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7 things in ‘Doctor Who’ only British people will understand

How to explain Disney+’s iconic new addition to your American friends

Written by
Jon Hornbuckle
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Geronimo! Doctor Who is coming to Disney+ and international newcomers are set to be bamboozled by the time-travelling alien’s love for eccentric British tropes.

In a nutshell, Doctor Who follows a Time Lord who can travel across space and time thanks to his TARDIS (‘Time and Relative Dimension in Space’), a time machine disguised as an old British police box.

On his adventures, the Doctor and his companions have encountered real-life historic figures like Queen Victoria and Vincent van Gogh, with cameos from bona fide Hollywood stars Andrew Garfield, Olivia Colman and Daniel Kaluuya.

Ahead of its return in 2023 for a 60th anniversary celebration, here’s the lowdown on seven British references in Doctor Who that might leave Americans perplexed.

Jammie Dodgers

Doctor Who’s charm is its ability to blend gut-wrenching emotion and genuine thrills with lighthearted stupidity that wouldn’t be found on the more serious sci-fi series.

Jammie Dodgers are a favourite snack of the Doctor's
ShutterstockJammie Dodgers are a favourite snack of the Doctor's

Case in point: Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor tricked longtime foes, the Daleks, into thinking a Jammie Dodger biscuit was a self-destruct button for his TARDIS. For the sake of international viewers as clueless as the murderous Daleks, a Jammie Dodger is a shortcake biscuit with raspberry flavoured jam filling. Delicious with a cuppa (aka cup of tea). 

Winston Churchill

The Doctor has encountered many real-life historic figures throughout his travels across space. Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill has tallied up four appearances. In Doctor Who lore, Churchill and the Doctor have a strong friendship, although their meetings are often out of chronological order for the Prime Minister. If you’re new to that era of British history, Churchill is the balding dude with the cigar in Darkest Hour.

Fish fingers

But wait, fish have fins not fingers! Yes, you’re right. In Britain, fish – typically cod, sometimes less distinguishable marine life – can find itself shaped into a ‘finger’ shape and coated with breadcrumbs.Often served with baked beans and chips (fries, not crisps), they’re devoured by the Doctor with a very peculiar side dish: custard. We do not recommend trying this at home.

Fish fingers are best served without the custard
ShutterstockFish fingers are best served without the custard

Bow ties

The ‘suave gentleman’ look is a quintessential British trait, with a long history of tailors that has defined fashion for centuries and long predates Guy Ritchie’s filmmaking career. Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor almost always sported a bow tie, a fashion accessory that has its origins in 17th century Europe and so rarely adorns US TV protagonists, it feels like it needs explaining. Other Anglo accessories in the Doctor’s wardrobe have included an oversized multicoloured scarf, braces and waistcoats.

Strictly Come Dancing

If you’re an American newcomer to the show, Doctor Who will provide you with the whistle stop tour of British light entertainment you didn’t know you needed.

For someone often battling for the survival of our universe, the Time Lord finds plenty of time to watch – and namecheck – other British telly staples.

Listen out for references to EastEnders (angry cockneys in the pub), Strictly Come Dancing (celebs doing the tango, wildly popular, better known as ‘Strictly’) and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here (think Survivor, only with D-listers).

Strictly Come Dancing is often mentioned in Doctor Who
Guy Levy / BBCStrictly Come Dancing is often mentioned in Doctor Who

Police phone box

International Doctor Who fans visiting the United Kingdom and hoping to encounter a real-life police box like the Doctor’s TARDIS will be disappointed. Few and far between these days, the trademark blue structure first popped up in Glasgow in 1891, allowing patrolling officers to keep in touch with HQ. The US equivalent would be a time-travelling police precinct. 

Police boxes like the one seen in Doctor Who are now a thing of the past
Chris Jenner / ShutterstockPolice boxes like the one seen in Doctor Who are now a thing of the past

Tea

While tea has its origins in Asia, the UK has been one of the world’s largest tea consumers since ‘the cuppa’ first arrived in the 17th century. Newcomers should expect Doctor Who to make lots of jokes about the British reliance on tea during moments of stress. Jackie Tyler offers daughter Rose a cup of tea during an alien invasion and in a later episode, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor was healed from the vapour of a spilled flask of tea. NB it’s served hot, not ‘iced’.

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