How 'Doctor Who' landed in America: New book tells the story

How 'Doctor Who' landed in America: New book tells the storyEntertainment

A new book called “Red White and Who” explores how the British show became popular in the U.S. Chris Kocher / Staff video

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — After 54 years on television — not to mention hundreds of books, audio stories and comics — it’s undeniable that Doctor Who is British to its core. 

But a substantial number of fans live on this side of the Atlantic, too, helping the show to flourish for decades as a cult hit and more recently to grow into a pop-culture phenomenon rivaling Star Trek and Star Wars for galactic supremacy. 

A new book called Red White and Who: The Story of ‘Doctor Who’ in America— released Monday by ATB Publishing — pulls together independent research, media clippings and hundreds of interviews for the first substantive look at the American perspective on the world’s longest-running science fiction show.

For those unfamiliar with the Doctor and his adventures through the cosmos, here’s a brief primer: He’s an alien Time Lord with two hearts and a bigger-on-the-inside TARDIS (resembling an old-school British police call box) that can travel anywhere in space and time. He generally travels with a human assistant (or “companion”) who is our window onto the action, able to ask the questions that viewers want answered. 

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What’s now called the “classic” series premiered in the United Kingdom on the BBC on Nov. 23, 1963, (the day after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination) and ran through 1989. A joint BBC/Fox Network production in 1996 (starring Paul McGann as the Doctor) was not picked up as a series, but it returned properly in 2005 with a modern sensibility and has gained a worldwide following that’s bigger than ever. 

One secret to the longevity of Doctor Who is that the role of the Doctor can be recast as needed through a neat trick called “regeneration,” which first entered the mythos of the show when the original lead actor, William Hartnell, became too ill to continue in 1966. 

In total, 12 men have played the Doctor over 36 seasons (plus an extra incarnation from the late, great John Hurt); the current one, skillfully embodied by Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, will transform into the 13th Doctor at Christmas in the form of actress Jodie Whittaker — the first woman to take on the role. 

Although the Doctor once referred to himself as “a citizen of the universe and a gentleman to boot,” the fantastical tales on Doctor Who — especially during the show’s original run — are clearly rooted in Great Britain. Extraterrestrial invaders target London or rural outposts in the English countryside, colonialism and fascism are recurring menaces to be fought, and the inhabitants of every planet (even the alien ones) speak with British accents. 

Doctor Who gained an underground following in America starting in the early 1970s thanks to airings on various public television stations, with stories starring the curly-haired, scarf-wearing Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor inspiring particular affection. In a pre-internet world, clubs and amateur magazines began bringing like-minded fans together, and actors and behind-the-scenes personnel from the show began appearing at U.S. fan conventions in the 1980s. 

Red White and Who not only explores those early years of Doctor Who fandom in America but also brings the story right up to 2017. Perhaps fittingly considering the long history involved, the 700-page book boasts six authors: Steven Warren Hill, Jennifer Adams Kelley, Nicholas Seidler, Robert Warnock, Janine Fennick and John Lavalie. 

Hill, a Chicago-based information technology professional by trade, is also the owner of the popular Gallifrey Base online message board for Doctor Who fans, and he served as the book’s lead writer and project manager.

He not only hopes Red White and Who chronicles how Americans have shown their love for Doctor Who but also that it helps British fans understand why their U.S. counterparts have a different relationship with the show. 

“What the British fans still don’t understand about American fans is how, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we had to discover the show on our own — and when we did, we couldn’t talk to somebody in another city about the same show because they would be seeing a completely different episode than we saw,” Hill said. 

“In the U.K., they’d always be seeing the same episode, and it was so ingrained in the culture that everyone knew what it was. Your next-door neighbor would know what Doctor Who was, whether they watched it or not, or whether they cared for it or not.” 

In a recent interview, Hill discussed the origins of Red White and Who, how the book came together and why it’s important for Doctor Who fans to embrace those just discovering the show today. 

Q: How did the idea for Red White and Who originate? 

Hill: We all had the same idea at similar times. Way back in 2007 or ’08, I thought there should be a book or a website or something that tells the stories of American Doctor Who fandom. I wanted to get these stories put down for posterity.

When I coalesced my thoughts about it, I came up with an outline and brought it to a publisher, but I was turned down for perfectly solid reasons, and no hard feelings at all. I’d kept it to myself to that point, but after that I talked to my Doctor Who friends about it, they all said, “I’ve been thinking about doing the same thing!” 

