When Doctor Who makes its triumphant return to the United States on the Sci Fi Channel March 17, the average American's reaction will likely be: It was here before? A science-fiction staple of British TV for over 40 years, Who achieved only cult status in the U.S. when the show was imported to PBS in the late '70s. The newly revamped version, shot for the BBC, stars Christopher Eccleston (28 Days Later) as the Doctor and British pop star Billie Piper as his time-travel partner, Rose Tyler. ''The show can be very dark, very gritty,'' says exec producer Russell T. Davies (the man behind the original Queer as Folk). ''But there's also a great deal of fun.'' Whether you're an old fan or a curious newcomer, here's everything you need to know about the new Who.
WHO IS HE? The Doctor is an alien with a lot of heart two of them, to be exact. He zips through space and time in the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), a ship that's huge inside, but looks like a phone booth on the outside. He's an exile who stumbles into trouble with a goofy grin, and occasionally escapes scrapes by transforming into another person. (Literally: Eccleston will be replaced by David Tennant in season 2.) The Doc's an odd, happy guy unlike the typical guns-blazing U.S. sci-fi military hero. Davies says that's precisely the show's appeal: ''One of the joys of the Doctor is that it's not his job to wander the universe he does it because he loves it.''
WHERE DOES HE GO? The original is revered for its quirkiness (foes included salt-shaker-shaped aliens the Daleks) and its witty scripts (by writers like Douglas Adams). Similarly, the new Doctor Who has no formula one week, he meets Charles Dickens; the next, he watches Earth's destruction billions of years in the future. While it's airing on Sci Fi's Friday lineup, don't expect things to be nearly as grim as, say, Battlestar Galactica especially when the good Doctor hangs out in a futuristic Big Brother house.
WHAT'S NEW WITH THIS 'WHO'? It has production values, for one. Local weathermen had better computer graphics than the original, which often featured guys in rubber monster suits. ''In the old days they worked twice as hard as I do,'' says Davies, ''and they never had enough money.'' And fans have never seen a companion quite like shopgirl Rose, who is as much the hero as the Doc himself. ''We share these adventures through the eyes of a completely normal 21st-century girl,'' Davies says. ''The most important thing about her is that she works in a shop.'' All that remains to be seen is if American audiences will be buying.
A HISTORY OF 'WHO'
DOCTOR WHO (BBC, 1963-1989) An institution on Saturday evenings, the 26-year show had multipart stories with cliff-hangers (usually the Doctor about to die). Seven actors played Who over the years (including scarf-wearing Tom Baker, the longest-running and most popular Doc).
DOCTOR WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965) and DALEKS: INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. (1966) Two movies released to cash in on the wild popularity of the Doctor's greatest foes, the Daleks. Not considered to be part of the Who canon, the movies starred Peter Cushing (Star Wars' Grand Moff Tarkin) as the Doctor.
DOCTOR WHO: THE MOVIE (Fox, 1996) A lame attempt to ''Americanize'' the Doctor (motorcycle chases! gang shootings!), this failed pilot featured Paul McGann as the Doc. Fox's decision to air it against ABC's hits Roseanne and Home Improvement proved to be a death sentence.