In the U.K., this series about a time-traveling sleuth is as much of a stone-cold classic as The Twilight Zone is here. It’s also equally period-bound, bringing to mind the black-and-white series of the late ’60s and early ’70s, with those fakey sets and sinister electronic background music. The famous futuristic theme tune—an invitation to a generation of children to prepare themselves for a weekly dose of palpitating terror—has survived, but it’s been gussied up with unnecessary orchestration, setting the tone for this attempt to update Doctor Who in the age of CGI.
Arriving in contemporary London in the Tardis (a timeship disguised as a police call box), the Doctor saves the city from a zombie army of store mannequins (don’t ask), along the way recruiting a young female accomplice named Rose. The Doctor is played with gusto by Christopher Eccleston, the ninth actor to take on the role, while Rose (former U.K. pop star Billie Piper) exudes the perfect post-postfeminist mix of tomboy pluck and girlie cuteness. The second episode of the series hurtles the duo 5 billion years into the future, where a gaggle of mixed-species tourists arrive to watch Earth explode. Cue plenty of cool alien costumes: a giant head in a vat and the Last Human, a flat surface of facial skin that turns out to be the end product of millennia’s worth of cosmetic surgery. “Moisturize me!” the Last Human constantly orders her minions. There are plenty of other good gags to prove this entertaining series doesn’t take itself too seriously. When Rose goes into culture shock, she ruefully notes, “They’re just so alien . . . the aliens.”
The Doctor has generally been played as a relentlessly cheery type, with a Peter Pan quality of prepubescent sexlessness—a geek whose brain beats brawn in every corner of the universe. Although this remake attempts to add tragic depth to the Doctor, it lacks true darkness. The early series overcame skimpy budgets to conjure the uncanny; this was cosmic horror as H.P. Lovecraft would have understood it. The real disappointment of the new Who isn’t its use of (slightly) slick special effects, though. It’s a structural problem: Instead of stretching a storyline across a whole season, each adventure is resolved within a single episode, making this closer to your average detective series. The thrill-filled cliffhangers of yore are gone, taking with them with the child’s urge to watch TV from behind the sofa, breath bated.