To anyone outside of science fiction or soap opera fandom this is completely insane since the two are self-evidently the exact same thing. To someone uninvolved in either there is no difference whatsoever in what die-hard sci-fi fans do and what die-hard soap fans do. Both are equally objects of mockery. One dresses up more, the other sends panicked letters in that don’t quite seem to grasp that the characters are fictional. But other than that they’re exactly the same thing.
Consider a recent example. In 2011 Coronation Street brought back the character of Dennis Tanner, who had not appeared in the show since 1968. The only thing that can possibly be reached for as an analogy would be something like bringing Sarah Jane Smith back to Doctor Who in 2006 when she hadn’t appeared in it since 1983. Or bringing Leonard Nimoy as Spock back in the latest Star Trek movie. More simply, consider this – virtually every long-form serialized text (as opposed to something like, say, Garfield that is serialized but consists of one-off strips instead of continuing storylines) that exists in either the US or UK is either a sci-fi/fantasy story or a soap opera.
And yet it’s difficult to imagine two genres that are more diametrically disdainful of one another. Under the hood much of this comes down to the fact that although their basic narrative structures match almost exactly their subject matter is wildly different. Soap operas are emotionally-based character dramas, science fiction is action-adventure. But understanding the fact that they’re basically the same in terms of structure and audience interaction is key to understanding why, starting in about the 1990s, sci-fi/fantasy shows began working hard to try to cater to a soap audience as well. It’s just good business – if the two work similarly, you may as well try to appeal to both.
The other thing to note is that the perception that soap operas and science fictiona re diametrically opposed is not quite fair. It’s true that the average soap fan and the average science fiction fan are very different audiences. This is the logic behind the other event that would justify a Coronation Street entry, the scheduling of Doctor Who opposite Coronation Street in the Sylvester McCoy years on the grounds, as Michael Grade put it, that nobody in Britain watched both shows. But the logic behind this line was delightfully skewered years later in Russell T. Davies’s Queer as Folk when Vince Tyler reminisces about how irritating it was to have both shows on at once. Of course now that Phil Collinson has moved from Executive Producer of Doctor Who to showrunning Coronation Street the idea of any opposition between the shows becomes almost farcical.
But here we’re scrying events still long off in the future. Let’s return to the dawning of the Davison era. Miles and Wood discuss the way in which the Saturday teatime slot that Doctor Who had occupied from 1963-81 was, by the start of 1982, completely imploded. They give an almost entirely technologically determinist account of why this was, but it’s a compelling one, so let’s go with it. But first, some context.
The thing to realize is that the very existence of a Saturday teatime slot demonstrates a big difference between American and British television. I’m writing this on a Saturday afternoon. Here, then, are the prime time lineups of the networks tonight. CBS is showing repeats. ABC is showing an old Charlie Brown Valentine special followed by repeats. NBC is showing a reairing of their current big music variety show. The CW is devoted entirely to local programming. And Fox is running America’s Most Wanted, which is essentially free to produce.
In other words, nothing important happens on Saturday. The main prime time lineups of US television networks is from Sunday-Thursday, with the big ones running some stuff on Friday – often sci-fi programming on the assumption that its cult audience isn’t going out on a Friday. But nothing airs on Saturday because nobody is home. In contrast, BBC1 and ITV are showing new programming. Mostly reality programming, though BBC1 has a new episode of Casualty up. And, of course, Saturday is when Doctor Who goes out again.
The nature of the Saturday lineup is, in other words, peculiarly British. And it extends from the fact that Britain only has a handful of terrestrial channels. And unlike American TV, there was the BBC, which was notable for not being fragmented into regional variations in the same way that ITV was. In other words, there was a channel that was consistent across the country and was one of only a handful of things that could be watched. So television, in the UK, was a unifying experience. The country sat down to watch. And Doctor Who was a part of one of the biggest lineups in the UK – the Saturday teatime one. For all that we’ve talked about Doctor Who fandom over eighteen seasons here we mustn’t forget the fact that through these eighteen years Doctor Who simply was not a science fiction show in the sense that we usually use the term. It may have had science fiction fans, but it was unambiguously and completely mass entertainment for the entire country.
