Television

Doctor Who and the Fandom of Fear

What happens when fans take over a franchise?

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Next year Doctor Who, the long-running British science-fiction serial, will return to television after an absence of 15 years. The people who are happiest about this are, naturally, the vast subculture that is Doctor Who fandom. But many of the same fans have greeted the news with foreboding, even though none of them has seen the new series and thus had a chance to be disappointed with it yet.

Why would someone be dismayed to learn that his favorite show is returning to the air? The answer should tell us something about the nature of pop culture, and the relationship between those who produce it and those who consume it.

Most people are fans of some cultural product or another: a football team, a soap opera, a rock band, a political party. But organized fandom is widely derided for its allegedly excessive devotion to trivial entertainments. Similar stereotypes used to dominate the academy, particularly among critics of capitalism and/or modernity, for whom the fan was the slack-jawed, brainwashed embodiment of consumer culture—the viewer who didn't merely swallow passively the pulp fictions produced by the culture industry, but centered a large part of her life around those same products.

Then some enterprising scholars started to study the way fandom actually functioned, and a very different view began to emerge. The key text in this shift was Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture, a 1992 book by MIT's Henry Jenkins. To the French theorist Michel de Certeau's contention that the television viewer "cannot write anything on the screen of his set" and therefore must be more sedate than the reader scribbling in the margins, Jenkins pointed to the lively worlds of fan fiction and fan filmmaking.

Far from being passive and uncritical, Jenkins wrote, "fans actively assert their mastery over the mass-produced texts which provide the raw materials for their own cultural productions… In the process, fans cease to be simply an audience for popular texts; instead, they become active participants in the construction and circulation of textual meanings." A fan-written story might fill a gap between televised tales; it might radically reconstruct the characters or the setting; it might deliberately contradict TV stories the writer dislikes. (Needless to say, this has led to some interesting battles over intellectual property.)

It used to be that you couldn't write about gay rights without someone suspecting that you're gay, and I suppose a similar handicap is still in place when it comes to writing about fandom. So for the record: From age 11 to age 13, I watched Doctor Who religiously. My attention faded after that, though some college friends briefly restoked my interest by showing me the intriguing final seasons of the series, in which the title character was played by Sylvester McCoy. (One of the conceits of the show is that the protagonist "regenerates" every few years, thus allowing a new actor to take over the role.) I haven't paid much attention to Doctor Who in the last decade and a half, but I still have a nostalgic fondness for it.

And nostalgia, apparently, is a central part of the show's appeal. "It's an odd television program in that it's very rare for someone to become a Doctor Who fan later in their life," says Alan McKee, a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Queensland who studies Doctor Who fandom (and is himself a self-described "Doctor Who obsessive"). A fan can be any age, he adds, "but they always start off younger. From the time its first audience started growing up, the history of Doctor Who has been fans condemning the program for not giving them what they want anymore. And of course what they want is the same experience they had as a child." The flipside would be viewers like me, who gave up on the show because we wished it would grow up a bit—and who briefly came back when the program showed signs of greater depth.

It's this mix of motives that makes the revived series such an interesting case study in fan behavior. It may be true, as most news accounts will tell you, that the original program ran from 1963 to 1989 and then left the air, reappearing only for a TV movie in 1996. But within fandom, the show hasn't been absent for the last 15 years at all—and not just because of the unofficial, semi-legal fan fictions that Jenkins described. The BBC has kept its franchise alive, licensing new Doctor Who novels, comics, animated webcasts, and even old-time-radio style audio dramas. To create these new adventures, it has turned, naturally, to the fan community.

As a result, the boundary between the official franchise and fan fiction—still firm among devotees of, say, The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer—has been blurred. To make matters even more confusing, some fans have produced and sold audio or video programs that, rather than starring themselves or their friends as the Doctor, star actors who actually played the Doctor on the BBC as Doctor-like beings dubbed "The Professor" or "The Stranger" or, in one case, "The Foot Doctor." (The latter appeared in a movie called Do You Have a License to Save This Planet?, in which the "Licensed Reality Corporation" attempts to banish our hero from "Accepted Canonicity.") Hardcore Doctor Who fans love to debate the "canon," which mostly boils down to disputing which wings of the new material "really" happened. Fans can, in essence, choose their own Who, with conservatives sticking to the old series or the more conventional new adventures and those with a taste for experimental fare picking up items like these:

• "Nothing at the End of the Lane"—a Phildickian tale that suggests the heroes' time-traveling adventures were a schizophrenic fantasy;

Mad Dogs and Englishman—a campy novel by a fairly well-known gay writer, in which the Doctor encounters Noel Coward, a race of talking pink poodles, and some magic pinking shears;

Who Killed Kennedy—a book that's pretty much what it sounds like.

