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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is America ready for ‘Doctor Who’?

Scott Brown at Wired magazine recently came to the defense of Doctor Who, explaining why it’s so essential these days, and why it stands out:

There’s a fix I just don’t get from mainstream American science fiction, perhaps because of its grinding obsession with the imperialistic (and its depressive sibling, the dystopic), not to mention its wearisome push for ever-shinier effects. Like its not-so-distant cousin American religion, American sci-fi is fixated on final battles, ultimate judgment (particularly on questions of control and leadership), and an up-or-down vote on the whole good/evil issue. Even the most morally restless imaginings — the Losts and Battlestars — eventually prolapse into Bruckheimer-esque excerpts from the Book of Revelation.

As an antidote, I turn to the Doctor — a fussy 900-year-old neurotic who’s part Ancient Mariner, part Oxford don, with a whimsical fashion sense, a close acquaintance with defeat and futility, and a tendency to rattle on. He subscribes to no Force-like creed. No enlightened military Federation stands behind him, photon torpedoes at the ready — indeed, his race, the Time Lords, is more or less extinct. His signature gizmo isn’t a blaster or a phaser but a souped-up screwdriver. His Millennium Falcon? The Tardis, which looks to the unschooled like an old telephone booth. It’s actually a police call box, a relic from the ’50s, and the ship’s most spectacular feature isn’t artillery; it’s feng shui: It’s bigger on the inside. The Doctor is courageous and heroic, sure, but in the Mèdecins Sans Frontiéres vein. Oh so Euro!

Yes yes yes — that’s an excellent encapsulation of the appeal of the Doctor, and of Doctor Who. But it doesn’t come any near justifying Brown’s headline, which is “Why America Is Finally Ready for Doctor Who.” He attempts, in the next paragraph, to get to it:

True, Who does take a little adjusting to. Like room-temperature Guinness and universal health care, it’s an acquired taste. But in 2005, writer-producer Russell T. Davies (creator of Queer as Folk) relaunched the show — which had been more or less on ice for 15 years — as a zippy, cheeky, Buffy-esque melodrama, which grasped the appeal of the initial series of the ’60s. It was TV’s first real postimperial science fiction, devised in a time of scarcity, dispossession, and massive social deflation — but also great hope for the future.

Well, sure, we did elect that guy in the White House on the basis of his message of hope, but as he seems to forget all those promises he made, the dystopic thing looks more and more realistic.

Look: if the original 1960s Doctor Who was a reaction to Britain’s loss of empire, then it took Britain half a century to acknowledge that it had entered a postimperial phase. The U.S. is just beginning to enter that phase. I don’t think America is ready for Doctor Who — a tiny minority of admittedly already Anglophilic dorks like me aside — for a few reasons that make perfect sense through our rose-colored glasses that are still telling us we rule the world:

We obviously find it constitutionally impossible to simply air imported shows on American networks as is: We have to Americanize them. We sure as hell don’t want to see what an Americanized Doctor Who would look like — we’ve already seen it, actually, and it was that terrible 1996 Fox TV movie. But in the U.K., ER and Law and Order, for example, don’t air on “NBC UK”: they air on Channel 4 and the BBC — that is, major broadcast networks that do not require special cable packages to watch. They get good ratings: clearly no one watching has any trouble with the myriad American accents, or with the arcana of the American health-insurance system or of New York City jurisprudence.

But could we return the favor? In a Los Angeles Times article this past spring about Law and Order UK — the rare instance of an American show getting Anglocized — an American network executive nails it:

In the world of TV, there’s no end to borrowing, cutting and pasting. If the show proves successful overseas, Wolf hopes the U.K. version can then cross back to America. “I would love ‘Law & Order: U.K’ to run over here,” said Wolf. “I think it would be perfect programming for Saturday night,” referring to the period when most networks, including NBC, program reruns or unscripted programs.

NBC Universal executives appear open to the idea. “It’s definitely something we’re having a conversation about,” said Angela Bromstad, who manages NBC’s studio and network program development. “It is a really great show.”

But Bromstad, who had been running a production unit for the company in London before taking on her current duties last year, also wondered whether American audiences would have trouble grasping the series. “It’s very British,” she said. “It might do much better on BBC America than for us. Still, the show is completely reinvented, and it beautifully showcases London.”

Bromstad is probably right: mainstream American audiences probably would not stand for the very thing — its very nominal alienness — that doesn’t bother British audiences at all when they watch American shows.

If that’s not a perfect example of an American unwillingness to acknowledge that we are not the center of the world, in charge of everything, and not required to recognize even the slightest deviations in culture from ours, I don’t know what is.

Or am I wrong? Is America ready for Doctor Who?

(Thanks to reader Angelo for pointing out the Wired article to me.)

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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