Archive for bbc america

Doctor in the White House

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2011 by Tom Steward

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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Who.S.A

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’m always surprised and impressed when I encounter Americans who adore Doctor Who. Surprised because it must have been such a pain to track down on TV that animosity would be a more natural response and impressed because they always seem to revere the qualities of the show that many British viewers have forgotten ever existed. But let’s go back in time. The BBC had wanted to sell Doctor Who to American television networks right from its inception. In fact, it was once touted as a replacement for CBS’ heavyweight science-fiction series The Twilight Zone. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Americans finally got a run of the show, thanks in large part to PBS purchasing a block of Tom Baker serials. However, the series was being shifted around the schedules so regularly and so routinely butchered by editors that it became difficult to follow or enjoy.

Doctor Who at US Customs

The Doctor and Friends fall foul of US Customs

Despite these viewing challenges, a fan culture emerged around Doctor Who in the US at this time. In the 1980s, the BBC and the producers of the show started actively courting American viewers; having an American companion in the series, organising US conventions and tours, and looking to the states for money for specials e.g. The Five Doctors. When the show was cancelled in Britain in 1989, it was American television that attempted to revive it. In 1996, a TV movie starring Paul McGann was broadcast by Fox with an eye to launching an American version of the programme. Roundly regarded as a failure critically, commercially and conceptually, it nonetheless laid many of the foundations for the show’s BBC revival in 2005, not least the still sacrilegious notion of The Doctor making out with his companions, which is virulent in the re-launched version of the programme.

 The export of post-2005 Doctor Who to America has been more straightforwardly successful. This is thanks to popular showings on BBC America, new episodes being bought by the Sci-Fi Channel, and interminable spin-off Torchwood being co-funded by US network Starz (formerly known as Starz!). Now we are in a situation where the first two episodes of the 2011 series are co-productions with BBC America set (as far as we can tell) in the American West and involving the White House.

From my own experience talking to Americans about Doctor Who it seems that the devoted cult following might have actually been consolidated by the patchy US scheduling of the series in the 1970s. As a seller in a second-hand bookshop in San Francisco said whilst handing to me a copy of Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of Terror of the Autons ‘You had to want to see it’. It’s also striking to me how much the Americans I’ve spoken to treasure the ‘classic’ series (or, more accurately, Doctor Who before 2005) and seem resistant to it being reinvented for contemporary TV viewers. ‘I can’t watch it now’ said the shopkeeper ‘it’ll spoil the memory of me and my brother staying up late to catch it’. Again, there’s a sense that the obscure scheduling of the programme was part of the pleasure but it’s also clear that viewers had great emotional investment in those 1970s serials. Others I’ve spoken to seem nonplussed by the more recent series, even when recognising its achievements. ‘Yeah, it’s a smart show’ another interested party told me ‘but I miss the big scarves and those robots with the stalks’. It’s interesting that the Americans I’ve met light up when talking about those earlier serials but talk dispassionately about the latest episodes, even when their image of the series is sharper now than it was then.

Genesis of the Daleks

Floppy Scarves and Robots with Stalks

It’s doubly interesting to me, as I have this ‘American’ perspective on the series too (though less so now the wonderful Matt Smith and some very capable producers and writers have taken over), and surprising as I don’t really have much of a childhood attachment to the series, it’s just my opinion gained through watching the programme as an adult. This perspective on Doctor Who seems much more sophisticated to me than that of the hoards of British viewers who were happy to jettison the show’s past and fetishise the aspects of ‘New Who’ that were completely at odds with what made it great, the worst culprit being excess of emotion. It’s natural for Britons to be protective of such a remarkable part of our national culture and want to protect it from Americanisation, but given stateside attitudes to Doctor Who in comparison to ours, I do wonder sometimes.

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