But at the start of 1982 the conditions that allowed that to be possible were changing. Miles and Wood track social conditions – the downfall of the very notion of community that Thatcherism heralded with its declaration that society didn’t exist – but their more compelling reasoning is simply that televisions had gotten cheap enough that everyone in the family could have their own and were remote controlled, which meant that changing the channel was trivial. And they heated up and started displaying images almost immediately, which meant that you didn’t have to turn your television on in advance of what you wanted to watch. Both of these cut against the always-on lineup based model of television that Doctor Who had been a part of.
Nathan-Turner was not a stupid man. A tasteless one, perhaps, but not a stupid one. With the Saturday slot dying he oversaw the program shifting timeslots to where it would air twice weekly on Mondays and Tuesdays. This was actually a big deal, making the front page of the Sun when it was announced. First, it changed the nature of what the show was. Doctor Who still only made 26 episodes a year, meaning that from Season 19 on it was only around for a quarter of the year. This is another massive change from the “always on” model of the first six seasons and the “around for half the year” model of the next twelve. Doctor Who was no longer a continual part of the fabric of television.
Second, Doctor Who was now a show that had to draw its own set of fans. On Saturday Doctor Who could draw from the whole country as long as it wasn’t appreciably worse than whatever ITV was showing – and even then it would do OK if the rest of the Saturday lineup was strong. But on Mondays and Tuesdays Doctor Who has to get people to turn on the television in the first place. This, in other words, is the real impetus for Nathan-Turner switching to trying to appeal to Doctor Who fans first and foremost. Having lost access to the family audience that had defined Doctor Who for eighteen years he made the obvious switch to trying to win a sci-fi cult audience. For all that his continuity fetishism is knocked, one has to remember that there was a sensible motive behind it. What Doctor Who was had to change.
But in the accusation that the Davison era is a soap there’s an interesting secondary narrative going on. The usual story is that Nathan-Turner changed to a model of continuity fetishism. And he did, yes. Absolutely. But the idea that he did this entirely to appeal to a cult science fiction audience is not quite fair. Had Doctor Who simply moved to a weekday slot and aired one episode a week it would look like any other cult science fiction show. But it didn’t. It aired twice weekly. And that suggests something entirely different.
The twice weekly timeslot was due to the BBC conducting early experiments for what would eventually become EastEnders – which, of course, we’ll pop between realities for in 1993. But the schedule picked for EastEnders was just the schedule used for ITV soaps like Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm (then starring Frazer Hines as Joe Sugden). In other words, the “Davison soap” description of Doctor Who is apropos not just because of the bickering companions and unusually large main cast (it’s the first time Doctor Who has had a cast of four that appeared in every episode since the UNIT days, and the first time it’s combined that with travel in time and space since The Chase), but because it is actually airing in a soap opera timeslot. And the bickering crew isn’t the only soaplike element of it. Nathan-Turner nicked the silent credits at the end of Earthshock from Coronation Street as well. Plus, it’s worth remembering at this point that Doctor Who was, in fact, a broadly popular show and not just a show for adolescent male sci-fi fans. When you combine all of this the hypothesis begins to look clear – Nathan-Turner was overtly trying to cobble together a broad audience for Doctor Who by merging the obviously similar genres of soaps and science fiction. He’s attempting the transition that happened over the course of the late 90s and early 00s about fifteen years early. He fails spectacularly, of course, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that this is what’s supposed to be happening here. (Even the casting of Davison, already appearing in All Creatures Great and Small and Sink or Swim, suggests an effort to go for a broadly appealing and known television personality)
And so, in order to better serve you, my readers, I watched a month’s worth of period Coronation Street. Unfortunately, the accessibility of vintage Coronation Street is limited. The closest I could get to the time in question and get consecutive episodes (instead of a “best of” set that wouldn’t capture the feel of watching the show) was December of 1979. And so I watched all nine episodes from December of 1979. For you. My readers. You bastards.
