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British culture is just different. From their comedy to their drivers’ seats to their homophobic cigarettes – everything they do just seems a little bit off to Americans. With some things, like driving on the clearly inferior side of the road, the differences detract. With others, however, the differences – when embraced – climb to a level beyond anything we experience here in the US.
If you’ve ever found yourself in front of your television at 7 am on a , you may have come across an English Premier League match on . Even if you’ve no interest in European football or don’t understand the rules of the game, one thing likely stood out to you, even in your exhausted stupor: the crowd noise. Like human vuvuzelas, the crowd noise never stops. The fans’ passion compels them to sing and chant for all 90 minutes. Spurred on by pints of Carlsberg and Boddingtons, fans vocalize their support in ways that would literally kill the average Laker fan. Why do they behave this way? Why do these football clubs engender such passion in their fans? Because after a 38 match season, it could all be taken away. Alternatively, you may have found yourself in front of your computer at 4 am on a and stumbled across the BBC series Doctor Who on Netflix Watch Instantly. This classic British TV show from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s was reborn in 2005 and has captured a generation of new fans both in England and the US. Admittedly, Doctor Who is much harder to explain to someone unfamiliar with it than European football. Suffice it to say, it is a science fiction show about a man who travels through both time and space with attractive and/or funny companions . What’s most interesting about this show isn’t the plot lines, the relationships, or the harrowing adventures of the Doctor. It’s the structure and continuity of the show itself. Counting both the classic and new series, the show has run for 32 seasons over the course of almost . Unlike the Doctor, the actors playing him age and move on to other things. In fact, 11 different actors have . When the time comes for the actor to move on from the show and be replaced, the Doctor “regenerates”, and the story continues seamlessly. The character maintains his memories, abilities, and awareness; only his appearance changes. This transition between actors playing the same exact character isn’t all that common in American . When actors want to leave a show, their characters fall down an elevator shaft, get kidnapped by North Koreans, or marry someone in a foreign land, and the show moves on . Recasting does occur, but almost never with the main (titular) character of the show. So why are Doctor Who fans so passionate about such a tenuous relationship? Why is a show with a constantly changing main character so beloved by fans around the globe? No show since Star Trek has had fans quite this…fanatical. Why is their love of the show so personal? Because in a single moment, their Doctor could be .
Relegation is the most beautiful, equitable, and terrifying construction in sports. At the end of the each season, the three teams at the bottom of the standings are moved to a lower-tier league. The three teams at the top of that league are promoted to take their place. Imagine if the Kansas City Royals were sent down to AAA last year, and the Tucson Sidewinders were promoted in their place. Imagine if the Charlotte Bobcats were relegated to the SEC and the Kentucky Wildcats replaced them in the Eastern Conference. Imagine if Mike “The Situation” was sent down to The Real World: Detroit and Johnny Bananas was promoted to take his rightful place in the Jersey Shore house. Relegation is awesome. It keeps the league from having perpetual cellar dwellers. It makes the race to avoid falling just as exciting as the race to win it all. Relegation adds more fun to the fun and games of football. Until it happens to you. I’ve been an Aston Villa fan for six years now. Once upon a time the club threatened to break into the top four of the EPL standings. But after a string of top half finishes, Villa has fallen off a cliff and faces a real threat of going down. I don’t enjoy the thought of Villa being relegated, because for me, it would mean I’d never get to see them on television. For fans in England, relegation is a shame they will carry for an indeterminate amount of time. Maybe they’ll get lucky and their club will bounce right back up to the top-flight like Newcastle. Or maybe their club will hang around in the lower division long enough that people forget the side used to be in the Premier League at all. Fans of Reading, Birmingham, West Ham, Leeds, and Portsmouth know this pain and have likely faced the ultimate fan conundrum. Do they pick a Premier League side to follow, or do they avoid club bigamy and stay strong despite the pain involved with following a second-tier team? This pain isn’t caused by a lack of televised games or public ridicule. It’s caused by the absence of the spectacle. The EPL is one of the greatest sports leagues in the world. To be a part of it and are now be separated indefinitely combines the most painful emotions in the human arsenal: regret, anger, sadness, and hopelessness. It’s a pint of depression only an Englishman could stomach. But the fans of three clubs drink it down year after year.
The pain of loss isn’t unique to sports fans though. Whovians, the less drunk but equally passionate television version of soccer football hooligans, know this pain as well.
