Triumph of a Time Lord (Part One): An Interview With Matt Hills

For the past decade or so, I have had people come up to me and treat me as though I were an expert on Doctor Who. This is because I co-authored a book with Doctor Who expert John Tulloch (Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text) called Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. I provided the sections on American Star Trek fans and Tulloch wrote the sections on British and Australian fans of Doctor Who. I hate to say it but I really didn’t like the classic Doctor Who very much, though my wife and son were hardcore fans. My son dressed up as Jon Pertwee when he was a wee lad, much to the confusion of our midwestern neighbors who had never heard of the actor before. But when Doctor Who returned, I fell hard — again, perhaps not as hard as my wife and son — but hard enough.

So, I reached out to my friend and colleague Matt Hills of the University of Cardiff to share with us a British fan’s insights into what has happened to the new series. Wisely, I let my wife and son frame the questions. Hills wrote Fan Cultures which is perhaps the most important new book on fandom since… hmm, what was the name of that book again. There’s a conversation between the two of us about generations of fan studies in my new book, Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers, and as you will learn below, he is now hard at work on a new book about the Doctor. So what follows taps Hills’s special expertise as a fan and academic obsessed with this particular series.

I am going to run this interview, which is quite long (no doubt a shocking development for readers of this blog) but also quite rich, in two installments. This part focuses heavily on the relationship of the new series to its long-time fans, reading the new Doctor Who as a prime example of what happens when the fans take over the franchise. Along the way, there are lots of minor spoilers so for those of you who have not seen the second season, read this at your own risk. I don’t think there are any fatal spoilers here but it’s death by papercuts. And in any case, the more you know the individual episodes, the more you are going to get from his more specific comments.

Tell me a little about your relationship to the series and how you came to be

writing a book about the new production.

I’ve been a fan of the series since I was at least three years old – according to family stories, I used to be quietly absorbed in watching long before I learnt to talk! So, I suppose I’ve been a fan longer than I can actually consciously remember. My earliest proper memories of the show are of watching ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ on its original transmission, and ‘The Deadly Assassin’, both of which must have made a big impression. Davros really did terrify the younger me, even in ‘Destiny of the Daleks’. And Tom Baker’s eventual departure in ‘Logopolis’ formed a major part of my childhood emotional life…

As for how I came to be writing this book about the ‘new’ (2005–) series – Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the 21st Century - well, it was really just something I felt I had to do, given my previous work on fandom and science fiction TV, and my love for the show.

I was fortunate enough to get the chance to discuss the idea, however briefly, with Russell T Davies. He was absolutely supportive, and welcomed the notion that scholars might want to study the programme’s latest version.

One interesting snag, though, is that because I’m not doing the book as an official BBC publication, BBC contracts apparently mean that production personnel are not able to grant me interviews. This is what I’ve been led to believe, anyway. It seems to be a very different situation, and a very different moment, to when John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado were writing Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text back in 1983 – they interviewed a wide range of then-current and former production personnel. It strikes me that right now, something like Doctor Who, especially with the success it’s had, is much more intensely about information control and ‘brand management’ than it ever was before. It’s almost as if there is a kind of info-war taking place – sometimes between the lines, and sometimes bursting into full view – between producers, fans and academics.

So, this book will probably have to be written without behind-the-scenes access, which is a shame in a way – but it’s not as if working from ‘the text’ has ever stopped academics before: there’s still masses of interesting things to be said about the new show and its audiences from different kinds of media studies perspectives.

I’ve ended up working with I.B. Tauris because of their excellent track record in publishing books on US and UK cult/quality TV: I’ve contributed to their books about Angel and a forthcoming one on CSI, and they’ve also done things like Reading the Vampire Slayer and Reading Desperate Housewives – spot the trend in titles! I wanted to avoid ‘Reading’ in my own title, though: it sounds a little limiting. And as I argued in Fan Cultures (2002), my very dense first book, being a fan is about so much more than ‘reading’ a beloved TV series. By now, I think ‘reading’ is a rather old-school academic concept or metaphor for what we all do in relation with television shows.

