Mind The Gap: Watching Doctor Who in America

April 24, 2010
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Eleven different actors have played the title role in Doctor Who. The newest (and youngest), Matt Smith, is now enjoying his initial run as the Doctor, alongside a new co-star (Karen Gillan, as the mysterious Amy Pond), and a new showrunner in Steven Moffat, who has taken over the reins following Russell T Davies’ wildly successful revival of the series since 2005. If you’ve been waiting for a jumping-on point, this is it.

For the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a series actually peppered with such cleavages, which provide incoming production teams the opportunity to exercise some change while still maintaining the series’ core concept: the (mostly) all-ages adventures of a strange man and his friends who travel in time and space in a blue box that’s bigger on the inside. While I’ll grant what Matt Hills shrewdly points out in his recent Antenna post (i.e., that, due to the pressures of maintaining a popular commercial brand, this particular transition feels more like a continuation of the previous era than a clean break from it), there’s still new riches aplenty here. Moffat has repeatedly described his take on the series as “dark fairy tale,” vs. Davies’ more epic melodramas. Based on his previous scripts, and the first two of this new season, this is exactly what’s being delivered: creepy-yet-whimsical stories that shout “Boo!,” tweak your nose, and slip right past your cynicism.

That said, this stylistic blender has also forever marginalized the series in the US. Doctor Who has had a small, but devoted, audience on this side of the pond for over thirty years, which has steadily expanded since the series’ revival. However, it’s a love based mostly from a particular kind of US-based Anglophilia. In the 1970s and 1980s, the series took hold in this country not on early Saturday evenings, as it did in the UK, but on late Saturday nights, hidden away like buried treasure on PBS stations alongside similar “exotic” BBC imports like Fawlty Towers, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Blake’s 7. Accordingly, we Americans tend to fall in love with Doctor Who for not being American television. American television can’t fathom whimsy. It can barely handle universal, all-ages entertainment any more. Moreover, while there’s no shortage of riveting dramas on American TV today, our expectations are too wired in boring old realism (even in our fantasy series) to allow the kind of “bonkers” tonal range Doctor Who thrives in, and too wed to notions of “sophistication” to let children in. There’s nothing on American TV that can thread silliness, horror, elation, and heartbreak at the level and speed of Doctor Who; we just don’t have a conceptual place for it in our televisual landscape. Joss Whedon’s works (especially Buffy and Firefly) arguably come close, and other series have certainly had moments (the Hurley episodes of Lost come to mind), but they’re all still firmly “adult” television. There’s no home for anything that dares to bridge these gaps of genre, style, and audience age. It’s fair to say that it’s anomalous in this regard on UK TV as well, though to a lesser extent.

Thankfully, the megachannel universe is big enough to let Doctor Who in, via BBC America, which is making the new run its signature series (though it has long slipped across the Atlantic unofficially via BitTorrent and other means).  So far so good for BBC America, which scored a record audience for the season premiere last Saturday. Still, taken as a proportion of the national viewing audience, the series draws about one-fortieth the viewers it claims in Britain, where it is one of the BBC’s most popular series, and one of the nation’s most familiar cultural texts.

Thus, while I will always love Doctor Who, I realize that I have ultimately experienced it as an exoticizing tourist. I regret that I’ll likely never see an American series with as much heart, panache, and unadulterated joy. I also wonder how the reverse situation–i.e., the arguably “Yankophilic” interest in American vs. British dramas among British TV scholars over the past decade–has developed, and whether we really do see the same things in these shows.


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8 Responses to “ Mind The Gap: Watching Doctor Who in America ”

  1. Sean C. Duncan on April 24, 2010 at 5:30 AM

    “There’s no home for anything that dares to bridge these gaps of genre, style, and audience age. It’s fair to say that it’s anomalous in this regard on UK TV as well, though to a lesser extent.”

    Interesting take, Derek — it strikes me that the reliance on the show’s long history is what’s behind the show’s anomalous style and audience age. That is, I can’t think of any other decades-old TV franchise historically aimed at kids being revived and being aimed at both kids and their parents (who were once the kids who hid behind the sofa themselves). This is something that strikes me must have been considered a necessity by RTD when conceiving of the new run in 2005, but I haven’t read Matt Hills’ book yet, so I dunno if he covers this — Matt?

