Television

Why doesn't Doctor Who travel far from Britain? 

An Adventure in Space and Time, The Ultimate Guide to Dr Who — review

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

If I could go back in time, I’d watch Doctor Who from the very first episode. I wasn’t born in Britain, and with the 50th anniversary of the series hurtling towards us like an Earth-bound Tardis, I’m wondering if I might understand this cultural touchstone better if I’d grown up in the country, along with the show.

But Doctor Who neophytes are in luck, because there’s a tiny loop in the time-space continuum whereby we can quickly catch up on Time Lord lore. To celebrate the 50th, the BBC has commissioned a host of programmes, many setting out to explain Doctor Who’s place as a British icon. This week there’s An Adventure in Space and Time (BBC2, Thursday) and The Ultimate Guide to Doctor Who (BBC3, Monday). Whoosh! Off we go then.

Adventures In Space and Time

Adventure is a movie about the origins of the series, and the BBC executives and actors involved in its creation in 1963. It has the time machine itself as part of its to-and-fro plotting (a cheap trick, using time travel as a conceit for anything Doctor Who-related, I think, don’t you?). What the BBC conveyed through this well-produced film, which also starred Jessica Raine and David Bradley, was ‘Doctor Who as the Little TV Show That Could’. The odds were against it — low budget, a terrible set, lack of faith from BBC top brass.


There is a sense of the Beeb retreading its past and fashioning an underdog legend about one of its most popular series, but I suppose the basic premise is true, though I can’t actually go back in history to say for sure. My own interpretation is that Doctor Who was also a product of post-colonial Britain, a time when the country was looking for its place in the world. As the empire folded, expansion took place in a different dimension: explorers must rove through time itself in a blue box — a kind of floating island into which are collapsed many lands and places, bigger on the inside than on the outside.

The Time Lord lands in new countries as part-coloniser, part-émigré, a controller of events as well as an alien. This was reflected in the film. ‘We are strangers in a strange land,’ Doctor Who’s first producer Verity Lambert (Raine) told its newbie director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), as they commiserated in a bar about their many challenges. Indeed, they were misfits: Lambert was a female producer, a rarity in those days, and Hussein the first director of Indian descent. The first Doctor was William Hartnell (Bradley), then facing a black hole in his career. Together these outsiders started the longest-running science-fiction series ever.

All Doctor Whos are mavericks, standing at the fringes of the different societies they navigate. This much was clear in Ultimate Guide, which presented the 11 incarnations of the Doctor so far, all eccentric in their own way, plus their most famous companions, as well as the scariest villains and monsters. This show had a frenetic air and put everything, including segments of Doctor Who from the 1960s and 1970s, to present-day pop music of the most garish sort. An array of past Doctors such as David Tennant (10th) and Sylvester McCoy (7th), as well as companions like Karen Gillan (who played Amy Pond), appeared to give opinions on this and that, but the whole programme would have benefited from having one overarching voice to give it greater cohesion.

Doctor Who

I did emerge from the two-hour show better educated about the Who-niverse (their joke, not mine). There’s the idea of regeneration — Time Lords never die, they carry on as another version of themselves — a bit like hereditary rule. Then there are aliens such as the Daleks, supposedly frightening but which I think of as a more menacing form of that other great British invention that whirrs across floors, the Dyson vac.

An Adventure In Space and Time

Doctor Who travels (in time and space), but doesn’t travel (to other countries). By this I mean the phenomenon remains a uniquely British one: unlike the Harry Potter franchise or that new mega-export Downton Abbey, Doctor Who isn’t fantastically popular internationally. I think this is because the show has an inbuilt irony — there’s always a sense of it looking slightly askance at itself, taking sci-fi itself for a wry spin. Only the British would call a time machine the Tardis, with its connotations of tardiness and being a bit out of step with things. Doctor Who is unformulaic in its formula, refusing the Hollywood happy ending.

Because of course when you’re a Time Lord, you stand to lose things and people. Companions come and go, every encounter is bittersweet. Regeneration always means goodbye and usually involves sacrifice. Melancholy and sorrow, as much as joy and triumph, are part of the TV series — just as in life, really

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Show comments
  • bbdrvr

    Doctor Who is actually very popular in the US. BBC America has finally stopped marketing it as a “cult” show for teens and adults. They’re even showing it earlier in the evening now – what would be tea-time if Americans did that sort of thing – so that kids can watch it too. No, it doesn’t quite have the “mainstream appeal” of Downton Abbey, but it’s by far the most popular show amongst a SF/F fandom which is rapidly becoming mainstream itself (see: San Diego Comic-Con). Doctor Who will keep getting more popular here so long as the BBC resists the temptation to try to appeal to American audiences. Oddly, it’s the “uniquely British” tone of the show that American audiences have fallen in love with.

    • Clarissa_Tan

      Thanks for your comments! I know Dr Who is known overseas (esp America), but I was just wondering why, for a series that’s been around for half a century, it’s not as phenomenally famous as some others.

      I’ve never followed Star Trek, but even know names like Spock and the Enterprise, and phrases like ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’. Dr Who is famous, but not quite at that level (yet!).

      • John Fisher

        Dr Who was also a great favourite in Australia – and there have been anniverary celebrations on the ABC today. But I take your point on being slightly askance and, as for sf endings, see Blake’s Seven as against Star Trek.

      • bbdrvr

        The classic Doctor Who series was never very accessible for American audiences because it ran, often sporadically, on local, independent PBS stations (when they could afford it and often in unpredictable time slots). That was why it developed a reputation as a cult show here – you had to really go looking for it. The post-2005 series is much easier to watch regularly, especially as BBC America becomes available to more American households (70% as of this year) and episodes can be purchased from iTunes as well. The single episode/story format also helps bring new viewers in.

        It seems like BBC America made a decision about 2 years ago to stop treating DW like a cult show and start marketing to mainstream audiences and families as well, and that decision is paying off. As of this year, Doctor Who is the 6th most valuable TV show brand in the US (including DVD, digital downloads, merchandise sales, etc.) .

        In today’s market with cable TV, streaming and YouTube, no show can ever achieve the ubiquitous awareness that used to be possible back when there were only a few channels on the dial and everyone pretty much watched the same thing. Doctor Who will never become part of America’s cultural DNA the way it did in the UK in decades past. It wouldn’t even have happened in the UK had the show been introduced for the first time in 2005.

        There are still Americans who stare uncomprehendingly if you mention the word “Tardis”, but they’re becoming increasingly hard to find.

  • Namnoot

    “Doctor Who isn’t fantastically popular internationally.” You haven’t been paying attention the last few years, obviously.

  • Doccus

    Actually, I can answer that question.
    First, the DOctor Who universe one.. BEcause somebody has to pay for his food (yes the Doctor does eat, just not in publc (usually!), laundry, replacement Tardis parts.. and Unit is in the UK.. And these parts are built to Gallifreyan standards, which is expensive.
    Besides, the aliens always attack Britain.
    OK, now the real word reason. Yup, it’s about costs. The BBC has traditionally priced itselves out of the marklet internationally. American networks rarely ran reruns of the classic series, simply because Doctor Who licencing were five times as expensive as other british shows. That is the main reason that it got aired so seldom in North America. They’ve continued that practice with the high prices of the DVD releases.
    For a networklk that valued the series so little that they wiped them all to record episode of “Keeping up appearances” and “Coronation Street”, that seems a pretty 2 faced practice, if you ask me…

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