Lost in the Time Vortex: The American Cult of ‘Doctor Who’

Recollections / September 11, 2019

doctor who starlog 23 june 1979Article in Starlog Magazine, June 1979, introducing American science fiction fans to Doctor Who. Tom Baker episodes had begun airing on PBS and other US television stations the previous year.

Sitting here in 2019, I can confidently tell you where I was at 7pm on most weeknights between the years 1981 and 1986. I was sat in front of our living room TV, watching the adventures of the Doctor on my local PBS station. I am of course not the first North American Gen-X nerd to profess his love for the precious PBS Doctor Who broadcasts of the 1980s, and I will not be the last. Quite simply, to my eyes—raised on a technicolor televisual sci-fi diet of old Star Trek reruns, Gil Gerard in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Dirk Benedict in the original Battlestar Galactica, and the alien invaders of VDoctor Who was radically different, and better. It had the deliberate pacing and stately acting of a BBC costume drama, shockingly punctuated by those amazing and sometimes frightful end-of-episode cliffhangers. It also possessed a dry humor, especially in the episodes starring Tom Baker, that was utterly missing from American sci-fi. And it had that indefinable quality of feeling alien, an example of what “science fiction” from an alternate world might look like. I was that weird kid—one of many across North America, it would turn out—who couldn’t get enough.

How did I find Doctor Who? Well, as I might just have mentioned in past Recollections pieces here at We Are the Mutants, I spent a good amount of my childhood in front the television. All those doom-saying editorials in the 1980s that blanched at the families of America watching seven or more hours of television a day could well have been directed straight at me, who probably single-handedly accounted for my family’s allotment. While the cartoons and other kids’ programming that aired after school were fine, the real goldmine for me was the pre-prime time slot between 6 and 8pm Eastern. The local UHF independent stations typically would broadcast reruns of network sitcoms only recently gone into syndication, those sophisticated classics of late ’70s network television—Taxi, Barney Miller, WKRP in Cincinnati. The network affiliates had the local and national news and usually a local news magazine show at 7:30: largely boring grown-up stuff. And PBS, with its own powerhouse prime time lineup full of long-running mainstays like Nova (another childhood favorite, appointment television on Tuesday nights) and Masterpiece Theatre, led into prime time with the long-running MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and programming purchased by the individual stations themselves. PBS was, after all, not a traditional television network; individual PBS stations pursued and purchased their own programming in the years since PBS’s founding in 1969. So for stations like my own WGBH in Boston, that pre-prime time programming included episodes of Doctor Who.

How did Doctor Who end up on American public television? Other than a very brief run of the very first Doctor William Hartnell’s serials on Canadian public broadcaster CBC in 1965 (two years after the program’s BBC debut), Doctor Who would not appear on television screens in North America until 1972. An abortive attempt to sell the Third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s series to independent and public television stations in that year largely fizzled out in most American television markets. For most of the 1970s, you could only see Doctor Who on independent stations in cities like Philadelphia and on public television in places like Chicago, Los Angeles, and, oddly, the state of Iowa. It was only in 1978 that a larger, more formal distribution deal on the part of Time-Life Television brought the adventures of Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, to America. Doctor Who soon gained a foothold on public television stations (and on a few independent and Big Three network affiliate stations, like WTEV in Providence, Rhode Island and New Bedford, Massachusetts). The series was sold to America in two formats: edited TV “movies” where a Who serial’s episodes were turned into a 90-minute movie, and the individual half-hour serials as originally aired on the BBC (sometimes heavily edited to allow for ad breaks when broadcast on commercial television). But it was on PBS stations that the Doctor flourished in the 1980s. Shoulder-to-shoulder with both comedic and dramatic BBC imports, Doctor Who sat comfortably in the PBS programming milieu. It was here that these international sales—eventually to over 100 US stations—created a lasting and resilient fan following that exists to this day.

Screen Shot 2019-09-10 at 7.08.24 AM

By the mid-1980s, Doctor Who fandom had grown in the United States to the point where local PBS stations often interrupted airings of Who to solicit pledges, offering Who-themed thank you gifts. Stars from the show also often made appearances on these PBS pledge drives.

