Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, ready for action in the new series of Doctor Who. Photo: BBC/Ray Burmiston
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The global force of Doctor Who: what does Britain’s biggest cultural export tell the world?

In advance of Peter Capaldi’s debut as the Twelfth Doctor, the cast have been on a world tour, doing their duty to its global fandom. By exporting this British cultural institution, what are we saying about ourselves?

For the past few weeks, the Doctor has been circumnavigating the globe. Cardiff, London, Seoul, Sydney, New York, Mexico City, and wrapping up last night in Rio de Janeiro, Peter Capaldi is (literally) being introduced to the world in advance of his debut as the Twelfth Doctor. (Or wait, did we start over with the counting? How does John Hurt factor in again?) Capaldi’s first episode, “Deep Breath”, is getting a film-premiere-style event in Leicester Square on Saturday, which will be simulcast in hundreds of theatres around the world. The rest of us will watch it on plain old BBC One – or your local affiliate, in whatever country you live in. The world tour reflects the truly global reach of today’s Doctor Who, a show that now holds the record for “largest ever simulcast of a TV drama”, after 94 countries aired the 50th anniversary special at the same exact time last November.

If you follow Doctor Who on social media – and I cannot recommend their joyful and incredibly fan-positive Tumblr highly enough – then you’ve seen slices of the world tour: Capaldi and Jenna Coleman in increasingly sharp outfits, strange-looking lost-in-translation moments onstage (Capaldi doing a very shy version of the twist in South Korea; Capaldi holding a sombrero in Mexico), and, most importantly, endless queues of fans. Sonic screwdrivers and fezzes, long brown coats and rainbow scarves, Weeping Angels and Cybermen and TARDIS dresses that never fail to inspire my deepest envy – we saw pictures of crowds around the world all looking pretty much the same, united by their love of a single thing: a British cultural institution, half a century old now, but with the potential for endless regeneration.

It was a funny fact that a few years back, the BBC’s biggest foreign export was not the World Service, as one might have guessed (and hoped). It was Top Gear, with an estimated global audience of 350 million – and despite the local versions licensed and produced in dozens of countries, people around the world still seemed to prefer three ageing, dumpy Englishmen who thrive on bullying and cheap shots, a trio and about whom you can spend the whole episode guessing, “Just how racist/homophobic/misogynistic/xenophobic/deeply problematic is he really?” (I’m sorry, James! You are the lesser of three evils and I’ve always liked you best.)

Peter Capaldi in Cardiff on the first leg of the Doctor Who World Tour. Photo: BBC/Guy Levy

I was one of those foreign Top Gear viewers: watching it in long marathons on BBC America with friends, laughing as they regularly poked fun at themselves, I was largely unaware of the way the show was perceived in Britain until the Mexican fiasco – which was removed from the American broadcast, by the way – and the resulting backlash that trickled across the Atlantic. The paradox of Top Gear as a global phenomenon still puzzles me: to export the idea that general mean-spiritedness and casual, indiscriminate racism is some sort of hallmark of British humour – “But we take the piss out of everyone! That’s just how it’s done,” the BBC meekly protested after those abhorrent comments about Mexico – is a depressing concept at best.

Flash forward to 2014, and to a recent BBC Worldwide report that names Sherlock and Doctor Who as the broadcaster’s biggest exports of the past year. That worldwide simulcast of “The Day of the Doctor” – which aired in the evening here, so the middle of the night for points east and in the morning for points west – was a revolutionary moment in television history, a sign that in the era of immediacy, piracy isn’t the only option for an international audience. And Sherlock has been licensed to 224 territories worldwide; while the BBC were celebrating the record-breaking domestic audience of more than twelve million for “The Empty Hearse” in January, Chinese viewers were clocking five times as many views over the first two weeks alone.

But while both Doctor Who and Sherlock – and I see the James Bond franchise tossed onto this list a lot, too – are longstanding British cultural entities, I think that Doctor Who is unique among them. It’s not a set of oft-adapted characters, but a single show – the longest-running science fiction show in the world – about, ostensibly, the same single character. It’s pointless for me to patiently explain here, in a British publication, that everyone from 1963 onwards has “their Doctor”, many of them wrapped up with specific moments of childhood – but I have to say that as a foreigner, this is one of the most fascinating elements of the show in its original cultural context. I have a Doctor, too: Ten. I love his endless, useless apologies and the way he bounces around – but not too much. I love Rose and Donna and I especially love Martha Jones. But I came to Doctor Who through Torchwood (yeah I know, I’m sorry), via other fans of other things on LiveJournal and Netflix streaming and all the conventions of modern global fandom. I’ve never been hugely into sci-fi, so while plenty of Americans surely can, I can’t remember even having heard of the Doctor prior to five years ago. In the US, despite stellar cable ratings that go up with every regeneration, it’s still referred to as something like “that cult British sci-fi show”.

