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The New British Invasion

Arts & Culture | February 4, 2013

The iconic blue box that is bigger on the inside, known as the TARDIS, recently landed somewhere very unusual indeed: the cover of The Economist’s The World in 2013 issue. A symbol of British science fiction since 1963, the spaceship/time machine of Doctor Who appeared floating alongside the notable faces and places of the year ahead, signaling a shift that has been 50 years in the making. It’s a British invasion—except instead of bowl-haired musicians, it’s more of an alien invasion this time around.

Americans are tuning in to Doctor Who in ever increasing numbers, just in time for the show’s 50th anniversary. The series originally ran in the UK from 1963-1989. The show’s unprecedented longevity is made possible by one key plot point: the main character, the Doctor, “regenerates” into a new body and a new personality instead of dying, opening up the role to a new actor. It was hugely popular in its homeland, but enthusiasm for the cult classic never quite made it across the pond. When Russell Davies resurrected the show in 2005, Doctor Who quickly reclaimed its place in British hearts, but it also found a somewhat delayed toehold in American ones.

“The beauty of the Doctor is that he is such a complex character, you can relate to him however you like,” junior Monica Weber said. “There’s lots of things to love about the show: the complex, gripping plots; the heart-achingly human characters; the excitement of each new world they visit; the scary episodes; the silly episodes—I could list a hundred more. This show has a lot of depth.”

With “New Who” now on its seventh season, the adventures of the Doctor (an eccentric alien with a soft spot for planet Earth) and his human companion (usually an attractive young woman) are getting more pop culture buzz in the US than ever before. American television programs from Supernatural to Grey’s Anatomy have given shouts-outs to the British sci-fi show. Most notably, Community dedicated a whole episode, “Inspector Spacetime,” as a show-within-the-show spoof of Doctor Who. In 2012, Doctor Who also became the first British television series to appear on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. The August 3rd issue of the magazine featured the current Doctor, 30-year-old Matt Smith, with the headline “Inside the Cult of Doctor Who.”

“The show’s title is beginning to be mentioned more in media,” graduate student Scott Tingely said. “It’s got a lot of word of mouth. I heard of it on Top Gear or something like that, and wondered why are people making such a big deal of this show? I wanted to see what it was about.”

The show’s premise makes anyone trying to give a short synopsis of Doctor Who sound like a lunatic, and more people appear to be tuning in just to find out what all the fuss is about. In September 2012, the season seven opener on BBC America netted 1.6 million viewers, making it BBC America’s most watched telecast ever. Second place goes to the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas special with 1.4 million viewers, a number that is up 54% from 2011. The special also introduced the clever, flirtatious, and mysterious new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald, played by actress Jenna Louise Coleman, continuing the trend of a more American-friendly cast.

“They started with very British actors, like Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper as companion,” Tingely said. “Then they moved to David Tennant and now Matt Smith, who’s just all over the place, and the recent casting of Jenna Louise Coleman. She as an actress is extremely energetic and fits a lot more to what an American audience expects to see from a character as opposed to a British actress, like Billie Piper.”

A month before the most recent season premier, an article appeared on Mashable.com with the title “How Doctor Who Won Over America.” The author, Pete Pachal, attributes the relatively recent surge in popularity to the show’s 2010 move from SyFy to BBC America, where the BBC’s global strategy found its mark. Not only is money being spent on marketing, but the producers and cast are spending more time in the US, from promotional events to filming important episodes, such as the season six opener in Utah and the season seven halfway point finale in Manhattan.

Accessibility has also been a factor in Doctor Who’s more recent popularity. BBC America, which reaches approximately 25 million viewers, has made watching what used to be an obscure science fiction show as easy as flipping through the channels. Even more helpful in reaching possible new viewers is the Internet. Available on a range of websites, including Netflix, all seven seasons of “New Who,” as well as some “Classic Who,” are just a click away. With Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts, Doctor Who has an active presence online, arguably made even more so by the exuberance of the show’s excitable fanbase. Doctor Who keeps fans watching with thrilling plotlines and loveable characters, but it is the undercurrent of the sometimes silly, sometimes scary adventures that has opened up American hearts to the show.

“There is a core of unquenchably upbeat messages,” Weber said. “Xenophobia keeps you from learning from other cultures and people who don’t mean any harm. The universe is a fascinating, beautiful, scary, fantastic thing that should be treasured. Or, my favorite: ‘The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.’”

The second half of season seven premiers on BBC America on March 30, and it is a safe bet that more people than ever will be tuning in to the adventures of a madman with a box and his love of all that is “humany wumany.”