Having lobbed my dissertation at the head of an unsuspecting member of staff in the School of History, screamed “Good God, take it away!” and made a run for it before I could change my mind, I am finally free to ponder some of life’s trickiest questions. Like, you know, why is Jennifer Grey so mean in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but so completely adorable in Dirty Dancing? Her transition from cranky, gum-chewing older sister to cardigan-clad watermelon-carrier, in merely a year, deserves some sort of recognition. Like an Oscar, but for movies that require minimal acting and excellent perms.
Today the problem I consider, while staring into the middle distance, attempting to look philosophical and sporting numerous scarves and perhaps even a pashmina, is this: why do Americans love Doctor Who so much?
Having grown up in a household ruled by the BBC – where The Archers and Desert Island Discs are constantly murmuring away in the background, where there is an uproar if the Radio Times isn’t delivered, and where the four sets of adverts during Poirot on ITV still take us all by surprise – for me, the many incarnations of the Doctor are like strangely-clad relatives who visit on a Saturday evening. Like my ability to recite the sea areas in the order they are given on the shipping forecast, my relationship with Doctor Who is a facet of my Britishness. I can’t for the life of me begin to comprehend why our cousins across the Atlantic find such a quintessentially British show so appealing.
But they do, believe me. I agreed to go to the screening of the 50th anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, in a moment of dissertation-related madness. I dragged myself out from under a pile of Holocaust-related books, slapped on a smile and non-pyjama attire, and attempted to swim to the New Picture House through an ocean of Who fandom. Despite Who’s obvious online following, and the fact that several of my own friends can only be described as super-fans, it was still totally weird to me to find St Andrews’ little cinema packed with people in pinstripes and tweed and bowties, with Matt Smith fezzes and Tom Baker scarves. (There weren’t any Peter Davison cricket jumpers, which I found a bit disappointing.) It was especially weird since the vast majority of those seated around me had non-British accents. How could they possibly find this entertaining? A show about an alien who’s constantly saving the planet but, you know, from London?
I find it entirely odd that the anniversary episode was shown in cinemas at all, actually. For generations, the Doctor has burst into British living rooms, putting a joyful stop to doing the dinner dishes. We don’t go out to meet him, wearing coats and shoes and fezzes. We engage our siblings in fierce combat for the best armchair, and build lopsided ice cream sundaes. The very idea of having to pay to see a programme that my taxes (or rather, my parents’ taxes) have always paid for, was also kind of upsetting.
Apart from the fact that this programme makes London the centre for intergalactic adventures, Doctor Who is quintessentially British because its actors are quintessentially British. Like the Harry Potter films, which boast casts of everyone who is anyone in British film, television and theatre, Doctor Who lines up household names and young talent who mean something to us Brits. Like John Frigging Hurt and Peter Effing Capaldi!
When I was a teenager, David Tennant, perhaps the most beloved of the Doctors, was familiar to me because his face was on the cover of the Radio Times in 2005, when he starred in the BBC miniseries Casanova. That old Radio Times lived in our garden shed for years afterwards, in a stack of newspapers intended for recycling, and I smiled at him like an idiot every time I went in looking for a torch, or to hide from my little brother. Billie Piper, unquestionably the best companion in recent years, was to me the singer of Walk of Life – track 25 on Now That’s What I Call Music! 47 – which I listened to every morning before school, and had choreographed my own dance to, in my fluffy slippers. The song wasn’t even released in the US.
I’m not attempting some new colonial rule, trying to dictate to Americans what they can and cannot watch. By all means, have and love our television programmes! The BBC totally rocks my socks; of course I will allow it to rock yours too! Go ahead, drink it up, travel through time and relative dimension in space… and end up back in Peckham. If nothing else, Doctor Who provides an excellent cultural education for international students studying in Britain. Remember that episode with Churchill and the Daleks? That was an accurate depiction of life in wartime Britain, trust me.