course, in the wake of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we also like wit and earth-shattering disaster leavened with fun.

Doctor Who has all that in spades. Nodding to the work of Whedon, perhaps, this series also has an over-arcing unseen Big Bad called, naturally enough, Bad Wolf.

If you never watched Doctor Who, this new show won't leave you scratching your head. The Doctor (never actually called Doctor Who) becomes an unfolding mystery to the other characters and audience alike. Much of his important back story happened completely off-camera, and the weight of it informs Christopher Eccleston's portrayal without it ever becoming explicitly clear. (Maybe because the event was so huge it's unfilmable, or maybe because Davies understands that only knowing the consequences adds depth to characterization.)

The whole thing gets experienced from the human perspective of Rose Tyler, played by British pop star Billie Piper. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Rose gets rescued from mobile mannequins by a leather-clad stranger who grasps her hand and urges, "run!" Yet he still has a slightly manic smile on his face.

He pops up later at the apartment Rose shares with her mother Jackie (Camille Coduri). Though this initial adventure only takes the Doctor and Rose as far as under the streets of London, it holds a lot more promise once he offers to take her through space and time in his TARDIS.

Loosely held together by an arc, the episodes take Rose mostly through time. Though the pair often battle aliens, it's in the form of invasions at various points in history (and the future), but never too simplistic.

Even the appearance of a Dalek, the Doctor's most infamous foes, has an edge of poignancy. What happens when mortal enemies meet only to discover they're the last of their kind? Do they even have a reason to fight anymore?

Rose humanizes this Doctor, and the series flirts with sexual tension that doesn't feel forced. Though alien himself, the Doctor comes to respect and admire his human companion in a way that Eccleston plays as accidental. The character suffers survivor's guilt and tries to sublimate it in fun and adventure, but he can't stop caring.

Along the way, Rose picks up and drops off a few boyfriends, none more dynamic than Captain Jack (John Barrowman), a "Time Agent" who shows up halfway through. Roguish but appealing, Jack gives a jolt of energy to an already high-octane show, and will get his own spin-off series (as yet unfilmed), Torchwood.

The best companion, though, is Charles Dickens (played by noted Dickens expert Simon Callow), who helps the Doctor and Rose fight "The Unquiet Dead," which has to be the most genuinely frightening episode of Doctor Who. The title probably gives you a clue as to why, and it's this willingness to push the envelope without compromising on charm that makes the show a winner.

If Doctor Who has any problem, it's that once you reach the end you'll immediately want to see the next season. (Anthony Stewart Head from Buffy the Vampire Slayer makes an appearance in the "upcoming episodes" clips.) You're going to have to wait a while, though it's clear this is a show that will reward repeated viewings.

Tune in Friday night, and don't be afraid of the (Big) Bad Wolf.

When and Where:
Friday nights at 9 p.m. SCI FI Network. At least for the time being, they're running two episodes back-to-back starting March 17.

Derek McCaw

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