5 years, 9 months ago
Longleat, by any measure, is an archeology project. Certainly I have nothing that could accurately be called a memory of it, having been one and not there. But grasping about for equivalencies proves oddly unsatisfying. It was a major convention in 1983, yes. In this regard, it was a known quantity. But analogy is terribly unhelpful here. To compare it to the 2012 “official convention” in Cardiff - an event I just escaped from a few hours ago at time of writing - is pointless. The Cardiff convention was a slickly professional affair and, more to the point, was executed by a BBC that had full mastery of the concept of fandom and its relationship with Doctor Who. Its slickness was in most regards cover for the real key fact, which is that it was an official convention in every sense of the word - a convention that actively promoted an official narrative of what the series was and how it was loved.
Longleat, by and large, was the opposite. If anything it marked the point where it became possible to talk about alternatives to the official narrative in a meaningful sense. But to understand this we need to move over and look at Doctor Who Magazine, at this stage called Doctor Who Monthly. We talked a bit about the rise of the fan industrial complex towards the end of the Graham Williams era, but by late 1983 it was in full effect. Starting with Season Nineteen the magazine offered a thoroughly familiar and reliable structure. First it would leak scattered tidbits of information about a story in its Gallifrey Guardian column, which offered a smattering of Doctor Who news items. Then, in the last issue that would hit the stands prior to a story’s transmission, a one page preview spelling out much of the premise would be released. Finally, usually about two issues later, the magazine would run a review of the story, typically positive and never flamingly negative. Some months thereafter would come things like the end of season poll and the periodic John Nathan-Turner interview that would further cement the official “end consensus” on a story.
What’s important to stress about this structure, though, is that the information was carefully tuned to regulate and shape how the stories were watched and remembered. This is most obvious with a story like Earthshock, where, of course, Nathan-Turner’s insistence on keeping the return of the Cybermen a secret required that the story be previewed in a manner almost but not entirely unrelated to what the story was actually about.
In other words, Doctor Who Magazine had become a major part of formulating a paratext of Doctor Who that resulted in a highly complex structure for interaction with the series. This contextualizing of the current series was reinforced by an active effort to historicize the past of the series, with features not only covering the plots of long-lost Hrtnell and Troughton stories but also including interviews with writers and directors of past stories that served to educate the reader about the material reality of television production.
(It also, of course, included the comic. Dave Gibbons left after three Fifth Doctor stories, and it’s difficult to argue that the strip didn’t take a downward turn at that point. Parkhouse’s version of Davison’s Doctor is essentially indistinguishable from his version of Baker’s. The only new character trait he adds is an obsession with cricket. Beyond that he just continues plotlines from his last Tom Baker strip, “The Neutron Knights.”
His first three Davison stories form a somewhat directionless arc that is long on compelling images and short on any sort of structure that holds them together. Parkhouse gestures continually at an alternate conception of Gallifrey - one very much in tune with the one that Moore sets up in his “Time War” triptych. But he never develops it and leaves vast tracks of plot unresolved.
Despite this, there are moments of real quality here worth pointing out. Parkhouse is very good at writing a dark fantasy tone, with stretches here and there feeling like they came out of an infinitely budgeted Warrior’s Gate. But on the whole the increase of the magazine’s focus on the series as a whole and on serving as a paratext for the series came with an increasing deemphasis of the comic strip. Whereas in the Doctor Who Weekly days the rest of the magazine was just filler for a Doctor Who comic book, in the Davison era the comic becomes almost extraneous to the publication.)
What is important to note about this is that the legitimacy of this paratext was necessarily based entirely on an argument of authority. That is to say, the point of view of Doctor Who Magazine was legitimate primarily because it was the officially sanctioned magazine, not because of the merits of what it said. This doesn’t mean what it said was rubbish - it was often, if not quite a good magazine, a far better magazine than it needed to be. But there’s something tangibly strange about this authoritative version of fandom. The easiest place to see where it falls down is in the magazine’s efforts to resolve continuity issues - and not just in cases like its reasonably well-documented aborted effort to treat the Hartnell-Troughton transition as something other than a regeneration. No, I’m talking about moments like its attempt to adjudicate the Brain of Morbius faces dispute by saying that all of the other faces are what Hartnell’s Doctor looked like, or to set The Five Doctors in the 19th century in order to explain that the Cybermen encountered in it were encountering Gallifrey in general in order, in turn, to explain the Planet Fourteen line in The Invasion, an exemplary case of swallowing the spider to catch the fly.