I.B Tauris have also recently published James Chapman’s excellent study Inside The Tardis, which focuses on the ‘classic’ series of Doctor Who. My own book will be a little more theoretical than James’s: he begins, only semi-humorously, by likening cultural theorists to Daleks and Cybermen, which I find truly astonishing. For me, ‘theory’ isn’t ever going to be the monster of the piece. I begin my manuscript by suggesting that the ideals and politics of media theory – which often involve championing the underdog and challenging systems of power – are actually really much closer to the ideals of the Doctor himself. And in any case, Who fan writers and luminaries such as Paul Cornell, Lawrence Miles, and Tat Wood have been making very interesting use of so-called ‘theory’ in their work for years. Like the best of their writings, I’m aiming to provoke fandom, and sometimes challenge received wisdoms, but not disappear up my own fundament at the same time (hmmmm, famous last words, there!).


From the perspective of American fans of Doctor Who, the past decade has been something of a black hole with relatively limited new content. Yet, in the United Kingdom, Doctor Who was kept alive in various ways – from radio broadcasts and books directly based within the franchise to a variety of media projects which were thinly veiled references to the Doctor. Can you describe something of this process?

This seems to have been dubbed ‘the wilderness years’ by some fans: basically, the period between the original show’s cancellation in 1989, its all-too-brief return in 1996, and then on through to 2005. From my perspective as a UK fan, the TV show may have been off-air, but the franchise (if we’re going to call it that) was always active. Some of the best stories ever produced have, arguably, actually happened in original Who novels and audios – things like Paul Cornell’s Human Nature or Rob Shearman’s Chimes of Midnight. It’s not at all surprising that the new television series, in episodes such as ‘Dalek’ and ‘Rise of the Cybermen’/'Age of Steel’ has occasionally taken inspiration from these other imaginings of the Doctor.

I’d hazard the observation that the series of Virgin novels really helped, if not forced, Doctor Who to develop beyond its original TV series format and limitations (and yes, despite the fan belief that Who is the ultimate flexible TV format, it clearly does have, and has had, its limits…). And in a sense, that growth was one of the most important things ever to happen to the programme. The fact that it has more emotional depth and resonance in its latest production may be partly down to contemporary changes in TV drama, and partly down to Russell T Davies’s less stridently gendered vision for the show, but I’d say it also has a lot to do with what happened to Doctor Who when it was off-air, and when a generation of writers who (mostly) loved the programme sought to address the limits and blind-spots of the original TV series, as well as just having fun with the characters.

Along with the Virgin novels, and the later BBC range – which, for me, really took off with the arrival of Lawrence Miles’s stunningly revisionist Alien Bodies - there’s also been the ongoing Big Finish series. These were all licensed Who products, created by fan-professionals for fan-consumers. And there were also the more tangential Who-based dramas that you refer to – often taking place without the character of the Doctor, and featuring various more-or-less surrogate characters such as ‘The Stranger’ (not much of a leap there) or Lockwood, both in assorted BBV productions. Fan producers are continuing to make some great Who-based dramas: for example, Magic Bullet have done a few audios featuring Sutekh (Gabriel Woolf). And this has produced a rather odd paradox whereby it’s the less clearly Who-branded fan product which explicitly refers to old Doctor Who monsters, while the official series has used the same voice artiste (Gabriel Woolf) but has only very vaguely implied any possible continuity going back to Sutekh. It’s a reversal of what you might expect – namely, that the ‘official’ show would exploit and explicitly name its continuity references, whilst the slightly more tangential fan products would be forced to make veiled references. Instead, the official series has started to favour these sorts of thinly veiled mentions, whether to Davros or Sutekh, really as a way of winking at long-time fans without alienating the newer audience.

