Forbes and Fifth

Why Do Americans Like Doctor Who?

British media—particularly television—has become increasingly popular in the United States in the last 15 years, with shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock commanding legions of fans since their arrival on American screens. Downton Abbey, for example, is PBS’s highest rating drama ever, drawing 10.2 million viewers in 2015.i However, this trend is not recent, as Americans have an old fondness for British TV: Monty Python’s Flying Circus holds a place in the hearts of American Anglophiles. Then enters the grandfather of them all, one of the trailblazers for the present rise of British TV in America: Doctor Who. Fundamentally, it is a quirky show about an eccentric, world-saving, time-traveling alien. Despite it being possibly the least likely show to have sprouted a sizable global fan base, with its bizarre extraterrestrials, low-budget effects, and general air of ‘weirdness,’ Doctor Who still found its way into millions of people’s hearts. The history of the tale of the mad man in the blue box shows that at least some of what made it an odd little show that became a cult favorite. Especially to Americans, the source of this penchant lies not only in its portrayal of fantastic, distant future lands, but also in its appeal to an idealized notion of Britain.

Doctor Who premiered on November 23, 1963. It was initially supposed to be a children’s show with an educational bent. Sydney Newman, the show’s father is quoted in the New Yorker, as pitching the science fiction aspects of the show to the British Broadcasting Company by arguing, “the essence of S.F. is that the wonder or fairytale element shall be given a scientific or technical explanation […] To do this there must be at least one character capable of giving the explanation.”ii The time machine plot mechanic allowed Doctor Who to be didactic regarding history and science. Indeed, two of the first three sidekicks—known within the fandom as companions—were a science teacher and a history teacher.

But Doctor Who did not keep the educational mission for long. The show moved towards a pure adventure and drama as it introduced the iconic, villainous Daleks, who were decked with skirt-like, polka-dotted robotic bodies; whisk and plunger arms; a central, unblinking, staring eyestalk; and who wielded genocidal intent. British fans went mad for the Daleks, particularly after the “Dalek Invasion of Earth” series aired in 1964. The series featured the Daleks rolling all over London in robot-Nazi style, screaming “EXTERMINATE!” in spine-chilling electronically modulated voices, and even calling their plans for world domination the “Final Solution” before being ingeniously thwarted by the First Doctor.iii More than 12 million people watched that series. Fans rapidly bought Dalek merchandise or saw them on tour, with BBC Wales reporting stating at their Cardiff tour: “Thousands of children lined the route—12 deep at times.”iv  According to the New Yorker, this phenomenon enabled Doctor Who to air outside the UK; “Trading on Dalekmania, the BBC was able to sell “Doctor Who” to affiliates all over the world. By 1965, the show could be seen in places as far flung as Australia, Gibraltar, Singapore, Barbados, Sierra Leone, New Zealand, and Nigeria.”v 

One of those far-off places was America, where Doctor Who aired earliest in 1972 as a syndication of the Third Doctor’s series presented by Time Life Television. This attempt at landing the TARDIS in the US was mostly unsuccessful,vi reportedly because the program directors at the broadcasting stations kept moving the show around in time slots.vii However, by the end of the decade, a fair number of PBS stations picked up the first four seasons of the Fourth Doctor’s seven-season run. Although then still a late-night niche show, Doctor Who fostered a dedicated American fan base so that in 1982, 6,500 fans attended a Doctor Who convention.viii When the popularity of Doctor Who reached its peak, more than 100 American public television stations carried the show.ix 

Surprisingly, it was a PBS station in Iowa that has continued to air the program with only brief interruptions since 1974. Iowa Public Television managed this impressive feat thanks to local Who fans—Whovians—who pledged money to keep the show even after numerous setbacks. Iowans donated to keep Doctor Who on their airwaves, even when the production of new episodes was halted by the BBC in 1989. These Iowans continued to keep their beloved show afloat throughout the 1990s and 2000’s, even when the Sci-Fi Channel tried to gain exclusive American rights to broadcast the Fourth Doctor’s adventures; or, when various cable channels began in 2008 to show the 2005 Doctor Who reboot. Other PBS stations used the same funding model to air the show, though most of them dropped the show after its cancellation and neglected to pick it up after its revival.x 

