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Doctor Who makes cosmic return

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Look out, America: The Doctor is ready to make house calls again.

No, this isn't some new wrinkle in your HMO coverage. This is THE Doctor, legendary Time Lord hero of the British science-fiction television series "Doctor Who."

The program, which originally ran from 1963 to 1989 (and was an unsuccessful 1996 TV movie), was revived last year by the British Broadcasting Corp. and became a huge ratings success in Great Britain. Now Americans can see why for themselves, as the Sci Fi Channel begins broadcasting the first 13-episode season Friday.

You may think you know the original "Doctor Who" from its many years on public TV — an eccentric, curly-haired alien in a floppy hat and overlong scarf, an undertone of campiness, and production values on a par with the original "Star Trek."

Well, you can forget all that. The new "Doctor Who" brings the series into the new millennium, which means top-notch special effects and mature writing chock-full of delights that adults and kids can both enjoy.

The core of the story remains the same: The Doctor is a cosmic wanderer who travels through time and space in the TARDIS, a bigger-on-the-inside spaceship that's disguised as a blue British police box. Along the way, he becomes embroiled in all manner of alien invasions and other nefarious goings-on. Because he relies on his wits, not muscle or guns, the Doctor is very unlike most sci-fl protagonists.

The strength of "Doctor Who" has always been its limitless formula. Unlike most programs, "Doctor Who" stories can be set anywhere in the past, present or future, on any planet. Plots can range from action-adventures to humorous romps to dead-serious character pieces - but the best offerings (especially in the new series) mix moments of all three.

Great concept

One of the show's genus ideas is "regeneration": When near death, a Time Lord can renew his entire body And emerge as a totally different man. The concept has allowed 10 actors to play the role (including Tom Baker, wild-eyed wearer of the 14-foot scarf who held the role the longest). Underlying each Doctor's character, however, is a need to right wrongs and see justice done.

The new series of "Doctor Who features respected British actor Christopher Eccleston —best known to American audiences for films such as "28 Days Later," "The Others" and "Elizabeth" — as the ninth incarnation of the Doctor. With Eccles-ton's portrayal, gone are the pseudo-Edwardian attitudes and dress sense that have defined the character in the past. This Doctor can be dark and brooding, a working-class bloke in a leather jacket who bears the psychological scars of a great Time War.

In the series' first episode, he encounters London shopgirl Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) almost by accident. She's bright, curious and eager to leave behind her boring life for adventures throughout the universe. Rose helps anchor the extraordinary storylines for viewers — and when she and the Doctor repeatedly return to modern-day Earth, we also see what effect Rose's departure has on her mother, Jackie (Camille Co-duri), and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Mickey (Noel Clarke).

Be aware that the first episode (the appropriately titled "Rose") may be the weakest of the series — the plot suffers somewhat when there are so many characters and concepts that need to be introduced. But the next 12 episodes build on each other to become a whirlwind trip: Earth's last day in the far future, ghost-hunting with Charles Dickens, fighting an alien takeover of the British government, and a confrontation with the ruthless robotic Daleks. (Actor David Tennant has taken over the role of the Doctor for the second season, which will begin broadcasting soon in Great Britain.)

For good old-fashioned escapism — something that makes you laugh, cry and think —"Doctor Who" is the trip of a lifetime. Here's hoping audiences on this side of the Atlantic will think so, too.


Two-hour premiere begins at 9 p.m. Friday • Sci Fi Channel

Caption: Billie Piper (left) and Christopher Eccleston star in "Dr. Who," premiering Friday on the Sci Fi Channel.

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  • Title: Doctor Who makes cosmic return
  • Publication: Asbury Park Press
  • Date: 2006-03-15

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