It can be very instructive to watch some of the fan-produced videos from around the time of the ‘wilderness’ years alongside the new series. Auton and Auton 2 are currently available as reissued DVDs: while each is a highly worthwhile watch, they absolutely depend on the detailed continuity surrounding their monster. By contrast, the use of the same foe in ‘Rose’ is played out as pure iconography rather than continuity. The Autons are brought back for their immediate visual impact – and to hark back to older audiences’ nostalgic memories of the programme’s ‘golden age’ – not for any continuity-fest. They aren’t even named in the episode. Again, though you might expect the new series to capitalise on its continuity, this has been handled very, very carefully right from the outset.

‘Continuity’ has almost become a dirty word, as if any strong continuity back to the original series is a step too far, or instant continuity-porn. The series isn’t afraid to exploit its icons – its strong visual images such as monsters’ appearances or the look of K-9 – but this imagery has consistently taken precedence over continuity. I’m almost tempted to suggest that Elisabeth Sladen’s wonderful reappearance as Sarah Jane Smith would never have happened if the actress had, today, been virtually unrecognisable as her former self. Fortunately for the story ‘School Reunion’, Lis Sladen today looks uncannily like Lis Sladen from 1970′s Doctor Who. Just like the Daleks, Cybermen and K-9, there was no call for a radical change of look: iconography, and the pull of nostalgia, again won out over excessive continuity. Of course, once the production team start bringing back the likes of Peter Davison and Tom Baker – both of whom now appear quite different to their time on the show – then my argument won’t hold, but I can’t imagine either happening any time soon! The moment Tom appears will be the moment the show tips over into pleasing its long-term fans rather than looking for a mainstream, mass audience…

Some have suggested that the new series represents fans taking over the franchise. Russell T. Davies comes out of fan culture. Where does his fannish side come through most loudly in the current series?

I think the argument that the show has undergone a fan take-over is an absolutely compelling one: it’s a case of what you’ve called ‘textual poachers’ – fans outside the official production process doing their unlicensed and supposedly less ‘legit’ things with a show – becoming a whole new generation of ‘textual gamekeepers’. I would guess that that process has some precedents (even in relation to the ‘classic’ series of Who), but I’m not sure it’s ever quite happened as thoroughly as with this latest version. All sorts of people working on the programme have professed their fandom, including producer Phil Collinson, whose fan credentials have come to the fore through such things as the podcast/web-based episode commentaries he’s participated in. The majority of new series writers have also been fans of various stripes, so it’s not at all something restricted to Russell T. Davies – though, of course, he has always been incredible vocal about his Who fandom, even down to using clips from ‘Pyramids of Mars’, and the K-9 prop in Queer as Folk (not to mention the series’ less-than-realist and Who-indebted ending).

You might expect fans, who are also major industry players, taking over a show to lead to obvious differences. I’m not sure that it has. Certainly, as I’ve already started to indicate, it hasn’t lead to a massive surge in constant continuity references. I think the fannishness that now underpins the programme has emerged, if at all, in two ways: in the manner in which the old show’s shortcomings have been critiqued, and in the tendency to settle, at the same time, for a new formula.

Updating a TV series – changing it, reinventing it – can involve responding to perceived failings or problems with “the original”. In that sense, I’d say that new Who is very much its own ‘critical reading’ of the classic series. Though ‘reading’ may be limited as a academic metaphor, it does accurately capture some of what media producers do when they give ‘notes’ on a script, or when they think about how to build on a show’s previous successes and failures. Russell T Davies doesn’t need media studies or TV studies to tell him that there were things that didn’t work in old Who: he already knows that instinctively as a dramatist, and communally as a fan.

How has the new series criticised the format of the old?