In the wake of the 1989 cancellation, there were two attempts to regenerate Doctor Who. The first was ill-fated and came in the shape of the 1996 TV movie entitled Doctor Who. Starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, it failed to draw a decent viewership in the United States. The low ratings likely resulted in part from the movie’s premiere coinciding with the series finale of the popular sitcom Roseanne.xi The film’s plot did not help: it involved the genocidal Daleks uncharacteristically holding a trial before executing one of their nemeses, a Time Lord named “The Master”. It also included the revelation that the Doctor was in fact half-human and interested in wooing human women.xii This romance was explicitly proscribed against in the classic television series in the form of the humorously and frankly named “No Hanky Panky in the TARDIS” rule.xiii The film’s plot did no favors to curry success in either nation, as it lacked appeal to the franchise’s pre-existing fan base.

The second attempt to bring back the show—the 2005 reboot—improved upon previous errors and bested the 1996 movie. The BBC exclusively produced the reboot, and self-described “demented, hardcore fans” like Steven Moffatt wrote the scripts for the reboot.xiv ‘NuWho’—the new production staff of Doctor Who—more ably retained old fans with its respect for and knowledge of the show’s history; but NuWho also appealed to a broader audience by improving production value and generally making an active attempt to gain casual viewership.xv This iteration of Doctor Who still airs, and included between four and thirteen Doctors. A special milestone was the 50th anniversary episode, which aired in 2013 and in one day drew a record 3.6 million American viewers and 10.2 million British viewers.xvi  

Though the size of the American fan base is still comparatively small, it is a passionate one. Hordes of enthusiastic fans post on American social media sites, such as Tumblr, which hosts text posts, fan art, cosplay, and critical analyses;xviiand Reddit, which hosts a dedicated Doctor Who message board with more than 200,000 subscribers.xviii When new episodes air or news about the show is announced, the #DoctorWho trends on Twitter in the United States and worldwidexix as fans ‘livetweet’ the happenings and share their thoughts with friends. American fans have camped for days at events like San Diego Comic Con to get a chance to see the new stars and writers as well as US-exclusive preview clips.xx Doctor Who has even become pervasive enough within American “geek culture” that a popular NBC sitcom, Community, honors and parodies the program with a show within a show, Inspector Spacetime. In this lovingly satirical take on Who, a British-accented alien travels through space and time in a red phone booth that is slightly too small for comfort on the inside. Of course, the main characters of Community adore Inspector Spacetime in much the same way nonfictional American ‘nerds’ love Doctor Who.xxi 

Clearly Doctor Who remains popular with Americans, but the reasons for its acclaim are not entirely evident. To understand this, it is worth to take a detour into the writings of Bill Bryson, an American expatriate living in the UK. Bryson’s 1995 book Notes From a Small Island provides an uncluttered view into one American’s ‘mental Britain.’ This ‘Imaginary Britain’ is a magical place, full of cockney cabbies, gas street lamps, royalty, power, mystery, and the possibility of hobbits or wardrobes leading to Narnia in a way that the United States—a comparatively young, industrial, strip-mall filled place—cannot be. Bryson’s romanticized perception of Britain is unrealistic, perpetuated in media like Doctor Who.

Bryson presents his Imaginary Britain in the shape of his general ire and disgust with the common British habit of replacing decayed historic buildings with modern ones, or remodel the old buildings antithetically to their traditional appearances. Upon arrival at nearly every new town or city he visits, he rants about how tragic it is that edifices from the 1800s and earlier had been “swept away in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to make room for wide new roads and angular office buildings with painted plywood inserts beneath each window."xxii Bryson fears the physical history of Britain erodes because of apathy towards its preservation.

