Last time, I ran the first of a two part series featuring an interview with Matt Hills, a leading British thinker about fan culture and genre entertainment, discussing the revamped Doctor Who series. Hills is currently hard at work writing a book, Triumph of a Time Lord, which discusses the retooling of this classic British series for new audiences and new times. In the first installment, I focused on questions concerning the series’s relations to its most hardcore fans, discussing the argument that the new Doctor Who represents what happens when fans take over control of a media franchise. But that’s really too simple an explanation for all of the changes which have happened here. This time, I asked Hills to drill down on how the changes in the series format reflect trends in British and global television production as strategies to broaden the viewership of the programme.
As with last time, Hills assumes readers are relatively familiar with the contents of both seasons of the new Doctor Who — and makes frequent and telling references to individual episodes. He’s pretty careful not to kill the drama for poor Americans who haven’t had official access to all of the episodes this season (and haven’t figured out how to order them from UK Amazon or download them from some extra-legal source.) But if you’ve really remained in the dark about what happens this season, you may not want to read this since there are some major plot developments that get discussed here.
Of course, there are going to be spoilers afloat in the Doctor Who community at this point: it is really absurd to have such long delays in the distribution of the series between the United Kingdom and the United States, two countries seperated by a common language, at a time when information flows so fluidly across national borders along various digital networks. Television fan culture is now global and producers run a high risk when they muck about with the temporality of information flows!
To what degree do you think the new Doctor Who has been conceived for a global rather than a national audience? I gather there were complaints early on about
the “Americanization” of Doctor Who because of shifts in the format. Have those concerns settled down?
If anything, I’d say that UK fandom has shown a certain pride in the show’s volume of overseas sales – back in the day, this always used to be cited as a barometer of the old series’s popularity. There are still some residual and highly proprietary attitudes among a few UK fans, though, who very much perceive the show as ‘theirs’, which isn’t always helpful. The history of Who has frequently been one where certain groups of fans have contrasted its supposed “Britishness” to the allegedly “American” values of, say, the likes of Star Trek. And that hasn’t totally gone away, even in an era where fans can internationally access the same production information, and spoilers etc, at pretty much the same time via web-based communities like Outpost Gallifrey.
I think one sign that the show has absolutely been conceived of as a global vehicle is its comparative reliance on London as a setting. Filming in Cardiff has frequently doubled for London – even causing some consternation to drunken passers-by on those late-night occasions when the Welsh capital city has been ‘dressed’ as London: I overheard one Welshman shout “how rude!” as he lurched past a London underground sign which the production team had erected in the city centre for the filming of ‘Rose’.
Contemporary London helps to sell the show’s Brit identity abroad: it makes sense as a setting for international audiences much more readily than other UK cities would. The ‘showreel’ used to promote series one to buyers and advertise it on-air to audiences, included that scene of Big Ben being demolished by an alien spacecraft: ‘marvel as an international icon of tourism is trashed’ was evidently just as strong a subtext as ‘we’ve actually got decent special effects’.
And Cardiff’s first appearance was, of course, in ‘The Unquiet Dead’, which compensated for this by capitalising on the BBC’s reputation for costume drama (again, something likely to help sell the show overseas). This combination of ‘cool London’ – set up in the very opening montage of the series – and ‘heritage’/period drama settings makes the show a likely candidate to travel well. And the emphasis on clear storytelling (by Who’s standards) and iconic monsters are also both tokens of a global ambition, as are the occasional inserts of media coverage within invasion stories, which the show has been increasingly careful to internationalise, so that fictional US newsflashes, for instance, are seen on-screen alongside UK ones.
The 1996 US-UK co-production of Doctor Who was far more self-evidently “Americanized” than the current series. There, the TARDIS had a “cloaking device”, and the Doctor kissed his ‘companion’ in a more straightforwardly romantic manner compared with the various contrivances Russell T. Davies has used to justify this event. And though some fans may feel the latest show has been “Americanized” in the sense that it’s followed in the wake of US TV successes like Buffy, or adopted a story arc approach characteristic of shows like The X-Files, in fact elements of the new series’ format can be traced back through previous Russell T Davies’ screenplays and even his own Who novel – the emotionally complex, hard-hitting, and beautifully condensed Damaged Goods – as well as being indebted to developments in other Who novels: for example, the matter of groups of people (conspiracy theorists) trying to track the Doctor was raised in the Virgin novel Who Killed Kennedy, and is not simply or directly a reaction to developments in genre ‘realism’ in US cult TV (even if some of these 1990s Who novels may, themselves, have been written in the shadow of The X-Files). And the self-reflexive depiction of fandom (done far more directly than ‘Love & Monsters’) is carried out in Kate Orman’s Virgin novels Return of the Living Dad and Room With No Doors, in which a fan actually discusses negative fan stereotypes and asserts that he wanted to “get a life” by emulating the Doctor. Given that these adventures were written for, and sold to, a fan niche market, it’s not at all surprising that they moved ahead of the new series in terms of explicitly addressing fandom as a subject. But there is a very strong argument that far from simply reacting to American cult & quality TV, the new series is partly reacting to developments there (and production values) and partly reacting to developments within an international community of professionalised fan writers.
If the series were conceived of more centrally for a national rather than global audience, then I’d argue that it would display far more of a sense of UK regionality than it does. Even Christopher Eccleston’s “all planets have a North” Doctor has been rapidly replaced by David Tennant adopting an estuary English (or London-ish) accent in line with his Casanova performance, and the international sales that presumably garnered. And Peter Kay’s Bolton accent surfaces in ‘Love & Monsters’ only when he is under heavy monster make-up, seeming to suggest that the producers wanted to reinforce the point – yes, this is still Peter Kay the famous comedian, even under all the prosthetics. Otherwise, the dominant norm in the new series of Who is that its characters and settings are London-default and largely speak in ‘received pronounciation’ or Queen’s English: plus ca change. UK regionality is suppressed because of its irrelevance to a global audience: the fact that the series is made by BBC Wales has made relatively difference to its material form, though it has undoubtedly been a great boost to the Welsh TV industry, which – much like UK fan audiences – has again shown considerable pride in its success. And I think that takes me back to where I came in on this answer!