Apr 21 2011 5:36pm

Damn Yankees and the Doctor: Why the U.S.A. Spells Trouble for Our Favorite Time Lord

The Doctor and the Empire State Building are Best Friends.

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.

Henry van Statten in

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.

Doctor Who Series 6 Promo

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.

F Shelley
1. FSS
I've spent some time thinking about this very thing: that Doctor Who just could not be an American show. Perhaps other countries, but not American.


I think it has to do with the fact that we (America) started off as a country as an act of rebellion, and it's a large part of who we are. From the Revolution, to the Wild West, to Speakeasies during Prohibition, to the 60's, etc, etc, it's always old vs new, and new almost always wins. The worst insult someone can give an idea in this country is that it's old.

The Doctor, aside from being very old, is a throw-back in a way, isn't he? After all, he's a Time Lord. He doesn't choose the most educated or accomplished as his companions. He chooses the way, way beneath him (actually, I'm only familiar with the new series, did he ever have, say, an Astro-Physisist as a full time companion? And if so, was the companion on the same level as the others?). Rose - worked in a shop. Martha - a Doctor, and apparently the companion he liked least. Donna - a temp. Amy - a kissagram. He chooses people who don't want knowledge of space of time, just adventures, who will remind him to be "human". And they never question him, really. They're Sam to his Frodo. They know their place. And when people do show independent knowledge (Rory) he acts pissed off.

If the Doctor landed in America (i.e. if Doctor Who was an American show), some kid would have hit him over the head and took off in the TARDIS. After all, the fun for American kids would be in figuring out our own place in all of time and space, not getting the guided tour from the "lord".

Just a few thoughts, from a fan, no less. But it is very easy to keep in mind just how British a show this is.

edit - fixed a few typos...
David Goldfarb
2. David_Goldfarb
I don't think the Adipose going after America in Turn Left represents "poking fun" so much as just alternate-timeline extrapolation. OTL's Partners in Crime had them going after England, but in the Turn Left history England's economy was ruined after the nuking of London in alt-Voyage of the Damned. So, with England having fewer fat people (owing to widespread famine) and fewer people with disposable income to spare on things like diet pills, America becomes the logical target.
Evan Langlinais
3. Skwid
At the same time, was there anything more bizarre than apparently everyone in England sitting on the edges of their chairs waiting for President Obama to give a speech that would fix the economy? That really threw me off for that whole episode...
4. Nightsky
I think it's also instructive to look at the only regular American companion: Peri Brown. Peri's portrayal varies (the series was in turmoil at the time). At her worst, she can be a ditz and a bit of a whiner; at her best she's smart, with a quick and biting wit, and definitely full of American-style brio. Six even teases her about "showing some of that American initiative."

(actually, I'm only familiar with the new series, did he ever have, say, an Astro-Physisist as a full time companion? And if so, was the companion on the same level as the others?)

Yes: Vicki, companion to William Hartnell's First Doctor; and Zoe Heriot, companion to Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor. Both were much smarter than the other companion in the TARDIS at the time (Steven and Jamie, respectively), which everyone seemed OK with.
Kathy Routliffe
5. kaffyr1
Liz Shaw, who was an assistant to the Third Doctor, was a notable exception to the "Companion as student/acolyte/asker of Excellent Questions" in that she was a scientist in her own right, quite independent, and eventually exasperated enough with her assumed place as assistant that she voluntarily returned to her previous career as a university researcher. Her final words regarding the Doctor were reported by the Brigadier: she had, apparently, said the Doctor simply needed someone to pass him his test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is.
And, although there is perhaps room for discussion about the class issue in DW (The Doctor as a Time Lord, picking only "lower-class" types as quasi-servants) there are enough examples of his companions bringing him up short, reading him the riot act, taking matters into their own hands, rolling their eyes at him, and rescuing him to render the discussion lively, at the very least.
F Shelley
6. FSS
@nightsky - thanks - i've watched a few of the old shows on netflix, but not enough to form an informed opinion of the older series' doctors.

@ kaffyr1 - good points about the companions bring him up short at times. that's what i was driving at when i said they mostly
remind him to be "human". and i loved the "rescue" of 10 in the end of time. worst. rescue. ever!

I guess my overall point is that there is a certain British archtype. Merlin, Gandalf, Dumbledore (to a lesser extent), the Doctor, that are not mere mortals, but a level of being slightly higher than the rest of us. They work in British literature. I don't think they work in American literature, mostly because of the assumed quality of rebellion, and yes, initiative as discussed. In Doctor Who, those qualities are the exception for the companions.
Emily Asher-Perrin
7. EmilyAP
@FSS - I do agree, Doctor Who could really never be an American show. Or at least, if it were, it would be completely different. However, I always felt that part of the reason that the Doctor often picks companions who are not necessarily rocket scientists is because the Doctor believes that levels of intelligence don't really determine how valuable a person is. After all, the Doctor nearly flunked out of Time Lord Academy when he was young and never passed his test to fly a TARDIS. Just because he's brilliant doesn't mean he was considered brilliant by his own people.

