Doctor Who and the New British Empire

By Chris OatesMarch 30, 2013

Doctor Who and the New British Empire

THE BRITISH ARE COMING. They are bringing with them a time-traveling alien who fights monsters with a screwdriver and a bow tie. On March 30, Doctor Who returns to American television with a new batch of episodes, its popularity continuing a recent trend of British shows becoming available and successful in the United States.


The Pulitzer-prize winning historian David Hackett Fischer wrote that “in a cultural sense most Americans are Albion’s seed, no matter who their own forebears may have been.” He was referring to our political, social, and linguistic patterns, but it may be the arts and entertainment where the patrimony and connections are strongest. School curricula invariably include Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare. The first American movie star was London-born Charlie Chaplin. Harry Potter is the fastest selling book series in US history, even though the boarding school culture on which Hogwarts is based is practically nonexistent here and some of the jokes (“spellotape” is a play on “sellotape,” the British name for Scotch tape) don’t translate. In 1965, half of Billboard’s number-one songs were by British bands. An Englishman won an Oscar for the role of Abraham Lincoln.

But one aspect of the cultural landscape has rarely made it across the Atlantic — television. TV is an ephemeral medium. For most of television’s history, shows disappeared, broadcast out into the ether, as soon as they are finished filling time between commercials. Some returned as reruns, filling time between more commercials. Overall, though, they were high quantity and relatively disposable. Johnny Carson, the highest paid TV personality of the 1970s, was on air six hours every week. The format did not lend itself to export.

British television, therefore, rarely made a large impact on American shores. At the time of the British Invasion of the 1960s, when London was swinging and Sgt. Pepper and Lawrence of Arabia were imprinted in the American consciousness, top rated UK TV programs included the Royal Variety Show, Coronation Street, and Dr Finlay’s Casebook. None of these names are likely to trigger any baby boomer nostalgia. The British television show with the most impact on the United States was probably Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But even this was broadcast only sporadically by PBS and ABC in a truncated format and its popularity undoubtedly benefitted from three co-branded movies.

All that has changed. In the past 10 years, a number of developments in television have acted as a latter-day Isambard Kingdom Brunel and allowed greater transmission between markets. First and foremost is the popularity of DVD box sets, which made their debut for the first season of The X-Files in 2000. Box sets can be easily transported across borders, regardless of available TV timeslots. The proliferation of cable channels and online streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu exponentially increased the amount of programming that could be distributed and created a demand for content that Britain, with its own TV industry and decades of past work, was easily able to meet. TV’s stylistic evolution towards single-camera sitcoms and extended narratives meant that these DVDs were worth buying. Television had shifted away from its roots as recorded vaudeville, immediate, and closer to its cousin in cinema, exportable.

In business-speak, the product has witnessed decreasing transactional costs, increasing supply, and growing value. I, like many others, have seen both the American remake of The Office as well as the British original. Ricky Gervais’s subsequent show, Extras, was co-produced with HBO. Downton Abbey’s third season finale attracted 8.2 million viewers, beating its competition on other networks. British television is making an impressive mark on American culture.


Perhaps no other show evinces this trend as much as Doctor Who, partly because few other shows are so particularly British. In fact, Doctor Who is so British that Brits tend to disbelieve that it has become popular in the US. Their reaction at being told that one of their quirky national traditions attracts an audience unfamiliar with tea towels and gap years is a bit like an American being told that the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is being livestreamed unironically across France. Really? That’s what you’re watching? But only we watch that.

First broadcast in 1963, Doctor Who centers on a humanoid alien, the Doctor, who travels throughout time and space with a human companion from contemporary Britain, fighting aliens and extricating himself from hopeless situations. The show was famous for its low production values. The Doctor’s spaceship/time machine, the TARDIS, is a wooden box that, notwithstanding its transgalactic origins, looks exactly like a police telephone booth from 1960s Britain. The Doctor’s greatest enemies, the Daleks, are slightly smaller wooden boxes whose main weapons look strikingly like toilet plungers. Nonetheless, it was a hit. The show was in production until 1989 and rebooted in 2005. In the UK, the show is a bit like Star Trek. It often inspires sketches for the annual Comic Relief telethon, which in 2011 got a 37-percent audience share, unheard of in the US, where a network on a strong night might average 14 percent. The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones has called Doctor Who “Britain’s greatest television show.” It has that kind of hyperbolically vaunted status.