He believes that Britain ought to be a place where iconic red telephone booths are common and necessary and laments their demise.xxiii Though anyone could have predicted the obsolescence of the red phone booth, Bryson wants to keep them around because, in his mind, Britain should have them.xxiv This is despite their lack of utility for anything besides sidewalk decoration. He knows that this Britain is one that cannot be, but he still prefers this Britain of the mind to what already exists.xxv

Though Bryson is an American expatriate who spent most of his life in the United Kingdom, he fails to realize that the Britain of ubiquitous red phone booths, double-decker buses, and infinite hedgerows hardly resembles the real, modern Britain. Modernization has costs, but the benefits often outweigh them. Yet Bryson does not acknowledge this, or is reluctant to admit that the differences between his memories of Britain and the land’s current state are not horrible.

Bryson still prefers the romantic Britain in his 2015 book, The Road to Little Dribbling, with odes to the former glory of the now dilapidated seaside resort of Blackpoolxxvi and with wishes that Britain were still as quiet as it was before the rise of cell phones.xxvii He openly admits his longing for the Britain that only lives in his dreams and memories: “[The Britain of the 1970s] was the Britain I came to. I wish it could be that place again.”xxviii Bryson knows from experience that the Britain he came to can never be again; he just wishes that that were not the case. If after 40 years of perspective and several decades of acculturation to British society, Bryson still will not let go of his Imaginary Britain, imagine how much stronger an Imaginary Britain might be for the average American Anglophile. 

This average American Anglophile may have taken a few brief visits to the British Isles. The American Anglophile’s knowledge of the United Kingdom may stem from the news, by media like The It Crowd, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey. For this reason, it is not unreasonable to state that the average American’s media-fueled mental Imaginary Britain is like Bryson’s: the Britain of television, cinema, and books may be the only one they have ever engaged with. Of course, they know that this romanticized view of Britain cannot possibly be fully real, but nonetheless, they, like Bryson, believe in it to an extent and wish it were real. 

It is also worth noting that the British themselves have an Imaginary Britain. Nostalgia and wishful thinking are not uniquely American phenomena, and the British intentionally project their self-image in their media. Former writer and producer of the 2005 series, Russell T. Davies, has said “there is a desire to make the series essentially British,”xxix and that desire is quite evident in the characters, characterization, and settings used. British history and culture is used to mark the program’s Britishness for the benefit of both British and international viewers, frequently “[employing] generally well-known locations (Big Ben, the Thames), historical figures (Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria), and cultural markers (fish and chips, the Blitz). The common understanding of these references as British allows international viewers to feel ‘in the know’ rather than alienated and imbues the program with cultural capital.”xxx In effect, the British people involved with the writing, production, and presentation of Doctor Who are purposefully perpetuating the myth of Imaginary Britain via the use of common cultural touchstones and stereotypes to make international viewers and themselves more at home with the show.

Indeed, Doctor Who is positively stuffed full of pieces of Imaginary Britain. Many of the Doctors themselves, as described by the BBC, are each in their own way sketches of various quintessentially imaginary British people. For example, William Hartnell’s First Doctor is a cranky old Oxford or Cambridge professor, with his long gray hair and Edwardian suit. He was someone who was sometimes willing to “place his companions in jeopardy for the sake of his own curiosity,”xxxi but who still had a heart of gold. The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) may have dressed in a frilly shirt, but he still had more than a little James Bond in him. He assisted a secret military organization, UNIT, knew martial arts, and was “a man of action, equipped with a vintage car nicknamed Bessie and any number of fancy Bond-like gadgets.” The Fourth and arguably most beloved Doctor (Tom Baker) had a huge mop of curly hair, wore an absurdly long scarf, liked to offer his acquaintances Jelly Babies whether they knew that they were a British confection or not, and generally seemed to be an eccentric Dr. Doolittle-esque “traveler who delighted in the sheer bravado of his adventures.”xxxii He was jovial and a bit odd, but meant well. The present and twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is somewhat reminiscent of the First. The Twelfth has an air of snark and grandfatherly grumpiness mixed with a fondness for sunglasses, guitars, and trying to be cool.xxxiii He is the Old Oxbridge Professor, dressed up and attempting to be prepared for a brand-new era.