His choice of companions seem to reflect that. They are misfits, adventurers like him. Some of them are considered conventionally smart (to add to the list already given by other commenters, I would also point out Mel; she was a computer programmer, even if she did have a piercing scream and blinding taste in fashion) and some of them aren't. I'm not sure that Americans are incapable of being companions, but I do think that if New Who ever decided to bring another one in, he or she would revel in giving the Doctor a hard time. :) And I really think you're onto something by suggesting that the reason for that is our constant mode of rebellion.

@Skwid - I almost felt like President Obama was another way of ribbing us a little. After all, the ultimate payoff of that was the Master saying "I'm President Obama," which seems pretty tongue-in-cheek to me. ;)

@Nightsky - That's a very good point about Peri. Sometimes she was beyond irritating, but I'm sure that had the show not been in such a dire place at the time, she probably would have come off a little tougher and full of "American initiative."

@kaffyr1 - Liz Shaw! Yes! I agree completely about the Doctor's companions. He doesn't need them for their brains alone, he needs their nerve and heart as well. He needs some balance, and they all give him that in their own way.
Teresa Jusino
8. TeresaJusino
I definitely notice how Doctor Who views the United States, and I laugh right along! :)

However, I don't know that Doctor Who couldn't be an American show. Yes, it would be different...but The Doctor ran away from his people (the Time Lords were really douchey) and started a new life in the TARDIS. The United States exists because British (and Spanish) people didn't like the way things were going down back home, and wanted to live elsewhere. The Doctor is very American in that regard!
9. a-j
Interesting, not least in seeing the Doctor as an authority figure. If I can risk speaking for us in the UK, here he is very much seen as a rebel, teasing those in authority and bringing down the tyrannical. There's a lot of the anarchist to him.
If you've only really seen the re-vamped series, then your view of companions might be slightly effected by the constant 'in love with the doctor' theme that was pushed so hard, especially with Rose and Martha. The original series never really had that dynamic.
David Levinson
10. DemetriosX
Actually, the companion who comes closest to being the Doctor's equal is obviously the two incarnations of Ramona, especially Ramona I. She is, after all, a Time Lady. Her first incarnation spent most of her time criticizing the Doctor's methods and disregard for protocol. Ramona II was slightly more subordinate, but she still twitted him a great deal.

But I think there is something that everyone is missing here. The original show, from One to Seven, was always considered a children's show. The companions were intended to be the character that children identified with. That meant they had to be a little less worlds, knowing, etc. The Doctor was their teacher, so to speak. Strangely enough, there were few companions who weren't adults (Adric, Nyssa, Turlough and Ace are all I can think of).

Also, EmilyAP @7, Mel was a computer programmer? I thought she as a fitness instructor. Terrible companion, though. Not Adric levels of terrible, but still.
Shaka Jamal
11. FaceofYo!
@ EmilyAP- I agree as well. I also would like to point out "Jo" who was a pretty much a chemical expert, (at least demolitions), and the "The Doctor's Wife"...a Time Lord Companion...
Mike Conley
12. NomadUK
skwid@3: It would have been much more bizarre if it hadn't been so uncomfortably close to the truth. In much the same way as the US seems obsessed with the Royal family, the UK — at least the media — give inordinate attention to every utterance from the White House. It's rather easy to forget we actually have our own government over here.
Emily Asher-Perrin
13. EmilyAP
@ TeresaJusino - I agree that the way the Doctor views authority has an American ring to it. The main reason I feel that the show could never be an American show is because American heroes are usually a little more cowboy. Or superhero. I'm willing to bet that if we could find the alternate universe where Doctor Who had been created in the U.S., the Doctor himself would be a very different sort of character. A little more Han Solo/Mal Reynolds/Tony Stark.

@a-j - That's a very interesting point. However, bringing down tyrants and wagging a finger at authority figures falls under a different category than anarcharist, I think. The Doctor doesn't seem in favor of direct chaos as much as he is against the abuse of power. I agree that he is a rebel, but he does prefer to be the Rebel in Charge. It seems to be a theme with the character even in the classic series (the Time Lords want him to be President and he keeps running away); he prefers to be an authority figure just long enough to get the job done and then relinquish that once he's solved the problem.

@DemetriosX - Mel was definitely a computer programmer, but she did have a habit of putting the Sixth Doctor on an exercise bike. ;)

@shaka-jamal - Definitely. No one gives Jo enough credit!
14. Lesley A
I always thought Sliders was the closest that the US got to a Doctor Who format. No Tardis, but the wormholey things that took the characters from planet/place to place, and when they were there brilliant (British) scientist and his companions had a problem to solve.
15. mitzy Moo
The best companion ever was Leela. She brought a frame-of-reference that was the polar opposite of the Doctor's—kill first, ask questions later. And she was absolutely not American. She drove the Doctor crazy. The Sunmakers was the best episode ever, and every April I love watching Leela's reactions to people who work all their lives just to pay taxes.

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