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‘Doctor Who’ braces for new world

New showrunner, lead actor for long-running sci-fi hit

Who continues to grab ratings wherever he goes? You betcha.

After four seasons airing in the States first on SyFy and then months later on BBC America, venerable sci-fi/fantasy show “Doctor Who” has moved over entirely to the Beeb’s tiny U.S. network, where it has become one of the net’s top-rated shows.

But now, series rejuvenator Russell T. Davies is leaving the show, and Steven Moffat, who penned memorable “Who” episodes during Davies’ run, is stepping into one of the most coveted jobs in British TV. His reimagining of “Who” is important to the legacy of the long-running series, but also to BBC America, which is looking to stake its claim as the U.S. destination for British science fiction.

Though the current version of “Who” began in 2005, the program has been on and off the air since 1963, when William Hartnell originated the famous role. Moffat’s revamped version will premiere April 3 on BBC1 in the U.K., with an April 17 airdate on BBC America — and now that the net has the first U.S. window, it’s treating the Moffat incarnation like a whole new show.

It’s really important for us to have that first window,” says BBCA programming principal Richard De Croce. “And it’s great to have it on one of the BBC superbrands.”

BBC America had previously aired first windows of adult-centric “Who” spinoff “Torchwood” — created as a result of Davies’ runaway success with the flagship series in the U.K. But for four years, the net had to run “Doctor Who” months behind its Syfy premiere.

Besides its own spin-offs (including related kids’ show “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” also aired on Syfy), “Who” has also inadvertently helped to create a new wave of British sci-fi and fantasy series, including the BBC’s own comedy/horror series “Being Human” and ITV’s “Primeval” (which airs opposite “Who” in the U.K.). “Human” is getting an American incarnation on Syfy, and Akiva Goldsman and Kerry Foster are set to produce a bigscreen version of “Primeval.”

Suddenly, the Doctor’s handlers are competing with the fruits of his success.

I think we have a lot to do with why the show’s popular in the U.S.,” De Croce says. “We’ve done a lot to promote the specials, and the new series is going to be top priority for the channel.”

That means producing U.S.-only content for the show, and De Croce says fans will see a lot more of that. Lots of Web content, for one thing, and new ways of preventing nerddom’s first resource for hard-to-catch shows — piracy — from compromising the net’s bottom line. “That’s one reason that we try not to have too much of a lag between the U.K. airdate and the U.S. airdate,” De Croce says. The episodes also become available on iTunes in the U.S. after they’ve aired on BBCA.

So how will Moffat’s series be different from Davies’? “Everyone always asks that and I never know what to say,” Moffat says ruefully. “The phrase we keep using is ‘dark fairy tales’ and it’s maybe a bit strange. Since Dr. Who came back, there are now a lot of competing fantasy series, and we have to stay ahead of the curve.”

For his part, Moffat says the priority for the all-new, all-different “Doctor Who” will be to make the show as accessible as possible. “People don’t like to think they’re watching a ruddy sequel,” Moffat observes. “They like to think they’re watching a first episode. It’s important to cater to the casual viewer, and to keep the show accessible and have sort of a lighter arc throughout the series.”

That balance, Moffat says, is a delicate one; Davies was bullish on multipart stories and recurring characters. “You don’t want to say, ‘I’ve got a 42-year-plan and it’ll be good fun in 16 years time,’ ” Moffat cautions. “It’s got to be fun now.”

Bestselling author Neil Gaiman, who is set to pen an upcoming seg of the show and is an avowed fan, thinks that Moffat, who left a high-profile gig writing Steven Spielberg’s “Tintin” movies for “Who,” is suited to the job. “Steve Moffatt wrote six of the 10 best episodes of the last 10 years,” Gaiman says flatly. “And he wrote ‘Blink,’ which may be said to be the best episode in the series.” The episode Gaiman references won two BAFTAs and the sci-fi community’s prestigious Hugo Award.

The latest actor to play the Doctor, Matt Smith, probably describes the whacked-out sci-fi/fantasy skein best. “You’re not bound by the laws of time or logic or space or drama,” he says. “You can show up in New York and get into the first cab you come across and the cab driver can turn into a giant pink elephant called Clive and you’re off!”

The 26-year-old Smith isn’t a stranger to TV — he starred in BBC adaptations of “Golden Compass” novelist Philip Pullman’s “The Ruby in the Smoke” and “The Shadow in the North,” among others — but this is by far his biggest role. The part of the Doctor carries some instant celebrity with it, and Smith says the audition process was as cloak-and-dagger as the show itself. “There was a lot of secrecy,” he says. “You had to sign into hotels under different names, and of course you could tell no one about it.”

Smith represents Moffat’s biggest challenge: The writer/helmer is bullish on the young thesp — fiercely so, even — but Smith will be stepping into the shoes of David Tennant, an actor whose turn as the Doctor was critically lauded almost as loudly as his “Hamlet” on the West End. For five years, Tennant offered the show real star power, and it’s inevitable that some of it will leave with him.

In the U.S., “Who” fandom is notable more for its enthusiasm than its size, but the audience is clearly growing. The finale of the Davies run on BBC America was the net’s first telecast ever to surpass 1 million viewers, and the net obviously hopes Moffat’s tenure on the show will mean more of the same.

But Moffat says change is definitely coming. “It really is not me just taking over from Russell,” he cautions. “It’s always quite out-there, but now we have a license to go even wilder and bigger.”

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