“Doctor Who” and the Cultural Divide: Fandom in America

In 2006, while on sabbatical in Christchurch, New Zealand, I presented a seminar about apocalyptic television and series currently in vogue in the US. One series dealing with the aftermath of a genocidic war was the newly relaunched Doctor Who franchise featuring the Ninth Doctor, at that time introduced as the lone Time Lord surviving a war-to-end-all-wars with the Daleks. During the Q&A session, an indignant student questioned my use of Doctor Who in a discussion of science fiction series popular in the US. “How can you co-opt Doctor Who?” he asked. “That’s a British series, and Americans just don’t get it.” Several students agreed; Commonwealth countries could rightly claim the Doctor as their own, but he would always be a visitor in the US, not part of mainstream culture.

Are differences between US and UK Doctor Who fans more than distance in Space and Time? Why has this series become more globalized than other BBC offerings? With as long-lived a series as Doctor Who, fans in the US and even those affiliated with the BBC well understand the history of the series—and fandom—on both continents.

One important reason why the Doctor has lived so long on UK television is the series’ ability to change with the times—more often through a change in showrunner than by the introduction of a new Doctor, although one can clearly signal the other. Author (and long-time Who fan) Simon Guerrier has written several Doctor Who novels and scripts for Big Finish Productions. He attributes the Doctor’s long-lived popularity with the series’ ability to adapt: Doctor Who “changes all the time, and it keeps refreshing itself. That’s not just the process of regeneration, where you change the Doctor, but every time you bring in a new companion, you’re offering a new perspective. Rather than looking at a history of Doctor Who by who is playing the Doctor, I think it’s much more telling to see who’s working behind the scenes. The feel of the show, the tone of it, the look of it—when those showrunner elements are changed, the show is invigorated. It becomes something else, and that’s always very exciting and gives it longevity.”

In particular, the series’ re-imagination was sparked in 2005 by Russell T. Davies, who helmed the series through the Ninth and Tenth Doctors’ tenure. In 2010 Steven Moffat changed the series’ look and tone as he became the latest showrunner, and the Eleventh Doctor provides a very different take on the Time Lord—one, some long-time fans claimed, more reminiscent of a much earlier era of Time Lords. Yet the Eleventh Doctor is a unique creation, especially as played by the youngest actor in the role, Matt Smith.

Because the Doctor is very much a part of British popular culture, but also has a history with US fans who first met the time traveler on PBS, the fandoms “grew up” differently. Now that BBC America offers US fans a much quicker broadcast turnaround time than ever before, even showing the most recent Christmas special only a few hours after it debuted on the BBC in the UK, fans on both continents can discuss the series and participate in online fandom in real time (although downloads of episodes soon after their broadcast on U.K. television kept many fans in the online loop without the blessing of the Beeb). However, the ways that separate fan groups have developed, despite the shared experience of viewing episodes within hours or days of each other, indicate that fandom hasn’t yet bridged the transatlantic gap.

The Cultures of Fandom

Guerrier sees a basic cultural difference between fans in the US and UK. “The thing that American fandom kind of misses is that in the UK Doctor Who is not a small thing or a niche thing. Fans here want to cluster together at conventions because it’s a place where they can talk about Doctor Who and share their passion for it, whereas in the UK you just do that at work. It’s in the papers. It’s a huge, popular show. My siblings watch Doctor Who. They’re not fans of things I’m a fan of, but my brother and his kids watch it. It’s just part of what you do. The Christmas special is part of the culture.” At least since the series’ reboot in 2005, Doctor Who has gone mainstream in the UK, but, as in the US yet today, the Doctor wasn’t always so popular outside hardcore SF fandom. “Before the new show came back, it was much more like a social affliction to be a Doctor Who fan. It was something you apologized for,” he adds, tongue only slightly in cheek. “It’s not like that at all now. I still find it quite strange how ‘out’ Doctor Who is.”

Despite the increased visibility of Doctor Who in the US—through Matt Smith’s appearance on The Late Late Show, episodes filming in the US, well-publicized Comic-Con panels, actor appearances at prominent fan conventions, and the sheer globalization of internet fandom—the US still has quite a ways to go culturally before Doctor Who Who is mainstream popular culture.

Barnaby Edward is a long-time Who fan who writes about the series (in The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who), heads Manhattan fan group Doctor Who New York, and runs fan events. He notes that “one of the biggest challenges in promoting Doctor Who further in the US is the limited cable distribution of BBC America. The channel does a phenomenal job promoting the show—buses in NYC, billboards in LA, and the media blitz that accompanied the premiere of ‘The Eleventh Hour’ [the Eleventh Doctor’s much anticipated first episode], but unless people rise up and demand the channel from their cable providers, the audience will always be limited.”

