Doctor Who holds the record for the longest-running science fiction TV series of all time, so evidently they're doing something right. This weekend, BBC America hopes to draw a wide U.S. audience into the same thrilling, quirky, sexy, dorky, nerdy-cool cultural phenomenon that the series has become after 47 years in the British imagination. The new season premieres April 23 (9/8C).
Starting life as a low-budget '60s children's show with sets and effects that made the original Star Trek series look like Inception, Doctor Who may have found the key to a long run by mastering the twice-a-decade reboot long before all the cool franchises were doing it.
The main character, known only as the Doctor, belongs to an alien species that can "regenerate" one's body when the old one wears out. Every few years he reappears in the form of a fresh and not-yet-typecast actor who would apply his own take to the character—enabling the Doctor, and the show, to change with the march of decades.
The Doctor resumed his adventures in 2005 after 15 years without new episodes. The current production team spent their childhoods with the original show and their grown-up years with the postmodern fantasy of series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. They crafted a show that blended slick dialogue and serious characterization with the original's sense of humor and sci-fi wonder, giving it a stylish charm that makes you sort of forgive the sensational plotlines, silly-looking aliens, and the annual season-ending deus ex machina. It's regularly among the top-rated shows in the United Kingdom.
Nine centuries old and counting, The Doctor is now in his eleventh incarnation (28-year-old Matt Smith, born right before the original show's 20th season), but is still essentially the same hero. He's still traversing all of space and time in his ship, the TARDIS, which still looks like a vintage 1960s British police phone box. He still travels with a human companion—generally an attractive young female whose eyes glaze over when he launches into technobabble but who sometimes has to explain to him when he's being rude to people. He still uses a sonic screwdriver to fight aliens who look like trash cans with ray guns. He still seeks and finds adventure pretty much anywhere and anywhen in the length, breadth, and duration of the universe.
But over the past five seasons, the series has undertaken an almost brutally thorough examination of the Doctor's character, personality, and his role as a hero. This has led viewers to some interesting—and unexpectedly spiritual—places.
A terrible messiah
On one hand, the show can build The Doctor up to messianic heights. He goes from saving Earth in Season 1 of the new series to stopping a race of omnicidal aliens from bringing about "the destruction of reality itself!" (as they gleefully declare in their B-movie-robot voices) in the Season 4 finale. The story sometimes pauses for characters to praise him in cosmic terms ("He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And … he's wonderful.")
The series even started weaving spiritual imagery into what had once been a solidly secular universe. Some of it superficial, like the infamous moment in the 2007 Christmas special when robotic angels lift the Doctor (David Tennant, Number Ten) high into the air, or the alien species that named him "the lonely god."