These three efforts all failed spectacularly - tellingly none of them are even remotely part of any current discussion over their respective continuity points. There are two reasons for this. First, obviously, is that all of them are stupid. The idea that a group of eight middle aged men none of whom even look like each other were all younger versions of William Hartnell, who, as it happens none of them look like either is on the face of it ridiculous. Similarly, the sheer and massive weight of the implications raised by the claim that Gallifrey’s “present” is equivalent to 19th century Earth are in staggering excess of the ones raised by the Planet 14 comment in The Invasion.
But secondly and in many ways more significantly is the fact that fandom on the whole never wanted definitive explanations of these things. Yes, of course they complained constantly about the errors, but it fundamentally misunderstands the desires of fandom to assume that just because they’re complaining about something they want it fixed. In fact the reason for pointing out something like “what are those faces in The Brain of Morbius” or “what’s with that Planet 14 reference in The Invasion” is the fun of debating and proposing answers for the questions. The last thing anyone kvetching about Planet 14 wants is for some blowhard with a magazine column to offer some half-cocked “definitive answer,” doubly so if the “definitive answer” is rubbish anyway. Fans don’t want answers. They want things to argue about.
And so the authoritative paratext offered by Doctor Who Monthly was never going to be sufficient. That doesn’t mean that it’s useless, of course. The paratextual approach to television is a necessary part of managing a show with fans successfully. It’s telling that Nathan-Turner’s dance with fandom and selective doling out of information to keep them engaged and excited about the show is a playbook utilized by every single creative force engaged in revamping an existing property with fans. Nathan-Turner’s eventual fate of having the fans turn against him has been the death knell of more than one big Hollywood property, and while everybody grasps that you can’t have a hit catering exclusively to hardcore fans they grasp equally that when hardcore fans reject a version they do so loudly, whereas if they like it they serve as enormously useful free advertising.
But more importantly, the paratextual approach can work tremendously well on a creative level. The most obvious example in the Davison era is The Caves of Androzani, Davison’s regeneration story, which gained an entire second level of buildup and suspense from the early announcement in Doctor Who Monthly that it would be written by Robert Holmes, a writer whose reputation the magazine had bolstered in its overviews of past stories. It helped, of course, that the story was phenomenally good and that the build-up to it was actually paid off by what was transmitted, but on the other hand, part of the impact the story had on fandom was undoubtedly the fact that it was built to in the way it was.
Even from a fandom perspective, there’s something satisfying about having a canonical paratext, so to speak. Even when fandom breaks definitively from the authorized accounts of the show it benefits from having them there to frame and shape the conversation. Fandom necessarily assumes a paratext to the show, and having at least some common ground in that paratext makes all of this much simpler.
So if Doctor Who Monthly is to be faulted it is not for creating a unified and authoritative paratext for Doctor Who, but in the particular ways in which it went about it. The most odious of these, of course, is the increasingly obvious way in which Nathan-Turner situates himself as a celebrity in his own right, developing catch-phrases (most obviously at this stage “stay tuned.” Nathan-Turner has an unfortunate tendency to conflate self-promotion with promotion of the show, making him impossible to extricate from the larger hagiography of the paratext. (It’s also worth remarking that reading the Davison era Doctor Who Monthlies means that I found the original version of the “art exists to soothe” quote that caused some debate back in the Castrovalva entry. From issue #68, page 18, “Art should be there to soothe the mind, not make it think.” So yeah.)
Longleat, of course, was not the singular remedy to this. It couldn’t be. But it marked a significant turn in this regard. And the heart of this turn comes out of a key fact about Doctor Who fandom, which is that it didn’t really exist for longer than you might think, which in turn means that once it started existing it didn’t really act like a normal fandom. To some extent this is just cultural difference. Doctor Who Magazine covered with bemused distance the goings-on of American and British fandom fairly often in these days, reporting on conventions in other countries and the fans who did weird things like dress up in costumes. But the tone of the coverage makes it clear that these were the odd things that happened in America, where the show was a cult show.
