4 years, 1 month ago
Let us pause for a moment to consider the survivors of the Wilderness Years in the general case. Big Finish, of course, was relatively untouched. We covered much of their future at the tail end of the Wilderness Years, and will check in on them a few times more (off the top of my head I can think of at least six Big Finish essays on post-2005 material that I intend to write, some as book-exclusives, some here), but the basic arc is sensible enough: they got their license renewed fairly soon after the new series started, largely through the personal intervention of Davies, who actively kept the issue from crossing Mal Young’s desk. They were forbidden from making any new series references, and in fact occasionally had characters taken away from them when the TV series wanted them, but they quickly developed their niche of the classic series.
The book line, as we’ve seen, fared rather more poorly, a final victim of the decision to take the license away from Virgin. Under a third party license they could well have survived in the same way that Big Finish did, particularly if, like Big Finish, they had a bunch of respectable and upstanding people involved with them. (e.g. Rebecca Levene) But having been taken in house they were a victim of the BBC’s Great Leap Forward, cut off as part of a sensible but nevertheless painful decision to thoroughly rebrand Doctor Who as a show of the present instead of the past. It’s the worst sort of decision. On the one hand, it’s next to impossible to argue with as any sort of a business move - only the most blinkered fan would seriously suggest that the new series would have been more successful if it had played up the forty-two years of prior continuity more. On the other, for anyone who loves that history it’s a body blow.
And then there’s Doctor Who Magazine. Russell T Davies was a huge fan of the magazine, and upon taking over Doctor Who promptly approached them to cement the relationship between show and magazine. We have, of course, seen this before in the period where John Nathan-Turner saw the transformation of Doctor Who Weekly, a glorified Doctor Who comic book, into Doctor Who Monthly, a paratext to the series that elicited continual fan engagement. The results were, to say the least, mixed, in no small part because Nathan-Turner’s skill at publicity outstripped his skill at making television.
Tied into the problems, however, was what I have in the past referred to as the fan-industrial complex - the often toxic interplay in which prominent fans were tacitly bribed with access in exchange for their endorsement of the party line. This process led to deeply unfortunate moments like the canonization of the “fact” that John Nathan-Turner saved the program from the “crap” version that Graham Williams made, which we’ve discussed previously. Actually, let’s pause here for a moment and offer something of an addendum to previous blog posts, since there are several spots where, shall we say, new information has come to light that alters past stories. Let’s just go to the best example ever to surface of how mind-wrenchingly vile the fan-industrial complex is, so that when we circle back to Doctor Who Magazine and the comics we understand the stakes involved in this.
Since writing up the John Nathan-Turner era Richard Marson’s biography of Nathan-Turner, JN-T, has come out and gotten press coverage. I’ve still not gotten around to importing my copy yet - $25 paperbacks I have to import from the UK are a bit of a pain in the neck, and I figure I’ll wait until I’m revising the era to get really into that. But one thing that came out of that was a series of tabloid-fodder revelations about Nathan-Turner’s sexual escapades with young men. I’m not going to litigate the extent of the scandal here, but I want to point out something about fandom’s relationship with it. Let’s look at Ian Levine, unofficial continuity advisor to the Nathan-Turner era and exemplar of the problems with the fan industrial complex. In a 2012 interview about the Marson book, Levine proclaimed that “things went on that were horrible, corrupt, too awful to discuss.”
Levine, let’s stress, was one of the fans routinely paid in access - indeed, that was the crux of his status as unofficial continuity advisor. Levine provided interviews for the book, in other words, and is one of the sources Marson’s book is based on. His quote about the horrors of what happened under Nathan-Turner, in other words, is made by someone who knew about them at the time and was in a position to do something about it, or at the very least walk away. Instead he stayed for his access, in exactly the way that you’d expect someone who considers making fewer than fourteen episodes of Doctor Who a year evil and boycotts grocery stores for promoting Britain’s Got Talent due purely to it being on opposite Doctor Who to do. Ian Levine at once thought what was going on was horrible and corrupt and willingly remained a part of it just so that he could be in contact with Doctor Who.
That’s the toxicity of the fan-industrial complex in a nutshell, and why the use of Doctor Who Magazine primarily as a promotional vehicle for the new series is at least slightly chilling. Not, to be clear, that Doctor Who Magazine’s editorial staff in the 1980s have any culpability in the sex scandals. Rather that the relationship of having an official mouthpiece within fandom is one fraught with peril. If Levine provides the most ethically unnerving example, we can go for the far tamer and sillier one of Doctor Who Magazine running positive reviews of Warriors of the Deep and The Twin Dilemma if we want an example that merely makes Doctor Who Magazine look kind of crap instead of hinting at a sweeping ethical denunciation. I’d argue that one is just the other in miniature, but never mind that.
All of which said, it’s not as though Doctor Who Magazine in the wilderness years was without fault. It ground its axes when it saw fit. The transformation at the start of the John Nathan-Turner era was not a transformation of the magazine into something that was on the production team’s side, it was a transformation of it into something that was on any side at all instead of just producing Doctor Who comics. Nobody seriously expects the official magazine to badmouth the series. This is how the relationship has to work. That it was so disastrous in the past is less a product of the inherent corruption of engaging with fandom and more a product of the fact that in the 1980s the notion of fandom was still so undeveloped that Nathan-Turner’s pioneering fan engagement was doomed to failure even though it was, in fact, the wave of the future.
