On August 27th, after what seemed like a short break, Doctor Who will return to our screens via BBC and BBC America. Though there has been a lot of talk about how Who’s ratings are down in England, the ratings in America have been solid. In fact, from this blogger’s perspective, Who fever in New York City is at an all time high. Last year when I attended the advance screening of “The Eleventh Hour” in Manhattan, all of us, (press and fans alike) fit into one theatre. This year, when my Tor.com colleague Emily Asher-Perrin attended, two additional theatres had to be opened to accommodate everyone. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn I see at least one Doctor Who t-shirt a week, which was certainly not the case two or three years ago when the Tennant era was at its peak. There’s also a bar with a TARDIS in it about five minutes from my apartment.
What’s changed about Doctor Who that has increased its presence like this? Why now?
The increased popularity of Who in the states could be simply explained by the fact that the show is being aired at a consistent time and in a consistent place. BBC America sent a fairly clear message in 2009 that something special was brewing not only with “The End of Time” but also with the impending fifth season. Since then, American audiences have had a reliable way, at least in terms of conventional viewing, to stay caught up with the Doctor. This year at San Diego Comic Con, Doctor Who was in Hall H, the largest hall, whereas the year before it had little to no presence. So, it’s kind of undeniable that Doctor Who has “arrived.”
BBC America taking ownership of the show is certainly preferable and outright masterful compared with the poor timeslots the Eccleston and Tennant eras received on the (then) Sci-Fi Channel, but it doesn’t completely account for the huge spike in the show’s popularity in America. Morever, hardcore fans like your friends here at Tor.com can be a bit nitpicky. Depending on the week, we’re either up in arms about the gangers, Amy’s baby, or the fact that Matt Smith mumbles sometimes. Then we realize the show is coming back and suddenly it can do no wrong and we’re super excited! (Even I have made slightly hyperbolic statements that Miracle Day would be better than the recent season of Who. Oh, the deep, deep shame of being so, so wrong.)
The point is, we’re serious Doctor Who nerds, so our perspectives are a little skewed meaning coverage from places like Tor.com (or io9 or Blastr) doesn’t account for the popularity spike either. In our heads, Doctor Who should have been really popular in 2006 when poor Rose was being trapped in that alternate dimension! Who fever is bigger than just science fiction fans right now and it reminds me of something else.
In the 1990s everyone was excited about Star Trek: The Next Generation, and not just science ficiton fans. This is because the show was undeniably great, and manged to keep the enthuasim going until Trek fatigue kicked in towards the end of Voyager’s run. To a lesser extent, this same kind of excitement happened again during the brief Battlestar Galactica-mania which dominated the end of the last decade. TNG and BSG both appealed to a larger audience than just hardcore sci-fi fans because the charcaters were rich and the stories compelling and seemingly relevant to the viewer’s life. Contemporary Doctor Who is like this too, but it is very different in one significant way.
TNG and BSG were similar insofar as both shows seemed “important” at the time they were airing. These writers (sometimes Ronald D. Moore on both shows) were interested in addressing social issues. And though BSG is decidedly less goofy than Star Trek aesthetically, both the crews of the Enteprise and the Galactica seemed to have some kind of political agenda. Science fiction has always been strong when social commentary is a component, but with television this sensibility can get out of hand and occasionally cross the line in terms of good taste. TNG misstepped when it gave us the environmentally minded episode in which it turns out the Enterprise was polluting space by flying at warp 9. BSG got a little embarrassing when Edward James Olmos started yelling, “So say we all” at actual U.N. sessions. I know nerds were proud of that for like two seconds, but honestly, it’s just a TV show, not a political platform.
This is where Doctor Who is unique. Though more socially progressive with its characters than perhaps either BSG or TNG, contemporary Doctor Who does not have a political agenda. It’s just a TV show. Yes, there are morality plays, and all kinds of social issues explored throughout the various episodes, but it’s rarely heavy-handed. (Or, when it is heavy-handed, it doesn’t insist you take it seriously.) At the very least, it’s not heavy handed in the same way Star Trek or Battlestar were. Here’s an example. The notion of genocide in Star Trek is explored with Bajoran concetration camps. In BSG, it was the Cylon occupation of New Caprica. In Who, we’re given an abstract concept of “The Time War” in which the Doctor was apparently responsible for ridding the universe of his own people.
Now this is arguably darker than what BSG was doing with the Cylons and suicide bombers being good guys and all that. But it’s not a direct analog. Doctor Who is so steeped in its science fiction premises that it speculates on what morality plays might be like, without making heavy-handed commentary as to what they are like right now.
Part of the reason this works is because NONE of the main characters on Who are part of the establishment. On Star Trek and Galactica, you’ve got a bunch of military people and political decision makers. Not the case with Who. The Doctor is basically a fuck-up who is luckily really, really smart. He’s clever and he knows it. His companions are people he picks up because he’s lonely. Most of these people are aggressively average. The characters are relatable because they find adventure not because of their status, class, profession, or destiny, but in spite of all those things. They get lucky.
Americans like dumb luck. We like anti-establishment figures. And we like a show that says, “Anyone can do it.” A ditzy out-of-work temp saves the universe in “Journey’s End.” Presently, we’ve got a depressed nurse and a g-rated former escort who are changing the face of the galaxy. These are the kinds of heroes we can get behind. Not diplomats and senators and members of the military, no matter how benevolent that military might be. (Sorry, Starfleet!) And so, though it’s taken awhile, this humanistic Who sensibility has seeped in over here in the U.S. And we’re responding to it because we’re sick of being depressed, and we’re tired of having messages rammed down our throats. We want to think for ourselves and have adventures in which we can see ourselves taking an active role. Amy and Rory (Martha, Rose, Mickey, and Donna, too!) are just that. Average people at the eye of the storm in an adventure that has a scope wider than most sci-fi shows ever dream of. There’s nothing cynical about Doctor Who. It may get dark, and it might be occasionally preachy. But first and foremost it’s an adventure for the people.
And the people are loving it.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.