Doctor Who is also quintessentially British not because it is made in Britain or because it is popular in Britain, but because it reflects the development of the United Kingdom’s place in the world in the past half century. The show continued the youth adventure literature enabled and encouraged by imperialism into a post-imperial time. The Doctor acts as the epitome of how Britons (and perhaps Westerners in general) would like to see themselves and their actions in the world.

Imperialism in the 19th century touched nearly every aspect of life in colonies and metropoles alike, including youth literature. Frank Bullen, a turn of the century novelist, claimed that every British boy was a confirmed imperialist. The empire was the place where bright young men could have adventures in lands undiscovered by those who weren’t already living there. It possessed the perfect elements for fiction: exotic locations, ancient rituals, immediate privileged status through connection with the ruling power, and the chances for fighting and fortune and serving one’s country. These stories provided the escapism and morality plays that American boys found in Horatio Alger and the Wild West. Literature that relied on the idealized empire as its foundation can be seen in various genres and includes King Solomon’s Mines, certain Sherlock Holmes stories, most of Rudyard Kipling’s work, Churchill’s Boer War dispatches, and periodicals with titles like Boy’s Own and Union Jack. Even Indiana Jones can be placed in this canon. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy fights the cult practices of Indians and is aided by the governmental apparatus of the British Raj.

By the 1960s, when Doctor Who was created, this setting was untenable. The British empire, like other European empires, was ending. India gained independence in 1947. African territories followed in the 1950s and 1960s. Jamaican independence in 1962 began the end of the British control in the Caribbean. Within a relatively short amount of time, the exotic colonies were sovereign states. Bringing home treasure was extraditable. Racially segregated governing was apartheid. This is not to say that Britain immediately embraced absolute multicultural tolerance, but many of the geopolitical realities that underpinned imperial adventure books were gone.

In this milieu Doctor Who appeared. In many ways, the show carried on the themes of Victorian youth literature: the Doctor is a fearless traveler; he encounters strange cultures and lands; he is stoic, sophisticated, and not without a few eccentricities. Give him a pith helmet and he could fit in perfectly with the entertainment of the past. Episodic adventure still sold, was still compelling, but with Doctor Who, the creators were confronted with the question of what happens to an empire-builder post-imperially? The question for the show’s creators was how to maintain the lucrative adventure structure of the past without the geopolitical foundation that it had required.

Their answer was to use the traits that were appealing about adventurers and were still permissible in a world where countries are not apportioned on a first-European-come, first-European-served basis. When inviting his companions to join him, he almost always asks if they want to see the universe. The stated mission is travel for its own sake. The Doctor is a tourist.

The Doctor is fascinated by new places, people, and phenomena. Throwaway lines before landing in some disaster often reference a wonder — a planet made of diamond, the oldest writing in the universe — he’s always wanted to see. The Doctor is Jane Goodall. The Doctor is David Attenborough. He is a naturalist and anthropologist, two archetypes that are permitted to travel to the exotic because they do so for the cause of knowledge.

However, the Doctor rarely stays in the role of observer. If he did, it’d be a pretty dull science fiction series. As much as he claims to be an innocuous wanderer with a name that signifies a “First Do No Harm” mentality, he seems to get into fights wherever he lands. His policy in these situations was summed up by his companion in a 2010 episode: “Is this how this works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets. Unless there’s children crying.” The Doctor is a humanitarian interventionist.

The latter persona is that which the Doctor most often assumes, since aggressive intervention is entertaining and this is, after all, a TV show. But it is also the persona most difficult for a nation for whom real life intervention led to the Suez, Mau Maus, and Malaya, actions for which they are still apologizing. Certainly intervention had distasteful association for viewers of the modern series, which aired in 2005, the same year that Tony Blair, battered by the unpopularity of the Iraq War, received only 35 percent of the popular vote in the general elections.

The writers of Doctor Who have prevented the Doctor from unpleasant foreign entanglements largely by making his enemies mimic the kinds of foes that liberal societies can easily oppose. His main enemy, the Daleks, are a force of pure domination and expansion, with no emotions other than the will to control others. They are a rogue state, to be accommodated at our own peril. They are war criminals and the Doctor is NATO in the Balkans. A new and popular enemy, the Weeping Angels, are statues that send a victim back in time and feed off its potential life. They are a science fiction version of a parasite pandemic: not a people but a force to kill or be killed by. The Doctor is the World Health Organization.

