A New ‘Doctor Who’ on Sci Fi Channel

Sci Fi Channel Adds the Highly Acclaimed 2005 British Series Doctor Who to Its Friday Night Lineup

Battlestar Galactica may be gone until summer, but Sci Fi Channel is offering a terrifically entertaining treat in its Friday time period that should prove similarly popular: All 13 episodes of the 2005 British sensation Doctor Who. It kicks off this Friday with a two-hour premiere beginning at 9 p.m. ET.

Fans of Galactica will find no similarities whatsoever between their much admired hit and the British smash, which is as bright and campy and comic as Galactica is dark and violent and deadly serious. But this new Who has proven equally capable of building a feverishly loyal fan base: A huge hit across the pond last year, it copped three prestigious National Television Awards (voted on by the British public): Most Popular Drama, Most Popular Actor and Most Popular Actress. The acting awards went to Christopher Eccleston, the ninth actor to play the time-traveling title character in this uncommonly durable program, and Billie Piper as Rose, the pretty Earth woman who accompanies him on his extreme adventures.

In another testament to the popularity of this franchise, several seasons were presented in the United States on public television stations in the ’80s and ’90s during pledge weeks and they proved most effective at bringing in the bucks. There was so much enthusiasm for the show that the special 20th anniversary episode titled The Five Doctors featuring four of the first five actors who portrayed the Doctor (and one recast) was telecast here in 1983 during a public television pledge week before it premiered on British television.

Anyone who may have sampled and rejected the super-cheap and cheesy early versions of Doctor Who is advised put aside past assessments and check out this new and much-improved series. The production values and special effects are much more impressive here and the stories are fast-paced and, at times, very funny. Russell T. Davies, the creator of the British series Queer as Folk and an executive producer of the long-running American version, wrote most of the episodes.

Remarkably, the first season of Doctor Who began more than 40 years ago. (Here’s a bizarre historical footnote: The first season debuted on November 22, 1963–the day before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.) It ran on the BBC from 1963-1989 with occasional gaps of differing durations (somewhat like HBO’s The Sopranos). I don’t know who has been in charge of the franchise over the years, or how often creative control has changed hands, but in a remarkable show of respect for longtime fans (and new fans that have become interested in the good Doctor along the way and sought out past seasons), the many different variations of the show over the decades have actually continued to tell one long story. The body of the title character–the last of an alien race of time travelers known as the Time Lords–periodically regenerates when he is near death, resulting in an entirely different looking person with a new persona. This has proven a very effective method for regularly casting new actors in the lead role whenever the actor in place has wanted to move on to other things. (Doctor Who loyalists already know that Eccleston chose to leave this new series after one season. At the end of the thirteenth hour, coming up in a few weeks, the character will regenerate once again, allowing David Tennant, Officer Peter Carlisle on the hit musical series Viva Blackpool, to become the eleventh Doctor. Another run of thirteen episodes starring Tennant is currently in production.)

The Doctor Who franchise is so well managed that even a stand-alone Who movie–which ran here on Fox in 1996–was made to fit into its timeline. (Paul McGann played the eighth Doctor in that production.)

This brand new Who should be a perfect Friday night diversion not only for longtime fans but for kids, teens and anyone interested in the kind of big-fun escapist entertainment rarely seen on television these days. In the first episode, an alien brings plastic mannequins to murderous life in the basement of a major department store. In the second, the Doctor and Rose travel five billion years into the future to a space station in which filthy rich aliens from across the galaxy have gathered to watch the sun finally expand and incinerate Earth. The jaded observers include one Lady Cassandra, the last human alive, who has had so much plastic surgery she is simply a face on a stretched piece of skin suspended in a frame. She’s rude, ruthless and central to the exciting, wistful, thoughtful story.

Future storylines include an attack by aliens (their spaceship demolishes part of Big Ben before crash-landing in the Thames River) who develop serious flatulence issues after taking over human bodies and a trip to a space station that serves as the setting for a Big Brother-like futuristic reality series.

Though it is dramatically different from Sci Fi’s usual ultra-serious Friday night fare, this Doctor Who is the very definition of order-a-pizza-and-kick-back Friday night television. It’s like a Lost in Space or Star Trek for our times and a welcome reminder that entertaining science fiction comes in many different formats.