If H.G. Wells could hop in that time machine he imagined more than a century ago and suddenly pop up Saturday night in front of a TV tuned to BBC America, he'd likely be proud of what he's wrought.
The writer’s television descendant and fellow Brit, Doctor Who, returns for a new whirl at the Time Lord game this weekend amid growing popularity that marks another sign of the rise of geek culture - and additional proof the good Doctor is a character for all times.
The sci-fi, time-travel show initially ran from 1963 to 1989, becoming a UK pop culture touchstone (the rumble of The Doctor’s TARDIS time-machine made an audio cameo during the Olympic opening ceremony), but never gaining more than cult status on this side of the Atlantic.
When the franchise rebooted in 2005, it was clear that times, well, had changed. The Doctor rode his era-surfing TARDIS into a more internationally connected media world – and into an ongoing revolution in digital special effects. The new version attracted top writers (Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis of “Sherlock” fame, among others) who grew up watching the original. The revived “Doctor Who” also benefited from geek-chic cachet, spurring Internet memes and notching shoutouts from the likes of “Futurama,” “The Simpsons” and “Community,” whose running “Inspector Spacetime” bit is a running homage/gag.
Last year’s Season 6 “Doctor Who” premiere drew 1.3 million U.S. viewers – a record for BBC America, if modest by major network standards. The latest batch of episodes, judging by the reception at a recent sneak peek
in New York, stand to be eagerly greeted by the growing ranks of Whovians – even if show is still largely unfamiliar to the American masses.
So maybe it’s time to start watching “Doctor Who.” Perhaps the best analogue for the uninitiated is "Star Trek," which similarly inspired multiple incarnations and fanatical devotion. The franchises also share a knack for telling human stories on a fantastical plane. While "Doctor Who" came before “Star Trek,” the British show echoes the spirit of the early Trekker favorite "City on the Edge of Forever" episode, ripping and repairing holes through the time-space continuum.
Some of the best “Doctor Who” installments have centered on encounters in the past with, among others, Vincent Van Gogh and Winston Churchill, who are linked in ways they never imagined, at least in the Who universe. This season promises the return of the deadly Weeping Angels, which may be the eeriest (fictional) creatures ever to hit TV. We also can expect more from The Doctor’s archenemies, the evil Daleks, which look like mutant fire hydrants on steroids and speak with auto-tune-on-distortion voices that scream, "Exterminate!"
The Daleks haven’t changed much over the years, but The Doctor has. He’s been played by 11 actors, most recently Matt Smith, who imbues the character with a quirky, gangly energy as he tries to save the universe while bringing bow-ties and fezzes back into fashion. But The Doctor’s rotating band of human pals – “companions” in Who-speak – is the heart of the show. Saturday’s episode kicks off the beginning of the end for spirited Amy Pond and her loyal husband Rory Williams, who, Moffat told the BBC
, are in for a “heartbreaking” exit.
The storylines can be heart-renders and mindbenders as well as time-benders. But those of us who came to “Doctor Who” late in the game found you can pop in and out, TARDIS-like, and catch up relatively quickly (for the instantly addicted, Netflix offers full “Doctor Who” immersion).
In the meantime, here’s a preview of Saturday’s season premiere, which looks well worth the trip:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.