Yet these types of enemies are rare. Often, episodes include a process of conflict mediation that makes the Doctor seem less alien and more Scandinavian. He implores extraterrestrials to cease their attacks; he assures them of his good faith; he promises to work towards a solution that satisfies their most pressing security needs. Only after talks break down does the Doctor fight. And he rarely fights others because of their tribal status, but rather because of the narrow-mindedness or avaricious self-interest that has led to the conflict. By aligning the show with trends in Western international relations, the audience is able to enjoy the continuation of imperial literature without any of the unsavory political undertones. It’s as if Cecil Rhodes joined the Peace Corps and donated his salary to UNESCO.


Of course, very little of this is why Doctor Who is successful. I doubt that many fans watched the episode “The Vampires in Venice” and equated the Doctor with the position of British troops in mandate Palestine (with the vampire-fish-aliens representing either Jews or Arabs according to one’s political position). By placing the themes of Victorian literature in the science fiction/outer space genre that was popular in the space race 1950s and 1960s and aligning the Doctor with British political thought, Doctor Who avoided imperialist connotations. But those connotations were also avoided by other successors of the literature: Cold War spy novels and World War II movies. There was not much argument about portraying Dr. No and Hitler as bad guys.

Instead, when considering how the specific program of Doctor Who succeeded, rather than avoiding failure, it is best to look to the internal qualities of the show. Julian Fellowes has credited the success of Downton Abbey to the unique pairing of classic setting and modern pacing; Doctor Who also has structural aspects that give it an advantage over other competitors.

The first is simplicity in its basic premise. The Doctor travels through space and time in his wooden box. That’s all there is to the show. There is no need to understand backstories or deduce mythologies, as with Tolkien or Game of Thrones. It is pretty much all on the surface. The Doctor’s companion acts as the audience’s stand-in, prompting the exposition necessary to a newcomer. The foundation of the show has nothing extraneous that might weigh it down over the years.

The second element is the extreme variety the show is allowed to indulge in. Traveling throughout all of space and time allows for episodes set in Pompeii, New York, a spaceship resembling the Titanic, or a parallel universe. The Friends kept going to the same coffee shop. Parks and Recreation is set in Pawnee’s city hall. The Doctor rarely spends more than one episode in the same century.

The show also varies in length. A typical season will contain 13 episodes with 45-minute running times, one or two with an hour of content, and a Christmas special at an hour-plus. Some of the regular episodes will be two-parters. There is usually a season-long story arc that culminates at the end. This means that a single season will have stories lasting 45 minutes, 60 minutes, 90 minutes, or 90 minutes with a significant amount of “Previously On.” No show on American television (perhaps other than Louie) is allowed this kind of flexibility.

Doctor Who also benefits from internal rebooting. The character of the Doctor does not die, but instead regenerates into a different form. The lead actor can therefore be replaced when the audience tires of the old one. The Doctor’s female companions cannot stay with him forever, but must meet their fate dramatically in a season-ending episode or return to normal lives dramatically in mid-season. The lead actress is replaceable. Since the show’s relaunch in 2005, there have been three Doctors and four different companions (with a fifth coming soon). Guest spots and cameos rarely last longer than an episode. In that same time, Dwight Schrute hasn’t changed desks.

Finally, Doctor Who, perhaps because it has been around for so long and has such a high visibility within Britain, has been able to attract some tremendous talent. Very few television science fiction projects could feature appearances from Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy, or Carey Mulligan. Its current showrunner has written the BBC sitcom Coupling and BBC-PBS’s Sherlock. This level of quality in writing and acting has sustained the show’s popularity. One friend told me the relaunched series succeeded because they got better looking actors. It’s true, but those actors appeared because the writing was good, and the writing was good because the simple and expansive format allowed for good stories. And, crucially, those stories have been able to avoid political impropriety even as it taps into a tradition in which protagonists are lauded for violating the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.


This is a lucky time for television. We Americans are experiencing a more benign version of what happened to Britain in the 19th century. Technology has allowed us access to another culture, with its stores of gems. Doctor Who had been around for 40 years, tapping into a vein even older than that, before Americans in sizeable numbers noticed it. When we did, we found heaps of past seasons and dozens of other shows awaiting us. Although reality shows have metastasized across cable, and CBS twice weekly portrays a navy riddled with crime, we can travel through space and time to programs made by the old colonizer. I suppose that makes us lazier versions of the Doctor, our Netflix accounts our wooden box, and the E! Network, the Daleks. It’s a kinder, gentler, more entertaining empire.


LARB Contributor

Chris Oates has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Oxford, where he examined Euro-American security policy in the early 2000s. He has written Fighting for Home: The Story of Alfred K. Oates and the Fifth Regiment, Excelsior Brigade.


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