Firstly, by suggesting that the Doctor’s companions don’t just walk out of their existing lives to travel with him, but bring some baggage and prior human connections with them. This is a challenge to many basic assumptions made in the old show, where ‘companions’ were usually just that: an allocated role in the script of the day, typically devoid of any human back-story which played an active role in the Doctor’s ongoing adventures (after their introductory tale or first few stories, anyway).

Secondly, by recalling that the Doctor travels in time. Watching the old series, you would be forgiven for thinking that this was merely a device for getting the character into different adventures: time-travel was featured as an integral part of the story only relatively rarely, and in the 1996 TV Movie it was reduced to little more than a narrative cop-out.

A certain Douglas Adams remembered that Doctor Who was ostensibly about a time-traveller when he contributed ‘The City of Death’, but in later years this was hardly the norm. And though the UK fan response to series one’s ‘Aliens of London’ has been less than ecstatic in some quarters, the pre-credits sequence for this episode has been, for me, the sharpest and most thrilling of the new series. Like Douglas Adams at his creative best, it remembered that time-travel could be a downright tricky – if not absurdist – business. In fact, this opener, and the Eccleston Doctor’s uncomfortable apology to Rose for his bungling, seem just as much of a tribute to Adams as did the entirety of ‘The End of The World’. The most likely inheritor of Adams’s crown as Who-genius and sci-fi humorist, Steven Moffat, also puts time-travel narratively and emotionally at the heart of his series two contribution, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, and Paul Cornell’s tear-jerking ‘Father’s Day’ does likewise in series one. Some fans may feel that Doctor Who is ‘less sci-fi’ than it used to be – i.e. there are fewer alien worlds and societies – but in terms of its use of time-travel as a story driver, rather than a handy device, it has possibly never been more convincingly science-fictional than it is now!

And thirdly, there’s the fact the Doctor’s accretion and accumulation of “victories” has also been challenged, most obviously in the episode ‘Boom Town’. Surely there was a major blind-spot in a series whose hero apparently put things to rights on a planet, or at any one time, and then promptly disappeared into the ether? What of the defeated ‘monsters’? What happens after the Doctor has departed for another (weekly) adventure in time and space? And doesn’t anyone notice that the Doctor has been popping up throughout Earth’s history and sorting out alien threats?

This lumbering plot-hole, or general story problem, has been addressed from the word go by Russell T. Davies, both through the introduction of a fan-like character Clive (Mark Benton) in ‘Rose’ who had been tracking the Doctor’s earthly appearances, and in series two’s ‘Love & Monsters’, as well as in a developing story arc whereby the general population of the Earth have become aware of the existence of aliens (from ‘The Christmas Invasion’ onwards – this being referred back to in ‘School Reunion’ and ‘Love & Monsters’).

The influence of fan culture, then, appears most readily in the form of criticisms of the original show, and production or storyline ‘fixes’ which aim to make the show critic-proof, or at least more internally coherent and hence not immediately dismissable on a point of logic. If iconography has been preferred over continuity, then so too has internal consistency generally been favoured over in-jokes.

Some fans have alleged that Russell T Davies’s scripts have sometimes shown a tendency to collapse into deus ex machina endings – with the ‘God in the machine’, or rather the obvious hand of the scriptwriter, coming to the aid of the hero all-too-conveniently. This has provoked fierce online fan debate over whether the new series’ stories are as riddled with plot-holes as those of the original show: demonstrating that fans, at least, are still worried about the possibility that general audiences might spot some inherent silliness in ‘their’ show.

