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2 homes, 1 Tennant

The Sci Fi Channel and PBS have the British actor on double duty.

October 07, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

By happy chance, American audiences are now being treated to two collaborations between the British actor David Tennant and the British writer Russell T. Davies -- big names Over There, smaller here -- a coincidence that is less interesting in itself than the fact that one of them, "Casanova," arrives through the august offices of PBS and "Masterpiece Theater," while the other, the latest season of the renascent "Doctor Who," is running on the lower-born Sci Fi Channel. This seems to say something about the range of programs in which British artists are likely to work, but in fact the two pieces are more alike than not.

"Casanova" seems a likely offering for "Masterpiece Theater," with its mix of literature, history and the Old World, but it isn't quite that deadpan version we are used to from such imports -- the sumptuously mounted, slightly dry productions that my American eye, at least, takes for an authentic rendition of the near or far past.

Though the miniseries has been shot in appropriate antique locations and lavishly costumed and fitted with ships and carriages and such things, reality is not of primary concern here: History is mixed and muddled as convenient; there are special effects more appropriate to a superhero movie, a synth-Baroque soundtrack, flash-forwards to modern concerns and all manner of Ken Russell-y stylistic exaggerations; and apart from Peter O'Toole's entertaining appearances throughout as Old Casanova, there's no attempt to age the characters. (Davies just has them tell one another how well they look). Indeed, Davies' "Casanova" has more to do with modern London than with any other place or time and (as in "Doctor Who") British life is affectionately satirized through the eyes of an outsider.

As seen here, Casanova is just a man in love with love, for whom sex is a form of female suffrage. In his willingness to treat women as equals, or superiors, he's ahead of his time -- one might call him a proto-feminist, or perhaps more accurately, a proto-post-feminist. One way or another, the women in his life call all the shots, while Davies offloads some of the real Casanova's more unsavory inclinations onto his sullen, illegitimate son. And we are to see his profligate and sometimes wayward life as a sad distraction from the loss of his one true love, the unattainable Henriette (Laura Fraser, "He Knew He Was Right"), with whom he falls head over heels across a crowded room, "West Side Story"-style.

It helps, as well, that Casanova is played by Tennant, an instantly likable, slight man with attractively vulpine features, who mixes quick animal intensity with a loopy goofiness -- the exact qualities he brings to his role as the Doctor. Indeed, this Casanova, a cheeky polymath given to wry remarks in the face of danger, is a bit of a Doctor Who himself. "Casanova" only gets into trouble when it wants to mean something, and the more pointedly emotional moments seem cooked up to the point of hokum, but it's fun when it wants to be, and most of the time it just wants to be fun.

Still, Davies and Tennant are on firmer ground with "Doctor Who," which is not only more persuasive and exciting as an action adventure but manages to strike deeper, darker notes about humankind and generate repressed sexual heat between the Doctor and his traveling companion, Rose (teen-pop-singer-turned-fine-actress Billie Piper).

Davies, whose breakthrough series was the original "Queer as Folk," but whose early career was all in children's television, is largely behind the return of "Doctor Who," which originally ran 1963-89 and influenced generations to the point that the Doctor is more than a television character, he's a kind of national hero, a tradition, like James Bond. And as in a Bond movie, England speaks for the world: At one point, with Earth threatened by aliens, the American president insists he be put in charge, to which the British prime minister responds, "You can tell the president he's not my boss and he's certainly not turning this into a war."

This is the 28th season for the show, which some of you will know from PBS rebroadcasts over the years, and the first season that Tennant has played the role -- Christopher Eccleston played him last season, Davies' first, but the Doctor can "regenerate," allowing for new actors as desired. He's splendid in the role, approachably heroic, whether taking on an extraterrestrial werewolf or dueling to the death in his pajamas. (Rose characterizes him as "a big old punk with a bit of rockabilly thrown in," which fits.) It's a great good time -- the wittiest scare-fest on TV since "Buffy" went south.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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Masterpiece Theatre: 'Casanova'

Where: KCET

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA-S (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with an advisory for sexual activity)

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'Doctor Who'

Where: Sci Fi Channel

When: 8 to 9 p.m. Fridays

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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