A Brief History of Doctor Who in America

Happy Independence Day, America! Looking back on Doctor Who’s history with the Land of Opportunity, some particular milestones and great moments happen to stand out above the rest.

David Letterman once asked John Cleese how he had celebrated the recent Fourth of July, to which the City of Death cameo guest drolly remarked, ‘no, we don’t celebrate Independence Day in England.’ Jokes aside, I think Cleese’s musings underscores just how odd it might have seemed in the past for fans of Doctor Who, a British television of all things, to reflect on the impact it’s had on America on this lovely Fourth of July. But times have changed and so has the international reach of Doctor Who – having broadened its sights across the pond to the Big Apple and beyond – capturing the hearts, minds and devoted loyalty of many American Whovians, young, old and older. Today’s as good a day as any to take a moment and look back on the Doctor’s special relationship with America … and no, I don’t mean the two founding fathers who supposedly ‘fancied’ the Eleventh Doctor. Get your mind out of the gutter, people!

Atop the Empire State Building, Doctor Who’s fascination with America began – a brief stop to New York City in the TARDIS by the First Doctor during the third episode of The Chase marked the beginning of what has become a whole series of stories set in Manhattan. Why New York City of all places in America? Perhaps it’s just because it’s a gorgeous place. A cosmopolitan one, too. A capital city, even. I’d argue it’s because New York City easily suits itself as a backdrop for a story because it’s not simply a setting; it brings its own clear sense of what it is and what it stands for to any story ‘worth its salt’ that’s set in its city.

Writer, Helen Raynor used this legacy of New York City as a city of opportunity to its full potential in Series 3’s Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks, emphasising the industriousness of its characters like Tallulah, Laszlo, and Mr Diagoras as they strove to ‘make something of themselves,’ while also focusing on Hooverville as a site of human compassion and cooperation, facing abject poverty and hardship together despite their differences in race and class. Right from the opening moments as the episode pans across (a digitally composed matte transplanting a Cardiff-bound cast into) stock footage of the Statue of Liberty, Daleks in Manhattan shows that, despite its very dodgy attempts at a Yankee accent, the story has a better understanding of the ideals and the heart of New York City and America better than it lets on and that serves the story well as the Cult of Skaro reflect on humanity’s values and their merit and potential for the Dalek race.

Daleks in Manhattan - Cult of Skaro

While that’s one justification for why Manhattan works so well as a setting for this story, the showrunner, Russell T Davies also provided an in-story explanation, one which takes us all the way back to The Chase: the Daleks had recorded the Empire State Building in their memory banks from the previous excursion.

When the Doctor returned to Central Park once more in The Angels Take Manhattan, the showrunner’s justification for the return this time was a tad more aesthetic: the city itself is crawling with angel statues, making it the perfect backdrop for a Weeping Angels story. Visiting the Bethesda Fountain on holiday, Steven Moffat, current showrunner, first observed the city’s angels upfront and made the connection then. The show’s popularity in America, having taken off sky-high by that point, however, made filming Angels Take Manhattan difficult for the cast and crew – several very intimate moments like the Doctor reading Amy’s farewell letter were watched by scores of curious onlookers and fans circling Matt Smith, only barely out of frame as he gave his performance.

Nowadays, New York City seems more like an enormous theme park for the Whovian in their ‘natural’ environment – having travelled there recently, I couldn’t help but visit the Bethesda Terrace and think ‘this was where Rory disappeared’ or walked down the boardwalks in Central Park and think ‘this is where the Doctor ran after Amy’s letter’ and Battery Park? ‘Note to self: beware Winter Quay, beware the Statue of Liberty and… wait, Battery Park, hah, that’s quite clever dammit. Battery Park. Hah!’ Central Park has been used as a location for filming hundreds of times, but it’ll always been remembered by this Whovian for its starring role (alongside the Weeping Angels themselves) in The Angels Take Manhattan.

New York City hasn’t been the only American TARDIS destination, however. The first time that Doctor Who focused an entire story in America was actually another First Doctor story, The Gunfighters. In search of a dentist, the Doctor emerges in Tombstone, Arizona with a severe toothache; unfortunately, the seemingly never-ending performance of ‘Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon’ left many viewers thinking a toothache didn’t seem so bad after the four episodes they endured. It most certainly didn’t help the show’s ratings: The Gunfighters received one of the show’s lowest viewership and audience appreciation scores (although the scoring system itself changed and is not comparable with the ’70s/’80s or beyond). It should come as no surprise then that when Toby Whithouse was asked, over four decades later, to write a western for the revived series, Whithouse was advised against watching The Gunfighters. Toby Whithouse’s story, The Town Called Mercy brought the Eleventh Doctor to Nevada for a modern take on the western genre complete with a part-Sheriff, part-Alien Cyborg – Robocop meets Clint Eastwood, really. Fitting squarely in Series 7’s blockbuster format, The Town Called Mercy ticked off just about every western cliché from standoffs to mob justice to horse chases and persistent undertakers.

A Town Called Mercy - 11th Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith Amy Rory Pond

The Eleventh Doctor had already visited Nevada once before in the series previous; Series 6’s opener, The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon was really the first episode to embrace Doctor Who’s presence in America fully with actual location shooting in America for the first time with the full cast and crew.

