LONDON (AP) – A time-traveling blast from the past – and the future – has become one of the biggest hits of Britain’s television present.

A BBC update of the hugely popular science fiction series “Doctor Who,” complete with killer robots from outer space and a rickety wooden police box that zips through the millennia, has introduced a new generation of viewers to a TV classic that originally ran from 1963 to 1989.

The new season, 13 episodes running through June, is packed with oddball aliens and frequent opportunities for the two heroes to save humankind.

So far, spaceships have crashed into Big Ben and the River Thames to presage a takeover of the British government – the bad guys invaded the bodies of the prime minister and his aides – and the mysterious Doctor and his young sidekick have zoomed 5 billion years into the future to watch the Earth come to a fiery end.

It’s a welcome return for fans who’d been waiting more than 15 years for the comeback of the Doctor – an alien “Time Lord” who’s taken the form of nine different human actors in the course of the show – and his assistant, this time a working-class London gal named Rose Tyler.

Starring a smooth, charming Christopher Eccleston in the title role and former pop singer Billie Piper as his sidekick, the British Broadcasting Corp. remake stays true to the much-loved original while giving it a contemporary sheen.

“All the “Doctor Who’ furniture is there,” said Antony Wainer, spokesman for the 1,500-member Doctor Who Appreciation Society. “That is the formula. And it still survives.”

Among Doctor Who mainstays are the Tardis time machine, disguised as a clunky blue 1950s-style police call box, and out-of-this-world villains – the relentless, robotic Daleks.

Writer Russell T. Davies, who created the groundbreaking television drama “Queer as Folk,” revived the series, serving as executive producer and writing many of the episodes. He hopes to bring in viewers who hadn’t watched earlier seasons of “Doctor Who,” a goal he’s clearly achieved – the show has been a hit with kids.

Davies is taking on a cultural icon. In a 2000 British Film Institute poll, people in the TV industry ranked “Doctor Who” as their third-favorite British show ever. The original was widely exported, winning fans in the United States, Canada and Australia. The new season is being shown in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Italy, but BBC America has no plans to air it for the time being.

Fiona Moore, an anthropologist who studies media at Kingston University in London, said the flexibility of the program’s format, with the characters traveling to a different time and place in nearly every episode, made it endlessly adaptable.

“You can go anywhere, you can do anything, your central figure can be anything from posh and velvet-clad to this chap with a shaved head and a leather jacket,” the current Doctor’s look, Moore said.

Eccleston, who had film roles in “Elizabeth,” “Shallow Grave” and “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” plays the lead character as a wisecracking charmer whose jokey demeanor covers up his sadness at being the last surviving member of his alien species, all killed in the interplanetary Time War.

Eccleston is the ninth actor to play the Doctor. Rumpled, bushy-haired Tom Baker, who starred from 1974 to 1981, was one of the most popular, cracking outer space mysteries in a long striped scarf and floppy hat.

Eccleston’s performance has been well-received by fans and critics, but he has announced he won’t be on board for a second season. David Tennant, who’s starred in a number of British TV programs and Stephen Frears’ 2003 film “Bright Young Things,” is to replace him.

Piper, who is staying on, plays the sharp, gutsy Rose, always ready to leap into another epoch.

In one emotionally charged episode, she persuades the Doctor to bring her back to the day in the 1980s when her father was killed in a car accident. Rose meets her dad but her intervention in the crash breaks the rules of time travel and creates a mind-bending mess that threatens all humanity.

Fans of the original “Doctor Who” laugh now about its amateurish appearance and low-tech special effects. The new series is more polished, although it has nods to the past with goofy devices like aliens who take over the bodies of Britain’s leaders and exit by unzipping their foreheads and climbing out.

The original “Doctor Who,” said Moore, emerged from one of British television’s most creative periods to become a central part of the popular culture, “something that you grow up with, that’s always there.”

Now, she said, “you see children in the playground standing like Daleks or unzipping their heads like the bad guys.”

AP-ES-05-19-05 1446EDT

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