    I can’t think of any other franchise that’s faced a similar challenge — or, alternately, similar opportunity for cross-generational viewership. I’m curious what the demographics are for the BBC America run; are kids watching Doctor Who in the US at all? Is it just adults? Anecdotally, I’ve had a number of current students who have told me discovered the show (and Torchwood) via Netflix streaming — not BBC America or PBS — and they seem of a qualitatively different kind of viewer than the Whovians of my youth.

    • Kristina Busse on April 24, 2010 at 9:54 AM

      I think there have been movie franchises that have tried that very thing (Star Wars and Transformers most notably, I guess), but you’re right that Dr Who, at least in my family, is the only TV show that consistently brings all of us together. We all watch it for very different reasons (my husband’s an old school PBS viewer; I came to new DW via media fandom; the kids have been basically reared as Who-fans : ), but we all watch it together every Saturday night. It’s, in fact, our one and only must-see TV hour every week.

      • Derek Kompare on April 24, 2010 at 1:53 PM

        Yes. The only category of show I can think of that does the same sort of thing here (cross-generational ritual anticipation and viewing) would be reality competition shows, and American Idol in particular. I’m sure some people and their young kids sit down to watch some scripted shows together in a similar way, but certainly not to the extent that Doctor Who viewers do.

        My own kids (3 and 6) are still a bit too young for the show, alas. They can recognize characters and icons (e.g., the TARDIS) from my magazines, books, and DVDs, but even the 6 year-old’s been a bit freaked out on the odd time I’ve tried old and new DW on them!

        • Erika Johnson-Lewis on April 24, 2010 at 6:20 PM

          We’ve talked on twitter before about U.S television’s lack of family series. Even series that might fill that niche tend to skew more early teen to adult. One series that might have fit the bill, but was only really marketed (though I could be wrong about this) to a younger audience since it was on Nickelodeon, was Avatar. Our family started watching it (half-way through season 2), and the 8-year-old, his dad, and I have all been enjoying it. Good story that kids can get into and younger characters to relate to, but has enough depth to keep us olds interested. It actually reminds me a lot of Buffy in characterization and some of the narrative.

          My husband is British so he grew up on Who, hiding behind the sofa. While watching the latest episode he realized it would matter who the Doctor was or what direction the series went it, he would always like it and watch it. Only this year has my son gotten into it and we all eagerly await the newest episodes together. The two of them have been watching old Who on the netflix streaming.

          Everyone else I know who watches it are either those who came to it via PBS (like my brother, who has also introduced it to his kids)or women my age who discovered it recently.

    • Derek Kompare on April 24, 2010 at 1:48 PM

      I know that RTD did set out to make sure the show appealed to 8-10 year olds while still giving enough drama and wit for their parents. DW fandom had aged in the “wilderness years” of 1990-2004, and the primary licensed texts (the novels) were aimed at readers in their 20s and 30s. They could have aimed the show squarely at that demo, but RTD et al reasoned that would only doom it to minor cult status; they wanted it to be what it was at its peak in the 70s. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams at that. I seem to recall an acknowledgment from them that they’ve “lost” the teens and early 20-somethings, but that was never really on the cards for them anyway (at least in the UK). That said, there’s probably plenty of teens now who started with it as 8-10 year olds in 2005-06.

      There have been other opportunities for cross-generational franchise building, but what’s interesting is that the best results for other franchises seem to come from multiplying the texts. Thus, you get several simultaneous versions of Batman (from CN’s Brave and the Bold cartoon through to The Dark Knight and the Arkham Asylum game). Star Wars is another intriguing example. Lots of first-gen fans felt horrified at The Phantom Menace, though Lucas saw it as a sincere attempt to court new 8 year-olds. For the 30-40+ crowd, there are “darker” continuities that they can tap into (e.g., The Force Unleashed game).

      Great pt about BBCA demographics. I have no idea. However, I’ve heard the same stories you have from my students: that they hear about it online, or stumble upon it on cable or Netflix (or even YouTube), and dive right in. There’s something about the modes of discovery and fannish consumption now vs. 20-30 years ago that’s surely worth investigating, though I suspect there are similarities as well as the obvious differences of technology.

