When Did DOCTOR WHO Become Cool?

September 04, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

"It's not too hard to figure out, you see it everyday. And those that were the farthest out have gone the other way... But don't you try to fight it; 'An idea whose time has come.'"
- Huey Lewis and the News, "Hip to Be Square"

My first encounter with the Doctor came in the early autumn of 1978. All "teeth and curls" with an impossibly long scarf and an infectious sense of wit. I think the thing that made the biggest first impression upon me - as upon nearly everyone - was the unbelievably bad production design. Wobbly sets, cheesy monster costumes, and generally awful special effects. You've never really experienced Doctor Who until you've seen the Loch Ness Monster on a rampage through London. Okay, so Star Trek was infamous for its Styrofoam rocks, but that was a decade earlier. From a visual perspective, introducing Doctor Who into a post-Star Wars world was perhaps not the best choice. (To be fair, all of the Doctor Who episodes provided in the Time-Life package - the first four Tom Baker seasons/series - were produced before anyone had heard of Star Wars.)

Locally, Doctor Who was shown on a PBS station (WHYY); it was that way across most of the country, with Chicago's WTTW being the unofficial "flagship." Who was syndicated aggressively in the late '70s, but didn't stick in many markets. Ninety-Eight 23-minute episodes were available, covering "Robot" through "The Invasion of Time." For most of the United States, Tom Baker was the "original" Doctor and Season/Series 12 in the U.K. represented Season 1 in the U.S. (Some of the Jon Pertwee episodes had been available in a few U.S. markets during the early 1970s, but the program gained little traction and less attention at the time.) Philadelphia's Channel 12 began by showing Doctor Who on weekdays at 5:30 pm. The initial run of episodes lasted from mid-September 1978 through January 1979. I somehow missed the first week, but started with part two of "The Ark in Space." My first reaction was one of bemusement. It seemed pretty awful, more like Space 1999 than Star Trek (which, at the time, was showing daily from 4:00 until 5:00). In those early days, I didn't watch Doctor Who regularly. Strangely, it was "Terror of the Zygons," the story with the aforementioned Loch Ness Monster, that finally got me hooked.

New York City was not blessed with a PBS channel that showed Doctor Who because commercial Channel 9 (WOR) had snapped up the rights, depriving Channel 13 of the opportunity. Channel 9 was one of the few non-PBS stations to air the program. It did so in an hour block (two episodes) every Saturday morning. In those days, we had one of those rotating rooftop antennas and if I turned the rotor in a certain direction, I could pick up the Channel 9 signal pretty well - a little snow, but that never bothered me as long as the audio was clear and I could make out the video. So I got to watch Doctor Who six days a week.

In the U.S. during the late '70s, Doctor Who was very much a cult phenomenon. In fact, it was so obscure that Whovians were not subject to the usual anti-nerd mockery often directed at Trekkies. In the U.K., where Doctor Who was mainstream, it was okay to be a fan. In the U.S., it was definitely not cool.

By 1981, the Time-Life 98 were getting long in the tooth. I had seen every Doctor Who episode at least three times - some even more. That's when Channel 12, trying to revive flagging interest in what had been a solid pledge break performer - introduced the "omnibus editions" - single "movie versions" of stories that spliced together the individual episodes, cutting out the intermediate credits and cliffhanger recaps. It was also around this time that the BBC added the final three seasons of Tom Baker's tenure into the syndication package. So, in the fall of 1981, the U.S. got "new" Who ("The Ribos Operation" through "Logopolis").

This was all much before the Internet, in an era when the only way to get "the latest" on Doctor Who was via magazines like Starlog or the imported Doctor Who Magazine, which was available in select comic book stores. Still, pretty much every Whovian knew about "Logopolis" long before it aired in the winter of 1982. For perhaps a half-million Americans, it was a big event: the "death" of the only Doctor most had known.

The series' popularity in the United States burgeoned over the next 18 months. By late 1983, it was so popular over here that we were given the opportunity to see the 20th anniversary special, "The Five Doctors." a few days ahead of the U.K. - an unprecedented occurrence, and something that has not happened since. (The U.S. premiere of "The Five Doctors" was on Wednesday, November 23, the day before Thanksgiving. It showed in the U.K. on November 25 as part of the "Children in Need" charity night.) Over the next few years, the U.S. syndication package was expanded to include episodes featuring Peter Davison (in 1983), Jon Pertwee (in 1983), William Hartnell (in 1985), and Patrick Troughton (in 1985). Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy stories were made available after their U.K. runs.

