With Comic-Con only a week away, and some anxiety over gasp Americans seeing Series 11 footage first, Mark Donaldson looks at Doctor Who’s American connections and conventions to analyse why the US market is key to the continued success of the show.
A few weeks ago, at the beginning of England’s campaign to win the World Cup every 52 years, a rumour had begun to circulate. It claimed that a trailer for Series 11 would play during halftime of the England/Tunisia game, and even garnered a baffled response from John Barrowman. The claim was unfounded and Gary Lineker was spared from delivering another awkward intro to some Doctor Who footage. The trailers non-existence aggravated a number of vocal fans who were absolutely furious about the likelihood of a Comic-Con premiere for footage. A leaked 50-second clip soon followed, which probably cooled down a few internet hotheads (whilst turning the temperature up on some others). The ire of some of those forced to wait until after the Comic-Con panel seemed to be rooted in proprietary nationalism. A British show? Made by British people? Previewing first to Americans? Who won the bloody war of independence anyway?
But of course, Series 11 is launching in San Diego with a panel discussion and probable trailer (or the leaked 50-second clip). Whilst Doctor Who might sometimes feel like it’s ours, it’s also a strong, independent intellectual property that exists as part of the larger “geek” landscape, which should be allowed to hang out with whoever it wants.
Comic-Con is, first and foremost, a trade show. It’s the Cannes Film Festival with either a more relaxed or more outrageous dress-code, depending on your opinions of cosplay. This is where the new series of Marvel’s Iron Fist will be launched, where you’ll be able to see footage from the hotly anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 or attend a 10th-anniversary reunion and reminiscence over the seminal Breaking Bad. The eyes of the entertainment industry are on the San Diego Convention Center every year so where better to premiere footage from the new series of the world’s longest-running science fiction series? There’s no difference between Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker talking to fans in a hall the size of an aircraft hanger and Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker talking to marketers, licence holders and invited press in a Liverpool hotel.
Much as some of us would still like to entertain the notion of Doctor Who as an unassuming, quirky little British sci-fi show, it’s actually a globally successful brand. The highlight of the Complete Series 8 boxed set was Earth Conquest: The World Tour; a documentary following Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as they travelled to countries like South Korea and Mexico to promote their upcoming series together. It’s a joyous watch and testament to the work that Steven Moffat put into extending the appeal of the show around the world. Key to this was Series 6, which to some is perhaps a failed experiment, but is the closest Doctor Who has ever got to aping the model of the American network show. There was a linking narrative which reached a peak halfway through, leaving our characters on an almighty cliffhanger which would not be resolved for a few months. The additional support of BBC America and the location filming for the stand-out series opener The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon also helped to entice American audiences.
Which is not to suggest that there was no relationship between Doctor Who and the USA prior to 2011. Since PBS began airing the Tom Baker serials in 1978, there was a strong American fan base, something John Nathan-Turner was keen to capitalise on in his time as executive producer. JN-T’s Transatlantic jaunts included the Doctor Who USA trailer tour, travelling around the states from 1986 to 1988 with various props and costumes on display whilst past Doctors and companions appeared in various US towns. The tour also included the first public appearance by Sylvester McCoy, three days prior to the “official” announcement of his casting as the 7th Doctor. There seems to have been less of an outcry over this than more recent US previews. Given the public confrontation between certain fans (including one future showrunner) and Pip & Jane Baker, there was maybe a feeling that the Americans were welcome to this formerly beloved show.
Doctor Who at Comic-Con isn’t a new development either, David Tennant received a rapturous welcome at his first appearance, as has each actor that has succeeded him. Wonky YouTube footage of a trailer for The End of Time made it online straight after, and in recent years, given the global online world, the BBC tends to release the Comic-Con trailers on their official YouTube channels straight after. Therefore, you probably won’t have long to wait until whatever is shown in San Diego makes it online through official channels. In fact, maybe you’ve already seen it via those unofficial channels.
And anyway, it’s not as if they’ll be screening a whole episode in advance like Fox did with the 1996 TV Movie or Amazon did by accidentally posting out the complete S7 boxed sets early so that fans were able to find out The Name of the Doctor before everyone else. The proper launch of the series will be an as yet unannounced date in October. Sure, it’s difficult, the Jodie Whittaker announcement was almost a year ago, and we’ve only had 60 minutes of new Doctor Who in that time. But that’s no reason to get proprietorial over our little British show that now belongs to everyone the World over. Comic-Con is strictly business, what is upsetting about those panels is that it’s rare for UK fans to have an equivalent. But the UK convention circuit and its gradual Americanisation is a topic for another time. In the meantime, Doctor Who will return in October, the promotional circuit begins at Comic-Con, and there are certain to be all sorts of clips, articles and interviews between now and then. If you still insist on being petty, consider that due to time differences, we’ll always get brand new episodes of Doctor Who hours before the Americans.