My own personal experience is typical of American Whovians, I suppose. As mentioned, I would tune into Channel 2 practically every weeknight at 7:00, at least when episodes weren’t pre-empted for special pledge drive programming or local PBS station auction fundraisers in an era of diminishing federal support for public broadcasting. In addition, the PBS station from neighboring New Hampshire, WENH, would air the 90-minute compilation episodes on Saturday afternoons at 4:00. That was four hours of Who nearly every week! During those early years, the Tom Baker episodes reigned supreme, but with the regeneration of the Doctor from Tom Baker to Peter Davison in 1981, the BBC episodes began to appear on PBS sooner and sooner. In addition, more and more stations purchased episodes from the eras of the first three Doctors. Even with this eventual exposure to the entire history of the program, many American Who fans in their 40s will likely state, as I will with confidence, that Tom Baker was “their” Doctor.

My editor-in-chief, who somehow managed to avoid all this Who mania as a kid, asked me to describe the show’s appeal for pre-teen me, and I’ve given a lot of thought to that question in putting together this piece. Many of my British friends’ experiences hew closely to that old Doctor Who chestnut of being frightened enough to “hide behind the sofa” at many of the episodes. I’m not sure if that was ever my primary reaction to Who as a kid. I’d already been exposed to American TV in the 1980s and thus to undeniably way more sex, violence, and snazzy special effects than Brits of the same age, so the somewhat tatty and threadbare props and monsters of Doctor Who probably seemed, well, a bit cheesy. But the episodes of Who that loom largest in my memory, well into adulthood, are from Tom Baker’s first four years: what many Who fans term the Robert Holmes years. Holmes’s tenure as script editor were marked by an undeniably gothic horror vibe; the Doctor as a Poe protagonist, perhaps, or as Sherlock Holmes (sometimes nearly literally). As a kid, I never had an immediate fight-or-flight response to the chills of Doctor Who; instead, these stories had a much more cumulative effect, their uniquely weird atmosphere building up in the visual centers of my brain, resulting in imagery that lingered half-remembered for months and years afterward. These scares reside in my mind in a series of near-surrealist images, seemingly utterly disconnected from plot: the rotting face of the Doctor’s archenemy the Master as he plots to rescue himself from a disastrous final regeneration; companion Sarah Jane Smith sitting placidly in a nuclear reactor as the titular “Hand of Fear” crawls about; the faceless android duplicates inhabiting a peaceful English village; the emotionless, King Tut-meets-Art Deco masks of “The Robots of Death.” American science fiction simply had nothing like this!

robots of death in profile

1977 serial “The Robots of Death” was a traditional British murder mystery with a science-fiction setting: Agatha Christie plus emotionless killer robots, with the Doctor in the Poirot role.

Doctor Who was intended originally to be at least partly an educational series that would teach British children about history; the creepy, horror-filled Baker serials that took place in Earth’s past—most notably “The Masque of Mandragora,” “The Pyramids of Mars,” and “Horror of Fang Rock“—were some of my favorites. But even the stories that took place on other planets felt somehow gothic and baroque. The TARDIS control room very briefly decked out in wood panels, brass rails, and stained glass, the Time Lords of Gallifrey in their alien hieratic ceremonial robes: it all gave off a whiff, decades before the term was invented, of steampunk. (In fact, my own theory of why the steampunk aesthetic took off in the late ’90s and early aughts has a lot to do with the idea that American sci-fi nerds of a Certain Age exhumed their own buried memories of Tom Baker/Robert Holmes-era Doctor Who.) The series’ abiding visual and narrative aesthetic of “the past inside the present” leads me to conclude that it was catching Doctor Who, along with other British imports such as Space: 1999, The Prisoner, and Children of the Stones, that imparted and imprinted upon me that very specific hauntological aesthetic that just didn’t exist in any real way in mainstream American fantasy or science fiction entertainment at the time.

This combination of old-fashioned Victorian aesthetics with science fiction also found expression in the series’ implicit (and explicit) meta-political assumptions. Doctor Who was without doubt steeped in an imperial aesthetic; the Doctor—as many commentators with far, far more expertise and experience in analyzing Doctor Who‘s politics than I have noted—embodies an older British imperial hierarchy while simultaneously acting as a rogue factor within that same structure of authority. The Doctor’s initial rebellion—stealing a TARDIS because he could not countenance the Time Lords’ doctrine of non-interference—is redolent with all kinds of complicated political ramifications, especially when considered aside the dean of American TV sci-fi in this period, Star Trek. The Federation’s more or less expressly postwar American imperialist enterprise, where the Prime Directive of non-interference was given lip service but yet somehow blithely violated left and right in nearly every single episode, comes to mind as a point of contrast. At least the Doctor was often straightforward in his savior complex, and he had every right to be. The Doctor’s adventures, while often massive in the scale of their implications—saving the Earth, the human race, or indeed the universe seemingly every week—somehow never felt as big and bold as the victories of Kirk, Spock, and Bones. The Doctor, while acting supercilious and superior to seemingly every sentient being he ran across, also solved all of his problems with talk, subtly compelling the inherent selfishness and short-sightedness of evil to work against itself, all while inspiring the good guys to be better. The Doctor brandished no phasers, no photon torpedoes: the only weapon he possessed was the awareness that the bad guys, as scary as they might be, were essentially bound to lose… Well, that and perhaps a packet of jelly babies. I’m not sure if I was consciously aware of all these profound philosophical contrasts as a kid, but did they burrow their way into my subconscious? Absolutely.

