|All right chums, time’s up. Let’s do this.|
This was written both before the Jimmy Saville scandal broke and before anything from Richard Marson’s book about John Nathan-Turner leaked. The former alone would have required a complete rewrite of the post. The latter would have required some discussion somewhere in the blog. In tandem, they render this post almost completely beside the point, and it will receive a full rewrite in the book version eventually. Until then, enjoy the most obsolete post on the blog.
Doctor Who fandom is spectacularly bitchy. Sometimes – even often – this is a virtue. Mind you, it’s an often misunderstood virtue. For one thing, the bitchiness is often mistaken as actual dislike, sometimes to puzzling effect. (The most obvious example here is people who take Moffat’s somewhat infamous interview comments about the classic series as actual dislike for the classic series) It’s not, and the central joke of almost all of fandom’s bitchy, snarky comments about bits of Doctor Who is that despite the obvious faults of the series we love it to pieces. Even with the really terrible episodes that we claim to actively hate there’s the underlying joke that we’ve watched them a dozen times and have a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of how crap they are. The fact that this involves being vicious to Doctor Who is almost incidental – after all, for most of the active history of fandom everybody thought Doctor Who was kind of crap. Doctor Who fandom, unusually for a fandom, has tended to favor ostentatiously loving the show in spite of it being crap over trying to defend Timelash, and really, who’s going to fault them for it.
But, and it’s a big but, there are times when the bitchiness of fandom tips into a bit of a dark side. And to be frank, this is one of them. A Fix With Sontarans is widely mocked and hated. And this is, if not inaccurate, more than a little unfair. Let’s start with the context. A Fix With Sontarans is a mini-episode shot for the show Jim’ll Fix It, in which the late Jimmy Saville extravagantly grants the wishes of people who write in. And in the case of A Fix With Sontarans, a kid named Gareth Jenkins wanted to be on Doctor Who, so Eric Saward lashed together a little TARDIS-set mini episode featuring the Sontarans, which they had around at the time for The Two Doctors. Nicola Bryant wasn’t available for filming it, so they roped in Janet Fielding. The plot is exactly the sort of thing that people do for something like this – the Sontarans and Gareth both get teleported onto the TARDIS, Gareth helps save the day, there’s a cute bit about how he’ll apparently someday be a great military leader against the Sontarans.
It’s crap, of course, but it’s crap in the exact ways you’d expect it to be. Gareth Jenkins can’t act at all and is utterly timid. Colin Baker got the script late enough that he was forced to scribble lines on the console. Janet Fielding has unfortunate hair. The Sontarans get a particularly poor execution of green slime dribbling death. Blah blah blah. Nevertheless, this miniepisode is the source of an alarming amount of vitriol, no small portion of which is focused on the erstwhile Mr. Jenkins, which… look, he’s a kid who’s a Doctor Who fan that got picked for a dopey reality show. He’s not an actor. And A Fix With Sontarans, in its actual context, doesn’t require him to be. He’s not supposed to be an actor in a Doctor Who story, he’s supposed to be the subject of some schmaltz. To be perfectly frank, extensive criticism of him is at best only barely above bullying, and at worst outright bullying that’s been carried on some 25 years after the poor kid got “fixed.” At this point this is like the general public mocking a middle aged man for a poor performance in a school play once.
That said, the bitchiness of Doctor Who fandom is, as we just noted, a complex and misleading thing. We don’t complain bitterly and angrily about the show because we dislike it. (Or, at least, most of us don’t – as with any fandom there are those who seem to measure how much they love the show by how much of it they’re capable of hating.) So even if the mockery of Gareth Jenkins is ill judged – and it is, I think – that doesn’t mean that the fan reaction to this sketch has much to do with the content of it in any direct sense. Rather, I think this story is hated largely because, well, it had staggeringly bad timing. It aired during The Two Doctors (right after its second episode, in fact) four days before the suspension was announced.
This in and of itself isn’t a problem. But think back to The Two Doctors entry and consider the sequence of events. We have a story that’s aggressively shredding audience expectations while fairly openly attacking the audience for expecting them in the first place. So right off the bat there’s a massive tonal shift between that and this sort of sentimental celebration of child-like fandom. At its heart A Fix With Sontarans is about an uncritical love of the series as a broader part of British culture. Whereas the series, in practice, isn’t only visibly cratering in its popular appeal but is immediately critiquing and rejecting its own premises and the act of loving it. One of the cleverest moments of About Time comes when Tat Wood suggests that to really understand the Thatcher years you should watch Vengeance on Varos and then imagine a world in which it is followed by Jim’ll Fix It. Similarly, to really understand the nature of the suspension crisis, watch The Two Doctors and imagine it being followed by A Fix With Sontarans.
There’s a larger issue going on here about the series’ relationship with children and its supposed status as children’s television. Simply put, the series doesn’t seem to take its status as children’s television very seriously or credibly anymore. That’s not to say it’s not still for children, but there’s a difference. In this regard the green slime dribble death is illustrative. It’s flagrantly there out a prurient love of gross stuff. And while I’m loathe to pretend that the past of Doctor Who is an unambiguous festival of highbrow children’s entertainment, it does seem to me that there’s a material difference between a visceral money shot approach to children’s entertainment and what Doctor Who has historically done. And it’s not as though the snot dribbling in A Fix With Sontarans is an outlier. A week later we’d get a bunch of Sontarans exploding in just as much generic viscera. So yes, Doctor Who still thinks of itself as “for children,” but in an appallingly cynical way.