Unlike UK fans’ easy access to the BBC, US fans must rely on cable companies carrying BBC America—or wait for DVDs. Although the capability for non-UK fans to legally download BBC episodes of popular programs is forthcoming, the system isn’t currently available.

Convention Culture

During the annual Chicago TARDIS convention over Thanksgiving weekend, fans from around the world shared their love of Doctor Who, as well as Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. Actors from all three series participated in panel discussions, meet-and-greets, photo ops, and autograph sessions. They also mingled with fans in the lobby or had a drink at the bar, caught up with friends old or new in the green room, and seemed to have just as much fun as the fans. A principle reason is that they also are fans of the series.

Chicago TARDIS has become a fan institution, and its forums for planning and discussing upcoming conventions get busy months in advance. Fan panels, costume contests, and cosplay are eagerly anticipated year to year, and fans take great care in the selection of their wardrobe and accessories well in advance of the convention. The level of detail in many fan-produced costumes, for example, rivals that of original costumes.

Even those fans who choose not to dress as their favorite character show their support for their favorite actors. Gareth David-Lloyd’s career has moved on since his Torchwood days, and the actor’s fans could be seen throughout the convention wearing T-shirts for metal band Blue Gillespie or SF film Casimir Effect, which had its own Q&A session. Once a part of the Who family, always a part of the family and its fandom, which seems happy to branch out and embrace other aspects of an actor’s career.

A convention is more than actor encounters, at least for some fans. Collectors also find those one-of-a-kind or hard-to-find items in the dealers’ room, which this year attracted a long line prior to its opening as fans wanted to be the first to check out the merchandise and have the opportunity to purchase something rare.

Lobby con—so named for the location where fans and guests tend to migrate and mingle—and room parties provide yet more unscheduled ways to share critiques of episodes and Doctors, get the latest news, and meet people with similar loves and complaints.

Unlike a huge, multi-fandom event like a Comic-Con or a Dragon Con, smaller Who conventions draw a crowd big enough to make the convention viable yet manageable enough so that fans and guests can interact, as well as get into most events. (Chicago TARDIS’ prepaid breakfast with the guests, for example, always sells out early.) In many ways, a convention like Chicago TARDIS provides the best of both worlds—it attracts desirable guests from the Whoniverse at an affordable rate to attract the most fans. It allows US fans to interact with UK fans—who also may be writers and actors from a beloved series.

Despite such perennial conventions as Chicago TARDIS or the bigger Gallifrey One, next scheduled for February 18-20 in Los Angeles, Who fandom mainly meets online, although some regions of the country also have more frequent, much smaller in-person get-togethers. Who globalization owes a great deal to internet fandom, which allows instantaneous sharing of information, much of it video. During a recent Chicago TARDIS session, one actor jokingly warned fans not to tell what he’d just said. “Too late,” a woman cheerfully piped up. The video had just been uploaded to YouTube, where it likely would spread to Twitter and Facebook in a matter of moments. Even those fans who can’t attend a convention somewhere in the world see or read the latest news. Such interaction keeps the fandom alive and, especially in the US, makes fans more vocal about what they want from the BBC and its merchandise or marketing.

The Doctor Who Experience

The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, now the longest running science fiction television series, is not that far away, even in linear time: 2013. The Doctor Who Experience is set to open on 20 February 2011, and after its stay in London, in 2012 the Experience will move to Cardiff, home of the newly expanded BBC Wales studios near Cardiff Bay.

BBC Worldwide invites fans to “step inside the TARDIS this spring to take a starring role in your very own Doctor Who adventure” via this Experience. Just because the 3-D, interactive adventure includes scenes filmed with the current Doctor, Matt Smith, doesn’t mean that the past has been forgotten. The Experience features original costumes and props used throughout the years that have been diligently hunted down and identified by BBC Worldwide’s Andrew Beach.

In early December, Beach shared news of the Doctor Who Experience with a highly interested group of fans in Orlando, Florida, the theme park capital of the world. When asked whether the BBC might build a Doctor Who park similar to the recent Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, Beach thought the idea sounded reasonable. The BBC would like to expand Who’s popularity, and if there is a big enough market in the US, why not bring either the Doctor Who Experience to the US or build a park celebrating the Whoniverse in America? Nowadays the BBC seems eager to promote the Doctor and spread the Who franchise as far as possible, including in the US.

The Who franchise seems poised to enter a new level of global promotion, especially as the two most recent Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith, continue to bring a new generation of viewers to the series while retaining long-time fans. UK and US fandoms may have had divergent paths of development, but Doctor Who still stands a good chance of becoming ever more mainstream in America. Could there someday be a theme park dedicated to the Doctor? Only time (and a Time Lord) can tell.

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