The fiercely loyal fans of British sci-fi character Doctor Who have had a long wait to see their hero back on the small screen. While there are bound to be dissenting voices, the BBC looks like it has got the elements in place to re-establish this cult classic. The Beeb’s hefty marketing campaign hyped the return of the Time Lord, pitching the Easter Saturday bow of the 13-episode series as a must-see television event. While the opener — titled “Rose” — didn’t quite meet expectations, it did grab a 44% share and almost 10 million viewers. It also hints at great things to come and breathes welcome life into a great character. As far as prospects abroad, it is a series that can easily travel and makes for easy fantasy viewing for all ages.
The good doctor first made his appearance on British television back on Nov. 23, 1963, when the series was pitched as a semi-educational program featuring a character named the Doctor who could travel through time and space and visit historical events.
The shrewd sci-fi twist was that, as an alien from the planet Gallifrey, the Doctor could regenerate into another body, allowing easy transition between actors over the years and enabling program makers to smartly shift tone and style to suit each version.
The series was pulled in 1989, but lobbying — and hefty sales of back catalog DVDs — finally convinced the BBC to give the Doctor another chance (the less said about an ill-fated movie version in 1996 the better).
The ninth incarnation of the Doctor is played by Christopher Eccleston, an impressive actor best known for more serious-minded fare, while sidekick Rose (the doctor has always had a feisty female sidekick, it seems to be included in his job description) is played by Billie Piper, a teen singer-turned-actress. There had been much Internet fanboy muttering over the casting, but Eccleston plays the role for laughs and shows an engaging charm and playfulness not previously evident in his work; Piper is sweet, gritty and grungily sexy.
The opening episode establishes Rose as a London shopgirl who bumps into the Doctor by accident as he battles an alien villain bent on world domination by controlling plastic — cue lots of shop-window dummies attacking innocent families. It is a lightweight storyline that is poorly paced at times, particularly its unexciting climax. But the entire purpose is to throw the Doctor and Rose together so they can head off for more adventures in his TARDIS — an acronym for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space — the travel device cunningly disguised as a 1950s police box.
Lead writer Russell T. Davies (best known for the original U.K. “Queer as Folk” series) smartly establishes Rose as very much an ordinary girl (no posh accents here) seeking to escape a humdrum life. Eccleston’s slightly eccentric Doctor eschews the costume quirks of previous incarnations (floppy hats, long scarves or cricketing jumpers have featured heavily over the years) and opts for the black leather jacket look.
The opener is speedily edited, nicely shot with high-quality special effects (and without the wobbly sets that were the trademark of earlier series) and makes extremely good use of London locations and icons, including red buses and the London Eye, which doubles as an alien transmitter.
Other episode writers include Steven Moffat (who created and wrote “Coupling”) and Mark Gattiss (of the comedy “League of Gentlemen” team), while directors include Joe Ahearne (who wrote and directed “This Life” and “Ultraviolet”).
Subsequent episodes will feature guest stars including Simon Pegg from “Shaun of the Dead” and Simon Callow as Victorian author Charles Dickens.
But the most eagerly awaited appearance will come from the evil Daleks — the doctor’s robot adversaries best known for their catchphrase “Exterminate!” and much joked upon inability to climb stairs. In this series, the Daleks have sorted out this problem by being able to hover.
This latest incarnation of “Doctor Who” is a wry fantasy hero who should appeal to all generations — from those who grew up watching the early series to a younger generation with higher expectations in terms of special f/x and more sophisticated storylines.