Finally, comes the unenumerated War Doctor, who appears on television only in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” and in a special mini-episode, “The Night of the Doctor,” which shows the Eighth Doctor regenerating into him. He is played by John Hurt, who embodies the WWII-era British man exhausted with war, but who fights anyway because, although war is hard, in this case it is right.  The War Doctor’s heavy, solemn decision to use a temporal weapon of mass destruction, The Moment, to end the Time Warxxxiv is a clear parallel to the sacrifices made by the British during WWII to stop Hitler. The Moment could be considered to mirror the United States’ choice to use the atomic bomb to end the war in the Pacific. 

Furthermore, all the Doctors share in meeting common British stereotypes. A few of these include Brits being and presenting themselves as highly educated, having a rapier wit,xxxv drinking large quantities of tea, being well-dressed,xxxvi being handsome and polite, and commonly appearing in either London or the countryside.xxxvii The Doctor checks all or nearly all the above boxes in each of his incarnations. He has a Sherlock-like knack for solving complex problems and mysteries as he adventures across the universe, and while working out the solution he often sounds more intelligent than everyone else in the room. He possesses a dry, quick wit,xxxviii and a fondness for tea.xxxix To date all 13 Doctors have been reasonably aesthetically attractive Caucasian men.xl While the Doctor is decidedly not a caricature of a British man, he still is outlined by common tropes regarding what a British man is or ought to be like.

Not only are the Doctors themselves a figment of Imaginary Britain, but their settings often are too. The time travel mechanic of the show allows for “the Doctor [to] travel in three directions: to the past, to the future, and sideways (for instance, a parallel universe),” but “[the] future was expensive. So was sideways. The past was cheap, especially when stock footage was available. ‘The Time Meddler’ [the last serial of Season 2, aired in 1965] uses footage shot during a 1949 reenactment to show Vikings landing off the northeast coast of England in 1066.”xli Moving in space presumably caused similar cost problems, so while there are plenty of exciting off-planet and futuristic adventures for the Doctor and his companions, due to the need to keep overhead low, many stories take place in various times and places on Earth.

More specifically, most of the terrestrial tales take place in various times and places in the United Kingdom. For example, almost every time unfriendly aliens invade Earth in Doctor Who, the invasion starts in Britain, usually in London. While this is due in part to the often-limited budget of the UK-based show, especially regarding Classic Doctor Who, it also reflects the powerful Imaginary Britain. 

The choice of London as the initial landing point for invasion particularly expresses a “sense of national importance and prestige: if alien invaders deem it necessary to take over the British Isles as a prelude to their conquest of the earth, the illusion of Britain as a great power is maintained.”xlii This illusion is certainly well taken care of. The TARDIS Data Core, a fan-run wiki, lists nearly one hundred television stories set at least partly in London, and about four hundred more audio stories, books, and comics.xliii In the 2005 revival alone, story arcs from various seasons feature alien invasions of Victorian London,xliv Modern London,xlv a London in which all of time ran concurrently, to the effect that British icon Charles Dickens did TV interviews while Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill rode a mammoth,xlviand more. Other settings include the Elizabethan English countrysidexlvii and 1879 Scotland,xlviii which ensures that the show is British, not only English.  

It is evident that in Doctor Who, Britain is the center of the universe. In many ways, the Imaginary Britain of Doctor Who is dominant, as it was in its past, when it was full of now-gone great figures of British history like Elizabeth I and Churchill. Some scholars have even suggested that Doctor Who was and remains a means for the British to grapple with social issues such as the loss of the Empire,xlix and the nostalgia-filled show may be a tool to help unravel, consider, and move past these subjects. The shape of the TARDIS itself is a reminder of the Britain that was but can no longer be but for in the imagination of fans. Blue police boxes—like red phone booths—have mostly disappeared.

A single quote from one American fan, Lindsay Breen, says it all: when asked why she loved Doctor Who, she said, “At the heart of it all for me, it’s how I grew up believing Britain was; full of crazy men with blue boxes having adventures in faraway places or times. This might explain why I’m an Anglophile now.”l 


Bahn, Christopher. “Doctor Who (Classic): ‘Doctor Who: The Television Movie’,” A.V. Club, July 24, 2011.

