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"Doctor Who's" Cardboard Villains Come Alive

How good is the new Doctor Who? Not just so good that the show's producers have taken what was a camp laughingstock and made it a gigantic mainstream hit in the UK. Not just so good that even American Sci-Fi audiences appear to be warming to it. Not just so good that it has managed to make me, a decades-long lapsed fan, excited about the series again.

No, the new Doctor Who is brilliant because it managed to make the series' goofy arch-enemies, the Daleks, actually scary.

In the episode "Dalek," airing Friday on the Sci-Fi Channel, we learn that the Doctor's hated enemies still look the same: they're essentially murderous robot salt shakers with mouse ears. And Robert Shearman, the writer of the episode, doesn't fall into the trap of the writers before him, who saw the Daleks as campy creatures to be winked at and easily defeated.

Instead, Shearman makes us understand that there's a creature inside that salt-shaker: a soldier, bred and trained to follow its deadly orders. And after enduring decades of torture at the hands of humans -- how's that for role reversal? -- it's pretty pissed off. But just as the Dalek's evil seems to have rubbed off on the humans around it, humanity has affected it as well.

It's easy to make fun of the Daleks, and the old Doctor Who. But in one hour, this new series makes you feel fright, horror, and even pity for what was once a cardboard villain. And in a stroke, the memories of that old TV series with the carboard sets also fade from view.

What remains is one of the best shows around today, at turns laugh-out-loud funny, sad, sweet, and scary. Nestled wonderfully between the gravitas of Battlestar Galactica and the increasing goofiness and self-referentiality of Stargate, Doctor Who is as unlikely a sci-fi revival as Battlestar Galactica was -- and just as successful.


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