Having begun in 1963, Doctor Who is a cult television show that is aired by BBC and has created quite a fan-base for itself. Even though the show went off the air in 1989, it had a reboot in 2005, with the hiatus seeming to have done no damage to the vastness of the shows’ fandom. Doctor Who follows a charismatic time lord as he travels through space and time in his TARDIS, regenerating, changing history, and fighting treacherous enemies such as Daleks and Weeping Angels. But what is it about Doctor Who that makes it cult television per se? Well, as any Whovian could tell you, it is not the kind of show that you just understand overnight and, once you do understand and grow to love it, you will be in good company. Doctor Who creates an immense sense of in-group fan identification and forms its own kind of world for the fans, therefore promoting its categorization as cult television.
Now, to make sense of the term “cult television”. Gwenllian-Jones and Pearson provide a relevant definition of cult television, saying that the show:
“… must provide a completely furnished world so that fans can quote characters and
of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise” (Gwenllian-Jones &
In other words, cult television is seen as such because of the way in which the show creates its own kind of world for the fans, creating for them their own jargon and insider knowledge that they gain by watching and understanding the show. And because of the unique nature of this in-group fan identification, fans come to recognize one another as “fellow experts” on the culture of a show and its fandom. This, as I will come to exemplify, serves as an accurate representation of Doctor Who…cult television at its finest.
If Doctor Who has anything, it definitely has its own jargon. Even as I started learning more about this show in order to write this, I found myself having to delve deeper and deeper into Whovian culture (that’s right, the fan identification is so strong with this show, that the fans even have their own title: Whovians). For instance, even the explanation of the main premise of the show can take some explaining: the show portrays the doctor travelling through space and time in his TARDIS using his sonic screwdriver to “fix” history by doing things like defeating Daleks, Oods, and other various alien dangers. To begin dissecting the sentence, the “doctor” is a time lord (technically an alien himself) who regenerates into new forms when he dies. Essentially, each time the doctor regenerates, a different actor fills the new part of the regenerated doctor, which only adds to the jargon and insider knowledge that comes from knowing who played which doctor in numerical order, and who acted the part of “doctor” the best. This of course, opens a whole new area of debate for the fans: it is not uncommon to find Whovians arguing over why David Tennant is the actor who was the better doctor, as opposed to Matt Smith, for example.
Another famous bit of jargon includes the “gadgets” used by the doctor, such as the TARDIS and his sonic screwdriver. The TARDIS (which is what the doctor travels in) actually stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space, and is depicted as a blue police box. And as the history of the TARDIS explains, the travelling box was actually intended to blend into its surroundings, but experienced a technical difficulty that left it stuck in its now-iconic form. The doctor also carries around with him a sonic screwdriver, a device that looks almost like a futuristic pen with a light at the end, which serves many useful purposes, such as opening locked doors for the doctor to go through. And so, while these terms would be meaningless to an outsider of the show, the jargon has quite a bit of meaning for the fans.
The “villains” or antagonists of the show are another category of in-group knowledge that fans use to identify one another and fill out their fandom world. Doctor Who is filled with names to describe numerous kinds of enemy aliens. For example, there are the Weeping Angels, who can only move when they are not being looked at, so whenever one closes their eyes or turns their back, they are being advanced upon by a stone angel trying to kill. There are also the Oods, telepathic monsters that have tentacles coming out of their noses, as well as hands that hold one of their brains at all times. These two very unique kinds of monsters, each with their own backstory, are just two of many of such antagonists in Doctor Who. The Daleks are another (and perhaps the most infamous) kind of monster in the show, with the sound of “Exterminate!” in the robotic Dalek voice striking legitimate fear in the hearts of many avid fans. There are numerous written accounts that I came across in which older fans reminisce on growing up watching Doctor Who, and the way in which the Daleks grew to become a source of nightmares for them, and provided them with a sense of pride when they got to watch the doctor overcome the Daleks time and time again. In this way, Daleks have become an iconic aspect of the Doctor Who fandom, in that their cheesily-constructed robotic bodies with toilet plunger-like arms look ridiculous to non-viewers of the show, but are a source of fear and pleasure at the same time to those who are immersed in the Doctor Who universe (space pun not intended).
But why does all of this matter, and why is the creation of cult television a kind of strategy for producers and writers that are trying to attract viewers? First of all, the specified jargon I’ve been talking about is a major reason. This kind of specified language creates “insiders” and “outsiders” of the show, so once fans become insiders, they identify strongly with that, and feel a real sense of community within the show and its fan-base…obviously the kind of appreciation for a show that its creators are shooting for. Also, however, while cult television may be something that will deter some viewers, it serves as excellent entertainment for a very crucial segment of viewers of television: avid fans. Lavery, Hague, and Cartwright explain that there are “…three kinds of viewers who can be categorized in terms of engagement: casual viewers, devoted viewers, and avid fans” (Lavery et al., 1996). Casual viewers are those people that will watch something just because it is on, and devoted viewers will probably set aside time to watch a favorite show; but avid fans are the ones that watch a show religiously, buy merchandise, and are often known to do things like join fan clubs and attend conferences or conventions related to the show. And so while cult television may alienate some less dedicated viewers, its usage is an important strategy in the television industry because of its ability to effectively draw in a demographic of people that will not only enjoy the show, but experience devotion to it in a way that makes them fans for life.
To summarize a lot of confusion, alien terminology, and long-winded sci-fi jargon: Doctor Who is a dense show. It isn’t like many types of shows where you watch them once and get a feel for all of the characters, or always understand what they are saying. In fact, the first time I watched Doctor Who myself, I asked my fan of a sister so many questions that she left the room because she couldn’t stand them anymore. This show contains so much in-group language, and requires so much expertise on the fans’ part, that it is almost not enough to say that Doctor Who literally creates a world of its own for those that are fans of it. It is for this reason that Doctor Who shows itself as an exemplary model of cult television. And so, like the TARDIS in the show, the Doctor Who fandom is really much bigger on the inside.
Gwenllian-Jones, S. Pearson, R. E. (2004). Cult Television. U of Minnesota Press, ix.
Lavery, D. Hague, A. Cartwright, M. (1996). Deny All Knowledge: Reading the X Files. SyracuseUniversity Press, 25-26.
Lepore, J. (2013). The Man in the Box. New Yorker, 89, 56.
Rothman, L. (2013). Doctor Who?: A Beginner’s Guide to Doctor Who. Time.com, 1.
Whitaker, David. (2011). Doctor Who and the Daleks. Random House, vii-ix.