8:00 p.m. Fridays
Sci Fi Channel
The term "geek" has lost its accusatory zing. Nowadays, if you lob that epithet at a Faire attendee or D&D devotee, he or she will likely cop to it—proudly. Blame it on Rivers Cuomo, Steve Jobs, or Kevin Smith; that throwaway beatitude about the meek inheriting the earth suddenly seems to have credence. Geeks exert major influence on internet content, box-office receipts, even fashion. Cool kids don Buddy Holly glasses and ill-fitting T-shirts, unwittingly aping the pariahs they mocked in high school. Sadly, a measure of social purity has been lost amid all this caste upheaval. Remember when geeks were dorks? Where does one find real, honest-to-Zool social outcasts these days?
I'll tell you where: The annual Doctor Who convention in Rosemont, Illinois. I was reluctantly in attendance this year, because marriage is about compromise or something. After registering and slapping on my "HELLO MY NAME IS DICK-WHIPPED" nametag, I wandered into the merchandise room to check out the Sylvester McCoy dolls and Dalek-shaped clock radios. Then I saw them: real, actual, mumbling, perspiring geeks. Suddenly, I was Marty Stouffer observing a rare species in the brush. It was riveting. These guys were decked out in head-to-toe Doctor-drag. They spoke in nasal, Professor Frink cadences and argued earnestly about whether a Sontaran could defeat a Cyberman. I realized that in America, Doctor Who, with its 30-odd years of attendant mythology, is appreciated chiefly by hardcore, full-blooded, capital-G Geeks.
I sense that's about to change, because the latest incarnation of Doctor Who is surprisingly hip, sexy, and accessible even to dubious sci-fi widows like myself. Last year, after 16 years off the air, the dormant franchise was revived by Russell T. Davies and given a mod makeover. Respected actor Christopher Eccleston took up the role of the time-traveling Doctor, and British pop star Billie Piper signed on to play the earthling who rides his coattails. The show was an immediate nostalgia-tweaking hit on BBC2 and recently powered into its second season. These episodes are currently airing on the Sci Fi Channel in the States, though ratings have been discouragingly modest. Folks, grab a sixer of Boddingtons and start watching!
For the uninitiated, the Doctor (fan tip: don't refer to the actual character as "Doctor Who") is a brilliant, eccentric alien who coasts through space and time in his TARDIS, a red police call box that defies the laws of physics. The Doctor's flesh is merely a vessel; when the body croaks, the Doctor instantly regenerates with an entirely different appearance. (This convenient detail has allowed producers to recast the Doctor a staggering 10 times—and you thought "New Becky" on Roseanne was confusing!)
Despite this revolving-door policy, when most people think of the Doctor, they think of Tom Baker, the posh, harrumphing Time Lord with the long striped scarf. That's why Christopher Eccleston is so refreshing in the role. With his working-class Manchester accent ("Lots of planets have a North," he quips), loony grin, and slick wardrobe, he reinvented the Doctor as a bloke you might actually want to hang out with. Unlike Doctors of yore, who navigated the universe with matter-of-fact stoicism, Eccleston's Doctor is gleeful, robust, genuinely thrilled to be a witness to all of history.
(Note: As British viewers know, Eccleston left the series after one season and the Doctor "regenerated" into Scottish actor David Tennant in late 2005. Never fear; the first few Tennant episodes are equally revelatory. Can't wait for the Sci Fi Channel to catch up? I suggest Bit Torrent for your semi-legal viewing needs.)
As the Doctor's latest companion, Rose Tyler, Piper is tartly suggestive. With her voluptuous lower lip, tight T-shirts, and penchant for flirting with her green-blooded boss, Rose presents a contrast to the Doctor's past female "assistants." Most of these, for instance, would never deign to grasp the boss's hand in a moment of girlish glee. Some fans have grumbled about the crackling chemistry aboard the TARDIS: The Doctor has historically hewed to a rigid policy of asexuality. But there's no denying the spark between Piper and Eccleston; and the tragic dissonance between Rose's mortality and the Doctor's longevity has made for some poignant and philosophical plot points. Plus, Rose technically has a boyfriend, Mickey (Noel Clark), though he contributes more comic relief than romantic heat during their occasional interactions.
It's the unusual blend of dry humor, vintage horror, and strangely sobering denouements that makes this show so satisfying to kids (Doctor Who's original target audience) and adults alike. One week the Doctor is in war-ravaged London, pursuing an eerie phantom child who wanders the streets in a gas mask. The next week, he's dancing with Madame du Pompadour in Versailles. When the Doctor and Rose voyage five billion years into the future, they discover the world's last remaining "human"—a talking scrap of flesh named Cassandra, who's stretched like a canvas across a big square frame. (Cassandra is so comically vain that Rose nicknames her "Bitchy Trampoline.")
Another episode finds the Doctor coming face to face with his most memorable enemies, the Daleks, who terrified a generation of English children upon their introduction in the '60s. Yet the final image of a dying Dalek raising a single mangled tentacle toward the sun was an unexpected tearjerker—okay, so I bawled. A show that can find the humanity in a campy-looking killer robot is bound to find a place in our foggy corner of the universe.