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The Doctor Is In? Is Doctor Who “Too British” For American Audiences?

Well, it’s been about a week since the news broke that David Yates would be directing the new Doctor Who movie, being produced by the BBC, aimed at American audiences. Perhaps Steven Moffat’s rumoured commentary was perfectly apt: it seems that neither the director nor the studio have any idea what exactly they are planning, and the announcement might have been more than a little preemptive. There’s a lot of chatter out there about what this means for the television show, which is rumoured to be running severely over-budget and under pressure from the BBC executives. Because, you know, it’s not like the show makes enough to justify its costs.

I don’t know if this means potential cancellation or a reboot after the fiftieth anniversary, or even if the show and the movie will run alongside in two distinct continuities (and people said Moffat’s “timey-wimey” plots were too complicated!). Being entirely honest, I’m not sure if Yates knows either. However, something does fascinate me about this. Bringing Yates on-board represents a vote of confidence, suggesting that Doctor Who could be somewhere in the region of “Harry Potter” success stateside.

I can’t help but wonder if Doctor Who is simply “too British” for mainstream American audiences, and if launching a movie franchise to appeal to the demographics will be able to keep the core of the character and the show, while courting North American movie-goers.

States of play?

Okay, before we begin, I feel I should clarify. This isn’t a “the show is too smart for them” whinge-fest or anything like that. I’m not suggesting the show will need to be “dumbed down” or anything as drastic as that. I simply suggest that there are massive cultural differences between the United Kingdom and the United States, and I don’t use the term “differences”in any sort of pejorative sense. I hate that I have to clearly state this, but the internet is a place where tone is often hard to judge and meaning is easily misconstrued. I just mean that any two countries separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years naturally have different tastes and different leanings.

I should also state that I’m aware the show has a “cult” following in the States, what with trips to Comic Con International, being BBC America’s top-rated show and setting this year’s opening two episodes (The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon) in Utah. I know that the Tom Baker episodes used to air on PBS, and the fantastic actor made quite an impression – to the point where he has been affectionately homaged in shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons. However, I also know that studios are counting on more than just “cult” audiences. Cowboys & Aliens and Watchmen demonstrated that being the hottest thing at Comic Con doesn’t mean much on opening weekend.

Is this move just bull?

Doctor Who is a very British television show, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s about an old man who is a young man who travels through space and time to silly-looking planets and high-concepts with a wry self-awareness, unfazed by the silliness of any special effects failures, while espousing a pacifist philosophy and a delightfully counter-cultural style, while somehow managing to remaining strangely tasteful and dignified. The show isn’t a joke, but it’s never too serious either. At its best, it’s wry rather than camp. It’s the type of television show where the phrase “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey” is offered by way of explanation of temporal mechanics. As one guest star declared, “Complete and utter wonderful nonsense!”

I don’t think it’s unfair to observe that not every idea can be transposed faithfully from one country to the next – some ideas simply don’t work outside their original contexts. The British version of Life on Mars, the brilliantly-written and noticeably-less-silly time-travelling cop-show, won an International Emmy and created a spin-off. The American version only lasted a season, despite starring Harvey Keitel and being quite decent. On British television, Rowan Atkinson headlined BlackAdder, one of the best sitcoms ever made. After he moved to America, he was responsible for things like Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie and Johnny English. When it comes to the attempt to bring the camp-tastic The Avengersto the big screen in the nineties, the less said the better.

Accept no substitutes...

It is possible to adapt international properties in a way that works, but it often means taking away their essential geographical identity and grafting a new one on top. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Those who watched Martin Scorsese’s The Departed without any knowledge of Infernal Affairs probably never would have suspected the story originated half-the-world away from the street of Boston. Gore Verbinski shrewdly moved Ringu away from Japanese techno-horror and set The Ring in the New England that Poe and Lovecraft knew so very well. In both cases, the films managed to craft their own identities, and it’s easy to imagine that many regular cinema-goers (rather than certified cinephiles) never suspected they were remakes.

I think it’s possible to transpose Doctor Who to an American setting, but with significant changes to the tone and style of the adventure. Being entirely honest, I think we’ve already seen the American answer to Doctor Who in films like Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and Back to the Future. I’m not implying they were direct copies (though the phone booth in Bill & Ted is definitely affectionate homage), but that they come closest to giving us an idea of what Doctor Who would look like had it been an American rather than a British idea. And it’s not bad at all. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is still solid fun, and Back to the Future is a bona fides family classic. However, they aren’t Doctor Who. Again, that’s a statement of fact, not quality – I’m observing that those are as close to an American Doctor Who you are likely to find, and they’re miles away.

Don't be TARD-y...

Ask yourself if American audiences would be willing to accept monsters like The Abzorbaloff or the Kandy Man. I suspect that a great many audience members would wince in embarrassment rather than joining in the spirit of the fun. Imagine pitching the climax of The Christmas Invasion, David Tennant’s first episode, to American executives. “He’s been out cold the entire episode, and nothing will wake him, and then – at the last possible minute – a cup of tea stirs him from his slumber so he can trounce the aliens in five minutes and go home,” you’d say, watching their faces. “Oh, and our iconic and kiddy-friendly hero closes out the episode by effectively deposing the democratically-elected leader of this country for the crime of defending the planet.”

You might argue that David Yates, himself an Englishman, has experience transposing British stories for American audiences. After all, aren’t the Harry Potter films as quintessentially British as anything you could mention? After all, J.K. Rowling did insist they use British actors, despite what Steven Spielberg might have wanted. The movies did film in England. I can understand the logic, but I don’t buy it. as much as the characters and set-decoration in Harry Potter might be very British, the story is cast in the same blockbuster mold of any major motion picture franchise. It’s the universal story of good-against-evil, with a gigantic battle and plenty of scheming, with a coming-of-age story thrown in. It’s not that far removed from Star Wars, so it’s no surprise that it was adapted so smoothly for American audiences.

