Doctor Who is now a global phenomenon, and the Doctor himself isn’t exactly from Bristol. Nevertheless, the show remains thoroughly British, and many fans from overseas might have trouble picking up the in-jokes and subtle cultural references. Subtle cultural references like Jammy Dodgers. Here’s our essential guide…
A biscuit (cookie) in which two layers of shortbread are stuck together with (you guessed it) a smear of raspberry jam.
It’s a British favourite, and it’s British through and through. As well as bearing a passing resemblance to the patriotic ‘Empire Biscuit’ (two layers of shortbread, jam filling but with icing/frosting on top) the name ‘Dodger’ comes from the long running children’s comic book The Beano.
The Beano is the home of the original Dennis the Menace, as well as the character ‘Roger the Dodger’, a witty wannabe con artist. Of course the ‘Artful Dodger’ was also the name of a pickpocket in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.
Fun fact: ‘Jammy’ is slang for ‘lucky’ in many parts of the UK. A sweet, lucky scamp who can talk his way out of anything? Remind you of anyone?
One half of Eleven’s favourite meal is breaded frozen fish, often served to children at teatime. You might call them ‘fish sticks’, which is more descriptive but less poetic.
The favourite of Tom Baker’s Doctor are sort of like Gummi Bears. Well, not really. Instead of bears they are shaped like, well, babies and instead of feeling like you are chewing on a pencil eraser, they are incredibly soft and delicious. According to legend, George Harrison once said he liked them, and from that point on Beatles fans would pelt them at the band every time they stepped on stage. This was fine in Britain, but in Jelly Baby-less America fans took to throwing the much, much harder Jelly Beans. Ouch.
Ostensibly Jelly Babies are fruit flavoured and citrussy, but really they taste of Jelly Baby. JBs are probably the dustiest sweet out there, and not just because they have been made for over 100 years. The Babies tumble out of the packet coated in white starch powder, covering your fingers and your face as you eat them. The ones featured on Doctor Who always look like they’ve had a bit of spit and polish before appearing on screen.
Who was that woman in Army of Ghosts, and why was she shouting at a ghostly Cyberman to “get outta my pub?” Well…
British soap operas are different to the rest of the world. While American soaps like Days of Our Lives are glossy escapism, Brits tend to crave gritty, depressing drama. The twin titans of British soap operas are EastEnders on the BBC and Coronation Street on commercial channel ITV. EastEnders is set in the rough East End of London, and many of its stories centre around the Queen Victoria pub.
Peggy Mitchell –played by Barbara Windsor, who also starred in the old Carry On films– was the long-serving landlady of the Vic, and was prone to banning people who annoyed her. “Get outta my pub” was a bit of a catchphrase. The ‘Den Watts’ for whom she mistakes the Cyberman was an old villain –nicknamed Dirty Den– who had died some years earlier. Of course, he was later revealed to have faked his death, which means that the Doctor Who scene no longer fits with EastEnders canon, which I’m sure is a massive issue for at least one person in the world.
This wasn’t the first Doctor Who crossover with the soap. The infamous 1993 story Dimensions in Time –produced for the charity event Children in Need– featured five of the Doctors materialising outside of the Queen Vic.
It…it wasn’t good.
On first seeing UNIT’s flying airship the Valiant, many Marvel comic book fans immediately thought ‘Helicarrier’. However, British nerds –and the Doctor– were more likely to think ‘Cloudbase’. This was the floating aircraft carrier that appeared in 1960s children’s show Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons.
Captain Scarlet was one of the many puppet shows from the legendary Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Their stable also produced such classics as Stingray, Joe 90 and the live-action Space: 1999. Their most famous accomplishment remains Thunderbirds, about a family who use amazing machines to rescue people in distress.
Thunderbirds has a worldwide audience, but it is a true phenomenon in Britain, where it has been repeated again and again for generation after generation of children. Tracy Island, the team’s (Earthbound) base, has been the must have Christmas toy in the 1960s, 90s and 2000s. A CG remake is currently showing on ITV, and there have been references peppered throughout Who history.
All of this is relevant in that not only are the Anderson shows well known, there were a lot of them, and sometimes even the Doctor gets confused. When the Doctor claims to be “Captain Troy Handsome of International Rescue” in the Lodger, he’s conflating Troy Tempest from Stingray and International Rescue from Thunderbirds. Most recently in Death in Heaven, the Doctor calling the Valiant ‘Cloudbase’ led to an incredibly nerdy discussion of the differences between all of the shows.
Are You Being Served?
Here’s proof that no matter how global Doctor Who gets, it will still be British at heart. During David Tennant’s visit to Manhattan in Evolution of the Daleks, he takes a lift (elevator) to the top floor. For no apparent reason, he then puts on a nasal voice and chirps “First floor, perfumery.”
This is a reference to classic British sitcom ‘Are You Being Served’, which was set in a department store. The first line of the theme tune went “Ground floor: Perfumery, stationery, and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery, kitchenware and food.”
