Doctor Who and the New British Empire


Chris Oates in the LA Review of Books:

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.