4 years, 2 months ago
This will be review for some people, but the blog’s picked up a fair number of new readers since hitting the new series, and some recap is thus in order. But let’s talk about orthodox Doctor Who fandom, shall we?
T-Zero in Doctor Who fandom is May of 1976, which is when the BBC officially recognized the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS) as the official fan group, succeeding the Doctor Who Fan Club, which had been around since the 1960s. From DWAS came the first wave of pro-fans: David J. Howe, Jeremy Bentham, and John Peel are the most recognizable names. And many of them became instrumental in the meticulous documentation of Doctor Who. Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke turned to them for The Making of Doctor Who, and most of the early reference books to the series came out of their work.
The thing is, their tastes in Doctor Who were… idiosyncratic. DWAS president Jan Vincent-Rudzki wrote one of the most legendary reviews of a Doctor Who story ever as he tore into The Deadly Assassin for its numerous supposed violations of past continuity. The irony, in hindsight, being that The Deadly Assassin was sufficiently good that it obliterated most of the faltering prior continuity about the Time Lords and became the standard piece of continuity, making Rudzki’s tone of outrage more than slightly farcical. Later highlights included John Peel declaring in all seriousness that City of Death, one of the most beloved Doctor Who stories ever, with a script largely by Douglas Adams, was “pure farce” with characters “so stupid as to be unbelievable,” and described it as “continual buffoonery.” Fandom was particularly history focused (it’s notable that Peel ended his review with “Come back, Pat Troughton, all is forgiven…”), and viewed the present day of the series as a falling off from some great ideal in the past.
Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, the BBC took fandom seriously. The changing nature of television in the late 70s/early 80s meant that Doctor Who’s family-friendly Saturday teatime slot was dying, and it got moved to a schedule befitting a soap opera in an attempt to create a male version of a soap targeted to its existing obsessive fans. John Nathan-Turner made the savvy in theory if misguided in practice decision to actively court fandom, revamping the Doctor Who Weekly comic magazine into a professional quality version of DWAS fanzines TARDIS and The Celestial Toyroom. Results were mixed - audience research techniques were too primitive in the late 70s/early 80s to realize that fandom was not in fact coextensive with “people who watched Doctor Who,” and despite basically having the right idea Nathan-Turner and his production team proved inadequate to the task of creating what was, for the early 80s, essentially an entirely new model of television.
The thing is, fandom wasn’t representative of the whole audience, nor even of the whole audience of dedicated fans. Gareth Roberts has written of his profound alienation from DWAS upon getting his first issues of their newsletter, which savaged the series as it existed in the late 70s because, as he puts it, “they believed that Doctor Who should be more like something called ‘the Barry Letts era’, whatever that was. I didn’t know who Barry Letts was.” Roberts was a ten-year-old fan who liked Romana and K-9, and DWAS as it existed failed spectacularly to account for that category of fandom. Roberts didn’t renew his DWAS subscription. Instead he grew up and became one of the major architects of Doctor Who’s future.
But that’s the future. Back to 1980. Upon taking over the series that year, John Nathan-Turner took one particular fan, Ian Levine, onboard as an unofficial and uncredited continuity adviser to the series. This proved a spectacularly bad idea for reasons the blog has covered at length. Levine is a short-tempered man who is quick to grab credit when things go well and quicker to shift blame when they go poorly. He has rather more money than is entirely appropriate or necessary, a vision of what Doctor Who is and should be that is idiosyncratic even by the standards of DWAS, and no patience whatsoever with anyone who doesn’t share that vision. The result is unfortunate, and there is no way to spin his direct involvement with the production of the program as anything other than an unmitigated disaster.
Why was he brought on? Likely because he was reasonably well-known to the BBC, having been a vocal agitator in the period where the practice of junking old episodes of Doctor Who ended, and spent a few years effectively running the effort to recover missing episodes. As with everything involving Levine, this is contentious - he claims a higher total of missing episodes than is entirely fair. In practice he ran the recovery effort, and so anyone who found a missing episode in the earliest years of the search - when most of the missing episodes were found, since it was the point when anybody realized there were any missing episodes and that this was a problem - came to him with it. This led him to have a finger in a lot of finds just by virtue of being the guy at the other end of the phone. It’s also worth noting that Ian Levine remains the only documented case of someone holding a missing episode in secret and not telling the BBC. Still, he was known to the BBC and had worked with BBC executives in the course of missing episode recovery, and so was the natural choice to bring on in an attempt to engage with the fandom that was intended to be the primary audience of this new weekday evening Doctor Who.
