Doctor Who has been on American television since the glorious 1970s, but it has never had the mainstream appeal that the rebooted series, or the exposure. Until the Sci-fi Channel, BBC America, et cetera picked up the new show, Doctor Who spent most of its history in the US confined to the ghettos of the peculiar institution known as public television. That is how I was introduced to the program many years ago, and how basically every old-school Doctor Who fan in the US learned about the program.
How public television works in the United States is that the stations operate without showing commercials and are designed to serve the public by showing educational and niche programming. Some programs are sponsored and paid for by corporate donors, some programming is available for national use and is created specifically for public television, and some programming is bought via syndication by individual public television stations. There is some government funding, of course, but public broadcasting is paid for mostly through donations.
One of the hallmarks (or clichés, if you must) of public broadcasting is the funds drive. Since Americans would never pay a national TV licensing fee and the funding received for public television isn’t enough to cover all the bills, this means that a few times a year, public television stations will publicly and shamelessly beg the viewers for donations. This is usually some local figure speaking in front of a bank of ringing phones, exhorting the viewer to dig deep into their pockets to fund the sort of programming you won’t see on regular network television.
Of course, for people who are normally viewers of public television and are not used to constant program interruptions, this is a huge turn-off. So while donations come in, viewership declines. To combat this, public television stations pull out all the stops and roll out special programming blocks. Like, for example, Doctor Who marathons.
For me, Doctor Who will always be associated with people begging me for money.
The first time I ever remember sitting down and watching Doctor Who, it was during a pledge drive. I was sitting in the lounge area of the local tennis club, while my father was taking advantage of a free pass and playing himself from a bad back to a worse back. I don’t remember what my mother was doing during this time, but she was probably playing tennis, too. As for me, I was watching Tom Baker and his ridiculously giant scarf fighting Daleks, Ace and her baseball bat, and of course, William Hartnell and the Robomen.
While I had a limited interest in the black and white Who, I ate up every episode with Daleks and interesting space monsters, and of course like most folks at Den of Geek, I had a soft spot for Ace. Even now, my favorite Doctor is still the Doctor I watched most of the time growing up, Sylvester McCoy. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was incredibly creepy as a youngster, thanks to the circus theme.
Given the first time the same Doctor Who episode aired at the same time across the United States was when Fox broadcast the TV movie in 1996, it’s a big staggering to see how well New Who, Torchwood, and Sarah Jane are doing in the cable ratings. While most US geeks grew up with Who, it’s a bit stunning to think that these fans, in their 20s and 30s or older, have come back to the show so strongly after a 16-year gap in which the Doctors all but disappeared from television.
Fortunately, the Doctor survived in pop culture. References in Family Guy and The Simpsons abound (usually of Tom Baker), a generation of geek musicians, and of course, kids like myself who never grew out of science fiction. While it’s not exactly burning up the ratings in the States, it’s doing well enough to stick around and more people have an awareness of Doctor Who now than they ever had then. If only someone would broadcast the old shows again (at least still around), then maybe the show could build up to a properly fanatic cult.
Check out the new and ever growing Doctor Who page at DoG, where we are marshalling all the Who content at the site, including interviews, DVD and episode reviews, lists, opinions and articles on our favourite time traveller.