Aug 22 2011 10:29am

Why Who? Why Now?

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 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 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 (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

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1. Pendard
Your article has gotten me thinking that there is a completely political side to the current American fascination with Doctor Who.

You say that Americans love anti-establishment figures. I think it's
revealing that the British had Doctor Who on TV when the heroes of
American sci-fi shows were Jim Kirk, Jim West, John Koenig, Commander Adama, Buck Rogers, Michael Knight and Jean-Luc Picard -- all white, male authority figures. The most anti-establishment American sci-fi hero I can think from anywhere near the era of the original Doctor Who is Fox Mulder -- and he was a white, male FBI agent who investigated paranormal crimes for the government.

All of these American heroes are serious, responsible people within a hierarchical command struction that backs up its convictions with violence. We root for them because they're the heroes, but when you think about it what they do is fairly appalling. For example, if I were an ordinary person living in the Stargate universe and I found out the US military had accidentally started a war with powerful aliens that had brought the planet to the brink of destruction countless times, and that they were continuing to wage that war using taxpayer money while perpetrating a massive cover-up, I don't think I would be rooting for SG-1 nearly so much! A lot of sci-fi shows have this aspect to them. Even Star Trek's military, which appears to be peaceful and dedicated to science, diplomacy and the self-actualization of its members, has been seen to be vulnerable to corruption. Any large organization with that kind of power is.

On Doctor Who, part of the Doctor's charm is that he rejects power and authority in nearly all its forms. The Doctor has abilities that would make it possible for him to gather a massive amount of power, and if he acted in a more systematic way he could do a lot more good in the universe. But he does not want the responsibility. Much is asked of those to whom much is given, so the responsibility of righting the universe's wrongs frequently falls on the Doctor, but he is essentially an irresponsible vagabond to whom power and responsibility are the ultimate buzzkill and would do nothing except ruin his day. This has been the case since the beginning of Doctor Who. The First Doctor began the tradition by running away from his home and his responsibilities. The Second Doctor was basically a hobo who traveled by TARDIS rather than boxcar. The Third Doctor, who frequently had to work with Earth's military, had a very contentious relationship with them and was liable to go off on his own whenever it suited him. The Fourth Doctor was an eccentric hippie who, among other things, became president of the Time Lords and then refused to show up to work, a move the Fifth Doctor repeated when asked to fill a power vaccuum on Gallifrey. The Tenth Doctor, who felt guilty about the destruction of the Time Lords, took all of their responsibilities onto his shoulders, and by the end he was miserable, lonely and verging on megilomania. The Eleventh Doctor has wisely taken a much more irresponsible approach to being the last Time Lord.

Now I'm getting to the political part. In 1963, the US was building its economic empire and the military industrial complex that supports it. So US sci-fi television produced a lot of authority figures as its heroes. Meanwhile, the British were finishing the process of letting go of their colonial prosessions -- the zeitgeist of their country was one where it was admirable to let go of power and authority, and reject what Kipling (an Englishman) called the "white man's burden" of ruling the world. So British sci-fi television produced the Doctor.

If you look at it this way, the sudden popularity of Doctor Who in the US today could mean that American sci-fi fans are aware that all we have to show for our global economic hegemony is a decade of war and a stalled economy where all of the wealth is in the hands of the wealthy. Our sci-fi series are still producing authority figure heroes like Olivia Dunham and Commander Adama redux, but maybe our national attitude is changing to something a little more like the British attitude of the '60s. Maybe the reason that Americans have suddenly started to embrace the Doctor is because we're starting to see the value of being irresponsible, for meeting violence with nonviolence, and for men of deep thoughts rather than men of action.
James Whitehead
2. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
'Course it could be simply that there is a serious dearth of fun, well written, well acted, enjoyable TV series on American television.

Instead of crass 'reality' shows where people are rewarded for behaving worse than even the AbFab heroines at top form we have a show that speaks to the imagination; that 'embiggens the soul' if you will. ;-)

My whole family loves and watches Dr. Who - that includes my wife & my 15 year old daughter. Outside of Phineas & Ferb, and certain NetFlix movies, there isn't any other show that we all watch together.

I do agree that BBCA's consistent time slot has helped the show enormously in the US. We loved it when the show was on SciFi but grew irritated over time when it moved around and was finally pulled.

I can't, however, speak to why the viewership is down in the UK but I have seen some comments from UK viewers stating that the lack of ratings may have more to do with things than just lack of interest.


PS - Cannot wait for the series to start again.
Ryan Britt
3. ryancbritt
@1 Yes, you're right about the political aspects of the show. I suppose my viewpoint on it being apolitical is really more that it's "less obvious." So perhaps that's what makes it more subversive?
I like how you bring all your points together in that last paragraph because I like how optimistic your view is. I hope you're right.