Levine, incidentally, is widely considered to be who Victor Kennedy in Love and Monsters is based off of. And by “widely considered” I mean that you’d have to be out of your skull to think that Davies didn’t have Levine in mind when creating that character. But more on that Wednesday.
As mentioned, the bold new approach to Doctor Who failed. The reasons are numerous: a profusion of poor episodes, a paucity of good ones, declining budgets, and a particularly hostile climate at the BBC. The turning point came an episode after The Five Doctors, at the start of 1984, as the story Warriors of the Deep was deemed in hindsight unfit for transmission. Warriors of the Deep was a particularly blatant bit of fan service, bringing back the Silurians and the Sea Devils from the Pertwee era and giving them a team-up. It was also terribly scripted and poorly shot, resulting in an infamously bad story. But in many ways what is most telling about Warriors of the Deep is that it existed - that is, that it was genuinely believed that bringing back two monsters unseen in over a decade was a good idea for the sake of it, and that this single-handedly justified the story.
This coincided almost perfectly with the fallout from Longleat, where, in 1983, a two-day Doctor Who exhibition brought a shockingly large number of fans, many of whom were pleasantly surprised to discover that there were other Doctor Who fans who, well, to be perfectly blunt about it, were nothing like Ian Levine. And this led to Doctor Who fandom in its second form - a somewhat snarky counterreformation that was immediately vindicated when the series in its Ian Levine inspired form crashed and burned, leading to a wealth of finger-pointing and recrimination.
And this is the key thing to realize about Doctor Who fandom in the UK. As an organized activity that went beyond the narrow confines of the officially recognized DWAS it essentially only existed in the period when the show was being actively cancelled. To say that this fact left scars on fandom is an understatement. Equally, however, that generation of fandom became somewhat significant, to say the least. The monthly fan meetups at the Fitzroy Tavern for drinking and bitching were attended by a wealth of important people who went on to write for the show, including such marginal figures as Steven Moffat. And a generation of fans who started writing for the Virgin book line during the wilderness years eventually ended up, you know, running the thing - in the first season only Rob Shearman hadn’t ever written for Virgin, and he’d written for a different fan line during the wilderness years.
The thing is, as much fun as that era of fandom was and as much influence as it had, it was an era of fandom defined first and foremost through the adversity of being fans of an unpopular and widely mocked show that was off the air. And even though a segment of that fandom brought it back and made it a hit, this generation of fandom had, in some instances, some difficulties adjusting. Particularly the portions of that fandom that were somewhat more in line with Ian Levine when it came to the world.
Levine still haunts fandom, for what it’s worth. Those who have followed the missing episode rumors without being hugely aware of Doctor Who fan politics were likely surprised when large amounts of the story hinged on whether one particularly excitable Doctor Who fan believed the rumors, but that’s Ian Levine for you. Likewise, the rushed announcement of Matt Smith’s departure was largely because Levine leaked news of Smith’s departure, though Levine’s investment, characteristically, was his outrage at further delays to the production schedule, which, for him, amount to moral abominations. And he’s far from the only fan of the sort that is probably, in hindsight, better kept indoors and away from polite company. That’s the nature of Doctor Who fandom - a motley collection of oddballs from all walks of life, some of them perfectly ordinary sorts who happen to really like a television program, and others who are… a bit broken and in need of a place who will take them.
What’s important to realize, then, is that there remains a portion of Doctor Who fandom for whom the new series is… difficult. Who didn’t want to be fans of the most popular show on television. They wanted to be fans of a marginal cult show that nobody liked, because, quite frankly, that was safe and pleasant. There are lots more who were overjoyed to see Doctor Who back and actually quite good, but there are people for whom the transition was genuinely awful. It’s instructive to look at rec.arts.doctorwho (aka RADW), the Usenet newsgroup that had been one of the primary vectors for Doctor Who fans to congregate in the early days of the Internet, and remains active to this day. Let’s specifically look at Love and Monsters, that having been a story that upset this particular type of fan more than most.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about RADW’s reaction to Love and Monsters is its odd obsession with the Sylvester McCoy era, to which it was repeatedly compared. “Jesus, what is this? Sylvester McCoy era dross??” asked one poster, while another suggested that “the last two episodes were worse than even the worst of McCoy story. L&M was RTD's Happiness Patrol and Fear Her was his Paradise Towers,” further proclaiming that “RTD has done nothing for Doctor Who except ruin it after 18 episodes which is fewer than JNT needed,” while insisting that the TV movie would have provided the template for a series just as successful as Davies’s revamp.