Doctor Who, or any BBC show for that matter, doesn’t hook you upon first viewing. It takes at least a few episodes for an American to get used to the style, format, accents, euphemisms, curse words, etc. After a few episodes of orientation though, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by the show’s incredible scope and infinite . The Doctor and his companion travel across the whole of time and space battling aliens, rescuing historical figures, and saving entire races of beings all with trademark British wit and humor. With such a vast canvas on which to create, a show like Doctor Who needs two things to remain grounded: tremendous writing and a compelling protagonist. Doctor Who does not disappoint on either front. The show’s dialogue is sharp, humorous, and poignant. Each story seamlessly blends an episode-long adventure with the season-long arcs. Doctor Who viewing sessions are either a single episode or an entire season. Rarely does one fall in between. You can sit down and watch the show like a . Or you can get sucked into the over-arching plots and compulsively watch episode after episode until those plots are resolved. The writing and the stories are just half of the picture however. The real selling point of the show is the Doctor himself. Three actors have played the role since the show returned to television. Each one has brought his own signature style while maintaining the essence of the . Each of the three brought a different mix of wit, humor, and aggression to the Doctor. Through this unique portrayal each gained a legion of fans who identified him as their own. This is where the pain begins. Two groups of fans have had to say goodbye to their Doctor already, and the third will someday. A blinding light appears and one man’s face fades away while another’s comes into view. In that moment, all the emotions of both loss and gain are experienced simultaneously. And then the moment is passed. Life, the show, and the fans all move on.
So why does the relegation-promotion system exist? Why does the Doctor regenerate instead of opting for re-runs and syndication? Because the institution is more important than any one club or man. Doctor Who is 32 years old which is 128 in Television years. The Premier League is a part of The Football League which has existed for 124 years. These institutions are as much a part of British culture as afternoons in the pub and “God save the Queen.” Through globalization, the internet, and nerds (both sports and sci fi), both football and Doctor Who have spread to America and beyond. More importantly, the passion with which these icons are embraced has spread along with them. Sure football hooligans and Whovians aren’t nearly as common here in the States, but we’ve reached a point where diehard fans of both football and the Doctor from both sides of the Atlantic are from one another. So why do these methods for heartbreak still exist when fandom is arguably at an all-time high? Why do audiences tolerate the constant threat of an era-ending transition? Because continuity and quality supersede everything else. If Doctor Who was cancelled when the first Doctor left the show, it would never have become what it has. I would have never seen an episode and multiple generations would be bereft of this cultural common ground. If the top flight of The Football League had been the same 20 teams for its entire history, it wouldn’t be compelling in the least. The major clubs would have risen to the top and the lesser clubs would dwell near the bottom in perpetuity. Sure the same clubs seem to be at the top each year, but the new blood the league is infused with each and every season keeps the standings interesting and keeps the smaller clubs hungry. Without the turnover of actors and clubs, neither entity would be as compelling, endearing, or culturally dominating as it is.
The price for this level of quality and relevance is paid with each new season and each new Doctor. Three teams move down, three more move up. One man fades away, and another appears in his place.
The idea of the institution being more important than any one team or actor is quite foreign to Americans. Personal sacrifice for the purpose of quality control won’t find its way into any of our four major sports or network television any time soon. The NBA would be at least five percent more compelling without the Bobcats and their record-breaking . And the door swings both ways as Charlotte would definitely benefit from a year in . Would some of our favorite shows still be on the air if the networks were willing to risk it all on recasting? The powers that be here in the States would never threaten their own bank accounts in the interests of quality. As a national audience of fans, we are no better. Our cultural interests are incredibly fleeting, and our fandom is constantly teetering on the verge of apathy. Could we learn something from the Brits? Could their appetite for and rekindle our love of all that we now only casually embrace? Our version of permanence is really just a fear of change. But fear is a human emotion, maybe the most human of them all. By excluding fear from the equation we have on some level lost our ability to care deeply.
There is a moment in the episode “The End of Time” just before David Tennant disappears and Matt Smith arrives in his place, where the Doctor exclaims, “I don’t want to go.” This is the saddest and most poignant moment of the episode and possibly Tennant’s entire run as the Doctor. In that moment you could tell that the story, the portrayal, and perhaps Tennant’s own feelings coincided in one true moment of humanity. Having played the Doctor for four seasons, I’m quite sure Tennant was apprehensive about leaving the show, just as his character was unhappy about his impending . For the audiences who connected with a certain Doctor, it’s not as though the actor following in his footsteps will be a disappointment. The character is so charming and well-written that one can’t help but connect with him. There will be a small part of every fan’s heart, however, that will always belong to their Doctor and will wish for just one more trip with him in the TARDIS.
In the same way, once all 38 matches have been played and a club’s point total has come up wanting, relegation must feel gut wrenching for the players, manager, owners, and especially the fans. It must feel like something you never really owned, but loved with all your heart nonetheless, was pried from your clenched hands. The despair of knowing your club is going down isn’t something alleviated by the off-season. It’s a pain that can only be dulled with time. The beauty of sports, however, is second chances. David Tennant will never be the Doctor again, but your club can rise to their previous place. Hope springs eternal on the pitch. It might take a single season or an entire generation, but promotion is only ever 38 matches away. As for Whovians, there comfort is in the character. Whereas players, managers, and owners come and go in sports, the Doctor isn’t threatened by time. He's always there, waiting, hoping you have a baby who hates you, so you can join him on another adventure.
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