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?