Yet Another British Invasion: “Doctor Who” in America

On Christmas 2010 the US got to participate in an ongoing UK tradition, the annual Doctor Who Christmas episode, instead of seeing it a few week's later as in past years. Lynnette Porter explores what this reveals about the show's growing popularity in the US.

Christmas in the US often brings back beloved television characters from years past who have become part of our cultural tradition. Americans may associate Doctor Seuss and the Grinch with holiday celebration and look forward to that annual visit to Whoville. This year, however, brought a new Doctor and a whole Whoniverse to the US, just in time for Christmas night. BBC America’s present to Doctor Who fans (and possibly a whole new audience) gave US viewers the same opportunity as UK audiences to see the Doctor on Christmas. More important, what BBC America undoubtedly hopes will become a US holiday tradition signals one way that Doctor Who is leading another British invasion—this time in science fiction—with series like Torchwood, Being Human, Primeval, and Bedlam.

If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you might have assumed that the “Christmas invasion” happened years ago, back when the now-classic series was new. The Doctor—now in his eleventh regeneration—arrived in 1963. As the half-century mark for this much-loved, longest-running British science fiction show (as well as longest running SF show anywhere) quickly approaches, there are more signs of a new British invasion. BBC America, the darling of ex-pats and Anglophiles, most often has broadcast Doctor Who episodes a few weeks after their screening on BBC One. However, this Christmas (what some fans called “Smithmas” in honor of Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith) marked an important change: fans in the US watched the Christmas special on Christmas. Even last year’s return of the Master and the impending regeneration of popular Tenth Doctor David Tennant couldn’t accomplish that.

A few other glaring neon signs indicate that the Doctor is becoming less of a British curiosity or a friend of die-hard SF geeks: in November Matt Smith was a guest on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show, which proved such a draw to Who fans that tickets specifically to that taping were in high demand. Cosplayers—those fans who dress like and portray their favorite characters—came attired as their favorite Doctor. Smith even congratulated one bow tie-wearing fan for his sharp dressing, and the television audience got to see at least one example of the care cosplayers take with every detail of their characters. Even better was Smith’s own geek chic: dark suit (complete with this Doctor’s trademark bow tie), white shirt, white socks, and dark shoes. If fans thought he made a fez look good, they were even more pleased with his talk show wardrobe.

Back in the days of long-time fan favorite Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, who starred as the Doctor 1974-1981, or even in the more recent and highly publicized Tennant years (2005-2010), the Doctor or his actor alter-ego didn’t make guest appearances on American talk shows, not even one hosted by a Scot-become-American.

During the Late Late Show, Smith played along with the usual brand of craziness for which Ferguson’s show is known—he high-fived the host, played a harmonica, and humorously gave his first impressions of the US from a recent drive along the California coast and a foray into Las Vegas.

The one event that marred the celebration was the highly anticipated “special opening” that Ferguson groused couldn’t be shown (because, it turned out, of licensing issues). A few weeks later, however, the unbroadcast opening segment—featuring Ferguson and alien guests dancing to the Doctor Who theme while explaining the series’ premise, plus a bouncy cameo by the Eleventh Doctor—was circulated via YouTube. Fans can see why the host was unhappy about the last-minute cancellation of the segment; he clearly understands the joy of being a Who fan and delights in the series’ premise, which seemed appropriately whimsical even without being explained by a hand puppet.

That premise seems straightforward. A Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey travels through Time and Space in a TARDIS—a sentient “vehicle” whose acronym stands for Time And Relative Dimensions in Space. Because the TARDIS’ chameleon circuit, which allowed it to be hidden in plain sight, became stuck while the Doctor visited the U.K., the vehicle looks like a blue police box from years gone by. The interior (vastly bigger on the inside than the exterior suggests) changes with Doctor or showrunner. The Doctor has the ability to regenerate—to “die” but “return” looking like a different person (quite handy when a new actor is needed for the role).

