ONCE upon a time, there was a BBC science-fiction series called "Doctor Who" whose special effects were of the bubble-gum-and-rubber-band variety and whose basic premise sounded as cheesy as the show looked: A wanderer from the distant future fights intergalactic evildoers while traveling through space and time in a machine that is camouflaged as a London police box.
Yet somewhere along the line, "Doctor Who" became the longest-running sci-fi series in TV history (26 years), spawned several movie spinoffs, a mini-publishing empire, audiotapes, memorabilia, conventions, you name it. Now, after being off the air for 17 years, a new "Doctor Who" series, first seen on the BBC last year, has just come to the Sci Fi Channel. And therein lies a tale.
When "Doctor Who" first appeared on the BBC in 1963, it was a show for older children that aired late on Saturday afternoons. But quicker than you can say "Daleks" -- the race of robots who became the title character's chief nemeses -- the program became a national sensation.
The reasons were soon evident. The doctor's ability to go backward and forward in time meant that story lines were highly flexible. Although obviously a kids' program, "Doctor Who" also had a wink-wink sense of humor that appealed to adults. Then there were the seven actors who played the doctor, who tended toward the warmly avuncular. And because Doctor Who takes on traveling companions from the places he visits who then join him on his adventures, the show could bounce its protagonist off against an ever-changing roster of foils. Plus, "Doctor Who's" cheesy look actually worked in its favor.
"It was shameless about its shortcomings," says Russell T. Davies, executive producer and head writer of the new series. "They did intergalactic wars and invasions of the Earth with $2. Somewhere, by accident, they captured something very true about the world, that the future is very clumsy and nailed together. There is something beautifully normal about the 'Doctor Who' universe."
Los Angeles resident Shaun Lyon, who wrote "Back to the Vortex," a book about the new series, and whose Outpost Gallifrey (gallifreyone.com) is the premier "Doctor Who" website in this country, echoes this "It's the story line, stupid" sentiment by noting that America's most popular science-fiction program also had similarly cheesy production values.
"If you look back at the original 'Star Trek,' you'll see the same thing -- bad special effects," Lyon says. "The appeal is in the storytelling, even if there are no $10-million visual effects budgets. It's the stories, the characters, the actors themselves."
Although the series has been seen on PBS over the years, "Doctor Who" never really developed a massive fan base in this country. Competition from shows like "Star Trek" certainly held it back, and its chintzy foreign flavor didn't always translate well. But it did acquire a rabid cult following that now sponsors several "Who"-oriented conventions (last month's L.A.-based Gallifrey One conclave was the 17th annual).
" 'Dr. Who' is part of the fabric of British culture," says Leala Abbott, a New York librarian and member of the fan club Doctor Who New York (dwny.org). "Here, the only way to find 'Doctor Who' is basically through being a fan of science fiction. It's almost like a discovery."
But as with "Star Trek," "Doctor Who's" 1989 demise did not end the appetite for it. So when veteran British TV writer Davies ("Queer as Folk") pitched the BBC a new version of the venerable doctor, to be shown on Saturday nights, traditionally Britain's most-watched TV evening, the network went for it.
"I knew it could work again," says Davies, "that there was a new generation that could enjoy it. But I wasn't certain what the BBC wanted, whether they wanted an ironic version late at night. What they wanted was 7 o'clock prime time on a Saturday, which was how I wanted to bring it back. There hadn't been a sci-fi show on prime time in Britain for over 20 years, since 'V.' "
The first two episodes of "Doctor Who" premiered last week but repeat again today and at various times during the week until the next new installment Friday night at 9.
Davies understood that the fan community would want to have a say in the series' new direction, but he completely ignored the sci-fi message boards, claiming, "It's the most stupid thing you can do, and people are seduced into believing that the most creative thing you can do is engage with your online fandom." He also instinctively realized that the 21st century version of the doctor would have to be hipper, smarter and sexier than any previous incarnation.
"I decided to write it like anything else I'd write," he says. "I write character, I write funny, I write dramatic, and there's no way science fiction can't be the same thing. You just have to not steep it in nostalgia and not write techno-babble either."
Doctors on the move