Whereas 2005’s Dalek showed little more of Utah than the inside of an underground vault, this ambitious two-parter itself was, in a way, a tour of America, not only of Utah’s canyons, but a tour which encompasses Nevada’s Area 51, Florida’s Cape Canaveral and, of course, Washington D.C and the White House – taking residence in the White House was none other than President Richard Nixon, who, now synonymous with corruption, was certainly a brave choice of central character for the story. Not the first President to appear in Doctor Who, by any means, Nixon certainly escaped the sheer public embarrassment that his successors endured in The Sound of Drums and The End of Time at the hands of the Master; in fact, the Impossible Astronaut presents Nixon more sympathetically and stately than contemporary film and television often does. Day of the Moon also embraces Americana, indulging itself in nostalgia for the space race and American space hero, Neil Armstrong with the Apollo 11 mission reaching the moon near the end of the episode – a moment in human history that we’ve all watched as Moffat notes slyly, as it plays a centre and important role in Day of the Moon.

Canton Everett Delaware III, the ex-FBI agent from The Impossible Astronaut / The Day of the Moon charmed his way into many Whovians’ hearts as the Doctor’s ally; his dependability and trigger-happy attitude helped save the TARDIS team on a number of occasions. Canton reminded me of yet another American character, Bill Filer from the Pertwee era story, The Claws of Axos – Bill Filer was an American agent from UNIT (or the FBI, or the CIA… it’s never actually said) who was determined to catch the Master (Good luck buddy) – although the comparison between Filer and Canton stops at them being men of action, American agents, and allies of the Doctor. Filer is, in the show’s fifty years of broadcast, unique in just how poorly his character was portrayed, given his awful Elvis-esque performance, the hammy acting and the near inexhaustible amount of information he could convey while unconscious. Perhaps some of the issue with Paul Grist’s performance as Bill Filer was that he wasn’t American, but in fact Welsh – usual practice for Doctor Who. Canton, after all, was played by Mark Sheppard, an English-born actor.

Peri - Planet of Fire

The only American companion during a series run, Peri ‘Perpugilliam’ Brown was also played by a British actress, Nicola Bryant – the, then showrunner, John Nathan-Turner had sought out an American or Canadian to play the role but ‘as the story goes’ Bryant had fooled the crew during the auditions into believing she was American. Admittedly, I don’t see how – personally I always found her accent seemed to slip throughout her performance. Nevertheless, John Nathan-Turner encouraged Bryant to maintain the pretense that she was American in public appearances at least for some time and Peri Brown, an American college botany student would become one of the longest serving companions and an ’80s sex symbol.

However, if you think back to The Gunfighters for a second, there is another story to tell. A young Matthew Jacobs visited his father on the set of The Gunfighters – that young boy would, nonetheless, go on to write the 90s’ Doctor Who: The Movie, a made-for-television movie from Fox (among other financiers) introducing Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor.

Doctor Who: The Movie sees an amnesiac Doctor spar against the Master with San Francisco, California as its backdrop. Fans often criticise the telemovie for being an ‘American’ take on Doctor Who – this is a bit of a myth given its British lead actor, the British writer, the British producers, the British director etc. The movie wasn’t even shot in America! It was shot principally in Vancouver and is still to this day, the only Doctor Who episode filmed in Canada.

Why then is the telemovie lambasted for being ‘American’? The cynic in me says ‘because it wasn’t good’. Some might point to the story’s linear storytelling, its simplistic themes of good versus evil, depictions of violence or the Eighth Doctor’s romantic lead as signs of a more ‘Americanised’ Doctor Who. But there is always a bit of a tension with regards to America and Doctor Who – a bit of a cultural resistance, perhaps because the show itself is regarded as British through and through – a national treasure, even.

Making the occasional joke on the show at the expense of Americans has become a regular pastime for Doctor Who writers. Take, for example, the running gag on American gun culture: River Song screaming ‘They’re Americans!’ in a testosterone-fueled scene in the Oval Office, Canton’s ‘Welcome to America’ as he fires his gun at a Silence, or Isaac’s ‘Everyone who isn’t an American, drop your gun’. A chorus of laughter had erupted in The Day of the Doctor showing I attended when Kate Stewart had made a sneaky jab at Americans and ‘their movies’. The Classic series also got in on the action too with the Seventh Doctor in Revelation of the Daleks musing that ‘America doesn’t have the monopoly on bad taste.’

Paul McGann 8th Eighth Doctor TARDIS

By no means too has the ‘courting’ of American viewers gone without some controversy among other fans; often it’s been questioned whether the race to woo American viewers has left British viewers neglected despite their prominent role in financing Doctor Who through the BBC Licencing Fees and Doctor Who’s long and storied history as a quintessentially British program – it was only two summers ago, for example, when some British Whovians expressed their disappointment that a sneak preview for The Day of the Doctor was released exclusively at Comic-Con International in San Diego, California.

Adding insult to the injury: this was only a few weeks after Netflix UK had surprised its users, pulling Classic Doctor Who entirely from Netflix UK, while Netflix US still offered eighteen classic stories for its users. Given Netflix is a private company navigated the murky waters of international broadcasting rights and restrictions and exclusives at Comic-Con are a rite of passage, admittedly I had a hard time seeing these issues as they emerged as not much more than some nationalist hysteria, misplaced and incendiary. However, firebrand or not, with this upcoming visit to Comic-Con, Doctor Who executives have promised any exclusive content aired at Comic-Con will be made available publicly outside of Comic-Con.

A lesson learnt, perhaps? Only four more days to go for the big day in San Diego.

In the meantime, however, I think it should be said that whether British, American, Canadian or Gallifreyan, we all share this little show together and despite some rockier moments (I’m look at you, Bill Filer) and regional differences, the Doctor’s interactions with America have always been a refreshing new take on his adventures here on Earth.


Richard Forbes graduated from the University of Waterloo, receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Philosophy. When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘does one do exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a relaxing cup of Lady Grey, some writing and a re-run of ‘Yes Minister’. His favourite Doctor Who episode, provided he’s coerced to answer at gunpoint, is Series 1’s acclaimed ‘The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances’.

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