Romans around...

The Doctor isn’t quite in the mold. In arguably the show’s best episode, the two-part Human Nature and Family of Blood, the Doctor responds to a family of interstellar villains determined on using his lifespan to conquer and control the universe… by running away. When he does confront them, at the end of the story, it isn’t a gigantic battle for the fate of the universe. He quickly defeats them and subjects them to truly horrible fates:

He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing… the fury of the Time Lord… and then we discovered why – why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons – why he had run away from us and hidden. He was being kind.

He wrapped my father in unbreakable chains forged in the heart of a dwarf star. He tricked my mother into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy. To be imprisoned there… forever. He still visits my sister, once a year, every year. I wonder if one day he might forgive her… but there she is. Can you see? He trapped her inside a mirror. Every mirror. If ever you look at your reflection and see something move behind you just for a second, that’s her. That’s always her. As for me, I was suspended in time and the Doctor put me to work standing over the fields of England as their protector.

We wanted to live forever. So the Doctor made sure we did.

It’s hard to imagine any major American blockbuster featuring such a delightfully… questionable… protagonist. He’s not a lead character from Star Trek, who will get involved in exciting ship-to-ship battles and square off against a scenery-chewing villain through a variety of stylish sci-fi setpieces. In many ways, the show is the oppositeof that.

Double take...

In the most recent season, the Doctor didn’t save the day by averting his assassination, but instead by manipulating it and playing it out. In The Big Bang, the series beautifully played out the end of the universe inside the British Museum. In Genesis of the Daleks, the character makes his defining choice: he refuses to commit genocide in order to save millions of lives in the future. In fact, it’s the points where the television show has “tried” to do blockbuster action that it has failed – with the bombastic and overloaded finales of the Russell T. Davies era.

Even the comments about continuity seem to suggest a worrying miscomprehension about the fifty-year-old series. Yates has suggested that there will be a very clear break in continuity between the series and the movie:

“Russell T. Davies and then Steven Moffat have done their own transformations, which were fantastic, but we have to put that aside and start from scratch.”

Now I hate continuity as much as anybody. I don’t like the idea that audiences could be locked out of a film because they don’t follow a television show. I will champion a “reboot”if it is necessary. I’ll concede that the last thing the movie needs is to get bogged down in fifty years of history.

Voting for Davros as the villain?

However, it betrays a very formalised and “American” approach to Doctor Who. it’s as if some executive somewhere looked at the television show, and declared, “Right, we need to sort that!” It’s a legitimate concern, but it kinda misses the wonderful enthusiastic chaos of Doctor Who. When Russell T. Davies took the series back to television, he had to worry about any number of other aspects of “continuity” – from published books to comics to fan films to webcasts; far more than just one television show. And it didn’t phase him at all.

Because the show doesn’t have to make sense. It’s silly and wry and clever, and it’s “wonderful nonsense!” It doesn’t need the harsh delineation of a “reboot” or a “relaunch” or anything like that – it’s far too formal and structured for the sheer enthusiasm of the series. Davies didn’t need to announce that everything in the classic show had still happened, or that nothing in the classic show had happened. He made up a “Time War”, one that allowed him to use the stuff he wanted to use and leave the stuff he didn’t.

More continuity than you can Shalka a stick at!

Davies didn’t need to “put that aside” or “start from scratch”, because this is science-fiction television show we’re talking about – it’s meant to be outrageous and silly and more-than-slightly nonsensical. The fact that one of the first things Yates said was about “continuity” makes me fear he’s missed the point. I would have been far more comfortable with more relaxed attitude, saying something generic like, “it’ll all work out” or “it’s a fun adventure: that’s all you need to know!”

I’m willing to be convinced that this can work, but I remain skeptical. I can’t help but feel like this should have been a lot further along than it is before it was announced, as we’re just left with nothing but idle speculation. And the last thing the internet needs is more idle speculation.

By the way, for anybody not caught up the very British phenomenon, this musical number pretty much captures the essence of the show. A little silly! But enthusiastic! With puppets!

4 Responses

  1. I’m surprised that you chose Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey as the representative over Excellent Adventure. Maybe the sequel had a bigger budget and looked nicer, but the original was much more absurd and thus, IMO funnier. The fact that these two guys use a time machine to do a book report over anything else they could have done is far more interesting premise than being replaced by androids and having to come back from the dead.

  2. I disagree that the current TV Doctor couldn’t be used in the movie, you could still create the appearance of a stand alone story without bringing in 50 years of history. But if people are really worried about that, I think the best way to give both Yates and us fans what we want is as follows:

    Yates wants to not worry about 50 years of history, fans want the movie to tie into the TV series and not erase its events. Both could be accomplished by making the movie be about a younger 1st Doctor (when we first saw him on TV he was an old man) and the movie or movies would serve as a prequel to the TV series. It would show us how the Doctor ran away from his home world (Gallifrey) in a stolen TARDIS and show us adventures he had prior to when the TV series began… before the Doctor was old and grey haired.

    Then after 2 or 3 movies (should they have hit movie franchise on their hands) the general public would be vastly more informed on all things “Who” and they could leap ahead and use the current TV Doctor or the next one in line after him (be it the 12th, 13th or 14th Doctor) for any future movie after those younger 1st Doctor ones. And by so doing, keep the TV series intact without erasing its events.

    A new 2nd Doctor on the big screen would be a major “no-no”.

    • It’s not a bad idea, actually. And I think that the show works so well because continuity is so loose – you don’t need to know everything to jump in, and it’s fairly elastic with its own continuity.

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