When you're a small network like BBC America, it's rare that you're able to do something like crash MovieTickets.com by offering tickets to see one of your shows in a movie theater. But when the network issued tickets to Doctor Who for a nominal fee ($1.11, including all the service charges), tweeted about them until fans were worked into a frenzy, and then sent a link out to the MovieTickets page, the service promptly stuttered to a halt for many users. Hours later, scalpers went to work on Craigslist.
BBC America is in the odd position of having access to a bona fide hit, but not a giant marketing apparatus that can force-feed it to you through your eyeballs. It gets plenty of ad support, but can't compare with, for example, HBO all but airdropping leaflets explaining how rabid Game of Thrones fans will storm your apartment and kidnap your cat if you don't tune in on Sunday. Any American fan service (the show has a vast following in the U.K. and Americans mostly content themselves with imported Who merchandise) is not just cause for celebration, but something on the order of a papal visit. Since its 2010 Christmas special, the series has run day-and-date with the U.K., so the premiere lands Sunday, Sept. 1, at 9 p.m.
Thus, last Saturday, hordes of admiring fans swamped the biggest movie theater in the most densely populated city in the country, screaming the names of British actors Matt Smith and Karen Gillan as they emerged from a DeLorean. It's the seventh season of the revived show, which has technically been running since 1963, making it far and away the longest-running scripted show on the air. It's also spawned generations of geeks—there are jokes about The Simpsons' fortysomething Comic Book Guy loving the show in episodes of that series from the early '90s.
BBC America doesn't often pull in more than 1 million total viewers, but it's consistently done so with Who. The network learned a surprising lesson last year when it tried a similar stunt—simply giving away tickets at the movie theater—and more than 1,000 people showed up for the 850 seats, some in full-blown Tom Baker gear, others in more reserved David Tennant garb. This time, the theater was pre-filled with folks who'd come from all over to see their favorite show inflated to huge proportions (and hey, it's sci-fi, so it plays pretty well on the Ziegfeld's gigantic screen).
Post-screening, Chris Hardwick hosted a Q&A with Smith, Gillan and producer Caroline Skinner, asking for a round of applause for Neil Armstrong to start things off (he got it in spades). As with most sci-fi fans, Whovians are surprisingly good secret keepers (remember how people were actually surprised and upset that a major character died at the end of the first season of Thrones? Fantasy nerds have had more than 15 years to spoil that one for you), and Hardwick sort of explained why:
"Other people who didn't put in the time, who didn't make it in—you don't want to tell them what happened!"
Smith agreed. "Revel in your power," he suggested.
Oh, they will. If there's one thing the fans liked more than actually seeing the episode, it appeared to be the feeling that a part of it, however small, belonged to them for the moment.
"You guys getting out of a DeLorean is the front page of Reddit, like that!" Hardwick laughed. He was right.