And let’s not pretend that there isn’t a cynicism to this as well. For all the touching schmaltz of Jim’ll Fix It’s approach, there is something cynical about it. In reality, wishes are granted based more on sponsors wanting the publicity than on the supposed merit of the wishes. John Nathan-Turner, ever the publicity maestro, saw an opportunity to appear on a better known show and took it. This is part of why criticizing Gareth Jenkins himself seems so off – in many ways he’s just an innocent kid who gets caught in the teeth of a publicity machine. Certainly his actual desires seem irrelevant to the process, and he spends most of the episode looking scared and like this isn’t really what he wanted. Which, of course it isn’t. Wishing to be in an episode of Doctor Who and actually wanting to be are two very different things.
Had this not coincided with the suspension crisis so perfectly, of course, it would just be a slightly embarrassing curiosity. But instead it comes when the series is in obvious crisis, in the midst of an extended attack on itself, and, let’s be honest, not very good. So for it to come prancing out saying “oh look, aren’t I a good little iconic part of children’s culture” just leaves everyone wanting to slap it in the face and say “no, you’re bloody well not, you’re utter crap.” And so fandom did. And poor Gareth Jenkins gets caught in the crosshairs, simply because, standing there, awkwardly, in a replica Colin Baker coat his grandmother made for him, he’s the perfect target. The coat, really, is the crux of it. It’s too good a symbol. Everybody recognized almost immediately that the coat was a disaster. It’s about the only thing even John Nathan-Turner admitted in hindsight was a mistake. And Gareth Jenkins awkwardly in it and clearly unaware of how silly it looks is just too perfect a symbol for how everything has gone wrong. It’s a sudden, horrible glance in the mirror for fandom – our collective Borad moment. This is what loving the show is like now. How unfortunate.
But on the other hand, if boiled down and distilled, most of the preceding paragraphs come down to this: we hate Gareth Jenkins for being able to uncritically love Doctor Who when we couldn’t anymore. Even if we stand by our judgments – and I certainly do – it is difficult not to view this with a trace of envy.
The other thing about A Fix With Sontarans is that it’s the final appearance of Janet Fielding on the program. And I never really focused much on Tegan as a character while she was on the show, nor when she left, so this is as good a time as any to do it. Well, better, really, since getting two thousand words out of A Fix With Sontarans is a challenge without it.
There’s a stretch of time, starting with Leela, in which the program tried very hard to avoid the standard Doctor Who companion. Actually, this is a bit misleading. We act as though the single human female companion is the default mode of Doctor Who, but there are actually only five of them in the whole of the classic series – Jo, Sarah Jane, Peri, Mel, and Ace. It’s really just that the new series has normalized this mode. So the interruption that began with Leela is, in many ways, the last flourishing of the model of companions where something other than the single earth female was in place.
What’s interesting about Tegan, then, is that she sits almost exactly on the halfway point between those. Not only is she one of the last companions to go before single human female reasserted itself, she’s also a human female companion herself, just one who never got a solo adventure with the Doctor.
And this is the key thing about Tegan. Because she is a human female companion we tend to think of her as being in the standard mode. But she’s not. In many of her stories, in fact, her primary role is actively in opposition to the Doctor. Her job is to give voice to a position that isn’t quite the reverse of the Doctor’s, but that is nevertheless unambiguously informed by a completely different set of values and judgments. This leads, in some accounts, to Tegan being a bit thick. The show, after all, is fairly steadfastly aligned to the moral perspective of the Doctor. So Tegan, as a character who is atively set on a different perspective, is fairly consistently proven wrong by the series.
But there’s also a dignity this lends Tegan. She’s one of only two female companions in the classic series to never really drift from her initial interesting “strong female character” conception into a bland peril monkey. She still gets captured with irritating regularity, but there’s basically nothing that really knocks her off of her role. In this regard she ends up filling a role we haven’t really seen since the earliest days of the series – she’s basically the only companion to fill the Barbara role.
And much of the credit for this must go to Janet Fielding, who has proved herself, especially in her time after the series, to be an unrelentingly strong advocate for feminism and for the importance of strong and dignified female characters. She gets an unfortunate amount of flack in fandom for being “strident” about her criticism of how her character was treated and of sexism on Doctor Who in general. The term “strident” being, when applied to women, one of the last refuges of people who are having their privilege challenged and don’t like it. A strident woman is, by and large, one who’s doing and saying what needs to be said.
And here, paired with little prep with Colin Baker, she manages to demonstrate how a companion can be paired opposite an arrogant and argumentative Doctor. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Nicola Bryant – I’ll have plenty of good things to say about her when she departs – but Peri, as conceived, was never a good match for Baker’s Doctor as originally conceived. Janet Fielding, as has been pointed out by several commenters, would have been. And was. The two of them are by far the best part of A Fix With Sontarans, and in some ways the story is worthwhile for that alone.