Booy, Miles. Love and Monsters: The Doctor Who Experience, 1979 to the Present. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

Bryson, Bill. Notes from a Small Island. New York: Morrow, 1995.

Bryson, Bill. The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain. New York: Doubleday, 2015.

Chapman, James. Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who: A Cultural History. 2006. London: I.B. Tauris. of doctorwho&source=bl&ots=8Ed4jJ_yby&sig=SYp7_4S1c82XXpiOoBvF8hfqq60&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi--93V_M_LAhUFFj4KHb-AAdYQ6AEIhQEwEg#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Doctor Who. Directed by Geoffrey Sax. Vancouver, CA: Universal for Fox and BBC One, 1996.

“Doctor Who in Canada and the United States.” Wikipedia, last modified March 21, 2016.

Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor.” Written by Steven Moffat. UK: BBC, November 23, 2013.

Doctor Who: “The Snowmen.” Written by Steven Moffat. UK: BBC One, December 25, 2012. 

Doctor Who: “The Sontaran Stratagem.” Written by Helen Raynor. UK: BBC One, April 26, 2008.

Doctor Who: “Tooth and Claw.” Written by Russel T. Davies. UK: BBC One, 22 April, 2006.

Doctor Who: “The Wedding of River Song.” Written by Steven Moffat. UK: BBC One, October 1, 2011.

 “Doctor Who.” Tumblr, last modified March 21, 2016. 

Donovan, Lea A. “Why Does Iowa like Doctor Who so Much?” NewStatesman, September 4, 


Edwards, Richard. “Doctor Who At Comic-Con.” Gamesradar, July 16, 2012.

Flood, Morgan S. “Response Paper: Notes From a Small Island”. January 26, 2016.

Hansen, Christopher J. Ruminations, Peregrinations, and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to 

Doctor Who. 2010. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Pub. national identity and doctor who&source=bl&ots=8YHACoVIRO&sig=Ya0l0E_cUwNy1STxjlMf8oG_PTU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi50pyr8pvMAhWMaT4KHTK0C-4Q6AEIMTAD#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Holmes, Oliver, and Daisy Jones. “We Got an Illustrator to Draw the Biggest American Stereotypes About Britain.” VICE, April 8, 2015.

“Inspector Spacetime / Just For Fun - TV Tropes,” TV Tropes, last modified March 21, 2016,

Kissell, Rick. “‘Doctor Who’ Special Scores Record Ratings for BBC America.” Variety, November 25, 2013.

Lepore, Jill. “The Man in the Box.” The New Yorker, November 11, 2013.

Mann, Andrea. “9 Stereotypes About The British That Simply Aren't True.” The Huffington Post UK, August 11, 2014.

McAlpine, Fraser. “Lost In Translation: Five British Stereotypes That Are True.” BBC America, 2011.

Pallotta, Frank. “‘Downton Abbey’ Remains PBS's Highest-rated Drama.” CNN Money, January 6, 2015.

“/r/DoctorWho.” Reddit, last modified March 21, 2016.

“Why Fans Love ‘Doctor Who’.” Examiner, September 24, 2012, last modified March 21, 2016.


iFrank Pallotta, “'Downton Abbey' Remains PBS's Highest-rated Drama,” CNN Money, January 6, 2015,

 ii Jill Lepore, “The Man in the Box,” The New Yorker, November 11, 2013, 

iii “The Dalek Invasion of Earth (TV Story),” Tardis Data Core, last modified March 21, 2016,

iv Lepore. “The Man in the Box,” The New Yorker. 

v Ibid. 

vi Miles Booy, Love and Monsters: The Doctor Who Experience, 1979 to the Present (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 75. 

vii “Doctor Who in Canada and the United States,” Wikipedia, last modified March 21, 2016, 

viii Booy, Love and Monsters, 75. 

ix Lea A. Donovan, “Why Does Iowa like Doctor Who so Much?” NewStatesman, September 4, 2014,

x Donovan “Why Does Iowa like Doctor Who so Much?” NewStatesmen. 