Honestly, sometimes Doctor Who needs international subtitles.
Right, back to kids TV. When John Simm’s Master took some time off from being Prime Minister to watch daytime TV, international viewers probably recognised the Teletubbies and the “televisions in their stomachs”. But did you know? This scene was itself a reference back to The Sea Devils, when Roger Delgado’s Master also skived (bunked off? Is that the American phrase?) from his plans to watch …well, just look…
I’m curious, if you aren’t British, what do you think is happening here? For no apparent reason, the Master sits down and watches some pink woollen mice whistling on the moon. Then he starts whistling too. This continues for some time.
The mice are Clangers, and the show he is watching is called The Clangers. It was made by Oliver Postgate, a genius of children’s TV in the 1970s who also produced Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog and many childhood favourites. His contribution to British family television rivals even Doctor Who.
Trinny & Susannah
Americans might have recognised the curt Anne Robinson, former host of the Weakest Link, as the Anne-droid in Bad Wolf. But did non-Brits have any idea what was happening when two female robots stripped Jack of all his clothes (but not a carefully concealed gun)?
They were style gurus Trinny Goodall and Susannah Constantine, who used to be a fixtures on British screens with their series What Not to Wear. For a clothes show, it involved quite a lot of nudity.
Mitchell & Webb
Another pair of robots, another famous British duo. The bickering robots in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship were voiced by comedy partners David Mitchell and Robert Webb. They regularly appear everywhere from panel shows (comedy quizzes played by celebrities) to their own sketch series, but they are probably best known as the love/hate, self-loathing roommates in Peep Show.
If any good comes of this list, it is you tracking down and watching Peep Show.
They are not the first comedians to crop up in Doctor Who. Hale and Pace cropped up Survival, the final story before Doctor Who was suspended, although even Brits might struggle to remember this 1980s comedy duo. Ken Dodd, an old-school British comedian famous for one-liners and silly songs, also had a cameo two years earlier in Delta and the Bannermen.
The Doctor Who staff seem to have believed comedy cameos were the key to staying on air. They were wrong.
When UNIT need to explain the unexplainable to the public –such as the Tardis hanging from a crane in the Day of the Doctor– they apparently blame hypnotist/illusionist/sinister man with a goatee Derren Brown, famous for his shows on Channel 4.
Brown is good friends with Mark Gatiss, and he was also used as a red-herring explanation for Sherlock’s survival after plummeting from a rooftop in the third series of the sister show.
Scotland’s Star Whale
The Beast Below, Amy Pond’s first adventure on the Tardis, saw them travel to a version of the UK floating on the back of (spoiler warning) a giant space whale. But where were her fellow Scottish people? Apparently “they wanted their own ship.”
“Good for them,” Amy nods, “Nothing changes.”
This is a reference to the Scottish independence movement, which looks to separate from England, Wales and Northern Ireland and become an independent nation. Led by the Scottish National Party, who currently dominate the Scottish political landscape, the movement has been around for a long time. However it was only in 2014 that a vote on independence was held. Turnout was massive and 55 percent of Scottish people voted against independence in the referendum. Apparently opinion will have shifted by the 29th century.
In the Christopher Eccleston two-parter Aliens of London/World War Three, the Slitheen Prime Minister falsely claims London is under threat from a cloaked ship armed with ‘massive weapons of destruction’ that it can launch “within 45 seconds”. Did you ever wonder why he was so specific?
It’s a parody of the real-life run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A contentious claim at the time was that Saddam Hussein had WMDs capable of being launched within 45 minutes. This was later disproved amid accusations that a key dossier of evidence was “sexed up.” Claims in a BBC report led to a massive row between the corporation and the government, public enquiries and the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly.
The running joke about the BBC is that’s run by left-wing revolutionaries who are two shades short of Communism. These days that’s an unfair stereotype: the BBC is a massive institution run by people of all types and persuasions. However, the writing staff of Doctor Who in the 1980s really, really didn’t like Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher is a titanic figure in British politics, becoming the first and thus far only female Prime Minister was just the start of her history making. Dedicated to the free market, monetarism and selling national assets like the railways and telecoms into the private sector, she fought and mostly broke the unions, and instituted hugely controversial social policies. Her introduction of the so-called ‘Poll Tax’ led to rioting on the streets.
As is the way with such things, Maggie inspired some great art…and some not so brilliant Doctor Who scripts. The Happiness Patrol featured Sheila Hancock playing a thinly veiled caricature of Thatcher, ruling over a planet where everyone had to conform be constantly upbeat. (That creature she is stroking looks suspiciously like her Deputy Michael Heseltine.)
Apparently the enmity has continued, with David Tennant’s version of the Doctor once spitting “Margaret Thatcher. Ugh.”
Also, as yet another example of the nation’s sweet-tooth, in The Happiness Patrol the Doctor and Ace battle Kandy Man: a murderous robot made of sweets, based on the ‘Bertie Bassett’ logo for liquorice.
Oh boy, how long have you got?