Perhaps the most obvious candidate for this sort of fan criticism is ‘New Earth’, where intermingled brightly-coloured liquids magically avert an outbreak of zombification. However, what fans miss here is that this supposedly ‘magical’ resolution is really a version of a children’s game like ‘it’ or ‘tag’, where the “lurgy” is transmitted or taken away by touch. It’s a kind of narrative short-hand, literally: an embracing of primitive thought which probably works best for the child audience, just as the coda where Cassandra dies in her own arms (another beautiful remembrance of time-travel) probably works best for an adult audience. Attacking this sort of thing for ‘plot-holes’ misses the point that Davies is scripting for a range of different audiences. If anything, the peril or the pitfall of ‘New Earth’ is that it doesn’t adequately integrate its child-like and more adult moments and motifs, unlike, say, Steven Moffat’s Hugo-winning ‘Empty Child’/'Doctor Dances’. It’s not the plot-holes that are the problem: it’s the clear segregation of ‘stuff for the kids’ and ‘grown-up’ emotional resonance – though this is not a problem that all of Davies’s scripts suffer from, as his series one and two finales more-than-amply demonstrate.

I suggested a little earlier that Davies’s fandom shows though both in his critique of old Who and also in his own establishment of a new format. So, what is this new set of limitations, and how does it relate to Davies’s fandom?

In a word: monsters. Davies seems to be especially in love with a certain phase of the series – around the eras of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, when the show was respectively focused on clearly-drawn tales of alien invaders rampaging across the Earth, and gothic monsters emerging from various shady ids. Earlier in its run, the programme had attempted ‘straight’ historicals (i.e. there were no monsters, just characters drawn from history), and later on it seemed to dispense with clear narrative altogether in favour of strangely condensed multiple threats and layers of storytelling (e.g. ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’; ‘Ghostlight’; ‘Curse of Fenric’). Here, bits of different generic plots were stapled together, either as an example of post-modern self-reference, or post-script-editing laissez faire – ‘let’s chuck in a bit about android doubles’; ‘there aren’t any traditional monsters in this’; ‘what about adding a bit about the end of all life on a future earth?’

Davies’s ‘golden age’ is apparently one of relatively uncomplicated monsters. And though he offers a ‘critical reading’ of much of the old series, he also proffers a very devoted re-creation of the feel of its type of cod-space-invasion and reheated-gothic. Every story has its monsters; neither series one or two have had the courage to depart from this template and risk a ‘straight’ historical. And, as of yet, the new series hasn’t widened or deepened its palette and range of genre borrowings – there’s been no time-travelling spy story; no outright psychological thriller; no crime tale or noir filtered through the series format; no intimate epic following a group of friends or budding politicians across their lives, with the Doctor intervening to save humanity from political corruption, or just from one bad decision. There’s no reason why the series couldn’t tell these types of stories and still be recognisably new Doctor Who. Or rather, there is a reason: the show’s reinvention is seemingly in thrall to its previous fan-perceived ‘golden ages’, settling into a certain set of formulas, whether this is the ‘celebrity historical’ (a ‘name’ from British history, e.g. Dickens or Queen Victoria, is combined with an alien menace) or the space opera. Even at its most experimental, as in perhaps ‘Love & Monsters’ and ‘Boom Town’, the show still uses monsters as a sign of ‘proper’ Doctor Who-ness.

If anything, the new series has massively intensified its dependence on monsters by using them as mid-series publicity “relaunches” (Daleks in series one; Cybermen in series two) and as series finale audience-grabbers. Paradoxically, this almost domesticates the show’s monsters, making them a matter of audience familiarity, safety and branding at the same moment that they are supposedly terrifyingly monstrous. A truly human monster – a psychopath, a serial killer, a despot or tyrant – seems to be simply too dark and too threatening for the new show’s format to contemplate, even if it can tolerate moments of “humanity” in its Slitheen combatants, as well as pantomiming monstrosity in the guise of mad scientist John Lumic. Van Statten is probably one of the new series’ darkest turns, and even he doesn’t really take centre-stage, instead serving to magnify the threat of just one Dalek in comparison with his greed and ruthlessness.

