Mar 28 2011 4:21pm

The Middleman: America’s Doctor Who?

The Middleman

Everyone adores Doctor Who, even here in the colonies. We love its optimism, its adventurous spirit, the weird technology and the aliens that are often more human than the humans. We love the unabashedly positive hero and his succession of spunky companions. But we overlooked what could have been our own Who, a show that gave these same concepts a decidedly American spin: The Middleman.

The show ran for twelve episodes on the ABC Family Network back in 2008. The nameless Middleman is a straight-laced hero with a 1950s moral outlook (I mean that in a good way) who recruits Wendy Watson as his new assistant and Middleman-in-training. She’s an ultra-modern, post-ironic Bohemian artist whose crucial trait is that she never panics. As the Middleman says in the first episode:

“You know how in comic books there’s all kinds of mad scientists and aliens and androids and monsters and all of them want to either destroy or take over the world? Well, it really does work like that.”

So how is this like Doctor Who?

1.) Optimism. The show flirted with darkness, but the spirit was always upbeat. The world might mock the Middleman’s milk-drinking wholesomeness (His curses run to expressions like, “Guns of Navarone!”) but he’s unashamed of it. Like the Doctor, he’s a self-motivated compassionate do-gooder, always willing to help those in need. And like the Doctor, very little throws him off-stride.

2.) Advanced technology that really makes no sense. The Doctor has the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), while the Middleman has the strange, disco-ball contraption known as the HEYDAR. (High Energy Yield DAta Resource). In both series, this technology is never adequately explained, and never functions in a consistent manner; its purpose is to speed through narrative spots that would otherwise bog down the show. And in both shows, the creators made sure the devices themselves are quirky and entertaining (the TARDIS is stuck in the shape of a British police call box, the HEYDAR’s mouthpiece robot Ida has the persona and appearance of a cranky librarian).

3.) A companion who functions as the audience surrogate. This figure shows up in a lot of great SF: s/he’s the normal person drawn into extraordinary events, and his/her reactions guide the audience. The Doctor has had a series of such companions, while the Middleman, alas, only had time for one. To me, Wendy’s relationship with the Middleman most resembles the Doctor’s relationship with his fellow Time Lord-in-training Romana: she challenges, teases and occasionally spars with our hero, but under it all she unabashedly admires him.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana

4.) Limitless possibility for adventures through time and space. Both shows are unbound by the constraints of a realistic universe. The Doctor can literally go anywhere and any time, regularly encountering aliens and advanced (or primitive) human societies. The Middleman encountered numerous aliens, and in one episode a parallel dimension; there’s no reason to think that, had it lasted, its scale would not have expanded to the entire universe.

5.) A hero who’s the latest in a long line of identically named heroes. The Doctor is on his eleventh incarnation; we meet the 1960s Middleman in one episode, and Wendy is explicitly being trained to become the next one. This sense of continuity and history gives weight to the shows’ central mythologies.

And finally:

6.) It’s a show that the whole family can enjoy, and I mean that in the best possible, literal way.

I love The Middleman,and I’m truly sorry it didn’t catch on. Would it have matched Dr. Who’s forty-years-and-counting run? Probably not. But it could have countered the omnipresent dystopia and nihilism in science fiction television, and provided American kids with the kind of hero that could help them combat nightmares (as the Doctor does for my son). And the loss, my friends, is all ours.

Alex Bledsoe, author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, and the forthcoming Dark Jenny), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the first Tufa novel, the forthcoming The Hum and the Shiver.

Mike Ferrante
1. MadmanMike
You know, having watched and loved both shows, I never drew this connection but you're spot on. Kudos, sir. Of course now I'm longing to rewatch my Middleman DVDs.
Ian Tregillis
2. ITregillis
Well said! MadmanMike took the words out of my mouth.
Sky Thibedeau
3. SkylarkThibedeau
I always thought some network should have done an American spin on Doctor Who and the Tardis would have been an old 1980's Parking Lot Film Developing Kiosk.
Jim Nutt
4. jimnutt
I miss the Middleman, we were greatly disappointed when we found out it was only 12 episodes..
Eric Rosenfield
5. ericrosenfield
Yeah, Middleman was one of the best shows ever, and I'm so sad it was cancelled.
6. Rowanmdm
I am so happy to see this love for The Middleman! I adore this show for so many reasons. I have been describing it as the American Doctor Who ever since I fist saw it, for the same reasons you discussed. There are some additional reasons I love it though:
- It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. I love Wendy and Lacey and how they have so many interesting conversations; men are a part of their lives, not the focus.
- It's one of the only shows I know of that that takes a white character and turns them into a minority character. Wendy Watson is a redhead in the comic, but Wendy Watson in the tv show is hispanic. I love that in addition to doing color washing instead of white washing, they didn't make Wendy a stereotype of her ethnicity. The addition of the disconnect between what her mother wanted for her and what Wendy wanted for herself was an interesting element that I would have loved to see be further explored.
- It's witty. Even if you don't catch all of the geek in-jokes, it is hysterical just to have the zombie flying fish (or were they the vampire flying fish?) and all the great banter. This is also another Doctor Who parrallel.
-A hero in the Middleman that is unabashedly good. With all of the conflicted and seriously flawed heros out there, it's nice to have one who is a hero in the truest sense of the word. This doesn't mean there is no personal conflict (e.g. the whole personal desire vs responsibilty the Middleman deals with), and I appreciate being able to love a character unabashedly, and not have things like Captain Jack's sacrifices in the finale of Children of Earth hanging over them. As nice as it is to have flawed heros so we can go "well, if so-and-so can be a hero with that big flaw, so can I," it's also important to have the Superman and Middleman types to give us something better to stretch for.