This may require some context. The early aughts were not a great time for the Sylvester McCoy era, which had enjoyed a long popularity in the 90s, but, following the TV movie, was largely reacted against. That’s neither here nor there - the rise and fall of various eras in fan esteem is of intellectual interest to all but the most dedicated of fan historians. What’s significant is that Love and Monsters, which was the 15th most watched television program in its week, should be compared in the first place to a then nearly twenty year old era in which the show’s highest chart placing was 71st, and where for some stories it didn’t even chart high enough to make it into the ranked figures. Because in 2006 the Sylvester McCoy era was, for a particular segment of fandom, the embodiment of bad Doctor Who, and it was important to complain bitterly about it even while making sure to be clear about how awful the new series was.
Because this is what people seriously believed that Love and Monsters was. Here are some of the more revealing statements, quoted mainly for what they demonstrate about the people making them.
“The X-files at its worst was still played and written in a believable manner but almost every minute of the RTD series is played and written as pure PANTOMIME. There is no similarity between the CRAP RTD has come up with and the X-files. Even the worst self parodies in Stargate SG1 and Farscape were never played as pantomime or written so unbelievably, even the one where Crichton became a cartoon, or the one where a 50's B-Movie style TV Sci-Fi series was made based on the original SG1 adventures, but in the new RTD series almost every single story has been written as a joke. He's turned the show into laughingstock.”
(In response to someone observing that Ursula is played by Shirley Henderson, who played Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films): “To notice this I would have had to watch the Harry Potter movies. I think this explains why so many people on this NG [newsgroup] seem to like the new DW series- if you watch any old shit aimed at children, then you probably don't know any better.”
“That sucked so hard, it sucked every last iota of goodness out of the universe, leaving nothing but a blistered, suppurating wasteland of darkness and pain.”
The assumptions underlying these posts are profoundly revealing - that the problem with the new series is that it’s watched by people who enjoy “trash” like Harry Potter, that the worst thing the show could possibly be is silly, and, of course, the extreme and comical (admittedly perhaps willfully so) image of a television episode so bad that it can destroy all pleasure in the universe. Which, actually, might just as easily not have been exaggeration given some fans.
It’s also important to realize that the wilderness years were still recent. The Eighth Doctor era and the Ninth Doctor era actually concluded the same month, with the final Eighth Doctor Adventure coming out in June of 2005. The Big Finish line continues to this day. 2006 feels like we’re well into the new series, and we are, but nobody who had lived through the wilderness years had forgotten about them, and the sudden change in what Doctor Who was as a cultural object was still dizzying.
Even today, though, these fans exist. You can find plenty on GallifreyBase, the current largest Doctor Who forum, should you be filled with enough self-loathing to go looking. They’re a distinct minority of fans, but they’re there and loud. And in the most recent poll on the subject (back in 2011) Love and Monsters had 17.83% of posters rate it as a 1/10, the single largest voting block. (Though notably, 218 people rated it from an 8-10, and over half of those polled rated it “very good” or better, while only 186 rated it from a 1-3. It is an episode that is hated loudly, but not universally. This, however, is a progression in opinions - a poll run by Doctor Who Online at the time had over half of the voters rating it 1/5, and two thirds rating it either 2 or 1.) But it’s in many ways more instructive to look at people in the endless “classic series vs new series” debate threads who continue to insist that the new series has ruined Doctor Who.
As bizarre as many of these declarations are, and they are completely bizarre, it’s worth stressing that this is completely understandable. For people for whom their love of Doctor Who was defined by its marginality, the mainstream is a hostile and scary place. And for those to whom being a Doctor Who fan was a cause of mockery the idea that Doctor Who is serious business becomes an odd refuge, regardless of its relationship with fact or reality. Which is to say that I do want to highlight these fans and point out the myriad of ways that they’re wrong, but I don’t want to do so out of any sort of malice or desire to laugh at them. Rather, it’s important to grasp what Doctor Who fandom, or, at least, a portion of the fandom that had existed during the wilderness years, was like. Especially before Love and Monsters, a story that is, after all, about those fans.
Share on Facebook