All of which is to say that by 2005 Doctor Who Magazine was an altogether more competent package, a fact that both Davies and the magazine’s editors deserve credit for. The heart of this is that things had changed dramatically in twenty years. “Professional fan,” in 2005, was a designation that existed, and Doctor Who Magazine was well staffed with dutiful professionals (who, notably, were not employed directly by the BBC). Davies, meanwhile, was himself enough of a fan of Doctor Who Magazine to want it to succeed, as opposed to just treating it as a product line he inherited (which, let’s be honest, it always rather seemed like he did with the books). And perhaps most importantly, Davies lived in Doctor Who fandom - the actual, bitchily wonderful fandom that existed - and had no interest in its dismantling or undermining.
The result was that even as Doctor Who Magazine became a glossy echo chamber of praise for the very act of making Doctor Who in which every episode is previewed extensively, every actor and designer is interviewed in glowing terms, and the entire magazine is caught up in a sort of unceasing frenzied ecstasy over the existence of Doctor Who, it remained… surprisingly intelligent. Sure, there are fawning interviews with everybody under the sun, but it turns out that the people working on Doctor Who are often really intelligent people with interesting things to say. Yes, Davies’s production notes are full of unapologetic teases and hype, but they’ve also got a refreshing candidness over the material realities of making a television program. And yes, it’s new series obsessed, but unlike almost everything else coming out it continued to actually acknowledge the classic series, continuing the Time Team feature and cheerily reviewing all the DVDs.
Perhaps most interesting, however, are the reviews of the first series, which are given over to Rebecca Levene, editor of the New Adventures. Levene is, as one would expect, largely warm to the program, but she’s also thoughtful and willing to make detailed and intelligent critiques. The resulting tone is “very much in love with Doctor Who, but interested in it enough to find critique valuable.” Which is pretty much perfect and what Doctor Who Magazine should be.
And then of course there are the comics, which must be mentioned. They were, of course, very good in the Eighth Doctor era, and that quality continues here. There are blips - Robert Shearman turns in something of a career low with a four-parter that just doesn’t have enough room for its involved plot to breathe. But other bits are absolutely lovely; Gareth Roberts turns out two delightful strips, for instance. We should again pause and remember that Russell T Davies is both a massive comics fan and a devotee of the old Doctor Who Magazine strips - hence him offering the McGann/Eccleston regeneration to them and slipping kronkburgers into The Long Game. And in that regard the comic strips are a return to form - compelling side trips for Doctor Who. It’s too early by decades, in 2013, to say whether “The Love Invasion” will have the same impact as “The Iron Legion,” but it’s at least as good.
And there are other fun bits to be had. Gareth Roberts celebrating the old World Distributors annuals with a style pastiche about Doctor Who and Rose Taylor is one of the most wonderfully mad bits of nostalgia ever penned, and speaks volumes about what Doctor Who Magazine sees itself as being in the age of the new series: both chronicler and repository for the wide range of extra stuff that Doctor Who is.
We’d be remiss, in talking about all of this, if we did not also look at the 2006 Doctor Who Annual published by Panini Press. The annual is known for two things, both of which speak to the ways in which this sort of publication is taken seriously. The first, of course, is Steven Moffat’s “What I Did On My Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow,” which is a prototype of Blink and is a wonderful bit of children’s adventure fantasy mixed with structural cleverness. While it lacks the Weeping Angels, there’s a sweet charm to it - remember that the annuals are really designed as Christmas presents - that actually makes it, to my mind, easier to love. If the kid-friendly Christmas annuals have a purpose other than sweet stories about ordinary people getting caught up in the Doctor’s adventures around the holidays then I don’t know what it is.
Well, except perhaps massive and joyful fanwank. Which brings us to Russell T Davies’s “Meet the Doctor,” a two page intro to the character that is actually just a brief history of the Time War that opens the floodgates of fanservice in a breathtaking way. In ten paragraphs we have references to a Terry Nation prose piece in the 1973 Radio Times special, Enlightenment, Resurrection of the Daleks, Genesis of the Daleks, the TV Movie, Lungbarrow, The Apocalypse Element, State of Decay, Alan Moore’s Doctor Who comics, and The Web Planet, alongside a tease of the survival of the Master, including the phrase “you are not alone.” It is, needless to say, completely mental - but in a way that reaffirms the importance of things like this. It’s not the TV references that make it, but rather the acknowledgment of all sorts of weird spin-offs - the Radio Times special, Big Finish, the New Adventures, and the Doctor Who Magazine comics - that cement the tone of the piece as a giddy confirmation of Doctor Who’s history.
Which is, perhaps, the last piece of the puzzle here. Yes, there’s an ecstatic tone to much of the paratext here. Yes, the content of a lot of it - magazine, books, annual, et cetera - amounts to brand management to encourage financial devotion to being a Doctor Who fan. But if much of it amounts to an endless praise of the basic fact of making Doctor Who, we should perhaps remember that the people making Doctor Who are, in fact, drunk on the excitement of doing it, and that the fannish legacy of Doctor Who is a part of it. Put another way, it’s tough to be cynical about the commercialization of Doctor Who when it’s being headed up by the most joyfully obsessive Doctor Who fan it’s possible to imagine. Unless one is so bloody-minded about the public service mission of the BBC as to deny the sensibility of an official tie-in magazine (and its utility in bolstering the BBC’s overall budget is hard to argue with - let’s remember that Doctor Who exists in part to fund things like the low-earning high-cost BBC News), it’s hard to argue that Doctor Who Magazine in 2005 was not exactly what an official tie-in magazine should be.
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