Davies has also engaged in ‘setpiece’ or fan-pleasing showdowns such as the Doctor regenerating after a battle with the Daleks, and the Daleks and Cybermen going head-to-head. Yet again, pure continuity is a dirty word – here, it is the unusual (in fact, pretty much unprecedented) loading or addition of established, singular elements which speaks to and from fandom: regeneration and Daleks!; Daleks and Cybermen!; and, through the implied back-story of the Time War, the Daddy of all neo-continuity recombinations – Daleks versus Time Lords. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highly fannish Time War (along with ‘Bad Wolf’) was not especially foregrounded in Russell T. Davies’s original pitch document for series one (published as part of the Series One Companion), but it has certainly appealed very strongly to fans. And the Dalek-Cyber confrontation was rationalised by Davies in his Doctor Who Confidential commentary on these episodes as being what his “eight year-old self” would’ve loved, i.e. that this battle was designed to especially appeal to the child audience. What this missed out – I would suggest purposefully – was the extent to which Davies was also deliberately upping the ante in terms of giving fandom what it had dreamt of for years – as well as doing something which received wisdom held could only ever be ‘fanwank’.

Here’s a mission-statement you’ll probably never hear Russell T. Davies admit to in any promotional and publicity material: what he really, really wants is to prove that ‘fanwank’ is the new black.

One of the second series episodes, “Love & Monsters,” directly represents what many perceive as a fan community. What kinds of images of fans emerge there and what has been the response to this episode from British fans?

Oh dear; I’ve got my ‘Best Of…’ ELO CD playing as I type this! Really. ‘Love & Monsters’ has probably been the single most divisive episode of the new series – some fans seem to love it, and others feel that it isn’t “really” Doctor Who, though quite how that argument can be sustained, I don’t personally know.

What is most interesting to me about the episode is the fact that it has not only given rise to opposed fan opinions, but also to entirely opposed interpretations of how it represents fans. Those who focus on the Victor Kennedy (Peter Kay) character argue that the ep attacks fans as obsessive, possessive types who destroy what they love by seeking to regiment and control other fans’ activities. In this account, Victor Kennedy stands in for a kind of hierarchy-obsessed ‘superfan’, and so challenges socially-organised fandom to reform its ways. And it is clearly possible to interpret the majority of LINDA – certainly, those who are absorbed – as rather lacking in social ability: these are evidently misfits and outcasts. A relatively early scene which depicts each of the group in turn also appears to poke considerable fun at their artistic, creative and scholarly achievements, almost as if Davies the professional scriptwriter is pouring cold water on many fans’ creative but amateurish, unprofessional efforts.

Against all of this, there’s the character of Elton Pope (Marc Warren), which the script and production are consummately careful to depict as ‘normal’. It’s as if his normality can only be purchased at the cost of projecting negative fan stereotypes more or less heavily across other members of the LINDA group. It needs to be remembered, as well, that this allegorical interpretation of the episode is never directly licensed – the term ‘fan’ is not used to described these “followers” of the Doctor, and in their world he is a real rather than a fictional construct.

But, through the figure of Elton, fandom is affectionately reclaimed as a positive thing; as a source of solidarity, as a defence against traumatic memories and feelings, and above all, as a space for cultural creativity. Elton is a textbook ‘good’ fan. These representations of fandom may sound rather gendered, concerning pathologically “powerful” versus “normal” male characters whom women either support (Ursula’s love for Elton) or are subordinated to (we witness Victor absorb a number of female ‘fans’). However, Davies’s notes for the episode indicate that Elton’s character was originally to have been a woman, and perhaps the loss of a more conventionally ‘feminised’ fan in favour of a ‘normal’ fanboy shouldn’t be entirely lamented.

