A Welcome Blast From the New <i>Doctor Who</i>

is once again an institution in the UK, with a vast audience. Here in the US it's more of a cult favorite.
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Fans of the great British cult scifi series Doctor Who -- and if you aren't, you ought to be -- got two big treats in February. First, a "double-album" soundtrack CD and online release of selections from the terrific musical scores for last season. Then the charming Christmas special on DVD and Blu-Ray.

It's all a wonderful bit of cheer in the midst of a rugged political season from a venerable series (debuting the day after JFK's assassination in 1963) that sputtered to a halt late in the last century only to be re-booted to spectacular effect by producer Russell T. Davies, then best known for Queer As Folk, in 2005. And it augurs well for the upcoming season of the show this spring.

2010 introduced a new cast to the long-running British scifi series Doctor Who.

Doctor Who is, once again, as it was for generations before, an institution in the UK, with a vast audience. Here in the US, and in other international markets, it's more of a cult favorite. Though its audience on BBC America is well over a million and growing.

A very brief recap for the uninitiated before talking about the present offerings and the season ahead. Doctor Who is a very different show from the one I write about regularly here on the Huffington Post. Mad Men it is not. Though both shows are very smart, the dissimilarity is one of the reasons I like it. And with acerbic delights of Mad Men coming back who knows when, no pun intended, perhaps I'll have to like it even more. (Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, going back to August 2009, archived here.)

The Doctor (he's not called Doctor Who) is a humanoid alien who travels through time and space, encountering all sorts of cultures and enjoying constant adventures though, oddly, always ending up back in England. He's 900 years old, but eternally youthful. Humorous, brilliant, knows all kinds of things and is more than willing to go on about them, a bit eccentric -- okay, quite eccentric -- very associative, endlessly curious, a man of peace who is, well, quite militant, as his opponents frequently come to learn.

Someone fascinated by the richness of life but who is personally rather ascetic, embracing an austere aesthetic. As befits someone who lives and travels in a little blue 1950s-style police phone box that is, nonetheless, much bigger on the inside than the outside. It's called the Tardis, for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, naturally.

From time to time, the Doctor "regenerates" into a different form. Which is a great way to keep re-casting the role over a great many years without having to explain, or ignore, why the character looks so different, as happens with fellow ageless character James Bond.

The trailer for the Doctor Who special, A Christmas Carol.

When the new Doctor Who returned for Series 1 (the Brits call a season a series) with 13 episodes in 2005, Christopher Eccleston was in the role of the ninth Doctor. He was terrific in the role, but his companion -- at first the Doctor, as a teaching figure in an ostensibly children's show, traveled with kids, but now travels with a woman -- average London shopgirl-turned-adventuress Rose Tyler, played by pop star Billie Piper, was zestier and more popular. So in 2006, the show returned with the tenth Doctor, played in sly scholarly rock star mode by David Tennant. That would be the hyper, intellectual, witty, soulful rock star mode, that is.

Tennant, or 10, proved to be hugely popular, arguably the most popular Doctor of all, perhaps the Sean Connery of Doctors. Actually a skilled Shakespearean actor, Tennant had three more seasons of grand humanistic adventures (albeit with concern for aliens), first with Piper's Rose, then with about-to-be medical Dr. Martha Jones, played by Freema Agyeman, and finally with super-temp Donna Noble, played by star comedian Catherine Tate.

Then Tennant was back to the theater to play Hamlet, so what would have been 2009's season became a handful of specials, all leading up to a Christmas and New Year's two-parter in which the tenth doctor passed on in another grandiloquent Russell T. Davies spectacular, this time called "The End of Time." Which I wrote about on the Huffington Post here and here.

It was quite a send-off, with Tennant omnipresent on the BBC over the 2009 holidays, leaving many, including myself, thinking that the next Doctor could only be a letdown.

It was also Russell T. Davies send-off from new Who as well, as he turned his attentions entirely to the Torchwood spin-off from Who, and writer Steven Moffatt took over the show. Since Moffatt, a more coolly intellectual writer, had penned some of the best episodes of new Who, I didn't lose interest in the show.

But it when it started up again last spring, I quickly fell behind and stopped watching after catching only the first half of the first episode while I was on the phone. It was an election year, sure, but the truth is I had my doubts about the new Doctor.

10 becomes 11.

The eleventh Doctor is played by Matt Smith, about whom much was made of the fact that when he was cast that he was only 26, the youngest ever to try the role. That seemed too young to me to play a 900-year old Time Lord. And in still photos, he looked a bit awkward, lantern-jawed, his features all at not quite the right angles to one another. Plus the new companion, a 20-year old seeming moppet named Karen Gillan, was constantly in shorts and micro-minis. Which I historically like in, say, a Bond film, but maybe not so much in Doctor Who.