By the mid-1980s, Doctor Who's popularity in its home country was deteriorating badly. It is believed that its overseas success was in part responsible for the show's continuing production following its pre-"Trial of a Timelord" imposed hiatus. However, by 1989, interest in North America had dropped off. The program was no longer a syndication behemoth nor had it recovered from bottoming out in the U.K. ratings sweepstakes, so it was canceled. It would be 16 years before Doctor Who returned to TV as a regular series. (In 1996, a joint U.S./U.K. produced TV movie was designed as a "back door" pilot, but poor ratings in America caused FOX TV to pull out, and the BBC was unwilling to fund more Doctor Who without a co-producer.)

The 2005 revival was met with great enthusiasm in the U.K. but, outside of the core surviving fan community in the U.S., the reaction on this side of the Atlantic was tepid. For a full year, there was no U.S. distributor, forcing fans starving to see the new Doctor to resort to using torrents. Finally, the Sci-Fi Channel picked up Doctor Who, but their several years' stewardship of the program was, to be kind, unremarkable. Only when BBC America took over did things improve. One of the changes instituted by BBC America was "day and date" broadcasting - episodes were shown in the U.S. on the same day they were broadcast in the U.K., greatly reducing downloading. BBC America also became aggressive with marketing, improving the show's visibility and increasing its audience (between 1.2 and 1.5 million viewers regularly watch the BBC America broadcasts). Doctor Who is not a Saturday evening Goliath, but its ratings are more than respectable for a program on a "second tier" cable network.

The most surprising thing about Doctor Who in 2012 compared to Doctor Who thirty years ago relates to its reputation and its place in U.S. pop culture. It is known and respected. It has been embraced by mainstream elements, showing up on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and being frequently feted by Craig Ferguson during his late-night talk show. Somehow, improbably, Doctor Who has been transformed from prototypical nerd entertainment to something hip and cool.

Part of the reason for this can be tied to the show's redesign. When Doctor Who Mark One staggered to its conclusion in 1989, it felt tired. The Sylvester McCoy era had a few good episodes, but one had to go all the way back to Peter Davison to find a full season where there was more good than bad. Die-hard Doctor Who fans stuck with the series through thick and thin, but most will agree that the show started its decline shortly after Tom Baker departed. (Davison reportedly left after three years in part because he sensed this and didn't want to be around for the end.) "New Who" is faster-paced, spiffier, and better suited to a new generation. The special effects are greatly improved. Yet its faithfulness to the spirit, intentions, and continuity of the earlier program has not alienated longtime Whovians. Abundant credit must be given to Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat for reviving Doctor Who in a way that is equally accessible to longtime viewers like me as well as newer, younger fans.

Another factor is the gradual infiltration of former nerd elements into mainstream culture. "Geek," once a term of derision, has become a badge of honor. In 1980, being called a "nerd" or a "geek" was like wearing a Scarlet Letter. We accepted it because that's the way things were, but few of us embraced the label with pride and joy. Now, everyone wants to be a geek. It's a byproduct of the computer age, which was given to us by geeks and nerds of the past. Doctor Who, like Star Trek, Blake's 7 and others, is part of old-time geek culture (>30 years) and is reaping a benefit from its position as such.

An elitist part of me relishes the fact that I watched Doctor Who before it was cool. In fact, I watched it when the cool kids were laughing at me for doing so. I was too young to get in on the ground floor for Star Trek. I was a bit of a Johnny-come-lately there, joining the throng of Trekkies during a time when a movie was on the way. (I started watching Star Trek only a few months before seeing my first Doctor Who.) But, at least on this side of the Atlantic, I was here when Doctor Who began (only 15 years after it started in the U.K.).

Now, with the approach of the show's 50th anniversary, I will continue to watch with delight as long-time fan Steven Moffat choreographs new adventures with Matt Smith while at the same time hoping that somewhere along the way, he'll find a way to bring back Tom Baker as a valentine to all those who remember when Doctor Who was the antithesis of "popular."