How Doctor Who Found Its US Geek Niche

So maybe you prefer David Tennant’s 10th Doctor to Matt Smith’s 11th; maybe you like Steven Moffat at the helm more than Russell T Davies.  Whatever your opinions, it’s hard to deny that if you live in the US, it has never been better to be a Doctor Who fan than it is right now.  So what made this British import finally click with US geeks en masse?

It’s not like Doctor Who was never aired in the US prior to 2006.  I consider myself a fan of Classic Who now, but I didn’t grow up as one; however, I know people who did, and trust me, it was a lonely existence.  Even if you were lucky enough to have it aired on your local PBS, you were years behind the UK.  Chances are you didn’t know many others who watched it, if any.  Merchandise was extremely rare, or expensive due to the import costs.  If you were an adult during these dark years, you might have been able to seek out bootlegs, radio programs, etc.  If you were a child, you were pretty much out of luck.  Star Trek it was not.

Wires and Tubes

The biggest difference – the one that’s still heavily influential today – is the Internet.  Sure, the Internet was around for years before New Who resurrected the franchise, but 2005 was also a time in which it was increasingly easy to obtain and watch high-quality videos in a reasonable span of time.  I was introduced to New Who shortly after the original UK broadcast, and eagerly waited each week to get the next episode.  I never dreamed it would eventually air on cable in the US, because, well, most of the other UK shows I loved hadn’t.

Then there’s the merchandise factor.  Yes, at the beginning of New Who it was still difficult to find anything marketed to US audiences, but it was much easier to import, or at least see what was out there.  International fans created clever clothing designs.  Fan-made merch popped up on sites like Etsy.  Even though the fan base was small compared to today, the Internet allowed them to be heard.

Sci-Fi, not British

I’ve often heard it said that Classic Who was somewhat behind compared to its US contemporaries like Star Trek.  Honestly, it’s hard for me to compare – from my relatively young perspective they both look “old” and “primitive” when it comes to special effects, and yet they both employ really clever ways to spur on your imagination without modern technology.   And I’ll never forget the episode I saw of Lost In Space that used obvious beach balls as land mines and Christmas lights as a force field.  That show had nothing on Doctor Who.

When New Who came out, RTD made some decidedly modern decisions that were really kind of groundbreaking for the show, and much more US-centric.  There were 13 episodes to the first season – shorter than a US broadcast show, but on par with cable TV and twice as many as many BBC shows had.  Whereas Classic Who often had mini-arcs that lasted three or four episodes, New Who had both one-off episodes and season-long arcs.

And while I may cringe when I hear Bad Wolf (another rant for another day), the idea of a showrunner sneaking in hints and slowly building up to something mindblowing (or not) is very much modern – Joss Whedon was well-known for it, and Moffat’s still doing it.  And it’s been used, with more or less success, on other insanely popular genre shows like Battlestar: Galactica, LOST, etc.  The technique may not be a brand-new one, but it’s definitely popular and current.


If I could make fireworks explode around the name of the cable station, I would.  First, to be fair, Doctor Who did enjoy several seasons on the Sci-Fi/Syfy Network, and many US fans were introduced to the show during this time.  That being said: Doctor Who aired at a lower quality (not entirely their fault, the channel wasn’t HD) and with noticeable chunks edited out.  And, of course, it was a year behind.

In the interest of fairness, it’s possible that with the Year of Specials, Syfy would have eventually caught up with the broadcast schedule of the UK.  Maybe.  But that wouldn’t have changed their editing decisions.  And, in my opinion, Doctor Who seemed to be viewed as an interesting import, not something of much consequence to the network itself.  They didn’t feel invested.

In 2009, BBCAmerica acquired the rights to broadcast New Who.  Granted, when they show the first few seasons it’s with the Syfy edits, but for their own broadcasts they’ve attempted to deal with the issue of commercials as best they could, in a more subtle manner.  It quickly became apparent that even though they were airing Doctor Who within a few weeks of the UK broadcast, that wasn’t fast enough for rabid fans – so they bumped it up such that it was airing mere hours later.  Even the Christmas specials!  At a time when many cable networks have their fingers firmly in their ears concerning the Internet and customer demand, that’s pretty amazing.

Even more amazing: starting with the sixth season, BBCA became a co-producer, investing money into the show (hence the Impossible Astronaut two-parter).  They were supportive of the show before, but now the promotion really kicked into high gear.  There was more exposure than I’ve ever seen, and even some BBCA-produced behind-the-scenes stuff that’s not all a re-edited Doctor Who Confidential.  And it’s made a difference; I’ve gone from telling my friends to watch Doctor Who to now seeing them wear their own fezzes to conventions.  I’ve been shouting about Doctor Who from the rooftops since 2005 (albeit a little quieter when I got annoyed with RTD), but the real differences I’ve seen have been in the last two years.  Old-fashioned geek word-of-mouth, in person and via the Internet, has probably gone a long way in contributing to this fan explosion, but don’t discount other, proven means of getting the word out, either – like a TV channel that really wants its show to succeed.

So I want to know: have you noticed a Doctor Who fan explosion?  When did you start watching?  And how do you feel about the Current State of Who where you are? 

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