Movies and TV

The Americanization of Doctor Who – For Better or Worse?

Americanization of Doctor Who social

Doctor Who has certainly risen in popularity over these past couple of years. Even before its resurrection, fans everywhere could speak fondly of the hours they’ve spent watching the notorious Doctor, an alien who has had many faces and many personalities traveling through time and space with his different companions by his side. However, despite the show’s new popularity found in the reboot, some major fans who have been watching since the beginning seem to think there’s something rather off. It would seem it is not just the Doctor who has changed, but rather the whole style of the show altogether. It is a style change called “Americanization,” and for a British television series, quite the transition. But before diving into how Doctor Who has changed, what exactly is the difference between American and British television?

Doctor Who

British television has always had a knack for certain types of dramas. A good example would be period pieces like Downton Abbey and remakes of novels by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Only recently has America been able to compete with them by coming out with Mad Men. There’s something about creating a setting that British television has done so well, and the process essentially requires more logical than emotional intuition. The setting is so complex that it may be the reason why the creators then decide to make shows with protagonists as likable as possible, such as Sergeant Catherine Cawood from Happy Valley, instead of the variety of amoral characters American television creates, including Don Draper from Mad Men or Walter White from Breaking Bad. This way, viewers don’t have to worry about whether or not they care about the characters and can instead pay attention to the plot. The details are what make British television shine, as well making sure the characters know what they’re talking about in their respective situations. It’s almost as though the protagonist is the side character and the setting is the true lead. Back in 1963, Doctor Who was one in the same – a “Doctor” going out to find adventure and understanding in different parts of time and space and bringing along whoever he can find.

Doctor Who sad

Originally almost an after school special, Doctor Who was always about the learning experience. Each episode was its own story, and each story had its own authenticity to it. Since the reboot, a lot of the newer episodes have been steering away from the more scientific, historical, and thought-provoking concepts and instead have moved toward more fantastical stories with recurring moral devices. It’s not that the audiences have become less involved in the series, it’s simply about the show branching out further to more audiences. In order to do that, the plots must become something viewers are accustomed to and relatable to their experiences. British television tends to not do the best job at this. Traditional British television could even be argued to be more technical than American television. One good comparison is the differences between the British series The Thick of It and the American series Parks and Recreation. Both are political mockumentaries in their respected sorts, but The Thick of It has the British mentality of keeping the focus on the plotline (in this case the government) while Parks and Recreation tends to move towards character focus and their interactions with one another.

Americanization of Doctor Who 9x4

The transformation of television seems to now include more arc-based storytelling formed from writers and directors alike, but it looks like America is the main contender in recreating the formula. One famous example is Joss Whedon whose contributions include Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in film, The Avengers series. Any one of these titles will give readers a good idea of how American television has transformed in the past twenty years. Television is no longer simply one story per episode. It’s a novel now, and each episode is treated as a chapter driving the overlapping storylines into one another. Seeing how The United States leads the globe in television programs, it would only be fitting that other countries have also begun to get with the program, so to speak. Popular television shows from all around the world now carry with them certain aspects originally found only in American television. This is where Doctor Who comes in.

Over the past several years, the British sci-fi classic that withstood fifty years of adaptations has been altered in the same manner that has plagued vast numbers of other series. Many critics refer to this event as “character development” while others call it “adding a tragic backstory.” We begin the reboot with an explanation for its absence since 1996 turning out to be the Doctor being the lone survivor of a catastrophic event known as the Great Time War. This was later described as a universal struggle between the Time Lords and their enemies the Daleks, which led to the demise of the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey along with all of the Time Lords – all this at the hands of the Doctor, no less. What makes this different from how the series originated is that we now have a Doctor that is not just some time traveler looking to embark upon adventures with his granddaughter at his side as William Hartnell had done when the show first aired. Now, we have Christopher Eccleston portraying a war-torn soldier looking to find distractions from the guilt for eliminating his people.

There’s one scene in the episode, “The Pandorica Opens,” in which the Doctor makes a grand speech in front of every single one of his enemies – a scene that could have been taken right out of Gladiator – with the Roman soldiers already included (see video, right). Especially with Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Eleventh Doctor, we get to see just how americanized the cast and writing of the show has become.

Moral choices, violent intent, and romantic interests were originally not how one would perceive the British Sci-Fi series. That being said, it’s how recent fans of the show would imagine it. With his catch phrases, popular wardrobe accessories, and quirky attitudes, the Doctor was always right on the line in becoming americanized. His more recent portrayals have simply completed the transformation. Just by looking at Matt Smith’s final couple of series on the show, one notices the Stetson, the U.S locations, and even his mannerisms have a rather American tone to them. Him being this lone outlaw travelling throughout the universe with his trusty TARDIS is the epitome of the American theme of standing alone and going out against all. There’s even a point where he’s in the Old West pointing a gun at a man he intends to shoot due to a strong moral conflict between the two of them. The only one who actually stopped him from pulling the trigger was his companion Amy Pond, a spunky Scottish voice of reason. The Doctor’s need for his companions is another common character arc found throughout the series, but it was only recently that serious romantic interests between them seeped in.

Americanization of Doctor Who 9x4

Romance did not even start at the beginning of the reboot either – it was back in Doctor Who: The Movie with Paul McGann’s portrayal of the Eighth Doctor. In the final points of the film, McGann’s journey ends with him kissing his companion, and then departing off into the unknown (aka riding off into the sunset). Now, to newer audiences, it doesn’t seem like that odd of an event to bring up, but one has to keep in mind that apart from the first Doctor (William Hartnell) travelling with his own granddaughter, there is no mention of the Doctor having a romantic past and no mention of affection towards others before this point. There were bits and pieces mentioned of romantic events with historical figures for the sake of intrigue and humor, but definitely nothing on screen. The Doctor was always viewed as asexual and furthermore as an alien to his peers. After the movie though comes the 2005 reboot, and from there on we have Eccleston and David Tennant’s respected Doctors falling in love with the companion Rose Tyler. Then it almost feels like a common pattern. If it’s not blatantly obvious a new companion is interested in a romantic relationship with the Doctor, then it’s at least mentioned for comedic effect. Matt Smith’s Doctor was even married for a series. It’s simply another plot device used in American television today that Doctor Who has now adopted. With Peter Capaldi’s new Doctor though, it does seem like the show is attempting to move away from this. Hopefully, an older Doctor will help to bring back the previous style the series started out with. After seeing Capaldi’s first series though, it does not look like it.

Doctor Who kiss

But that’s the point though, isn’t it? American television is all about aspirations. Audiences love to see one character go against the odds, to triumph over all competitors. They want to see the protagonist achieve their conquest, get the girl, receive their final boon. It can be seen in Rocky, it can be seen in Robocop, it can be even seen in Breaking Bad. What Doctor Who has done is simply the same approach. It’s not about the science or the exploration, as it used to be. The times have changed and so has the series. In order to hook newer audiences, the producers have to reformat the structure into a more popular method of storytelling. Quite honestly, if producers attempted to show the same series they started with fifty years ago, it would never have sold. Viewers simply want new things now.

So all in all, Doctor Who has seen some changes. Depending on who you ask, it could be seen as good or bad. The BBC will have Doctor Who for years to come, but that does not mean it has not been altered. The Doctor himself knows the feeling of change, and for better or worse, it is a common occurrence in all of life. The fact that the series is still alive after fifty years shows just how well fans will always stick by its side and forever be dedicated to the adventures of the man in the blue box and his faithful companion.

About the author