Actually, I shouldn’t be that hard on the show. The appeal of it is relatively straightforward and no more trashy than Daleks. By the end of the ninth episode I could more or less understand why someone would watch the show. Which is not a huge surprise given that I’ve followed my fair share of American primetime soaps in my day. (Both Grey’s Anatomy and The OC have, on occasion, been quite good.)
The way that a soap opera works is fairly straightforward. You build a large ensemble cast of characters up and then you serialize plotlines for small subsets of them over several episodes while avoiding ever starting or finishing more than one plot per episode. Contrary to the stereotype that soaps feature decades-simmering plotlines that are impossible to jump in on, this rapid churn of plots actually makes jumping on fairly easy. The first episode or two is rough, but after that there’s usually a solid majority of any given episode that you can follow because it’s either introducing new plotlines or continuing things you’ve seen a lot of, and by the end of one month’s worth of viewing there were only a few characters I didn’t have the gist of.
But equally important is the fact that long-time viewers are rewarded. This comes in two real forms. The first is relatively familiar to a sci-fi fan, and that’s the continuity reference. Old characters make returns, for instance, or a long-ago plotline comes to the fore. For instance, in one of the episodes I watched Elsie Tanner, a character who had been absent for a month or so’s episodes, returns and has a fight with another character with whom she clearly shared a long-running plotline. The major purpose of this scene is obviously to tie up those long-running plotlines. But what’s interesting is that the scene pulls double duty. The nature of their relationship is reiterated in their dialogue, and the scene equally serves as a good introduction to Elsie’s character.
This sort of back-referencing, at least if Wikipedia articles are to be believed, continues today – hardly a departed character on the show doesn’t have some mention of an episode years after they left in which their final fate (usually death) is announced. And, of course, it’s implicit in doing something like bringing a character back over forty years after their last appearance.
But there’s a second type of reward for long-time viewers, and that comes in the form of character consistency. Long-running characters in soaps typically get plotlines or moments where what is significant is not a specific reference to their history but rather the fact that they act in a manner consistent with their character type. The most charming moment along these lines in the month I watched was when Annie Walker, the landlady at the Rovers Return (the requisite and iconic pub) chats up the obligatory punk rocker character and gets along with him well – a moment that is fun primarily because Annie Walker has been on the show since the first episode and it reconfirms her defining character traits of being gracious and discerning. What’s significant about this that, even though it is not a moment that depends on any long-term knowledge of the show, it’s still one that rewards it. It’s significant primarily if you have a built-up appreciation of Annie Walker. A similar moment appears in the first episode of December, in which Hilda Ogden, a character defined in no small part by her ability to irritate everybody else in the show, is shut out from a wedding reception. Annie gives her an opportunity to pick up a shift working at the inn, giving her a tacit invitation – another small character moment that is endearing because of the existence of prior investment in the characters as opposed to because of its own intrinsic dramatic tension.
In this, then, we can already see the seeds of where Nathan-Turner’s efforts to soapify Doctor Who fails. The ability to build these character moments is based on the long-term consistency of characters – on the fact that Annie and Hilda are behaving in line with over a decade of previous stories. But Nathan-Turner never really pays the sort of attention to long-term character needed to do things like this. The lack of any reaction among Nyssa, Tegan, and the Master after what happens in Logopolis badly undermines the soap tendencies of Doctor Who, because a soap savvy audience recognizes those moments as the very definition of ones in which the history of characters is supposed to pay off.
It’s also worth discussing the biggest difference between Doctor Who and Coronation Street. It is, perhaps surprisingly, not the existence of aliens and time travel. Rather it is that Doctor Who is thoroughly middle class and Coronation Street is thoroughly working class. This is particularly clear when you look at the cast making up the ostensible Davison soap: a noblewoman, a boy computer genius, a cricketeer, and an Australian stewardess. Tegan is the closest thing the series has to working class, and her foreignness and exotic job mitigate strongly against that.
Compare to Coronation Street, where the show is almost entirely dominated by working class people who often struggle to make ends meet. It’s a sharp difference, and it’s one that Doctor Who suffers from. The last working class regular it had was Sergeant Benton. The last working class character who filled the traditional companion role was Ben. And although it makes a stuttering effort at it with Ace in 1987 it’s not really until Russell T. Davies goes with a Mancunian Doctor and working class companion in 2005 that this can really be said to be addressed at all substantially.