And I could go on for bit, but I should get back to work at this point. I think I'm going to have to do a Middleman rewatch this week...
7. Christine Merrill
Well said, Alex.

The only other connection I'd add is the complete and sudden immersion of the audience into the universe created, with no dumbing down or spoon feeding to bring us up to speed.

The electric excitement of the Christopher Eccleston Doctor Who reboot is there in The Middleman pilot as well. The world is not as it seems. But don't sweat it. There is someone fighting evil, so we don't have to.
dreamer M
8. WanderinDreamr
Huh, I've never heard of this series before but now I really want to watch it, same that Netflix doesn't have it streaming.
9. Matthew Hyde
Great article - I'm a fan of both shows so it's good to see them getting some love. Although I've always thought of The Middleman as a sci-fi Due South...

10. Tedd
I tried this one out on Netflix based on someones recommendation(it may have been here?). It was a fantastic show, and I ended up watching every one of them, mailed one disc at a time. What will happen to the Intertubes when everyone is trying to stream movies? :-)

I especially loved how they made fun of the ABC Family connection. They would bleep out profanities in a really obvious and hilarious manner.

Great villians, great titles, great locations(i.e The Underworld).

And the Middleman's office shares a "neverending" quality with the TARDIS.
11. Sihaya
Yeah, you nailed it with this article. My family loved The Middleman, and it's one of the few shows we would watch live instead of simply catching later in the week through the DVR.
12. Mndrew
Indeed, and furthermore, I cannot wait for the next incarnation of The Middleman. Movie, Network Movie of the Week, or back channel cable series, I'll take it any way at all.
13. EllenC
I have loved the Middleman since it was a quirky little comic book drawn by Les McClaine. I have all the books, plus an autographed poster, the original artwork form the scene in the first book where Wendy attacks Ben for breaking up with her as a film class project, and a note from Javi assuring me that MM isn't necessarily dead. I am the biggest geek. Well. One of them.

I think the TV show was on the wrong network. I don't think ABC Family had the right audience for it. I think this is borne out by other ABC Family shows like "Make it or Break it" - which features a plucky group of girl gymnasts mentored by a maverick coach, their assorted dysfunctional families, and a perky, nurturing Christian played by Candace Cameron. It's not the kind of thing that's going to have an audience that crosses over to wacky scifi shows with bleeped out swearing. I'm not sure exactly where it would fit, but I wish it had found a more supportive niche.
14. Sihaya
EllenC, I think it would work at 10 p.m. Saturday on PBS, which is another thing it has in common with Doctor Who.
Teresa Jusino
15. TeresaJusino
That's so awesome! I've heard so much about The Middleman, but never watched it. Now, I'm even SORRIER it's not around anymore.

*runs to Netflix to see if it's available*
Alex Bledsoe
16. alexbledsoe
Wow, thanks for all the comments! It's spring break here, so the boys are underfoot and I can't get online to respond like I should. But I appreciate all the kind words!

Some quick specific replies:
Rowanmdm: You're dead right about the "color-washing." I had not encountered that term before, but it's now firmly in my lexicon.
Tedd: Good point about the "neverending" quality.
EllenC: I hope Javi is right. Any incarnation is welcome.

Thanks again, everyone!
Sol Foster
17. colomon
Surely Men in Black is a better match than Dr. Who? I don't know which comic came first (MiB or Middleman), but Middleman is basically a wittier, geekier, funnier, and more sexy version of MiB.

Or perhaps it only seems that way to me because, while I find Dr. Who okay, I vastly prefer Middleman...
Scott Abbott
18. Scott
Loved Middleman - thanks for enunciating some reasons why!
Amy G. Dala
19. amygdala11
Middleman is a great show, and my family gathered on the couch to watch the entire thing on DVD. (The DVDs have some wonderful extras, by the way...)
Jaq Greenspon
20. captainjaq
Based on your write up, I went out and got teh series, which I watched WAY too quickly!

And while I agree 100% with you on the Doctor Who comparisons, I think what Middleman spawned is also important. Watching MM and Dubbie recover artifacts which had powers grafted on due to their historical importance just screamed the genesis of Warehouse 13!
21. Azure_Noir
Just came across this and have to say, I fully agree with your article. There's only one other show my husband and I have loved as much as The Middleman -- and that, no surprise, I am sure, is Firefly.

I so wish Grillo-Marxuach had developed the fanbase for The Middleman as Whedon did Firefly; we might well have seen great things.
Jack Flynn
22. JackofMidworld
A little late, but I have to agree that Middleman was a great show. When I watched the same episode more than once, I'd always catchy some little shout-out that I'd missed the first time through, and I still miss Middleman and Dub-Dub.
23. Lubiana
You guys are making me want to watch this show like crazy!
24. R Bushong-Taylor
Thanks for this. You are right, of course. And now I'm off concocting a Middleman episode that has the Doctor showing up to help avert a multi-level catastrophe while the two principle characters develop a weird kind of "bromance" ...

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