In the end, though, perceiving the episode as a fan allegory slightly closes down its richness and its possibilities – especially as one of its strengths is to challenge the usual dramatic device whereby characters in genre TV seemingly endlessly flag up and discuss their past traumas. Here, it is Elton’s silences, elisions and gaps – moments where he literally does nothing other than stare listlessly off-camera into space or where he motions to switch off the camera – which carry and convey his emotional hurt. And, as a result, when his childhood trauma is revealed, it seems to come almost out of nowhere rather than having been prefigured; a whole system of silences suddenly breaks down. There’s a kind of emotional truth, power and realism to Elton’s silence and his busy-doing-nothing which much TV drama frequently fails to achieve, let alone ‘genre’ TV. And the episode is also among the most self-reflexive of the run so far, with Elton virtually speaking in scriptwriter Davies’s voice, and asserting that he’s put the most exciting events at the start of his story. In Triumph of a Time Lord I compare this episode to Davies’s much-heralded instalment of The Grand which focused on just one character (the barman Clive) speaking to his father. Both adopt a kind of kind of intimate, oral storytelling mode, making much use of voice-over and subjective POV. It is something which also crops up in the to-camera opening in Queer as Folk, and in Bob & Rose, not to mention Rose’s unusual voice-over at the beginning of ‘Army of Ghosts’ and ‘Doomsday’.

While emphasising the emotional bond of oral storytelling, ‘Love & Monsters’ definitely appears to chastise those fans who oppose the show’s newfound emotionality – Victor Kennedy asserts that he doesn’t like to be touched “either literally or metaphorically”. And this is his great failing; he can’t be emotionally moved or touched – i.e. impinged on from without – he can only greedily devour and incorporate external objects (which is all people are to him). ‘Love & Monsters’ must surely be the favourite Doctor Who episode of psychoanalysts everywhere! Yet its representations of fandom are, I would say, relational: it depicts fandom positively, but only in relation to other negative portrayals, leaving audiences to negotiate and navigate between the good and the bad in order to reach their own (often conflicting) conclusions. Not quite a Rorschach test for fandom, it is nevertheless an apt space for audiences to project in their own prejudices or positions on what it means to be a fan.

With the relaunch of Star Trek, there was a splintering of the fan community with some remaining “loyal” to the classic series and others embracing the new entries in the franchise. To what degree has that occurred around the relaunch of Doctor Who?

It’s hard to say, because the fans who are very ‘anti’ the new series may have drifted away from organised fandom, or may not have bothered to voice their dislike online. There has been much debate, though, about the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the new series, some of which has shaded into what have been caricatured as ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Russell T Davies camps. Such splintering is, I suspect, much more about creating an easy shorthand for different groups of fans to bash each other with, then it is about real debate. The dominant sense would seem to be that most fans love old and new Doctor Who, and value each for their very different identities. In this respect, a lot of fans are good media historians, acutely aware of the different production and industry contexts which have fed into the making of different eras.

Who may have been helped in this by the fact that its ‘classic’ series was always marked by the recasting of lead and supporting cast. Whereas Star Trek: TOS was really defined through its iconic lead actors (with far less variation than Who), Doctor Who has always been a little more changeable and much less identified with one central cast – Tom Baker’s pre-eminence in the US notwithstanding. Fans have therefore got very used to championing certain Doctor Who stories or actors while attacking others: as a result, the fandom is much more decentred than simply revolving around ‘classic’ versus ‘new’ factions, I’d say, because of the show’s long initial run and its many reinventions from the 1960s onward.

Having noted all that, I am personally aware of some fans – a very small number – who have simply stopped watching the show, saying it’s just not for them any more, and that it isn’t the Doctor Who they’ve loved all their lives. It may be that for these people, the pleasures of the show were so powerfully linked to a certain phase in their own lives, or to a sense of appreciating something outside the media ‘mainstream’, that the show’s reinvention, rebranding, and newfound commercial omnipresence have put it beyond the pale. Sometimes being a fan is about a lot more than simply appreciating any one TV show: it can also mean making a statement about the obscurity (or not), and the individuality (or not) of what are felt to be one’s defining tastes.

– Matt Hills, Cardiff University

HillsM2@cardiff.ac.uk

Comments

  1. Paul Cornell says:

    Thanks very much, Matt, for your kind comments about my work. You can find my own (hugely positive) reaction to ‘Love & Monsters’, ‘Jackie Tyler Leaves the TV On’ in the July 2006 archive on my blog. I look forward to the new book.

