Aug. 31, 2012 at 12:37 PM ET
Many people in America might not be familiar with the words "TARDIS" or "Dalek," but that number is shrinking as more viewers embrace "Doctor Who," a classic British science-fiction show turned U.S. cult hit. That means U.S. fans are clamoring for show-themed T-shirts and accessories, and are even DIY-ing their own until stores can meet demand.
“'Doctor Who' is the single most emerging property we saw at [San Diego] Comic-Con,” Cindy Levitt, vice president and general merchandise manager for the store Hot Topic, told TODAY.com. “There were so many DIY outfits; so many great dresses, knitted caps, and 20 different Tardis’!”
BBC America’s top rated show has become a pop culture hit in the United States since it returned to TV in 2005, resulting in increased demand for merchandise. According to BBC Worldwide’s Soumya Sriraman, last season was the number one downloaded series on iTunes in America, topping popular shows like “Modern Family” and “Glee.” “Doctor Who” also made history in July by becoming the first British TV show ever featured on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
For those of you wondering at this point what on Earth "Doctor Who" is, here's a short summary. The show follows an alien with two hearts simply called the Doctor who travels through time and space in a time machine called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) that looks like an old 1960s-style London police box on the outside but is actually much bigger on the inside (it has a swimming pool!). The Doctor has adventures with people he brings along, usually from Earth, who are known as his companions. Have I lost you yet?
You might now be at the point of wondering why you should care, so maybe this will grab your attention: According to Sriraman, “Doctor Who” has become the second most requested brand behind “Star Wars,” beating out science-fiction favorites like “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica.” That's big news for the sci-fi geeks in your life, and should be surprising to you, since those other franchises have resulted in blockbuster successes.
Her Universe, a company dedicated to creating clothing for the female science-fiction fan, ThinkGeek, a website with products for "technophiles and geeks," and Hot Topic have all seen more consumers asking for "Doctor Who" items. Actress Ashley Eckstein, founder of Her Universe, has been surprised by the interest.
“I never thought I would see it grow this much,” the 30-year-old entrepreneur told TODAY.com. “Girls would come up to me saying they wanted ‘Doctor Who’ shirts and I didn’t know how I could make it work logistically with the BBC in London.”
Luckily, Eckstein didn’t have to cross the pond to try to get the rights to make “Doctor Who”-themed T-shirts, because the BBC approached her.
“Ashley was a natural choice. She has a pulse on this demographic and on knowing what girls want,” Sriraman said. “We knew from our research that ‘Doctor Who’ was drawing in a lot more women.”
When Her Universe started selling “Doctor Who”-themed T-shirts, they completely sold out the first day. And they’re not the only ones seeing a huge response from fans: “Doctor Who” is one of ThinkGeek’s top brands, and the only one where items are bought by just as many women as men, according to the website's press manager, Steve Zimmerman.
Zimmerman believes a British influence on U.S. pop culture and products is not new, citing examples like the “The IT Crowd” and “The Office.”
“Either we're enjoying the British version of the shows or are remaking it in our own way; the influence is still there,” he said. “The fact that a show like ‘Doctor Who,’ which has such a long legacy, is doing well here is great for helping to increase exposure to science-fiction as a whole.”
With the premiere of season 7 on BBC America this Saturday, “Doctor Who” fever is sweeping the nation. At the New York City premiere screening at the Ziegfeld Theater last week, many fans were dressed like the Doctor or his companions, and even more sported T-shirts with sayings from the show. One girl excitedly talked about finding her T-shirt at Hot Topic, which led to a growing crowd that wanted to chime in about where they bought their T-shirts and which store had the best variety.
“We’re going to continue to grow this brand, which has been around for 50 years,” Sriraman said. “We see no signs of stopping it from becoming mainstream.”
Lisa Granshaw is a producer for TODAY.com and a proud Whovian who is counting down the hours to the season 7 premiere.