On Saturday, a new era begins for the BBC’s beloved science-fiction series, “Doctor Who,” the quirky and mysterious hero who time travels in a spaceship disguised as a blue police box, exploring strange worlds and occasionally saving the universe.
Nearly fifty years after its debut in November 1963, “Doctor Who” still gets ratings as high as ever, and the BBC has high hopes for the new season across the pond.
Many Americans have been fans for decades, of course. “Doctor Who” first appeared on PBS in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1995, BBC and Fox co-produced a made-for-TV movie set in the United States. And the Sci Fi Channel and BBC America began airing the regular TV show in the last couple of years.
Having garnered a cult fan base on U.S. shores, the show returns with a new lead writer and new Doctor at the helm. Taking over for Russell T. Davies, who resuscitated the show in 2005, is executive producer and lead writer Steven Moffat. Prior to “Who,” Moffat worked on several other well-known British shows, including “Coupling,” for which he was the executive producer.
“The great thing about ‘Doctor Who’ is what it does best…start all over again,” says Moffat.
The part of the premise of the show is that every so often — when actors either age out of the role or move onto other projects — the main character undergoes a “regeneration,” in which he transforms into a new body.
Freed from the constraints of having a single actor playing the lead, “Doctor Who” has been able to avoid the fate faced by most TV shows: an expiration date. The casting switch allows storylines a chance to change as well.
Ten actors have played the Doctor over the years, each leaving a distinctive mark on the character. William Hartnell was grandfatherly, while Tom Baker was bohemian. The sensitive and quiet fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, wore a celery stick on his lapel.
At 27, Matt Smith is the youngest to step into the role, but seems up for the challenge. “I think the Doctor is the Doctor always,” Smith says. “There can only ever be your version.”
In Saturday’s premiere episode, “The Eleventh Hour,” Smith’s floppy-haired and clumsy “nutty professor” crashes into a young Scottish girl’s backyard and investigates a mysterious crack in time on a wall in her house.
Tom Spilsbury, who edits ‘Doctor Who Magazine,’ a periodical devoted to covering the series since 1979, says it is the show’s lack of boundaries that makes it so appealing.
“[The Doctors] can go anywhere and do anything they want to….doing some of these things before other shows. It was there before ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars,’” Spilsbury says. “So even though American audiences may not have seen it till later, it’s something that predates those even.”
Moffat sees the show as a classic children’s fairytale, equal parts terrifying and joyful.
“You know those other sci-fi shows, which are sort of dystopian and for grumpy teenagers sulking in their rooms?” Moffat asks. “This is the one that is not like that. ‘Doctor Who’ is a big, optimistic, fun, thrilling show. It’s about sci-fi the way James Bond is about espionage. It’s good fun, it’s adventure and it’s excitement.”
Listen to an interview with “‘Doctor Who Magazine” editor Tom Spilsbury about his favorite episodes.
Listen to an interview with executive producer Beth Willis about its popularity in the U.K.
The new season of “Doctor Who” premieres April 17 on BBC America.