The Doctor Who World Tour in New York

The question of any cultural product and its relationship to national character can get very tedious very quickly. I doubt you want me to start hashing out, “Just how American is Captain America?” (…very?) But when culture is being exported and consumed by wildly diverse audiences, the question gets a bit more interesting. If the message of Top Gear as a massive cultural export was, “We’re the fools – but actually you’re the fools. Never mind, look at these stupidly expensive cars,” what’s the message of global Who? The British government thinks of its cultural exports as prime opportunities for soft-power diplomacy: with the recent news that the BBC was talking with the North Korean government about exporting programming, someone at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told the Sunday Times, “I have always believed that what brought down the Berlin Wall was not highbrow diplomacy but Dallas and Dynasty.”

Steven Moffat seems convinced that his shows are thriving in good part due to their national character. In advance of the 50th anniversary, he told the Guardian, “If you want to sell a show to the world, make it as British as you can.” Two months ago, he followed up:

When you’re exporting a show around the world, do you worry about how to appeal to other cultures? And I think the way to appeal to other cultures is to be your own culture, just to be yourself. And Americans like British shows. If they elect to watch a British show, they want it to be terribly British…The Britishness of Doctor Who is sort of irrelevant to Doctor Who because it takes place in all of time and space. Whatever is fundamentally British about that mad show, it’s just leaking onto the screen from the people that make it. It’s not a calculated thing. I’d have to concede that there’s something incredibly British about Doctor Who, but I couldn’t necessarily say what it is.”

It’s all a little vague – and certainly up for debate. Over dinner with an English friend last night, she confessed she’s found the recent iterations of Doctor Who to feel less and less British – but then, she acknowledged, the question of what that even means, in broader culture, is always shifting, particularly in the past few decades. And then there’s the question of Steven Moffat: as someone who spends a whole lot of time on Tumblr, I can tell you that his choices, in front of and behind the camera, aren’t winning him legions of progressive fans. Casting choices aside, the fact remains that no female writers have penned an episode since Moffat took the helm five years ago (a woman will – finally! – direct this series’ two-part finale, though). And Russell T Davies’ subtle (and not so subtle) efforts at diversity and inclusion have been largely absent in the Eleven era, cast aside in favor of big, twisty plotlines (most of which I enjoy and think make perfect sense, but I know I’m not always in the majority here).

But whatever you think of Moffat, it’s perhaps reassuring to know that he doesn’t really plan to warp the show to suit the global audience. Unlike the big American movie studios: take, for example, this recent NPR report on Transformers 4, a film I was warned off by everyone and their mother, which pandered to Chinese audiences – and the central government – in ways that no one seemed to find particularly entertaining. With BBC exports, the common worry seems to be that the United States will ruin things (a fair concern. Remember: I was a Torchwood fan) with clunky, watered-down remakes or some sort of demand for the sort of “Britishness” we’ve come to expect, something with butlers and tea and I’m not taking a shot at Downton, I swear.

The TARDIS lands in Rio de Janeiro

There will likely be the sense that with millions more fans around the globe, something integral to Doctor Who’s origins will be lost. But then, maybe not: one thing that I find pretty remarkable about the show is how it can work on a number of levels at once. Caitlin Moran once wrote that, “In a world where very little is a surprise, and everything is viewed with cynicism, Doctor Who is a genuine rarity. It represents one of the very few areas where adults become as unashamedly enthusiastic as children. It’s where children first experience the thrills and fears of adults, and where we never know the exact ending in advance.” And one of the great things about fandom (I acknowledge here that quoting Moran and writing positively about fans in the same paragraph is deeply ironic) is how personal it can be: if a show is working on many levels, perhaps it can work for everyone at once, in some small way.

Whatever you think of the current incarnation of Doctor Who, perhaps the greatest gift to the world is that, at its heart, the Doctor is a pacifist. He doesn’t just choose non-violence: he actively champions it. You can turn to Moffat, who’s spoken eloquently on this:

When they made this particular hero, they didn't give him a gun – they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn't give him a tank or a warship or an x-wing fighter – they gave him a box from which you can call for help. And they didn't give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat-ray – they gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts! And that’s an extraordinary thing.

Or perhaps you’d rather turn to Craig Ferguson, who was (amazingly) in a Glasgow punk band with Peter Capaldi in their youth. On a 2010 episode of his American late-night show, Ferguson opened with a kind of insane musical tribute to Doctor Who, ostensibly to introduce the show to an American audience before interviewing a very young Matt Smith. I highly recommend the whole thing, but perhaps these lyrics sum it up best:

One thing is consistent though
And this is why the show is so beloved by geeks and nerds
It is all about the triumph of intellect and romance
Over brute force and cynicism

When the news each day grows ever darker, those seem like the sort of values that any nation would be happy to export.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses