"Doctor Who special effects are like old friends." - my pal, Keith Russo

I remember watching a BBC version of Macbeth in my high school English class. Ian McKellan and Judi Dench - surely two of the finest Shakespearean actors of the century - were the stars. It was brilliant.

Halfway through the play, one of the kids in my class called out, "Where are the Daleks?" Nobody but me got the joke. They probably didn't even hear it; they were too busy heckling Macbeth because the film quality was bad and the sets were cheap.

A few years later, I tried showing The Maltese Falcon to a couple of my college buds. They seemed to like it, but they had to make the mandatory comments about how the sets looked like plywood, and the painted backdrops were phony. Yeah, as if I hadn't noticed.

For whatever reason, low production values are equated with low quality. It's an understandable association, I suppose, especially within the realm of science fiction. Ed Wood and Roger Corman movies, with their rubber monsters, inept actors, and cringe-inducing scripts, forever tainted the reputation of cheap sci-fi.

Doctor Who has the bizarre honor of being considered the best cheesy science fiction show. But still, some people will refuse to watch it on the grounds that it looks bad. "Doesn't that show look like a soap opera?" mused a Buddist monk I met on a Greyhound Bus. "I can't watch that; I can see the shadows on the set cast from the studio lights."

Of course, most of Doctor Who's special effects are bad, otherwise people wouldn't always say so. But I think the criticism goes a little overboard, even amongst fans. To hear the show's detractors talk, you'd think that every special effect sucked, every set was made of wibbly-wobbly plywood, and every monster was a sheet of rubber painted green.

A couple of obvious points - first of all, Doctor Who did have a very low budget. Much lower, in fact, than you might imagine. Programs like Star Trek didn't cost twice as much as Doctor Who - they cost about four, five, or six times as much. They don't look it.

Doctor Who's designers had the challenging task of designing new aliens, new sets, and new effects for each episode. Unlike Star Trek's producers, they didn't have the luxury of recycling old effects and old sets (how many scenes in Trek take place on the Enterprise bridge, anyway?) And Doctor Who, unlike The X-Files, occasionally tried something more ambitious than filming fake corpses in some Canadian woods. Doctor Who routinely attempted to create cosmic spectacles and fantastic alien environments that would've strained a cinema budget, and it was successful more often than it should have been.

Yeah, I crack jokes about Doctor Who's production values a lot. But I think it's high time that the show's designers got a little praise. Raymond Cusick was told to buy some cardboard tubes and spray-paint them silver to create the Daleks. That's all we can afford, the BBC told him. With such meager resources, Ray somehow managed to cobble together four really cool, really detailed Dalek shells -and each individual Dalek, I might add, looked better than any of the aliens on the much-more-expensive original Star Trek series (which was, funnily enough, made years later).

Pop The Time Warrior into your VCR. Doesn't it have lovely costumes? James Acheson, the costume designer for that episode, went on to win an Academy Award for his work in Restoration, and he's designing the costumes for the new mega-budget Spider-Man movie.

Let's be honest - Doctor Who did have good visuals, all the time. Striking images helped get me hooked on the show. Davros' withered face really creeped me out when I was a kid, and it still looks impressive. And some of the show's most famous moments are visual - Daleks zooming past Parliament, Autons gunning down people in the streets, Sea Devils and Haemovores rising from the sea.

Believe me, it's okay to say that Talons of Weng-Chiang has good sets, Remembrance of the Daleks has good special effects, and that the Zygons are some of the most convincing monsters featured on television. No-one will laugh at you and throw poo on your clothes.

I'll go a step further - Doctor Who's last few seasons had excellent effects. The space station in Trial of a Time Lord is stunning, the Cheetah Planet in Survival is utterly alien, and The Destroyer is one mean-looking demon creature. Sure, there were bad special effects even then. But watch some episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation made around that time and you'll see that they've dated as well.

It's a bit unfair to stack Doctor Who up against its American contemporaries anyway. America, as a nation, has a much bigger budget than Britain! Compared to other BBC productions, Doctor Who looks good. Red Dwarf may have nice model shots, but it also has a cast of four (notice that the show often features evil clones as villains because they can't afford to hire more actors).

Yes, Doctor Who's cheapness has kept it from becoming popular in America. But do you really need to win over us superficial Yanks, anyway? When the TV Movie was broadcast, an acquaintance of mine shut it off after five minutes. "Why" I asked. She replied, "Because that guy who played Doctor Who (Sylvester McCoy) was too ugly to look at."

I love British TV just the way it is - cheaper and infinitely smarter than American TV, and full of homely actors who don't look like they've had million-dollar glamor makeovers. Thank God for Doctor Who and the BBC's Macbeth. Over here, we're dropping five million dollars per episode on Frasier, and that doesn't have any cool space stations or Zygons in it at all.