How do you know when a TV show has become a cult phenomenon? When its (often comparatively small) ratings are eclipsed by the wild ardor of its fans. Take the case of the British science fiction show Doctor Who, whose current lead, Matt Smith, is this week’s cover star. The now 49-year-old Who is hugely popular in its homeland but has always enjoyed a more select appeal here — not that you know that from the devotion of U.S.-based “Whovians.” In 1983, 7,000 people attended a Doctor Who convention in Chicago and over the past couple of years the time-traveling “Doctor” has received a bordering-on-the-absurd number of onscreen shout-outs from Community, Criminal Minds, Craig Ferguson’s The Late Late Show, Supernatural, and Grey’s Anatomy, whose creator, Shonda Rhimes, describes herself as a “psychotic” follower of Matt Smith’s time travel adventures in this week’s cover story. “It’s not an obscure show anymore,” says executive producer Steven Moffat. “It’s not even a ‘British import.’ It’s just Doctor Who.”
Has the time finally come for the so-called “Time Lord” to break big in America? Could be. The Doctor Who team has assiduously courted fans here with a succession of publicity appearances, including a panel at this year’s Comic-Con where Whovians paid homage to Smith’s red-haired costar Karen Gillan by donning ginger wigs. (No. 2 way you know a TV show has become a cult favorite? When fans start dressing as characters.) In June 2011, the show’s U.S. broadcaster BBC America enjoyed its best ever ratings with the premiere episode of the sixth season since Doctor Who was revived in 2005, following a 16 year hiatus. The new season, which debuts later this summer, may well be the most eagerly anticipated ever as the Doctor prepares to say goodbye to his two trusty and beloved-by-fans “companions,” Gillan’s Amy Pond and Arthur Darvill’s Rory Williams. In the cover story we track the ups and downs of the show’s remarkable half-century history and preview the new episodes with help from Smith, Gillan, Darvill, and exec producer, Steven Moffat.
Want more awesome small screen weirdness? Then check out our list of the 25 Best Cult TV Shows From the Past 25 years, in which we explain the devotion shown to such culty whippersnappers (at least by Who standards) as Fringe, Twin Peaks, The Comeback, Archer, Community, Firefly, Arrested Development, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Click here to buy the new issue, on stands this Friday.
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