We realized that we were in a really good position to do this ourselves as a group, to pool our resources. We announced it publicly in 2011, and at the time we thought it was going to come out the following year. It’s taken a lot longer, but we got there in the end. [laughs] 

How 'Doctor Who' landed in America: New book tells the storyEntertainment

Jodie Whittaker becomes the first ever female Doctor in the show’s 50-year history. Wochit

Q: The book includes not only stories and photos from fans but press clippings from various publications. Did you solicit fans for those kinds of things? 
  
Hill: John Lavalie, who served as our research librarian, runs the Doctor Who Cuttings Archive. I own the site and he populates it with articles that he converts using OCR [optical character recognition] so it’s fully searchable. We already had this as a huge database of information and printed reference material that we could draw from. 

We also had the resources of BroaDWcast, which is a website repository for the broadcast history of Doctor Who in every country around the world, mostly run by Jon Preddle from New Zealand but also owned by me and also curated to a certain extent by John.

So we all had fingers in these pies, but we did also solicit contributions. We were open to contributions from anyone and posted messages in various places. We opened up a post office box in case anyone wanted to send us videotapes or anything like that. We told people that if they had VHS tapes of [public television] pledge drives to send them to us — we could use it [for the book], and then we would convert them to DVD and send them back

Strangely enough, we got a lot of people who said, “Yeah, I’ve got a lot of stuff I want to send you,” then maybe didn’t quite follow up on that. We got a decent number of contributions, but in the end we had to source most of the illustrative material ourselves. It’s a little bit disappointing, but we also recognize that once people have this book in their hands, they will say, “Gosh, I have something that could really go into this book.” Maybe in a future edition, if there is one, we could have a lot more contributions. 

Q: How did you first encounter the show? 

Hill: I was 9 years old, living in the Chicago suburbs. It was 1975, and I believe I was just sitting in front of the TV within arm’s reach of the dial so that I could change channels. The first episode I ever remember seeing is [the 1971 Jon Pertwee-era story] “The Claws of Axos.” 

I was a Doctor Who fan almost instantly from seeing that, and I remember telling my friends at school that they should watch it. Then within a couple of weeks, the local PBS station moved it from 6 p.m. to 11, and I couldn’t watch it anymore because it was past my bedtime.

I didn’t see it again until a few years later when I was living in south Florida in 1978 with the Tom Baker episodes. I saw a commercial that the PBS station was going to show [the 1976 story] “The Hand of Fear,” and I thought, “I remember that show! I loved that show!” I picked up on it again right away, but I didn’t really get involved in fandom until 1984 or so.

Q: Where do you think the love for Doctor Who in America comes from, especially the “classic” series? 

Hill: I’m of two minds. Just the fact that it’s different from American shows is a big factor. It feels different and it looks different. [In the book,] we talk about how people say it’s the Britishness of the show that attracts them. I’m not 100% convinced that it’s because Doctor Who is a British show so much as it’s not an American show and doesn’t look like everything else that we got in this country in the 1970s and ‘80s. Nowadays it’s a lot harder to tell the difference — television has come a long way since the ‘70s.

Also, the premise of the show is so attractive — the flexibility and how unique it is — attracts viewers in a way that no other show really can. I’m not a big Star Trek fan, but when The Next Generation first came up with the holodeck, I thought to myself: Oh, this is their way of doing Doctor Who — they can go anywhere in any time in a way that Doctor Who can natively, where Star Trek had to shoehorn it in.

Q: Since returning in 2005, Doctor Who has become more popular in the U.S. than ever, especially through airings on BBC America. How do you feel that the American fanbase has coped with that influx of new fans? 
  
Hill: There’s a certain territorialism that comes along with being a fan of something for a long time when new fans come along. What I hope that Doctor Who fans are smart enough to understand that without new fans coming along, we wouldn’t have the show for as long as we’ve had and we probably wouldn’t have it today. 
  
There’s no point in developing animosity for fans who will only watch episodes with David Tennant [as the Doctor] or anything like that, because they are just as much a fan as I am — they’re just fans in a different way, and both ways are valid. 
  
To prolong the popularity of the show so that it can keep going is the only goal we should ever really want, because any fan of something that’s gone on for a long time, you get to a threshold when it’s gone on so long that now you don’t ever want to see it stop. Once you’ve gone past 50 years, you don’t want it to stop at 57 or something like that — you want it to keep going and keep going and keep going. So we really need to embrace new fans constantly and not resent them for coming in — and not resent the show for constantly changing to reflect the interests of its audience. 

Follow Chris Kocher on Twitter: @RealChrisKocher

 

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