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Goodbye Matt Smith’s Doctor and Reading’s Jacksons: British Institutions and the End of an Era

December 21, 2013

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Anyone with an even passing interest in British television knows that on 25 December 2013, Matt Smith will cease to be the Doctor, with Peter Capaldi taking over the lead role in long-running programme Doctor Who. Meanwhile, anyone passing through Reading town centre in recent weeks knows that Jacksons, the long-established family-owned department store on the corner of Kings Road and High Street (known as Jacksons Corner), is due to close at the end of the year. What not too many people may know is that there is an interesting link between the two: whilst researching for a chapter on the transatlantic dimensions of Doctor Who, in which I argue that the programme is a British institution marked by significant links to and influences by North Atlantic television, I noticed in late 2011 that Jacksons was using a picture of Matt Smith as the Doctor in their window display for men’s fashion.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

Naturally, I decided to write about this in my chapter, in a section devoted to exploring the Britishness of Matt Smith, for which I draw on Barbara Selznick’s thoughtful work on the Britishness of Doctor Who. Selznick has suggested that ‘there are three familiar “brands of Britishness” in the US that are frequently attached to British media: heritage, cool, and eccentric’1 and argued that the 2005 Doctor Who reboot moved away from heritage and the eccentric and towards the cool, and that this contributed to its success in the USA. Tracing the trajectory of casting and Doctor construction from the days of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant to Matt Smith, I suggest that Smith’s Doctor shifts to the heritage and eccentric:

[I]ndeed, his old-fashioned-ness of dress is in itself eccentric, never more so than when he dons retro aviator goggles while repairing the TARDIS. In his bowtie-wearing and fish fingers and custard-cooking ways, Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is more closely connected to Tom Baker’s unorthodox, scarf-wearing and jelly babies-eating Fourth Doctor than he is to his reboot brethren.2

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

The current Doctor Who brings together the heritage and eccentric brand with the cool noticeably differently to the classic series, which, as Selznick has argued, experienced problems with US audiences because of how it was managing the brands at different points in time. For example, that Doctor Who’s cool themes did not appeal to US viewers during the early decades was furthered by the fact that ‘they were wrapped up in a heritage style text’.3 Contrary to Piers Britton’s reading (based on various media reports) that the Eleventh Doctor’s first costume is not cool,4 my chapter argues that the current version does not so much wrap up its cool themes in heritage, but, with Matt Smith’s Doctor wrapped (as it were) in an elbow-patched Harris tweed jacket, very explicitly reclaims and reconfigures heritage as cool.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

Indeed, that Matt Smith’s Doctor’s sartorial material of choice is Harris tweed, and that Jacksons used a picture of Smith clad in his jacket with the tag-line ‘He chose Harris Tweed. Why don’t you?’ is interesting and part of a wider cultural trend of reclaiming, where items previously deemed old-fashioned become retro-chic. With Harris tweed bearing strong heritage connotations and a somewhat ‘fusty’ reputation, but in recent years having been ‘rediscovered’ by fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Doctor Who’s explicit linking of heritage and cool was here tapped into by a shop that, with its still functioning pneumatic tube system and blog, was itself negotiating these two brands. While Selznick already sees much fluidity between the brands of Britishness through which she discusses the pre-Matt Smith Doctor Who, the current version arguably goes a step further in that it deliberately reclaims and rebrands these brands.

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Given that Doctor Who – budget issues and criticisms it has had to contend with under Steven Moffat’s stewardship notwithstanding – is set to enter a new important phase following its 50th anniversary year, but Jacksons is closing down after 138 years of trading, it seems that one of these British institutions managed this reclaiming and rebranding process much more successfully. It is by the quirks of timing that these endings are occurring just as the edited collection, Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era, to which my chapter belongs is coming out. While Doctor Who is set to continue its ‘negotiation of the discourses of connection and distinction, influence and resistance that have shaped it since its very beginning’,5 it remains to be seen how exactly the site soon-to-be formerly home of Jacksons will regenerate.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2013.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2013.

[1] Barbara Selznick, ‘Rebooting and Re-Branding: The Changing Brands of Doctor Who’s Britishness’ in Chris J. Hansen (ed.), Ruminations, Peregrinations, and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), p.69.

[2] Simone Knox, ‘The Transatlantic Dimensions of the Timelord: Doctor Who and the Relationships between British and North American Television’ in Andrew O’Day (ed.), Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (I. B. Tauris, 2013), p.113.

[3] Selznick, ‘Rebooting and Re-Branding’, p. 74; emphasis added.

[4] Piers D. Britton, TARDISbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who 
(I. B. Tauris, 2011), p. 104.

[5] Knox, ‘The Transatlantic Dimensions of the Timelord’, p.118-119.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2013.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2013.

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