LONDON (AP) -- A time-traveling blast fromthe past - and the future - has become one of the biggest hits of Britain's television present.
A BBC update of the hugelypopular science fiction series ''Doctor Who,'' complete with killer robots fromouter 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 ranfrom 1963 to 1989.
The new season, 13 episodesrunning through June, is packed with oddball aliens and frequent opportunitiesfor the two heroes to save humankind.
So far, spaceships havecrashed into Big Ben and the River Thames to presage a takeover of the Britishgovernment - the bad guys invaded the bodies of the prime minister and hisaides - and the mysterious Doctor and his young sidekick have zoomed 5 billionyears into the future to watch the Earth come to a fiery end.
It's a welcome return forfans who'd been waiting more than 15 years for the comeback of the Doctor - analien "Time Lord'' who's taken the form of nine different human actors in thecourse of the show - and his assistant, this time a working-class London girlnamed Rose Tyler.
Starring a smooth, charmingChristopher Eccleston in the title role and former pop singer Billie Piper ashis sidekick, the British Broadcasting Corp. remake stays true to themuch-loved original while giving it a contemporary sheen.
"All the 'Doctor Who'furniture is there,'' said Antony Wainer, spokesman for the 1,500-member DoctorWho Appreciation Society. "That is the formula. And it still survives.''
Among Doctor Who mainstaysare the Tardis time machine, disguised as a clunky blue 1950s-style police callbox, and out-of-this-world villains - the relentless, robotic Daleks.
Writer Russell T. Davies,who created the groundbreaking television drama "Queer as Folk,'' revived theseries, serving as executive producer and writing many of the episodes. Hehopes 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 acultural icon. In a 2000 British Film Institute poll, people in the TV industryranked "Doctor Who'' as their third-favorite British show ever. The originalwas 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, ananthropologist who studies media at Kingston University in London, said theflexibility of the program's format, with the characters traveling to adifferent time and place in nearly every episode, made it endlessly adaptable.
"You can go anywhere, youcan do anything, your central figure can be anything from posh and velvet-cladto this chap with a shaved head and a leather jacket,'' the current Doctor'slook, Moore said.
Eccleston, who had filmroles in "Elizabeth,'' "Shallow Grave'' and "Gone in Sixty Seconds,'' plays thelead character as a wisecracking charmer whose jokey demeanor covers up hissadness at being the last surviving member of his alien species, all killed inthe interplanetary Time War.
Eccleston is the ninth actorto play the Doctor. Rumpled, bushy-haired Tom Baker, who starred from 1974 to1981, was one of the most popular, cracking outer space mysteries in a longstriped scarf and floppy hat.
Eccleston's performance hasbeen well-received by fans and critics, but he has announced he won't be onboard for a second season. David Tennant, who's starred in a number of BritishTV programs and Stephen Frears' 2003 film "Bright Young Things,'' is to replacehim.
Piper, who is staying on,plays the sharp, gutsy Rose, always ready to leap into another epoch.
In one emotionally chargedepisode, she persuades the Doctor to bring her back to the day in the 1980swhen her father was killed in a car accident. Rose meets her dad but herintervention in the crash breaks the rules of time travel and creates amind-bending mess that threatens all humanity.
Fans of the original "DoctorWho'' 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 goofydevices like aliens who take over the bodies of Britain's leaders and exit byunzipping their foreheads and climbing out.
The original "Doctor Who,''said Moore, emerged from one of British television's most creative periods tobecome a central part of the popular culture, "something that you grow up with,that's always there.''
Now, shesaid, "you see children in the playground standing like Daleks or unzippingtheir heads like the bad guys.''
Editor'sNote: The final episode of BBC's new Doctor Who series airs tonight on BBC One.