Doctor in the White House

The opening two episodes of this season of Doctor Who took the show’s affinity with America to a whole new level. For decades now, Britain’s eccentric and long-winded answer to the 1960s US craze for science-fiction TV has had an eye towards American distribution both in its internal content and marketing strategies. But this offhand nodding exploded like a Steven Moffat logic bomb into full-blown obsession in a two-part series premiere set in various iconic landmarks of the USA (the White House, the American frontier) and featuring the disgrace-redemption axis President Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong’s historic foot, Christmas-cracker level gags about Watergate, people endlessly drawing guns, aliens and men in federal black tie, a Cold War throwback monsters-among-us storyline, a slow-moving NASA spacesuit with a Spielbergian ickle girl inside, badly timed and played presidential anthems performed by the starving man’s John Williams Murray Gold, an actor whose surname was ‘Baldwin’, and a man whose voice sounded like Christian Bale’s Batman being parodied by 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy.

Doctor Who in the USA

Amy Across the Pond

Broadcast merely hours after the UK showings and co-produced by BBC America, the series was heavily previewed and publicised both on the channel (including a daylong marathon of the previous season) and throughout cable on-demand services. Special efforts were made to provide American-English translations for British-English nouns, suggesting a sycophancy about attracting US audiences (who I would argue like the show precisely because it’s not indigenous to America) not seen since the Sting-song superficial US crossover Doctor Who movie in 1996. Rather than find common ground through a mean or median word, as is usually done (the ‘marrow’ dilemma facing Wallace & Gromit, for instance) certain lines were re-played in American-English (e.g. ‘Where’s the toilet?’/‘For God’s sake take her to the restroom’), further weighing down and stalling an already leaden and repetitive script. There also seemed to be concern about US viewers coming into the show for the first time (not that long-time UK viewers are able to follow this season any better!) and each opening credits sequence was prefixed by a voiceover by Karen Gillan as Amy Pond orienting new viewers in the world of the show since Matt Smith’s first episode. While this has the feel and tone of Moffat’s Doctor Who, and is consistent with the themes of fairytale and prophecy he rams into the show like a sleeping bag into a holder, this recalls the hated Howard Da Silva voiceovers that American purchasers TimeLife tacked on to the beginning of episodes in the ’70 US airings that fans of the show protested against vigorously as a too dry overspoonfeeding jarring with the mysterious pleasures of the programme.

The Doctor and Young Amelia

The BBC America Voiceover recalls this meeting

Documentary guides to the show’s history were also broadcast on BBC America in the few days prior to the premiere. A tremendously good idea, I thought. This was until I realised the BBC were trying to create the impression that the show began in 2005, which was previously a producer-institutional policy (related to increasing the market for DVD sales, I suspect) synonymous with the tenure of executive producer Russell T Davies to wipe knowledge and information about past programmes (and, crucially, how good they were) from viewer’s memories or desires. I thought we’d got over this as Moffat and the BBC started to gradually acknowledge the show’s colossal backcatalogue of actors and serials. But apparently this was deemed to be the most easy and convenient way to market this two-part special to new US audiences which not only impoverishes the memory of this hugely significant piece of our art, culture and entertainment but also insults the plethora of US viewers who remember and treasure the show from their youths. An unignorable difference between watching Doctor Who on UK TV and on BBC America is the commercial breaks. The show airs on non-commercial channel BBC One in the UK and therefore runs without interruption whereas BBC America has the regulation set of commercial interludes (although seemingly less than on a network channel). While I thought BBC America did admirably with placing these breaks in moments of high suspense the cut-away to commercial from shock moments of danger reduced the show’s effectiveness as a piece of horror, in episodes that already, despite their tantalising combination of creepy elements, didn’t add up to much in the scare stakes. It was a shame also that the over-complicated and now routinely unfathomable story arc somewhat compromised the show’s portrayal of a pre-Watergate Nixon. There was a fascinating debate to be had about his legacy condensed irritatingly into a few (now signature) clipped Moffat-written exchanges.

Turn over to my previous post on Doctor Who here.

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One Response to “Doctor in the White House”

  1. […] For a discussion of how this series-opener was shown on BBC America and spoke to American audiences, see the post from my blog here. […]

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