Mind The Gap: Watching Doctor Who in America
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.