Being a Doctor Who fan in America before the internet wasn’t that easy, especially if you weren’t old enough to go to conventions or search for supplemental materials at comic shops or science fiction bookstores. On the passing of Doctor Who novelization wizard and Pertwee-era script editor Terrance Dicks last week, I was touched by the many glowing testimonials from Brits that mentioned how Dicks’ Target Who novels were some of their very earliest independent memories of reading for pleasure. I actually did manage to find a few of these novelizations, imported, in a bookstore in Waterville, Maine while on vacation in the late 1980s. I was probably solidly out of the age bracket for the Target novelizations at the time, but they were tangible evidence that Doctor Who actually physically existed on this planet, that it wasn’t some kind of weird missive from another world or timeline.

Article in TSR’s Dragon magazine from December 1986 by Dragonlance author Margaret Weis providing stats for all six Doctors (at the time) for FASA’s tabletop RPG

By the mid-’80s, as the series entered into its controversial tenure under the stewardship of showrunner John Nathan-Turner in the Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy years, British fans began to feel that the rapidly growing American fanbase was being catered to by including companions from the States, by increasing the out-and-out violence, and by removing the creepy, atmospheric horror. More and more conventions and merchandising tie-ins began appearing on the shelves of comic book and hobby stores in the US. By the time junior high rolled around, I could all of a sudden find the Doctor Who tabletop role-playing game by FASA at Excalibur Hobbies, and Doctor Who Magazine at New England Comics. Doctor Who became just another thing to buy, to collect, to quantify. And in retrospect that definitely killed a little of the magic for me. As the Colin Baker and McCoy episodes began appearing on American TV mere months after their BBC debuts, some of the weird, lost-media magic of those early years in front of the TV at 7pm was irrevocably lost (although I will go to the mat defending McCoy’s performance as the Doctor and his final two seasons, which for me were some of the best Who since Tom Baker).

When the series was canceled by the BBC in 1989, coinciding with my entering high school, it felt in some odd way like the end of that era was the end of my childhood too. The VHS compilations of episodes that I’d assiduously recorded held me in good stead until I got to college, where I met other fans my age who’d encountered the Doctor on PBS in their own hometowns. Nowadays, of course, Doctor Who is bigger global business than John Nathan-Turner could have ever dreamed, with a massive fanbase enjoying close-to-simulcast broadcasts of every new episode. I’ve really not been able to get into the new series, despite trying a few episodes of each of the five new 21st-century Doctors. Something about the new series just doesn’t work for me, with its (relatively) big-budget special effects and smooching Doctors. Doctor Who doesn’t feel like a rickety homemade craft from an alien world anymore—probably in some small part because the world itself has gotten so much smaller.

In the process of researching this piece, I was delighted to come across the amazingly-detailed site BroaDWcast, which tracks the global history of Doctor Who distribution. It contains a wealth of information about the minutiae of North American Who history and I highly recommend getting lost in its pages.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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16 thoughts on “Lost in the Time Vortex: The American Cult of ‘Doctor Who’

  1. Lovely article, and thumbs up for the McCoy defence. I didn’t like him at all at the time, but sussed his greatness when my son got madly into Who and we watched the DVDs with him. “Unlimited rice pudding!”

    • Seasons 25 and 26 had so many great stories, so much mystery, McCoy played the Doctor as unknowable and enigmatic yet still with a mischievousness that still shone through. I wish he’d gotten just one more season to wrap things up. Watching him get shot (in America!) in the McCann movie was heartbreaking. 😦

  2. My first Doctor Who story was Hand of Fear, which introduced me to Sarah Jane Smith and promptly took her away. I was into the show, but only familiar with Baker–Doctor Who didn’t necessarily air at set times, or not set times that I could figure out, and it wasn’t until years and years later that I saw the first or last episodes of Baker’s run, or any episodes with a different Doctor.

