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Friday, March 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden

This is the doctor who is always on time

Seattle Times TV critic

The superb "Doctor Who" achieves something difficult for American shows: It makes TV look easy by demonstrating that intelligence and escapism are not mortal enemies.

But then, "Doctor Who" has experience. The world's longest ongoing sci-fi series has kicked around the time-space continuum since 1963. Over 40 Earth years, the time travels of the mysterious Doctor and his sidekicks have grown from a British children's show to a legend.

The latest incarnation hits U.S. airwaves at 9 tonight via Sci Fi Channel. Co-starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, it's Season 1 of a revival launched in 2005 by BBC Wales and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Those not already privy to past splendors needn't fear. While most space sagas drag a comet-tail's worth of back story behind them, "Doctor Who" is instantly accessible.

Maybe that's because the series at heart is an old-fashioned romance in the dashing, 19th-century sense. The mechanics of being transported 5 billion years in a moment or using Anti-Plastic to melt an enemy are tossed off with deadpan insouciance; what counts is the distance closed or opened among people and other forms of life.

The focus for this epic jaunt is the relationship between the Doctor and his traveling companion, who in the new version is a pretty blonde named Rose Tyler.

Rose resembles the Bridget Jones type of Englishwoman, albeit a few pegs down the socioeconomic scale. She labors in a bland department store, dates a bland boyfriend named Mickey (Noel Clarke) and tolerates her antic, overbearing mum (Camille Coduri).

On TV

"Doctor Who," at 9 tonight on Sci Fi Channel.

In short, Rose is a slumbering spirit waiting to be awakened — not by some Mark Darcy who will confine her to a bourgeois castle in Holland Park, but by adventure incarnate.

It arrives at the end of a work day when Rose forgets to hand in her cash receipts and returns to the darkened store's basement. All at once, the mannequins come alive. Rose is at a loss until her wrist is grasped and a male voice tells her what to do.

She resists and he explains. "They're plastic, living plastic creatures," he says, adding, "I'm the Doctor, by the way. Who are you?" When she replies, he's polite: "Very nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life."

This brisk exchange sets a tone that manages to be modern and classic. Fans of old British series such as "The Avengers" and more recent hits such as "The X-Files" instantly will recognize the tensile, never-to-be-resolved romance being formed.

Eccleston and Piper do fine work projecting their characters' resistant elements — her ties to Earth, his solitary habits — against the pull of spiritual camaraderie and physical magnetism. The sparring and sparking are nicely underplayed.

Meanwhile, a department store has burst into flames and a time machine beckons. There are friendly aliens to meet, hostile ones to dispatch and insights to be gained.

On paper, this formula puts "Doctor Who" in the same territory as "Star Trek." Both reflect the optimism of the 1960s, along with the Western World's first self-conscious steps toward global thinking.

But the approaches were dissimilar. The one-hour "Star Trek" was indisputably American in its sober and open moralizing. "Doctor Who" took a lighter, ironic point of view and each half-hour installment concluded with a cliffhanger.

Even the treatment of technology was different. The Trekkian transporter room looked cheesy and behaved flawlessly; the Doctor's machine TARDIS (Time And Relative Distance In Space) was, and is, quirkily flawed.

Things changed for each series as the decades rolled by. The "Star Trek" sequels became less earnest and even hardened and nihilistic. Unthinkably, creator Gene Roddenberry's skein reached at least a temporary end with "Enterprise."

"Doctor Who," which ran uninterrupted until 1989, abandoned the cliffhanger convention and got more adult, though it was (and remains) quite kid-friendly. A TV movie was made in 1996 and then in 2005 came the BBC-CBC revival, a big hit.

It's easy to see why. "Doctor Who" is intelligent and well-done, including the sleek sets and the restrained use of computer effects that yield a cornucopia of fun creatures. The dialogue is smart and so is the casting. (David Tennant replaces Eccleston next season, becoming the 10th actor to portray the title role.)

The series also mixes scripts, shifting from action-adventure to dark comedy to serious drama. Tonight's breezy introduction is followed by an installment next Friday that culminates in a surprisingly melancholy, philosophical pause.

Mainly, though, the series resonates with its message to examine as well as relish life. Today's audience has moved beyond flip cynicism, and if the replacement isn't quite sincerity, "Doctor Who" allows room for both.

Near the conclusion of Episode 2, Rose gazes at bits of Earth flying by her window. "All those years, all that history," she murmurs. "And no one was even looking."

A moment later, Doctor Who returns them to the streets of London circa 2005 and offers her the chance to stay home. Rose brushes it aside.

"C'mon you tightwad, the chips are on me," she says. "Only got 5 billion years until the shops close."

"Modern Men"

TV Notes: Also debuting tonight is The WB's "Modern Men," on at 9:30. It's a half-hour chick fantasy about how guys would change if a life coach played by Jane Seymour whipped them into shape. Don't hold your breath, ladies.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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