Editorial The Lodger 2

Published on June 28th, 2014 | by Andrew Reynolds

Just What Is The Secret Of Doctor Who’s International Success?

In television, there are myriad reasons for something to fail but only ever one reason for it to succeed – the machinery is for nought if that spark isn’t there and, if asked “What makes this show a success?” mostly, it’ll be that first contact point; that ignition that most will recall.

Maybe it’s our capacity to tell stories, to spin a good yarn – nobody wants to hear: “It’s 60 hours a week slaving at a computer and occasionally smashing your face into the desk” that makes a show so successful.”

We want ‘Eureka!’ Not the other nights spent moping in the tub.

It’s a given that you’ll have to shed a little blood but really, all we want to hear about is the alchemy itself; not the individual elements that go into the mix.

Unfortunately for creative types, it’s never the same reason: sometimes it’s hard work and research, sometimes it’s conquering your fears and trusting your gut, and other times, it’s just plain, dumb luck.

This goes doubly so for that rare beast, an international sensation; you’ve read or heard it before, no other country could have produce this and that’s what makes it all the more profound to international audiences.

Take Steven Moffat’s comments recently to The Guardian at the Cannes Lions Festival, when asked what makes Sherlock and Doctor Who so popular in the States, he said:

The way you appeal to other cultures is to be yourself. Americans like British shows. If they elect to watch a British show they want it to be terribly British. Why wouldn’t they?

Just as with watching an American show – we want it to be full-on American.

The Britishness isn’t amped up (in Sherlock and Doctor Who). It comes from being made by British people.

There is something incredibly British about Doctor Who, but I couldn’t say what it is.

Maybe you can? Maybe there’s something in Doctor Who’s Britishness that makes it so appealing? Maybe it’s that sense of ‘otherness’ that sets it apart? But it’s not as if that is only unique to international audiences.

Recently I rewatched New Earth, the mostly forgotten opener to Series 2 and was struck by how different it was to anything else being shown around it.

It’s still true of the show now – it’s bookended by talent shows and Charlie from Casualty and it stands apart beautifully. You might not like how broad that particular episode is but you have to admire its chutzpah.

Is this due to it embracing its Britishness more so than any of its timeslot rivals? Is it that element of its DNA that gives, in this case, Russell T Davies the right to ditch convention so easily? Can you see Charlie from Casualty (yes, I know, he has a name) suddenly playing the ukulele on the ward and singing that the human race is a beautiful thing to a man with an iron gate through his pelvis?

I can, but nobody would watch it… twice.

So what makes Doctor Who so successful at adopting these different elements? The elements themselves or the show?

Success is an elusive, evasive beast – perhaps it’s not even a beast? It could be a hat; its success, it can be anything it wants – so what do you think makes Doctor Who such an international success?


Tags: , , , , , , ,

About the Author


Everyone has a favourite Doctor and mine - just for his honesty, his fairness and his ability to not notice the Master's awful, awful disguises/anagrams (Sir Gilles Estram!?!) - has to be the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison. The stories didn’t serve him as well as his acting served those stories.

6 Responses to Just What Is The Secret Of Doctor Who’s International Success?

  1. avatar TimeChaser says:

    I think the ‘Britishness’ the makes Doctor Who work is the same thing that makes Monty Python work, or the best adaptations of classic mystery (the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes and David Suchet’s Poirot). Its just something the Brits have that I think we in the US lack as a much younger country. Not to say we don’t have an abundance of imagination and talent that have created amazing shows over here, but there’s enough of a cultural divide now that we go about things in much different ways.

  2. avatar Christine says:

    I think Moffat is absolutely right here: be yourself. I mean it’s not even just Doctor Who. I like British detectives too but not American ones (please, no offense intended) and enjoy Scandinavian ones as well. And though I am a fan of Star Wars, it is something so apart from my dear Doctor, so very American (and specifically enjoyed because of that). Stick to your own thing, be very careful in not involving too much of other cultures with anything. We don’t want Americanised Doctor Who just as we don’t want American (or Scandinavian) series turned into something British. It won’t work. Having said all this, I also feel that the Britishness may be a necessary condition for the international success but not a sufficient one (turning all Academic here). I mean the series was very British in the Classic era but only had a cult following overseas. So, definitely there has to be more than just it’s very British appeal. Looking forward to reading suggrstions on that additional spark!

  3. avatar Paul McGann's Cat says:

    I don’t think it’s so much Britishness, but rather what Americans perceive as conforming to their romantic ideal of the British. The more rough and ready side of British culture seems entirely misunderstood by Americans and I think if it were just about Britishness per se things like Only Fools and Horses would’ve been much more popular out there.

    • avatar TimeChaser says:

      You have a point. James Bond is British and is nothing like Doctor Who. I think though there are attitudes to making television that are different between the UK and America, and Doctor Who is one of the most obvious examples of that.

  4. avatar losinthetardis says:

    While its Britishness might be part of the equation it’s not the whole picture. In 2005 no one in the US wanted to air the show. It almost went straight to DVD. Then the Sci-fi (as it was known a the time) took it and aired it, but they ran a year behind the broadcast. It did OK for them but was far from the success it is now. Now this takes us to the Moffat era. At this point Sci-fi and the BBC were in two different places regarding the show. From what I have heard Sci-fi wanted to continue to air the show, but was not willing to pay more per episode and the BBC wanted more per episode. This lead to the BBC taking back the show and it landing on BBC America, where it was promoted and the airing was brought up to the same day as the UK broadcast.

    Add to all of that the fact that the show has become a haven for American science fiction fans who are sick and tired of shows being cancelled too soon. Add to that the rise of fandom, and references in American shows like bigbang theory. Add to that peoplebinge watching on Netflix r other streaming sources and you have a recipe for a show breaking out.

  5. avatar simon magellan says:

    Reading a piece in last week’s Sunday Times about Chinese couples coming to the UK for “traditional” British Weddings. In one photo of a couple, the man wears a tweed jacket, a bow tie and has floppy hair.

    Wonder where he got that look from…

Tell us what you think!

Please be aware that all comments are subject to adherence to our comments policy.
Back to Top ↑