@2 Kato
I babysit sometimes and I like Phineas & Ferb too!
Tara Mitchell
4. Jaxicat
@1 Interesting ideas about the political aspects.
I feel like viewers in the U.S. weren't really given the option of anti-establishment heroes to embrace.

Looking back at the popularity of Fox Mulder and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I think we probably would have tuned in to a well done science fiction series with heroes outside the establishment, if given the chance. I didn't really become aware of Firefly until it was already over but I feel like that show could have had a huge following if it had been more well known at the time.
5. Pendard
@Kato (#2): Politics that you can take or leave are the best kind. I'm sure the Doctor would agree!

@Jaxicat (#4): We Americans were given at least one set of anti-establishment heroes to embrace -- the cast of Firefly. It did pretty badly in 2002 but the following has been growing steadily ever since...

@ryancbritt (#3): Yes, I completely agree that the political messages in Doctor Who are very subtle. The crew on Firefly was anti-authoritarian. You can't exactly say the same about the Doctor. He seems to avoid authority -- both assuming it and being subjected to it. That's a much more subtle message, a sort of leading by example. Maybe "message" isn't even the right word, since it's likely that the Doctor's attitude about authority were just the writers' personal beliefs that they subconsciously imprinted on the character they were working with.
F Shelley
6. FSS
@1 - the only problem that I have your post is the idea that Britain has somehow gone more peaceful in the last 50 years. Yes, they gave up on their empire, but (as a white, male heterosexual graduate of one of the US's fine militay academies (the aluminum one) who's deployed a few times and have personally seen) they have pretty much been there with us every step of the way on the war front with us since the 1990s. Iraq1 - yep. Bosnia - yep. Kososvo - yep. Afghanistan - yep. Iraq 2 - yep. Libya - yep. Sure, they weren't there for Vietnam, Greneda, or Panama, but we can throw in the Falkland Islands (baaa!) to show they weren't completely at rest (and who can forget Northern Ireland, except most Americans who've never heard of the situation). So as far as the whole "white man's burden" goes, they (and we) haven't seemed to let go yet.

I said this a couple of months ago, and still do: there is definitely something paternalistic about Doctor Who. Sure, the Doctor thumbs his nose at Earthly authority (and has run from Gallifreyan authority), but there still (to my mind) seems to be this message of "trust the man who comes out of the Police Box, no matter if what he says/does makes no sense". And if he commits genocide (at least 4 times by my count, hey - they had it comin'.

As to why Doctor Who is popular all of a sudden in the US, I posit:
- lack of good American Sci-Fi shows
- too damned many reality TV shows
- lack of shows adults can watch with their kids
- and finally, let's not underestimate the British hype machine. The same machine that led to Beatlemania also gave us the Spice Girls. It is now giving us Doctor Who (although to be fair, it IS much more subtle)
7. Nightsky
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.

This is a trifle misleading. It's true that there was no real Who presence in 2010... but the Who panel in 2009 easily filled Ballroom 20, the second-largest hall, and Whoniverse panels had been getting increasing crowds for the two or three years before that. (The first Torchwood panel was SRO, for a show that had yet to air in the United States at that time.) 2010 was the exception, the off year in a half-decade of rising popularity, not the status quo ante.

Doctor Who in America has been in ascendency since the show's return in 2005. Take a look at the attendance figures from Gallifrey One:
2004: 742
2005: 737
2006: 748
2007: 808
2008: 1,080
2009: 1,347
2010: 1,595
2011: 2,186

Certainly Doctor Who is in MUCH better hands at BBC America than it was at SciFi, but the growth of the fanbase was already well under way.
8. Pendard
@FSS (#6): I don't want to make it sound like the UK is totally peaceful. But, yes, I think their involvement in the modern wars of international western coalitions, plus the Falklands and Northern Ireland -- is still an improvement from the time when they exercised colonial rule over huge swaths of North America, the West Indies, the Mediterranian, the Middle East, Africa, India, Oceania, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong.

It isn't just a matter of violence. Military power is only one tool colonial and neocolonial powers use to influence other countries -- others include economic pressure and finding willing collaborators to do their dirty work for them. What makes a colonial system different than the UK's current belligerence is that it operates continuously in wartime AND peacetime. During the colonial period, British land and sea power protected the British Empire's economic interests in those other parts of the world, just as American land and sea (and air) power protects the economic interests of our multinational corporations today -- this is why we have a military presence in more than half of the countries in the world. Like colonial Britian, we're at war with a very small number of those countries. But the other means we use to get what we want also fall in the category of assuming authority over foreign countries.