xi Christopher Bahn, “Doctor Who (Classic): ‘Doctor Who: The Television Movie’,” A.V. Club, July 24, 2011,

xii Doctor Who, directed by Geoffrey Sax (Vancouver: Universal for Fox and BBC One, 1996). 

xiii Lepore “The Man in the Box,” The New Yorker. 

xiv Ibid. 

xv Ibid. 

xvi Rick Kissell, “‘Doctor Who’ Special Scores Record Ratings for BBC America,” Variety, November 25, 2013,

xvii “Doctor Who,” Tumblr, last modified March 21, 2016, who. 

xviii “/r/DoctorWho,” Reddit, last modified March 21, 2016, 

xix Doctor Who BBCA’s Twitter feed, accessed March 21, 2016, 

xx Richard Edwards, “Doctor Who At Comic-Con,” Gamesradar, July 16, 2012, 

xxi “Inspector Spacetime / Just For Fun - TV Tropes,” TV Tropes, last modified March 21, 2016. 

xxii Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island (New York: Morrow, 1995), 186 

xxiii Ibid, 90. 

xxiv Flood, Morgan S. Response Paper: Notes From a Small Island. January 26, 2016. 

xxv Ibid. 

xxvi Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain (New York: Doubleday, 2015), 312-314. 

xxvii Ibid, 296. 

xxviii Ibid, 88. 

xxix Christopher J. Hansen, Ruminations, Peregrinations, and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who (2010; Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Pub.), national identity anddoctorwho&source=bl&ots=8YHACoVIRO&sig=Ya0l0E_cUwNy1STxjlMf8oG_PTU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi50pyr8pvMAhWMaT4KHTK0C-4Q6AEIMTAD#v=onepage&q&f=false. 

xxx Ibid. 

xxxi Doctor Who: A Brief History of a Time Lord, s.v. “William Hartnell,” last modified October 24, 2014, 

xxxii Doctor Who: A Brief History of a Time Lord, s.v. “Tom Baker,” last modified 24, 2014, 

xxxiii Tardis Data Core, s.v. “Twelfth Doctor,” last modified March 21, 2016, 

xxxiv Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor,” written by Steven Moffat (UK: BBC, November 23, 2013). 

xxxv Fraser McAlpine, “Lost In Translation: Five British Stereotypes That Are True,” BBC America, 2011,

xxxvi Oliver Holmes, and Daisy Jones, “We Got an Illustrator to Draw the Biggest American Stereotypes About Britain,” VICE, April 8, 2015,

xxxvii Andrea, Mann “9 Stereotypes About The British That Simply Aren't True,” The Huffington Post UK, August 11, 2014,

xxxviii Tardis Data Core, s.v. “The Doctor,” last modified March 21, 2016, 

xxxix Tardis Data Core, s.v. “Tea,” last modified March 21, 2016, 

xl Tardis Data Core, “The Doctor.” 

xli Kissell, “‘Doctor Who’” Variety. 

xlii James Chapman, Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who: A Cultural History (2006; London: I.B. Tauris), history of doctor who&source=bl&ots=8Ed4jJ_yby&sig=SYp7_4S1c82XXpiOoBvF8hfqq60&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi--93V_M_LAhUFFj4KHb-AAdYQ6AEIhQEwEg#v=onepage&q&f=false. 

xliii Tardis Data Core, “Stories Set in London,” last modified March 21, 2016, 

xliv Doctor Who: “The Snowmen,” written by Steven Moffat (UK: BBC One, December 25, 2012). 

xlv Doctor Who: “The Sontaran Stratagem,” written by Helen Raynor (UK: BBC One, April 26, 2008). 

xlvi Doctor Who: “The Wedding of River Song,” written by Steven Moffat (UK: BBC One, October 1, 2011). 

xlvii Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor,” written by Steven Moffat. 

xlviii Doctor Who: “Tooth and Claw,” written by Russel T. Davies (UK: BBC One, 22 April, 2006). 

xlix Pallotta, “‘Downton Abbey’,” CNN Money. 

l “Why Fans Love ‘Doctor Who’,” Examiner, September 24, 2012, last modified March 21, 2016,

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Volume 9, Fall 2016