Holy crap, "Doctor Who" rocks.
Over the course of the last week or so, I've been watching season 1 of the relaunch. Somehow, despite having seen several episodes of the new series, I've only previously managed to catch two episodes with Christopher Eccleston: "The Empty Child" and "The Parting of the Ways," episodes somewhat bereft of their gravitas being seen out of context. Watching the series from the beginning has been an absolute treat. There aren't many shows that can alternate so successfully and so powerfully between funny, touching, scary, and suspenseful. I quite literally jumped out of my chair when they "killed" Rose in "Bad Wolf"--a moment which wouldn't have been nearly as effective if they hadn't already "replaced" Rose earlier that episode. Lynda Moss was a fantastic misdirection character.
One of the things I really like about this series is that it engages in social commentary, the way science fiction shows, almost as a rule, used to. I think a great deal of this has to do with the fact that the series doesn't take itself too seriously. Social commentary was essentially the purpose of "Star Trek," and it worked because they weren't afraid to crack a pun or make a joke at the end of all of it. The more serious the Star Trek shows became, the more they focused on building some kind of coherent universe as opposed to telling more-or-less isolated stories with a constant cast, the more hollow and contrived the commentary felt, when it showed up at all. The series became increasingly detached thematically from anything resembling real life, just as they also became more pessimistic, more grim, and less like an idealized estimation of the future. Sometimes that worked, when the characters drove the story (see: The Dominion War arc); more often, it failed miserably (see: the Temporal Cold War arc...or, hell, anything from Voyager and Enterprise).
Doctor Who's sense of humor about itself is what allows it to tell stories about futuristic reality television and animated mannequin armies; the show isn't specifically concerned with dotting all the continuity i's and crossing all the universe-building t's, it's concerned about telling good stories with good characters, and occasionally saying something about the state of affairs in our time, on our world.
That's something that I'd like to see more in American sci-fi. I hear Stargate SG-1 was pretty good about keeping things light, but that ought to be the rule, rather than the exception. Science Fiction would do well to remember its roots.
In the meantime, though, I'll be travelling with the Doctor.