    I picked up the roleplaying game when it came out, and that’s how I learned the Doctor regenerated into different forms. Before the game, I mostly just fulfilled my roleplaying urge by borrowing my dad’s tire pressure gauge–a silver rod with a ball on one end that had a socket for putting over the valve stem of a tire, and a plastic measuring rod that would shoot out the other end to tell you how much pressure was in the tire–and pretend that was my sonic screwdriver.

    • Hand of Fear was likely not my first story, but it’s the one that looms largest in my memory. Rewatched it a couple of months ago and the massive edifices of the nuclear power plant and the hypnotized cadences of the people under Eldrad’s control… still terribly spooky.

  3. I still have that Dragon article and I must have read it a few dozen times back in the day. My experiences with Who are a carbon copy of what you describe in this article.

    I particularly like your description of the Doctor’s nature, as both part of the old order and a rebel within it. That rings true to me on a number of levels. Interestingly enough, I think it also nails Obi-Wan Kenobi’s nature in the prequels and Clone Wars series. That’s a comparison I never thought about before, but now that I think about it I can’t stop seeing parallels.

    • I can take very little credit for that particular observation about the Doctor’s dual and mercurial nature: it’s Elizabeth Sandifer and Jack Graham over at Eruditorum Press (http://www.eruditorumpress.com/) that have opened my eyes to all kinds of new lenses with which to view the Doctor as character. They’ve done some of the best work on analyzing Doctor Who I’ve ever read.

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  5. My exposure to vintage Who was almost exactly this. I recall watching on Saturday nights from Montreal on a massive, baroque, black and white television set inherited from my grandmother, straining for reception from the closest PBS affiliate south of the border. I specifically recall how excited I was about The Three Doctors despite how grainy the quality of the broadcast was. What changed for me was sometime in 1988, YTV came to air in Canada and ran through every available Doctor Who episode from 1963 to 1989 on weekday afternoons and Sunday nights, if I recall correctly. I recorded them all on VHS, and must’ve had 50+ tapes which I believe my dad chucked in the bin when we moved to Ontario a few years later. How I wish we’d saved them. I still have all 150-something of the Target novelizations. I read them religiously and would often take them to school to read on breaks, carefully bundling the book of the day in sandwich wrap to prevent undue damage in my school bag. I was all in. I’ve generally enjoyed aspects the 2005 revival but the mega-phenom of modern Who has never really fired my jets– though Capaldi came close– like those truly weird and wonderful classic episodes.

    • Your story about YTV getting the complete run of Who makes me think… It’s a bit like when MTV started airing Monty Python in ’87, ’88, right when I was in junior high (perfect timing really): I’d only ever caught bits and pieces of Python *very* late at night on PBS and all of a sudden here was every single episode. Along with that revival came the two Just The Words script compilations, which I read to pieces, but all of a sudden the rare “catch as catch can” quality of the show, that near-mythological standing, was gone.

      • Yes! That is an excellent point. For a time, Who on YTV was a glorious all you can eat buffet, after a time, it led to a kind of pressure to “collect” every last episode which killed some of the joy, to say nothing of how diminished, for example, The Horror of Fang Rock appeared at 4:30 PM on a sunny May afternoon in full colour (we had a better TV by that point). You make me realize that the gothic potency of my PBS Who experience was invariably bound up in how I watched those serials; usually late(ish) at night in a darkened room, and I’m not kidding, that television was a brick of furniture, with its cheap but strangely intricately carved body. It weighed, easily, 200 lbs. and it took an age to “warm up” (and the smell…ozone and outer space, I think) but it was really the ideal frame though which to experience the best of those third and fourth Doctor episodes, riddled with interference and dodgy acoustics. It was a perfect storm, and if any of those elements had been missing, I doubt my recollections would be so vivd and potent. Thanks so much for this terrific piece!

  6. Seek out the TV special “Once Upon a Time Lord” (1982), an infomercial disguised as a documentary about the Who fan phenomenon in the United States, emphasizing the Tom Baker years and featuring priceless footage of a Dr. Who fan convention in Chicago. It’s clear the purpose if the special is to recruit new U.S. viewers, the framing device being an off-camera channel-surfer who happens to land on the program mid-episode (1975’s “The Android Invasion”) and wonders out loud who this Dr. Who guy is and what all the excitement is about.


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