    • Matt Hills on April 25, 2010 at 10:45 AM

      I cover the transgenerational appeal of new Who in a couple of ways in ‘Triumph of a Time Lord’. Firstly, I consider the show’s “double-coding” of monsters as political/satirical commentary combined with ‘scariness for the kids’. Though this was present in the classic series, I’d argue that it’s become more insistent, and more central to the show’s formatting, in the RTD era and beyond. And I address the need for BBC Wales to position Who as ‘mainstream’ TV rather than ‘cult telly for the sci-fi geeks’ in the UK context. The cross-generational (and cross-gender) appeal designed into the new series, and discursively reinforced in UK paratexts, was all about avoiding being seen as’cult’ in Britain. In fact, Doctor Who wasn’t the Beeb’s first noughties attempt at a Saturday night TV drama consciously aimed at a transgenerational, consensus audience (this itself being linked to a public service remit). It was preceded by Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), starring a certain Tom Baker among others, which was judged to be a failure. That show didn’t unite different audience demographics, but skewed toward an older, male, ‘cult’ audience, if I remember rightly. It was against the backdrop of this perceived industry failure — and BBC-defined requirement to reach a ‘Saturday night family audience’– that Doctor Who was produced.

      What’s also interesting, and here I’m picking up on Derek’s comments about American Idol being a similarly cross-generational show, is that Doctor Who was directly constructed to compete with ‘shiny floor shows’ in its UK scheduling. It was shaped to compete with reality talent shows, and hold a similar, consensus audience, albeit through a TV drama/genre TV mode rather than as ‘reality TV’. So, although it may understandably be compared to other ‘cult’ shows in the US context (and other Brit dramas), it is actually structured and designed to compete with the likes of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and ‘The X-Factor’. Multi-generic TV drama that’s genuinely aimed at everybody, rather than constructed for a series of demographically defined audiences! In the US context, this presumably makes it a very odd TV drama beast indeed (particularly judging from other comments here such as Kristina’s).

      The irony is that new Who’s production logic looks very much like a commercial enterprise — it’s partly the product of public service TV in Britain needing to defend its license fee and ‘cultural reach’ by chasing mass audiences, but in a way that simultaneously cannot be seen as too brazenly apeing commercial broadcasters. Hence Who becomes quasi-commercial TV, or hybridised public service television defending itself against commercialised audience-grabbing.

      And perhaps an even greater irony is that in different national contexts such as American TV, Doctor Who becomes exactly the type of ‘cult’ or cultish show that it’s been purposely designed *not* to be. There is thus a fundamental mismatch between its textual strategies (as a ‘TV blockbuster’ meant for all ages) and its ‘niche’ identity on BBC America, as well as — I assume — its public perception (or non-perception) as a marginal/subcultural/fannish TV brand. I wouldn’t see American audiences for Who as ‘exoticising’ it, but rather, as almost being called upon to watch and read *against* US paratexts of ‘cult’ or ‘niche’ TV.

      What is naturalised in new Who’s UK broadcasting context (its status as flagship TV drama for everyone) is destabilised and potentially denaturalised for American audiences. And a text that works against, or in spite of, a backdrop of almost ‘oppositional’ paratexts (i.e. it’s ‘mainstream’ TV struggling against ‘cultifying’ paratexts) might come to seem even more whimsical!

      • Derek Kompare on April 26, 2010 at 9:36 AM

        Great point about the multiple layers of paratexts, expectations, and BBC branding the new series has had to navigate. Over here, it’s only ever been “cult” (in your sense of the word), and that’s OK with the niche its designed to occupy. That said, as new American viewers have discovered the show (most often with zero knowledge of the classic series), it does expand/update the “cult” pedigree, gathering viewers who’ve come in via similarly arrayed 2000s shows, rather than only fortysomething viewers (like me) who’ve held on to their Target novels and VHS tapes.

  2. bagels on July 28, 2010 at 1:28 AM

    I’m an American fan who recently got fixed on Doctor Who, and it definitely THE best show I’ve ever seen. It’s perfect not only for it’s acting, writing, and brilliant stories, but because it manages to be “family-friendly” without being unbearable for parents to watch with their kids. I think what US television struggles with the most is the idea that there is either TV for adults or for children, and so when a parent wants to watch something with their son or daughter, they’re forced to watch something terrible or risk their kids seeing something inappropriate for their age. There are also many shows that claim to be family friendly, but, again, are just cleverly disguised kid’s shows. What Doctor Who manages to do, is do entertain both younger children and their parents. Also, as I’ve noticed with other things I watched as a kid, seeing them through older eyes has made me appreciate them on a whole new level, and I can only imagine this is what will happen to new young viewers of the show who are perhaps missing some of the more interesting bits of writing intended for older ears.
    After all that rambling…
    I’ve been relying entirely on Netflix for my DW watching, is there anywhere I can watch it, either online or on TV, where I can see new episodes as they come out in Britain? I don’t have BBC America and the BBC iPlayer online doesn’t work here either…