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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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