The only one of these items that I've actually read is Who Killed Kennedy—the author put the text online—and it wasn't as fun as I'd hoped it would be. But the important point isn't whether all (or any) of the experiments were successful; it's that the franchise was open to radical reimaginings as well as retreads of the past. "There wasn't as much outrage about what the books and the audios were doing," McKee notes, "because the kind of people who would have been outraged didn't think these were really Doctor Who anyway."

Now a new show is pending that's indisputably Doctor Who—though there will surely be viewers who insist the show "really" ended in 1989. There are two things most fans know about the restored series: It will be produced by Russell T. Davies, and it will star Christopher Eccleston. Davies is openly gay, and his past credits include not just several Doctor Who novels but the series Queer as Folk; Eccleston has appeared in some rather dark films, including 28 days later… and Shallow Grave. Those few facts—Davies' homosexuality and both men's résumés—have been enough to raise some fans' hackles. "You have people getting really upset that Christopher Eccleston is being cast because he's 'not right' for the Doctor," says McKee, "that he's 'too dark' and 'too gritty' and he's going to spoil the program. Because he's not the kind of Doctor that they had when they were children."

And something else is going on here, a matter best expressed by one of the fans themselves—a fellow named Guy Clapperton, posting to the Usenet group rec.arts.drwho:

For the first 26 years in its history, [Doctor Who] was a TV series. Fans might have disliked individual players, objected to a couple of developments, whatever, but on the whole they'd accept what they were given because it /was/ Doctor Who. When the series stopped, this changed radically.

DW became, over a period of 14 years, a source of constant speculation. /If/ or /when/ it comes back, it'll be spectacular, they said, because it could do anything—it could be anyone, at any time, having exciting adventures. Of course the extension of this was that in our own heads everyone's private vision of /their/ Doctor Who became definitive. At any rate, this notion of infinite possibilities had a certain appeal and a whole generation has grown up with 'the possible Doctor' as their Doctor.[…]

…until 2003/4. On 26 September 2003 Russell T. Davies became the new face of DW until the main casting happened. The infinite possibilities that had hitherto been around had suddenly narrowed, and now that we know the identities of all of the writers they have narrowed even further. It's an actual series again and as such a generation of fans is slowly realising that this 'wow, we could do anything' ethos is being replaced by 'we are going to do this'. They're going to be stuck with 'This is the Doctor and companion and these are their stories.' And some of them are objecting.

By overshadowing all these competing Doctor Whos with a single canonical program, the BBC has enacted an enclosure of sorts. And because of that, the fans' options are being reduced.

Except that they really aren't. Fans who dislike the new series can stick with the old stuff, can produce their own unauthorized adventures, can simply move on to better things. One lucky fan, name of Davies, is even getting to run the program. ("Putting a fan in charge of producing a TV show is a really bad idea," says McKee, "unless it's Russell T. Davies. He is one of Britain's best scriptwriters and producers, and he's going to do a fantastic job.")

Nobody's choices are being constrained. All that's changed is the "official" Who narrative—and as Jenkins taught us, disgruntled fans have never allowed such petty barriers to stand in their way.

NEXT: Allies and Axis

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  1. How could there be no comments on a 12-year-old thread on Doctor Who?

    I was a very fringe fan when it was repeated on the local PBS station in the late 70s, early 80s.
    The Beeb’s sets were so low tech, the sound so muddy and the crappy TV with rabbit ears I used
    back then rendered watching it a bit of a chore. The new series are often quite good. Eccleston’s
    comment on his Norther accent was great. “Lots of planets have a North!”

    Kevin R

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