As his devoted fans know, the Doctor always has been capable of a pretty good disappearing act. But the last one he pulled — back on Dec. 6, 1989 — went on a bit longer than expected.
Today, when the gregarious Time Lord starts reappearing in new episodes on the Sci Fi channel, it will have been 16 years since the last episode of the original “Doctor Who,” perhaps the most curious cult classic in the history of television, was produced.
Over its first 26 years, the series about an enigmatic time-and-space traveler featured eight very different actors in the lead role, along with wonderfully loopy, 1960s-hip dialogue and some of the worst special effects ever, including aliens made of inflated condoms.
A huge hit in Great Britain, “Doctor Who” didn’t surface in this country until the late 1970s, when it became a staple of Saturday night programming on many PBS stations.
But despite the pleas of the faithful, there were no new episodes anywhere until last year, when Russell T. Davies, the powerhouse British writer-producer of such shows as the original “Queer as Folk,” finally persuaded the BBC to let him take a shot at reviving the franchise with some modern twists.
Much to the surprise of the BBC, Davies’ take on “Doctor Who” became one of the most-watched series on British TV. (More than 10 million viewers — 40 percent of the audience in Britain — watched the debut, and a second season already has started there.) And now the show returns to America with the 13 episodes that made up Davies’ first season on the BBC.
The good news for longtime fans is that he hasn’t mucked around with the quirky essence of “Doctor Who” that much, while giving it a more polished look.
The Doctor is the last surviving member of a race wiped out in a time war (don’t even ask) and still is going through various dimensions with a goofy grin and a passion for trying to right wrongs. He doesn’t always get it right — in earlier episodes, he was partially responsible for Nero’s burning of Rome, the Great Fire of London and the appearance of the Loch Ness monster — but he tries.
What has changed is that this Doctor, as played in the first season by Christopher Eccleston from “Elizabeth” and “28 Days Later,” is more robust and active than his predecessors.
Gone are the screaming damsel-in-distress companions. His latest assistant, a London shopgirl named Rose Tyler (pop singer Billie Piper), is as much the hero as the Doctor, coming off as Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a British accent.
The special effects are computer-generated and state-of-the-art — although part of that art is paying homage to the cheese-ball originals by not making the effects look too good. In tonight’s episode, for example, the Doctor battles amusingly robotic department store mannequins and a big blob of pulsating plastic. He still travels in his trusty TARDIS, a ship that’s larger on the inside than on the outside — and the outside is disguised as a 1960s London police box.
Best of all, the new episodes retain the fun of the original “Doctor Who.” If you’re looking for allegorical, intriguing science fiction, this isn’t it. If you’re OK with rapid-fire, light-hearted dialogue with an occasional dig at politics and culture, this “Doctor Who” is your cup of tea.
“Doctor Who” premieres 10 p.m. today on the Sci Fi Channel. A second episode follows.