The pilot of Doctor Who (Sci Fi, Fridays at 9 p.m.) combines themes from all kinds of media experiences: the chick lit of self-actualization, the Kim Cattrall vehicle Mannequin (1987), and Norman Mailer's patented rants against plastic. Rose Tyler, our heroine, has a tedious job at a London department store, a tacky home life with a fantastically nattering mother, and a complacent romance going with a sweet and contemptibly dopey boy. She begins her transformation one day around closing time. Down in the basement, she attracts the unwanted advances of a posse of homicidal mannequins, a crew that the audience could find menacing only because the effects look so cheap that their very awkwardness is a freak-out.
Nonetheless, Rose is executing some commendable woman-in-peril shrieks when a middle-aged fellow swoops in to the rescue. He's full of ready quips and interdimensional know-how, and the writers do not intend for his goofy charm to obscure his dashing melancholy. This is the Doctor, an enigmatic figure doomed to cruise through space-time helping various civilizations out of very silly scrapes. In the pilot, there is some kind of molten glob beneath London threatening to use its telepathic command of synthetic materials—witness the mannequins—to destroy the city. The second episode, set on a spaceship in the distant future, concerns a baddie who wants to spoil a viewing party for the explosion of the sun.
This new Who, constructed by the BBC, is a revamp of the classic science-fiction series. Its merits, limits, homages, and heresies are doubtlessly the subject of robust conversation in certain circles that I'd rather not get too familiar with, but to my novice's eye, it's pretty decent hokum—fast, corny, genial, honest in its schlock. And though it's got the time-travel hook of the original and abounds with galactic mumbo-jumbo and spiffy gadgets, it reads less like speculative fiction than romance.
Billie Piper—a British pop star soon to be adorning screensavers at finer engineering schools everywhere—brings limitless pluck to her portrayal of Rose. In Spice Girls terms, the character is two parts Sporty and one part Baby—but, more to the point, she's a post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer figure, a self-possessed wiseass who entertains some ambivalence about her supernatural gig. She's on equal footing with Christopher Eccleston, who plays the Doctor as a notably alienated alien, a sweetheart full of secret sorrows. Yes, the show tells its fan-boy audience, there's a plump-cheeked gal out there for you. The two of you can talk about the end of time until the end of time. This is geek love.