In the UK, at least, Doctor Who never was a cult show, or, at least, it wasn’t supposed to be. Its traditional Saturday evening slot was, as we’ve discussed before, a family slot such that Doctor Who was something the whole country watched. And even if it had been, the cosplay and fanfic aspects of fandom that define it in most people’s minds were American inventions that hadn’t migrated to the UK yet. UK Doctor Who fandom was, for a long time, an altogether different beast, and the fandom that leads to the quasi-official or outright official positions of involvement in the series remains so.
And in at least one argument, advanced particularly by Tat Wood both in About Time Volume (I’m assuming the Longleat essay was by Wood, who was there, and not Miles, who was 11 for Longleat) and in his piece “Full Metal Frock Coat” reprinted in the second volume of Time Unincorporated, Longleat forms something of an origin point for this.
It may be helpful, some two thousand words into this piece, to explain what Longleat was. For years two permanent exhibitions of Doctor Who props and memorabilia existed, one in Blackpool and one at Longleat. In 1983, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary, the Longleat exhibition was, for Easter weekend, expanded to a full-blown convention with huge numbers of props, actors, a screening room showing various stories, and other such goodies. The BBC was famously overwhelmed by the number of people who showed up, with more people showing up on the first day than they had estimated for the entire weekend. (The number I’m seeing was 100,000 total. The Cardiff convention, meanwhile, was 3000.)
This misestimate, it should be stressed, was not down to the BBC not understanding how many people were Doctor Who fans in the first place. Rather it was down to them misunderstanding the range of what Doctor Who fans were. They assumed, not unreasonably given the available data, that Doctor Who fans were just British Star Trek Fans. They weren’t. Star Trek had always been a cult show. But Doctor Who fandom was a motley of people who didn’t fit smoothly into any existing fan category - who, as Tat Wood put it, always assumed they were normal right up until their liking Doctor Who got used to mark them as culturally “other.”
And there’s an incredibly narrow window in which that happens. In 1983 there’s Longleat. Not two years later, there’s the hiatus. This, in many ways, reflects one of Nathan-Turner’s most fundamental misunderstandings. Because he, as much as anyone, assumed Doctor Who worked like a cult show and that teasing the audience endlessly with the return of X was the way to build the show. The same failings that led the BBC to badly misjudge how many people would show up also led them, in other words, to misjudge what showing up meant in the first place and to double down on a “for the fans” approach that left the series exceedingly vulnerable when Michael Grade came along. (But more on that later.)
In reality the Doctor Who fandom of the early 80s was far better served some twenty-five years later by Love and Monsters than they ever were by anything Nathan-Turner put on the air. And Longleat was, for a substantial number of people, the moment they realized that another sort of fandom was sustainable. The sort that was less interested in the displays of trivia needed to lash together outlandish theories of Cybermen history, and certainly less interested in a final answer to the question, than they were in going to the pub and arguing about it for a few hours, preferably with digressions about whether or not you’re going to foreground the Cybermen as instances of body horror, Soviet infiltrators, or clanking steel super-soldiers, and how these varying interpretations affect how you structure their history.
This would take years to blossom fully, but as a practical matter, at least, it remains key. In essence, this is where the fandom that would eventually bring the show back came from. And it’s a very different sort of fandom - one that is more willing to slay sacred cows, one where mockery of the program is a form of love for it, and one where the show was consistently taken in a larger social context instead of as an end in itself.
It’s tempting, of course, to contextualize this in terms of the show’s inexorable march towards the series of blunders that resulted in its cancellation. But it can’t be. Yes, the way in which the BBC attempted to interact with fans was a key part of how Doctor Who imploded - as was the nature of the more visible minority of fans who were closer to what the BBC expected. But on the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine this strange sort of fandom evolving any faster than it did, or to imagine it riding to Doctor Who’s salvation in the mid-80s. It’s more accurate to say that even as the collapse approached and you began to be able to see it as inevitable there were developments underway that were fundamental to the future of the series.
So with the future attended, then, let’s turn to the past.
Share on Facebook