  2. However, Davies’s notes for the episode indicate that Elton’s character was originally to have been a woman, and perhaps the loss of a more conventionally ‘feminised’ fan in favour of a ‘normal’ fanboy shouldn’t be entirely lamented.

    I’m bothered by this assertion. I’m bothered by the suggestion that a female fan is “feminised” and especially that she could never be “normal” — that a woman couldn’t be Everyfan the way a man can.

    I think I’d be more willing to let it slide if the end of “Love & Monsters”, with respect to Ursula’s fate, weren’t so profoundly and disturbingly misogynist. I think Davies & co. have done wonders for Doctor Who, and in general the way women are portrayed on the show is remarkably progressive, but the idea of Ursula being reduced to a blowjob-giving face-in-a-tile squicks me to hell, and I am not the only fan who feels that way. It saddened me, because in general I thought the episode was stellar, a celebration of passion (whether you read it as fannish or not), creativity, and love. The ending made me think “If that’s a celebration of love, you can keep it.”

  3. Paul Cornell says:

    I think the ending celebrates all those outsider couples one meets in fandom. People who have found love completely outside society. It would have been easy to have her turn back to ‘normal’, but there’s a price to pay (in exclusion) for living the ‘better’ life.

  4. Fantastic analysis of the new series, Matt, and perhaps the most engaging, most useful, and least polemical study of “Love and Monsters” of them all.

    I would add to your list of things the new series did differently (and successfully) the quality of the quotidian in the Doctor himself. The decision to make the Doctor really “contemporary” (if still a bit odd) was an excellent critique of the costumed pigeon-hole that plagued the series in the 80s (and 1996). Eccleston and Tennant chose very distinct variations on this idea, but both of them look, sound, and act like vital, vibrant, 21st century figures, rather than more clearly “alien” outsiders.

    This is another area in which the novels (at least the 7th Doctor New Adventures, and the Eighth Doctor Adventures) blazed trails, portraying Doctors engaged in comfortable, easygoing relationships with their companions (e.g., with Benny, and later, Fitz; literally getting domestic with a house in Kent, etc.), and displaying firmly late-20th century sensibilities. These Doctors became much more multi-dimensional characters as a result. By contrast, previous Doctors usually (though not always) came across as well-drawn, but relatively shallow figures that stayed more firmly within the parameters of their television versions.

  5. Paul, I don’t think she should have turned back to normal. I think she should have died.

  6. Paul Cornell says:

    But how would that be anything other than vastly negative? The message would then be: you fall in love in an outsider way, therefore you must die. Or if it wasn’t, that’s how the critique would go.

  7. I don’t see that they fell in love “in an outsider way”. They’re fans, but they fell in love in a fairly traditional way as far as I could tell.

    The message, if there must be one, is the same message that we get whenever someone on the show dies: the Doctor can’t save everyone, sometimes people we care about die, and even fans can love and lose.

    What could be more normalizing than that?

  8. Tat Wood says:

    I’m sure Lawrence would not be amused at being lumped in with Paul and me for using theory’ – he has a pathological antipathy towards ‘reading’ TV and has now given up on the series and sold all his videos on ebay.

    I had misgivings about the paving-slab stuff, but I wonder how it would have worked if a male character had been ‘preserved’ that way. ursula’s comment about it being ‘peaceful’ is worryingly close to the ‘peace’ the Cybermen offer, but it’s sort of like the fairy-tale idea of a painting (or mirror) of a lost loved one. (But then, defending anything on grounds of being like a fairy-tale idea brings us close to saying that the tree in ‘Mark of the Rani’ was worth a try.)It weakens the notion in the story as a whole that community prevails, if it’s just the one member of that community that Elton fancied that is spared.