In Britain, to be a fan of DOCTOR WHO is perfectly normal. It’s a family show that we discover as children and, being uniquely one of the few British pop culture creations that aren’t cynical, dour or pessimistic, stays fondly with us as we grew up.
In America, WHO has always been a more niche, cultish affair, an eccentric British underdog show loved by the geekiest of the geeky. But now, in an era where Geekdom is accepted and more widespread, DOCTOR WHO is more than geek gold, more than a ratings hit for BBC America – it is now proper Rock & Roll
This is what I thought as I watched the fans gather at the East Village Cinema in Downtown New York City on Monday night to attend the preview screening of the first two episodes of Series Six, “The Impossible Astronaut” and “The Day of the Moon.” That single block became a whole condensed Doctor Who Convention – over 700 fans were queuing up for the privilege of seeing the season openers before anyone else did, even in the UK. Some of them had been in line since 8pm on Sunday night, pitching up a tent outside the cinema building. The nice people from BBC America bought doughnuts for the people who had been in line all day to keep them nourished. Here were fans of every shape, age and leaning: children, middle-aged adults, teenagers, 20somethings and most of all, female fans. This was Doctor Who Fandom 2.0 with the majority of fans being young, twentysomething and under. Many of them hadn’t even been born when the show went off the air in the late 1980s. It’s the type of growing and renewable fandom that comics are failing to attract but which DOCTOR WHO has achieved brilliantly. There were cosplayers galore: bowties, fezzes, long, multicoloured scarves, and three different varieties of Amy Pond costumes – Back-Packing-through-America-in-Flannel Amy, Red Jumper Amy, Black Leather Jacket Amy, though no Kiss-o-gram-Policewoman Amy this time. And there are dozens of press and bloggers in the press queue as well. One bloke was filming the event with the camera on his iPad. I haven’t seen this many iPhones in one place outside of a computer hacker convention.
BBC America pulled out all the stops for this: when the cast arrived, they pulled up in a 1950s convertible the way you would imagine Liz Taylor and Richard Burton pulling up on the Croisette in. Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill and Alex Kingston were all glammed up for the evening to camera flashes and screams of adulation. This was the kind of adoration movies stars and pop musicians would kill for.
This year’s preview screening event was a much bigger deal than last year’s for the Series Five premiere. There were so many people that they took over four entire cinemas in the building to screen the show, streaming the Question & Answer from one theatre live to the other three. Even host for the Q&A was one of a higher profiler than last year’s. Stand-up comedian and self-styled nerd Chris Hardwick of G4TV and The Nerdist has spent the last year becoming a major fan and transforming himself into the US spokesman for Doctor Who fandom. For the past year, his weekly Nerdist podcast had a virtual running joke where he would interview various celebrity guests and ask them if any of them watched the new Doctor Who so he could find someone to talk about the show with until he finally landed Scottish transplant, former stand-up comedian and US talkshow host Craig Ferguson, who was a fan, and finally Matt Smith himself as a guest. The impression I got from following the podcast was that hardly anyone in show business in Los Angeles bothered to watch BBC America. Now Hardwick has a dedicated Doctor Who correspondent on his Nerdist website and would never get through a weekly podcast without talking about Doctor Who at least once. Back in February, Hardwick even cosplayed as the David Tennent Doctor at Gallifrey One, the biggest annual Doctor Who convention held in the US.
As for the show itself, I can say, without spoilers, that it feels bigger, madder, more ambitious than Series 5. Steven Moffat has upped the pace, increased the number of big, epic, fan-pleasing setpieces, more fanservice. Where Series 5 has felt like set-up, Series 6 is where Moffat looks set to let rip with more of everything – more romance, more raunchy jokes (within family show limits), more tricky timey-whimy, cliffhangers, more seat-of-the-pants escapes, more jokes, more snogging, more tricky moral dilemmas, more progressive liberal social attitudes, more cheeky history in-jokes, more scares (in fact, there are images and setpieces lifted right out of John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and an attempt at almost Lovecraftian creepiness within the limits of a family show), and more convoluted angst and continuity that you might find in twenty years’ worth of Marvel Comics and X-Men continuity. Without spoiling anything, it looks like Moffat is familiar with the story of Nate Summers and Cable. Amy Pond is in for a really hard time, worse than she had it last series. The plot moves with more speed in the opening five minutes than the entire hour of most episodes from previous series. The shocks, surprises and laughs were met with screams of nerd glee and approval, especially from female fans, so it looks like this series will continue to accomplish what it set out to do: thrill, keep the fans hooked and grab new ones along the way.
For the BBC, DOCTOR WHO isn’t just about pleasing the fans, it’s big business now, a hot franchise, and proof that the geeks taking over the show to appeal to more geeks is the right way to go. Geeks rule pop culture now. If they can take over an entire block in New York City just for DOCTOR WHO, nearly a thousand fans brimming with love and goodwill, imagine what else they can do if this energy were to be harnessed.
The beauty of reporting on this event is that I don’t need to transcribe the Q&A. Chris Hardwick will be posting it as a podcast on his website when it’s ready. You can go download it from there.
And the most pleasantly unexpected thing to happen at the event? My Nintendo 3DS picked up a whole bunch of Miis from nearby 3DS rigs being carried by gamers. They had to have been at the screening. This seems to indicate that Doctor Who fans will buy a 3DS if given a chance. Make of that what you will.
(Thanks to Devin Jackson and Chris Charleton of BBC Worldwide)
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