But this is not to say that Coronation Street doesn’t have its own problems. First of all, it’s downright appalling that a working class show in 1979 would have an all white cast. Coronation Street doesn’t get its first black major character until 1983, two years after Toxteth. While some defense can be mounted on the grounds that Coronation Street is set in a fictional Salford, which is not a very racially diverse part of Greater Manchester, the fact of the matter is that a depiction of working class Britain consisting entirely of white people is… troubling. And yes, the same criticism can be made of Doctor Who in this time period, but for Doctor Who that’s just a reiteration of the complaint that it’s entirely middle and upper class. For Coronation Street, it’s something else.
Actually, much of Coronation Street’s portrayal of the working class is troubling. In particular, Hilda Ogden is…
OK, I’m at least going to flag explicitly that I’m wandering miles outside of my comfort area in terms of speaking authoritatively. I’m as thoroughly middle class as they come in upbringing, I’m frankly overeducated, and on top of that I’m American. Working class British politics from several years before I was born as portrayed in soap operas, a genre I don’t really watch is… not my area of expertise by a mile. And so I am open to being told I am miles off base here. That said…
Hilda Ogden is an absolute travesty of a character. The fact that she was voted the greatest soap opera character ever in a Radio Times poll 17 years after her last appearance, was voted in 1982 the fourth most recognizable woman in Britain – topping Thatcher – and is generally one of Coronation Street’s most beloved characters is deeply, deeply upsetting.
One of the things that is most difficult in discussing class issues when on, if not the winning side of class warfare, at least appreciably far from the losing side, is how to balance the obvious need to not just respect the working class but substantively honor and depict working class narratives with the fact that the vicissitudes of class conflict in the modern world have systematically deprived much of the working class of the education and breadth of experience necessary to avoid a wealth of bigotries. In the United States this is an aggressively pressing problem. Simply put, much of the Republican base are the people most hurt by Republican policies, but the Republican policies that hurt them make it harder to effectively communicate this problem to them. And nobody likes the rich liberal who tries to “explain things” to the working class, and understandably so because that’s horrifically egotistical.
The result of all of this is that it’s very easy to create images of the working class that valorize closed-minded, bigoted, and destructive attitudes as part of working class culture. And that is exactly what Hilda ends up doing. She is designed to be a nasty and unpleasant woman who is cruel to those around her, suspicious and contemptuous of those from different backgrounds to her, and who, in the entire month of episodes I watched, basically never did a single nice thing for any other character at all. She is a horrible, horrible person with no redeeming character traits whatsoever.
But she is also intensely working class and is vividly depicted. She is, in other words, other than being a horrible person exactly what one wants when one says that the working class is underrepresented on television. She is well-acted with a wealth of carefully chosen traits that bring authenticity to the role. Her storylines frequently have her struggle with money troubles and the miseries and degradations that come with being in the working poor.
The result is that she is beloved despite the fact that she exemplifies the worst traits of the working class. And no matter how complex that love is – the show is very much aware of her cruelty and the rest of the characters show little respect for her – the fact of the matter is that she normatizes the idea that ignorance and bigotry are traits to be proud of in the working class. Indeed, the fact that she’s beloved by the audience and frequently hated by the other characters only adds a perversity to her negative traits. Given that she is beloved because of her continual perseverance through adversity the fact that she is derided for her ignorance, nosiness, and cruelty by other characters only becomes another source of adversity.
She is, in other words, the very image of the sort of Murdochian class consciousness that renders the working class proud of their own self-destruction. And this, if I may turn back to Doctor Who, illustrates a key point about it even as it continues to amble through a wealth of racial, sexual, and economic blindnesses that are genuinely and deeply problematic. Merely representing the working class or various minorities (both statistical minorities and large but underrepresented groups) is not a panacea. The most class-blind moments of the Graham Williams era – and virtually the entire Graham Williams era was completely class blind, as is the bulk of the Nathan-Turner era – are preferable to Hilda Ogden.