Friday, March 10, 2006

The Second Coming

The U.S. SciFi Channel premiere of the new Doctor Who series is one week from tonight. On March 17th at 8PM (CST), you can catch the first two episodes, “Rose” & “The End of the World”, back to back. And if you miss them, they’ll be on again from 10-Midnight. And if you miss those showings, there’ll be others throughout the week. Check the SciFi Schedulebot and type in “Doctor Who” (Times are Eastern) or just set your Tivo.

Since this “new” series is actually a year old (it premiered on the BBC last spring), most die-hard Who-fans (myself included) have already seen all thirteen episodes. The point here is not to get the die-hards to tune in, but to get those of you who’ve never watched or even heard of Doctor Who to check it out and experience the latest incarnation of the greatest science-fiction-fantasy TV series ever created. Um, obviously…your mileage may vary.

To many people weaned on the FX work of Star Wars and beyond, old Doctor Who can look kind of silly, and objectively speaking, it often is…but if you look past the dodgy effects, frequent use of videotape and sometimes campy overacting, there are more often than not some incredible ideas on display in the series. As a fan since the age of 13, it was always difficult (impossible?) for the young me to show people what it was about the show that made it so great. It required some patience, an attention span and a huge imagination. These qualities were in short supply back in the 80s.

Enter the 2005 version of Who, which is a straight-up continuation of the old series. But you never watched the old series, right? You needn’t have. A huge strength of the new is that it requires absolutely no knowledge of the old to get what’s going on. Everything you need to understand the concept of Doctor Who is set up in the first 45-minute episode, “Rose”, and much like yourself, the setup is seen through the eyes of an outsider: 19 year-old Rose Tyler (Billie Piper).

Rose enters the world of the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), in a way not dissimilar to how many have: by being in the wrong place at the right time. She’s in the basement of the department store where she works and without any warning, the mannequins around her spring to life and menacingly begin moving in her direction. A stranger suddenly appears, grabs her hand, and issues the most simple of commands: “Run!”

And they do run…for 13 episodes there’s quite the diverse collection of aliens and creatures to keep running from. But lest you think this is just a collection of action set pieces and special effects (the effects work is now as good as most any other TV sci-fi), Doctor Who has an immense amount of heart, wit, humor and class. It’s an adventure, it’s got some minor social commentary and due to the show’s flexible format (an alien with the ability to travel anywhere in time and space), it’s anyone’s guess what’s coming next.

Doctor Who isn’t like much other recent sci-fi TV. It’s bears no resemblance to Star Trek in any if its incarnations. It lacks the seriousness of the new Battlestar Galactica. It doesn’t have the politics of Babylon 5. It isn’t as complicated or weird as Farscape. My friend Bart put it best after viewing “Rose” for the first time: “Above all, this series is fun.”

It’s been suggested that Buffy was a major influence on the new Who, but that’s a call I can’t make. I’ve seen only a handful of Buffy episodes, so I’m hardly an authority. It is interesting to note, however, that an episode of the second season of Doctor Who (which is set to begin on the BBC shortly) guest stars Buffy alum Anthony Stewart Head (Giles). Take that for what it may or may not be worth.

It also seems to have taken a few cues from the Harry Potter movies, if for no other reason than it plays to a very wide audience. In England, the premiere episode captured a whopping 40% of the viewing audience and the numbers for subsequent episodes indicated only very insignificant drops. After the first two episodes played, the BBC commissioned two further seasons and two Christmas specials. Kids are watching it for the first time and adults who grew up on the old series are watching it alongside the kids. It’s become a true family-viewing experience, which is outstanding, because on broadcast TV, that's become the rarest commodity of all.

For the first time in my life, I don’t feel “embarrassed” to be a Doctor Who fan. I don’t feel as if it’s a tough sell to someone who’s never seen it. I don’t feel the need to apologize or preface a viewing upfront with, “Well, you have to take into account…” The only thing a new viewer needs to take into account is the possible withdrawal they’ll feel at the end of Episode 13.