The British Empire began to lose its colonial possessions in the 1940s, but it wasn't until the 1960s that the British stopped trying to save their empire and started to realize that they were well rid of the responsibility of ruling a quarter of the planet -- right around the same time Doctor Who was first being broadcast. I'm arguing that it's possible the Doctor is catching on in the US now because some Americans are coming to similar conclusions to the ones that British people came to back then. However, I admit it's much too early to say whether an equal shift in American consciousness is currently under way. The optimist in me likes the think so, the pessimist in me doubts it.

As for the Doctor committing genocide -- that particular move wasn't so common in his repetoire in the early days, which are mainly the times I'm talking about. While the First, Second, Third and Fourth Doctors' enemies frequently met nasty ends, I can't think of a time when the Doctor wiped out an entire species till the Seventh Doctor tried to annihilate the Daleks (it's difficult to keep every serial in mind, but the fact that I can't think of any at least means it was rare). The current Doctor -- the one that American audiences are falling for so hard -- harkens back to the early Doctors in his lack of responsibility, rather than the "genocidal" Ninth and Tenth Doctor. In fact, you might say River's rebuke to the Doctor in "A Good Man Goes to War" is intended to push the Eleventh Doctor more into his earlier mode of behavior.

As for the police box... I admit I hadn't thought of that as a subliminal message to obey authority. While I don't think the other elements of the show support that, you raise an interesting point.
marian moore
9. mariesdaughter
Oh no, I am so hungry for SF with political content that I've started writing again. American TV just refuses to give it to me. The Powers-that-Be have decided that SF is for sexed-crazed 13 year boys and they refuse to write stories for anyone else.

British TV will at least give me morality tales. (And has anyone noticed that the Doctor is getting more and more god-like? ) While Doctor Who does frivolous stories (like that Pirate Ship), the stories usually have some time of serious ideas behind them.
10. Pendard
@MariesDaughter (#9): And there's plenty of sex for the sex-crazed viewers on Torchwood! Everybody wins!
11. AlBrown
Wow, I come to read an article about Doctor Who, and from the commentary, you would think we were talking about the works of Paul Kennedy or Niall Ferguson, with all this talk of colonialism and military power and such!
Doctor Who is popular because it is a great mix of humor, thoughtfulness, good acting, good writing, all the stuff that makes a good story and good entertainment. After 50 or so years, the surprising thing is not that its popularity has some ups and downs, it is the fact that the show just keeps going, and finding new audiences. And BBC America has done a good job promoting the show, which doesn't hurt.
marian moore
12. mariesdaughter
Tis true, @Pendard. Sometimes, I get carried away. LOL
A little sex along with the drama never hurt anybody.
15. Galadriel
The main reason for the fanbase growth is easy availability of the show now, compared to pre-2010. Right now, you can watch instant streaming episodes online inexpensively and legally on Amazon, Netflix, etc; illegally many other places. All the NewWho full-season DVDs and most classic Who DVDs are easy to find and purchase (again: Amazon, ColumbiaHouse, etc., etc.). And, as already mentioned, BBCAmerica and its publicity blitz made a HUGE difference. In terms of hardcore SF/Fantasy fan exposure, the dominance of NewWho at the Hugo Awards year after year gains it the right kind of attention as well.

Yessiree, there's been lots of real junk on TV these past years... so we went looking for something better, and found it:

Like so many US fans, I discovered Who and the Ninth Doctor on the SciFi Channel in 2006. PBS also broadcast the new eps (and the Confidential cut-downs!) for a short time. And just as we got hooked... Who was gone! (Or nearly gone. Similar to "mostly dead" in Princess Bride terms.) Noooooo!!!

Two years later, I'd get home from my evening job and TRY to stay awake for 4th-season NewWho on SciFi in its wee-hours-of-the-morning time slot. Yeah, right. (My VCR broke, OK? And no $ for another!!) I prayed for PBS to start showing NewWho eps again (they didn't, of course).

So I turned to the web and found what I needed... put up with lousy video and sound... and now I don't have to. No one does. I can show the two Who BBC Proms concerts to my students to expose them to the best TV they've never seen; or I can tell them exactly when it's on their BBCAmerica channel. I can send them online to stream episodes or purchase DVDs. They can go to SF/comic conventions and be exposed... or simply talk to their friends who go.

THIS, my friends, is why Who is being discovered in the US. You can't be a fan of something you never get to see!

Which also brings up an interesting point. The Davies, Gardner, Collinson, Tennant era--not to mention Eccleston!--is still having a major impact on new fans. So just because the fanbase happens to be exploding NOW doesn't mean it's ONLY because of Moffat/Smith/et al. See above for the reasons.

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