Sorry to throw two book reviews at you in a week, but, well, there were two books to review this week. Next week I’ll use the off-day posts for angry polemics or something.
Mad Norwegian was kind enough to offer me a review copy of their upcoming Queers Dig Time Lords. Which is lovely of them. Lovelier, however, is the fact that they actually made the book good.
I mean, it’s not like it was a huge risk. Mad Norwegian are probably the best publishers of Doctor Who-related material going right now. Their “As dig Bs” series is consistently and rightly acclaimed. I met several of the folks involved in the original book in the line, Chicks Dig Time Lords, at DePaul, and they were all wonderful. Perspectives on geek culture from people outside the normative band of what fans look like.
But this one is more important than that. I mean, I don’t normally want to go for what I’ve heard memorably described as the Oppression Olympics whereby we try to figure out which repressed group has it worse. And in this case, I still don’t want to. But nevertheless… well, let’s just look at a quick list, shall we?
John Nathan-Turner, Matthew Waterhouse, Ian Levine, Gary Downie, Peter Grimwade, Gareth Roberts, Russell T Davies, John Barrowman, Gary Russell, Paul Magrs, Mark Gatiss, Phil Collinson. It’s not a complete list by any stretch of the imagination. I’m 100% certain there are major figures not on it. It’s just a list of prominent Doctor Who figures who I know off the top of my head are gay. And that’s just off the top of my head.
Which is to say that there’s a particular reason this book matters. Because gay Doctor Who fandom was and is a real thing. The reasons for this are not simple, but are at least articulable. Paul Magrs has a fantastic essay leading off this volume that does it – basically, between the lack of overt sexual desire on the part of the Doctor and the high camp of the series, it became very, very easy to perform a queer reading of it in which the Doctor is closeted. And many did. But note also that there’s no coherent approach or vision of Doctor Who across that list: it’s next to impossible to imagine any opinion on Doctor Who shared by Ian Levine, Gareth Roberts, and Mark Gatiss. Gay fandom is not some monolithic bloc of approaches. It’s just very large, and has been around for decades now, albeit without any real acknowledgement from the series.
This is one of the very important things about The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances – it marks the point where that closet is finally detonated. And detonated in an explicitly queer way – the episode goes out of its way to confirm that the Doctor is not just a straight bloke. Whatever one might think about having a sexualized Doctor, it has to be understood: there’s a huge, huge group of fans who put a lot of effort into the program for whom the Doctor’s final “who with” is the cathartic endpoint of decades of marginalization.
Queers Dig Time Lords is not a book about saying things like that, though. At least not at length. It’s a book about people’s stories and the role Doctor Who has played in their lives. It’s not an academic tome of soaring ambition and complexity. Who would want something that twee anyway? This is a fun anthology to read an essay or two out of a day over the course of a few weeks. It’s not the analysis of why The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is so important to the history of gay Doctor Who fandom. It’s the story of people watching it and realizing that their moment had come. And dozens of other stories. It’s effectively an oral history of queer Doctor Who fandom, including the gay male fandom scene of the 80s and 90s that proved so influential in bringing the program back, but also including queer fans of the new series, gays and lesbians who liked the series but weren’t active in fandom while it was off the air, and most other angles.
We have surely gotten to the point (he says with maximum irony) that we do not need any more episode-by-episode surveys of Doctor Who – the episodes themselves are so widely available that there’s virtually nothing left to do in terms of recounting what Doctor Who is. This is what a useful book on Doctor Who looks like in 2013 – not some anniversary nostalgia piece but a document that shows its impact on the world.
Put another way, this is the secret of Doctor Who’s alchemy – the impact it has on the world. Its material social progress. It’s probably the most important book on Doctor Who that’s coming out this year.
Queers Dig Time Lords is out from Mad Norwegian on June 4th.