Cover Story

'Doctor Who': The Doctor Is In

Since 1963, the hero of a cult British TV show called ''Doctor Who'' has been battling monsters on distant planets. But that's nothing compared with his latest achievement: winning over the American public.

''I want to show you something,'' says Doctor Who star Matt Smith, excitedly jabbing at a cell phone in his trailer. For a longtime fan of the cult British science-fiction TV show like myself, these are thrilling words. Smith plays the titular alien time traveler on the now-49-year-old Doctor Who, and today is in the small Welsh town of Llantrisant shooting an episode for the upcoming season. As usual, much about this new batch of shows (premiering later this summer on BBC America) is being kept hush-hush in an attempt to prevent spoilers from appearing in the Who-obsessed U.K. media. Until — maybe — now.

Is Smith going to show me some revelatory footage of the Doctor's married sidekicks, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), and their already-filmed departure from the show? Will he preview the new monsters the Doctor will battle this year using just his intellectual brilliance and a few flourishes of his multipurpose tool, the ''sonic screwdriver''? Or will the 29-year-old Smith unveil some new area of the TARDIS, the Doctor's home/time-travel machine, whose exterior resembles a '50s-era old British police phone box but is famously much bigger on the inside (the thing's got a swimming pool, for Who's sake!). No, no, and — you've guessed it — no. Although what Smith does finally reveal is something the actor clearly considers just as amazing as any of these things: American Doctor Who fans.

''This must have been about three in the morning,'' he says, pointing at footage of an endless sea of shouting spectators. Smith shot the video in April, when Doctor Who decamped from its base in South Wales to New York City, where Amy and Rory's last episode was filmed. Eventually so many people turned up to watch the cast filming in midtown Manhattan that the first assistant director asked Smith to talk to them. If the hope was to calm the crowd, it's safe to say it didn't work, as the madly enthused throngs on Smith's phone demonstrate. ''I mean,'' says the still-flabbergasted actor, ''we don't get that in England!"

The thought that Who fans in the U.S. are more passionate about the show than those in its homeland might seem a perplexing one. For Brits like me, watching Doctor Who has long been situated in the pantheon of beloved national pastimes, somewhere between drinking tea and discussing whether it is time to drink another cup of tea (which it always is). The show was forced to go on hiatus in the '90s, due largely to falling viewership and, many fans felt, creative decline. But since its relaunch in 2005, Who has proved to be a ratings blockbuster for the BBC. Nearly 11 million people watched last year's annual Christmas special in the U.K. On this side of the Atlantic, however, the adventures of the so-called Time Lord — who travels the universe helping folks in distress and battling space beasts — enjoy a more select appeal. True, there have long been hardcore fans (or Whovians) here: In 1983, 7,000 folks attended a Who convention in Chicago, and Fox's 1996 Who TV movie starring Paul McGann did briefly place the show in the mainstream spotlight. But during Doctor Who's initial 26-year-long run, its scheduling in the U.S. was a patchy, often-delayed business. And the revived version didn't debut in America until March 2006, when it was finally screened on Syfy, a full year after it had premiered in the U.K.

Over the past few years, however, the profile of the Doctor has gradually, but perceptibly, grown on these shores — thanks in large part to BBC America, which secured the U.S. rights in 2009 and began broadcasting episodes on the same day they aired in the U.K. The cast has also repeatedly hopped the pond to shoot scenes — including for last season's premiere, partly shot in Utah — and publicize the show. Who's exec producer Steven Moffat and his stars attended this year's Comic-Con, where the enormous popularity of Gillan's leggy, red-haired Amy Pond was confirmed by the number of people who wore ginger wigs to the Who panel. The sixth-season premiere of Doctor Who, which was broadcast in June of last year, garnered an audience of 1.3 million — the highest ratings BBC America has seen. Doctor Who also beat out Dexter and Modern Family to become 2011's most downloaded series on iTunes. ''It's not an obscure show anymore,'' says Moffat. ''It's not even 'a British import' — it's just 'Doctor Who.' ''

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