Theoretically, the series can keep going as long as fans want the Doctor to keep regenerating. Although his regenerations are limited, I suspect that the Doctor will stay healthy as long as his ratings are robust. With 11 million viewers in the UK making the 2010 Christmas special one of the top-rated programs of the week, the BBC has good reason to keep Doctor Who around.

Simon Guerrier, novelist and Doctor Who writer for Big Finish Productions, notes that, in principle, the show could go on forever. “It’s such a brilliant idea. You take this box, and wherever the box lands, you’re in the story. The Doctor always arrives just as the story is beginning. [Current showrunner] Steven Moffat refers to people like the Doctor (and Sherlock Holmes and James Bond) as people to whom adventures just happen anyway, so you’re always off running.“

The primary purpose of Smith’s recent visit to the States was to film a Doctor Who episode. Earlier in 2010, the Doctor and companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) had leaped the pond to promote the series in New York and Hollywood. In light of these events and BBC America’s broadcast of the well-reviewed Christmas special, the Eleventh Doctor may be just the Time Lord to bridge the Time-Space gap between US and UK fans.

What worries some British fans, however, isn’t that the Doctor is getting some well-deserved publicity, first with the series’ reboot by Russell T. Davies and then via changes from new showrunner Steven Moffat, who steered the venerable but recently refurbished TARDIS in a different direction in 2010. With the rise of BBC Worldwide and Davies’ own much-publicized move to Los Angeles, UK fans questioned whether the Doctor was planning to base more adventures outside his traditional Earthly base in London (or Cardiff—where the series has been principally filmed since 2005). The BBC started construction earlier this year on a new studio facility near Cardiff Bay, helping to allay concerns arise that the Doctor may be planning more visits to the US. Nevertheless, Davies’ spinoff show, Torchwood, is now a joint venture of US-based Starz and the BBC, and in early January filming of the highly publicized (and controversial) fourth season began in the U.S. Who is to say if Who might become a more frequent flyer to LA? After all, a TARDIS can travel anywhere, anywhen. Why not make a few more trips to US locations?

Then there were mid-2010’s wildfire rumors about a Doctor Who movie, possibly starring Johnny Depp. Nothing personal to Depp, but to many, that’s akin to sacrilege. The Master might as well have plotted that rumor to agitate fans. Although quickly shot down, the idea that someone other than a U.K. homeboy might play the Doctor just seemed wrong.

The “Americanization” of the Doctor is highly pragmatic. Tennant and John Barrowman (Torchwood’’s Captain Jack Harkness) visited San Diego’s Comic-Con in 2009 to promote both their series, and Davies has indicated that Torchwood may make another appearance at Comic-Con in 2011. Smith’s recent talk-show appearance and US tour help make the Doctor more mainstream in the US, a country with a strong tradition of SF. As well, among fan conventions, the Whoniverse is well represented by annual events such as Gallifrey One in Los Angeles and Chicago TARDIS. The series has come a long way from sporadically broadcast episodes reliant on fan donations to PBS.

Certainly the ready availability of DVDs has given fans greater and faster access to the Doctor. There also is a greater number of related materials for fans of the new or classic Who: Big Finish Productions annually produces original audio stories, many featuring the original actors. As well, hardback novelizations for adults and a separate set of paperbacks for younger readers take fans on new adventures with the Doctor. Doctor Who magazine is available by subscription in the US as well as UK, but more frequently is turning up on newsstands at Borders and Barnes and Noble. Other merchandise—from action figures to games to costumes—is readily available online and in stores catering to SF fans. In recent years actors currently or once affiliated with the series or its recent spinoffs The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood regularly meet with fans at conventions and special events ranging from pub nights to cruises. This marketing not only promotes the series to new viewers, but it also caters to a wider fan base, much of it outside the UK.

US fans should be heartened by the BBC’s growing interest in the US market and the likelihood that the Whoniverse is becoming more globalized. With eleven Doctors and plenty of current or vintage programming and merchandise, this is an alien invasion Americans can embrace.

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