Though it likely doesn’t need saying, Doctor Who is a British show. A very British show. A let’s-make-jokes-about-tea-and-northern-accents show. While it’s easy to count the stereotypical ways this comes through on screen, there are far more subtle ways in which Doctor Who asserts that Britishness. One of those can be summed up in how Americans and the U.S.A. at large are portrayed within the canon.
To put it mildly, the Doctor doesn’t have much luck with Americans, does he?
I’m not suggesting that the writers have it out for the U.S. as a country, but they do like to poke fun on ocassion; the Adipose-overrun U.S. in the alternate timeline of “Turn Left” is proof enough of that, as is the humorless President Winters in “The Sound of Drums.” We deserve the poking, to be fair, being the child nation that Britain accidentally gave birth to a couple hundred years ago. We’re big and loud and brash, and we have our own values and our own set of rules to live by. In that way, we’re a lot like the Doctor. Maybe that’s why he has such a hard time with us.
I would go so far as to argue that—even with the poking fun—Americans are perhaps getting an unintentional compliment from Doctor Who writers. That we as a nation are so single-minded, so convinced of our own cleverness, that the Doctor has to work especially hard to win us over.
And it’s good to make him work hard every once in a while, don’t you think?
Of course, other people take exception to the Doctor throughout the show’s history too. But in nearly every single encounter with Americans, we find him scrambling to make allies, to slow people down, to get them to listen. It’s not something that he struggles with quite as consistently the rest of the time. We can even trace it back to the original Doctor’s reign, in the episode “The Gunfighters.” The First Doctor finds himself in the middle of a conflict in the old west that eventually erupts into the gunfight at the OK Corral. After a case of mistaken identity (Doc Holiday tries to make everyone think the Doctor is him so he can escape), the Doctor does his shtick: he tries to convince everyone to stop the showdown and send the Clanton boys to jail peacefully. No one listens. Not even Wyatt Earp, who had briefly made the Doctor a deputy. History goes down as we were taught, and the Doctor leaves in a disappointed huff.
Often the Doctor requires a proxy to communicate on his behalf in America; in the 1996 film when the Doctor angers a San Francisco cop, his companion—Grace, the American surgeon—halts the officer with, “Stop! He’s…he’s British!” The cop settles down, the Doctor offers him a jelly baby and everything goes smoothly from there. Then in “Daleks in Manhattan,” the Doctor works hard to gain Solomon’s confidence, aware that the man’s added voice will help him communicate with the people in Central Park’s Hooverville.
America seems to hold power and terror in equal measures for the Doctor. In “Dalek” we see Henry Van Statten—a ridiculously wealthy businessman who owns his own private alien museum (and the internet)—has been keeping a Dalek in his basement. The Doctor’s horror when he faces his old enemy is both shocking and painful to witness, but even more so are his constant pleas to Van Statten that go completely ignored. There is nothing he can say to make the man listen, and getting people to listen is the primary gateway into any given situation that allows the Doctor to help. Without that ability, he is effectively powerless. (And in this episode, briefly shirtless.)
From there we have the Doctor’s pacifist politics up against America’s tradition of force and arms. Even leaving the OK Corral aside, the 1996 film shows the Seventh Doctor walking out into the middle of a San Francisco gang fight and promptly getting shot; the only time a regeneration had been caused by that sort of mindless violence. The America = Guns strain of thought can be applied to the Doctor’s companions, as well. Captain Jack Harkness may not be American, but he sounds it, and he’s one of the few to be proficient with weapons of any kind.
In fact, someone could probably write their (incredibly cool) college thesis on the ways in which the Doctor’s development as a character is a clear result of his period and place of origin. Perhaps the reason why he tends to chose companions from the U.K. between the 1960s and present day is not just because that’s when and where the show is mostly set. Perhaps it has more to do with the culture that these companions come from. A culture that the Doctor (in a meta sense) heralds from himself. A culture where policemen don’t carry glocks and listening is a bit more of a virtue.
Though I won’t spoil you on events to come, I will say that the series six premiere plays into this theme spectacularly. While there is a bit of “poking fun” about it, the audience at the April 11th screening still applauded every instance of good old-fashioned American swagger—and the Doctor’s ensuing reaction to it. (All right, the applause was pretty ironic at some points. Which just proves our sense of humor!)
As for you, Doctor: feel free to keep coming back Stateside. We may give you a harder time than most, but we promise—here, stetsons are always cool.
Emily Asher-Perrin thinks that getting electrocuted on top of the Empire State Building might make you cooler than King Kong. She also finds it interesting that the gunfight at the OK Corral was not a “fixed point” in time. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.