The year was 1963. The country was England. The phenomenon that was about to erupt onto television screens across the land was a charming science fiction program for children entitled "Doctor Who." It almost didn't pass go, premiering, as it did, in the immediate shadow of President Kennedy's assassination. But luckily someone at the BBC refused to be discouraged by the show's poor reception that first night, and the pilot, "Unearthly Child," was aired again. This time, people took notice, and they continued to take notice for the next 25 years (give or take).
The key to the success of "Who" lay in the clever invention of the main character's ability to regenerate. William Hartnell was the first actor to play the Doctor, and when he left the program it easily could have been curtains for the whole shebang. But it wasn't, of course. Three years after his initial appearance, the Doctor regenerated into a new body and was suddenly portrayed by a different actor: the inimitable Patrick Troughton. Five more thespians would step into the enviable role for the original series. There would be a couple of highly regarded films starring Peter Cushing (hunting daleks rather than vampires for a change) and an American television movie starring Paul McGann and Eric Roberts. Outside of novelizations and radio broadcasts, that was about it. Until 2005, that is.
Enter Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and Billie Piper as his assistant, Rose: the two main ingredients in the resurrected "Doctor Who" series that recently finished airing its first season. The special effects are a lot better than in the classic program, and the episodes tend to move along at a more accelerated clip (there was actually a six-hour story back in the '80s!), but Doctor Who fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief, as the new series is every inch a chip off the old block. Season one is over now, and so is Eccleston's stint as the renegade Time Lord. But there's no sign that the program is in any danger of fading out. Great writing and a sky-high production value have formed a solid foundation for the new incarnation of "Who." If producer and writer Russell T. Davies is smart--and he seems to be--he'll build on that foundation to take the program into even more daring waters for its second season.
I suspect there are at least three things that most fans of the original series would like to see happen in round two: an appearance from the Doctor's arch villain, the Master; more outer space and less Earth; and an adventure or two that revolves around the interior of the Doctor's fabulous vessel, the TARDIS (that's Time and Relative Dimension in Space), which is bigger on the inside than on the outside, but we won't get into all of that here. Still, it's surprising just how many bones the first season of the new series has thrown to long-time fans, while simultaneously offering up a refreshing introduction to a whole new generation of viewers. There is the reemergence of the daleks, for one thing. Always listed among the Doctor's scariest foes in the original series, they now have abilities that make them even more terrifying. There's also more than a hint that the Doctor may be a bit ambivalent sexually, which is interesting, since he used to be a very asexual being.
One minor problem with the new series is that it plays up the Doctor's dark side (I didn't really know he even had a dark side). And though it's sad to see Christopher Eccleston leave the program just as he's finding his stride, it may be the best solution to the problem of how much of an existentialist the producers should make their lead character. True, each successive regeneration is known to further trouble the Doctor's already untoward psychological makeup, but he's still the hero of the day, the voice of virtue and benignity. Much would be lost if the new "Doctor Who" were to lose sight of those strengths. It's easy to be optimistic, however. Though he's only clocked in a few seconds of screen time at the very end of season one, David Tennant -- the next incarnation of the Doctor -- has great promise. There's a crazed twinkle in his eye that seems to say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."