How British is Doctor Who?


I was skimming Through the Decades Sixty Years of the BSFA 1958-2018 when I came across a long article by Andrew M Butler titled British National Identity and the Phenomenon of Doctor Who. It’s interesting for many reasons, no less than being written in 2003 and adopting a pretty grim tone regards the series as a piece of history. There’s an extra piece at the end in which Andrew mentions rumours of the show’s return. He’s cynical about the chances of success. I’ve no idea how much he would change the article now, though he does seem to blog about the show on occasion (and many other things).

I’m more intrigued to consider the show (and the Doctor) with regards being British. Let’s chat…

British or not?

I can summarise (and this is not doing Andrew’s article justice) the basic idea as follows: the BBC has a role in projecting an image of Britain and Britishness around the globe. This image may be realistic or idealistic but there is an element of this in the corporation’s DNA. It’s not a new theme, for example the New Statesman did a piece in 2014 comparing Doctor Who to Top Gear.

The discussion gets obfuscated with a British or English element and in these Brexit times the whole concept is charged with both emotion and confusion (and a lot else).

There are British elements such as the Police Box TARDIS, a penchant for tea drinking, and under Chibnall a little reflecting on our colonial past. Man show runners have reflected society, politics or culture and other shows do the same as well.

Whose image of Britain is the BBC to project through Doctor Who? Let’s take it the other way, let’s consider the core traits of the Doctor:

  • A sense of fairness but also happy to use superior knowledge or technology
  • Wanting the best from companions – making them be the best versions of themselves
  • Anti-authority when authority diminishes the individual
  • Anti-violence / weapons
  • Curious about the diversity of the universe.

It’s all very noble and reflecting an ambition of who we could be. Is it British? Where’s the queuing? At least the settings and companions are very British. Are they defining though? Who can say?

Moving back, the show has always tried to do more than entertain and educate, it also tries to inform. Doctor Who has a clear green agenda in the 1970s with everything from better energy sources to Jo Grant leaving to become what we might call an eco-warrior.

Is this British? Is it aspirational? Is being British a fixed idea? I’d say not, and as we evolve so should the show.

Does it matter? What do other nationalities think of the Britishness of the show? I’d be interested in hearing!

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