Doctor Who? Americans start to appreciate British sci-fi program

Arguably one of the most iconic television programs in the United Kingdom’s history, “Doctor Who” has had a large following among the general viewing audience around the world; however, in the show’s 49-year-long span, only now is the show being recognized and gaining fandom in the United States.

American audiences seem to be very selective in regard to British media. Compared to the United States’ influence upon British media, the average American would probably not be able to recall 10 different British entertainment or media franchises when prompted. That is not to say that British media isn’t appreciated, as shown by the large fandom such franchises such as “The Office,” “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and “Queer as Folk” which were American television series based on British television series, among others.

From fear of straying from the familiar, American spectators would rather watch an American television show made by Americans in the United States aimed at American audiences, hence the scene-by-scene remakes of highly praised British television shows such as “The Office” and “Skins”, essentially only changing the actors and localizing the humor and references. However, some British franchises and their fanatics would probably never allow for such remakes to occur, such as “Monty Python” and “Doctor Who.”

“Doctor Who” is a science fiction television program about a time-traveling, humanoid alien, Time Lord, called the Doctor. The Doctor travels through time and space in a sentient time machine called the TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space, which is disguised as a 1960s blue police box, with a companion. The Doctor faces a plethora of foes in his attempts to “cure” the universe, right wrongs and save civilization.

“Doctor Who” is the longest-running science fiction television show in the world as well as the most successful in terms of ratings, DVD sales, book sales and iTunes traffic. The series’ 26th season, aired from 2010 to 2011, showed an increasing worldwide fan-following as it topped iTunes’ list of most downloaded television series on Apple’s 2011 year-end list.

Nestled in the British consciousness are images which are now synonymous with the series. The image of the TARDIS, the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver, his only weapon, and the some of the Doctor’s foes such as the Dalek’s are instantly recognizable and linked to “Doctor Who” by British people. In fact, the color of the TARDIS is known by many as TARDIS Blue and can be seen in many collectibles stores around the country as a sign that they sell “Doctor Who” merchandise. Well-known celebrities such as director Steven Spielberg have been known to comment on the series, Spielberg saying that “the world would be a poorer place without ‘Doctor Who.'” Caitlin Moran, television reviewer for British daily national newspaper The Times, wrote that “Doctor Who” is “quintessential to being British.”

“Doctor Who” was originally aimed toward general audiences, not any specific audiences. The show came under criticism for its gore and violence, which was commonly found in television programs aimed at adults. By being aimed at any and all audiences, the gore and violence was criticized as being adult-only content not needed in shows aimed at children as well as adults. Due to this, the show’s staff decided to try to aim some content towards younger audiences, creating equally scary and fun enemies which have been around since the 1960s until the latest episodes.

The show was attempted to be sold to the United States in the early 1970s through Time-Life’s syndication of select episodes, not knowing that the show would not make much sense out of order, as the show ran in serials which, unlike seasons, are whole stories developed and finished in two to five episodes, and many serials compose one season while in the United States a season would be many episodes making up one major story. This cultural barrier made the American syndication impossible to follow and did not fare too well.

This cultural barrier is the reason it’s hard to see some shows and other media that the United Kingdom considers essential parts of British culture to be easily integrated into American culture. Doctor Who has a particular style of writing, comedy and acting that is not found in American science fiction too often. The term “British humor” is a common phrase in the United States, referring to television shows such as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” or films that could be hit-or-miss with American audiences regarding their comedic style. As opposed to American comedy, sarcasm and self-deprecation are the norm in British humor and emotion is often hidden in such a way that American audiences may think they’re just insensitive. While America prides itself on being the land of the free and love their freedom of speech, real freedom of speech is found in British humor where any subject may be joked about and nothing is taboo, while in America subjects such as September 11, 2001’s attacks or racism are considered too much.

British comedy is typically found in most British media, not only comedies; “Doctor Who” is full of comic mischief and the Doctor himself is considered to be the comic relief of the show, always showing a positive attitude and pride in himself when staring at a deadly foe. “Doctor Who” and other programs such as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” are known for their surreal and absurdist style, another staple of British humor, where there would be a big build-up, such as a whole array of things that could destroy the universe in “Doctor Who” or a long skit with many intricate details in “Monty Python”; the episodes usually culminate with a deus ex machina(a machine from the gods, a plot device made to solve a seemingly unsolvable scenario) or the skit is abandoned altogether without a conclusion, in “Doctor Who” and “Monty Python” respectively.

These cultural barriers between the United States and the United Kingdom make it difficult for the very “British” hit shows and movies to make a smooth transition to the American screens. Some studios attempt to make programs in America based off the original British program, such as “Skins” and “Pop Idol” which were remade as “Skins” and “American Idol” respectively, most of these do not see success; “Skins” was cancelled before its first season was finished while the original British “Skins” is now moving to its sixth season.

Student with prop Sonic Screwdriver. Taken with an HTC Evo by Luis Alicea.
Student with prop Sonic Screwdriver and “Doctor Who” themed shirt and hat. Taken with an HTC Evo by Luis Alicea.

Ever since the reboot of “Doctor Who” in 2005 after a nine-year-long hiatus, the only North American broadcaster for the show was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but after DVD sales were becoming increasingly high in Canada and demand was as high in the United States, the first season of the rebooted series began to air on Sci Fi Channel. The ratings for Sci Fi channel increased upon beginning to air “Doctor Who” and eventually BBC America decided to be the main broadcasters of the program and began airing the newest episodes, while Canadian channel BBC Kids aired “Doctor Who” children’s spin-off series “The Sarah Jane Adventures.”

“Doctor Who” fandom has been steadily increasing since the reboot in 2005, from being the main attraction at San Diego Comic-Con, an annual fan convention in San Diego held since 1970 for everything from comics and television shows to art and board games, to being the best-selling television show on iTunes in 2011. Whovians, as “Doctor Who” fans call themselves, are becoming a more common sight among the young adult community, with most new fans learning of the show through word of mouth. If kept at this steady rate, “Doctor Who” may reach the status of the Star Wars franchise which it has outsold and probably will outlive, as long as the Whovians demand it as opposed to Star Wars fans begging George Lucas to stop.

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