I missed the season, and so, evidently, did a not insignificant part of the previous Doctor Who audience. But I didn't lose interest entirely and kept reading snatches of reports on the show while the elections unfolded here. And it seemed like it was quite interesting.

When the elections finally ended, and my old friend Jerry Brown, who is in his own way reminiscent of the Doctor, emerged victorious in a landslide over the biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history, that of billionaire Meg Whitman, I was ready for a fortuitously timed release of the latest Doctor Who season just a week after the November election.

It arrived promptly, I promptly popped it into the player, and was immediately hooked!

Trailer for the two-part finale of the 2010 season.

Matt Smith, who seemed at first blush too young to play the Doctor, was a revelation. He seemed at once a little younger, and much older, than Tennant's incarnation. And he was very funny, in that bumblingly effective Brit way, and wise, as the Doctor should be, even when he's screwing up.

Karen Gillan, as companion Amy Pond, wasn't just cheesecake, she was complex and oddly knowing, not to mention rather difficult at times. And she, along with her little cousin who plays the 9-year old Amelia Pond whom the Doctor first encounters, then later encounters again and again, turns out to play a nexus-like role in the show's new ongoing mystery. It seems there's a crack in her bedroom wall, one which extends throughout time and the universe.

Then there's Amy's irritating boyfriend Rory, played by the estimable Arthur Darvill, who at first is a typical third wheel and then becomes much more as the story unfolds. Not to mention the great Alex Kingston as Professor River Song, intergalactic woman of space/time mystery, who may, or may not, be the Doctor's wife. Somewhere/somewhen.

And what a story. I'm not going to spoil it for you, but Moffatt has retained most if not all of the heart and charm that Davies brought to the show while bringing his own icier intellectual edge. Where Davies presented a hearts-on-our-sleeves Doctor Who, with situations not infrequently resolved amidst a great deal of running and shouting and swooping Murray Gold score, replete with "wibbly wobbly timey wimey" explanations, Moffatt's is more Inception-like in presenting a science fictional sort of puzzle. (Though ultimately still hearts-on-sleeves.)

But in Series 5, which ends in continuing conundrum even though the present drama is worked out, Moffatt presents a contemporary fairy tale wrapped in a scifi mystery. I won't spoil the ongoing story for you if you haven't seen it.

Doctor Who Series 6 preview.

I'd recommend getting the 2010 season DVD or Blu-ray set. While there are a few episodes that you maybe don't want to see over and over, it's a set that stands up to repeated viewings, especially at the beginning, when the just regenerated Doctor crashes to earth in England outside little Amelia Pond's house before he's sure who he really is, and the last few episodes, which includes a wonderful episode penned by Richard Curtis of Four Weddings and A Funeral fame in which the Doctor and Amy encounter Vincent Van Gogh, and Moffett's satisfyingly mind-bending two-part season finale "The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang." (You don't have to know if the spinning top falls over. Incidentally, in Inception, it does.)

The Christmas special, which arrived in DVD/Blu-ray form only two months after it aired in the UK and US, is an amusing, heart-warming one-off apparently separate from the show's ongoing mythology. But it carries on fine fashion, with Moffatt successfully integrating A Christmas Carol into the Doctor Who universe.

Amy and Rory, on their honeymoon, are on a starship (with a parody Star Trek-style bridge) plunging to its doom through the dangerous atmosphere of the planet below. Amy calls on the Doctor, who finds that the planet's skies, hence its economy, hence its government, are controlled by a super-rich miser who hates people and couldn't care less about the 4000 lives about to be lost.

And so the Doctor, in his inimitable fashion, becomes the time traveling literal Ghost of Christmas(es) Past to unlock the psyche Kazran Scrooge, er, Sardick, who is very well played by Michael Gambon, best known to US and international audiences as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films.

Suffice to say that it involves the most outrageous form of usurious lending imaginable, a Welsh soprano frozen in ice, fish (and sharks!) that swim in the fog above the planet's surface, and the Doctor marrying (off-camera, after singing a duet with his pal Frank Sinatra) Marilyn Monroe in one of the show's many humorous asides. Unlike the last one, there's no President Obama about to save the world from recession with an announcement from the White House.

Like the best of new Who, it's a rollicking good time with heart and a message and some good twists. Though like all the Christmas specials, which have become big holiday institutions in the UK, it's not as intellectually engaging as the main show has become under Moffett. After all, it's meant to be viewed after Christmas dinner.

If you haven't seen it yet, probably best to watch it before the spring thaw. And to whet your appetite for the new series, er, season of Doctor Who, set to begin in April.

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