We are the Masters of Earth

Graham Kibble-White on the Doctor Who fanbase

First published July 2000

In putting together a Doctor Who section for OTT, we obviously felt a little edgy; Doctor Who, more than any other British TV programme, comes with baggage. It’s generally accepted that a certain sort of person likes Doctor Who. And that sort of person is a Doctor Who Fan. Now this isn’t quite the self-evident statement it may appear; whereas Coronation Street has viewers (and I pick on the Street with not a little malice; see Ian Jones’ Timed Travel for further details) Who has but fans.

OK, because I am a fan of Doctor Who, you will find within this article a lot of hedging and shuffling sideways, as I nervously qualify each statement: I’m not attempting here to rubbish fans, or set myself apart from them – from us – however I do firmly believe that the Doctor Who fanbase has been ultimately detrimental to the series itself.

Doctor Who has “but fans”, say I. The development of a fanbase for any programme is patently a positive move to be encouraged by the production; here is a definite, specified audience – ready-made customers who are usefully vocal in their praise and criticism. And yet – you’ll have caught my drift here – the “but” preface obviously indicates that somehow Doctor Who is at a disadvantage to Coronation Street. Aside from providing a reflexive, committed audience, the fan base itself is also a closed shop. Anyone can be a viewer, but there is a rites of passage that must be undertaken in becoming a fan. How could I seriously describe myself as a Doctor Who fan unless I could name every Doctor (in order!), reveal the acronym for TARDIS (which I steadfastly and correctly write in upper-case), give you the Brigadier’s middle name and tell you the date upon which JFK was assassinated? The thing is, I would contest that the popular perception of Doctor Who, as the programme rattled on into the arse-end of the ’80s, was that its entire viewership could also supply you with that information. No more viewers. Fans. And that litany of trivia and facts is the antithesis of fun and accessibility. Doctor Who itself became a closed shop.

That wasn’t always the way. Writing for the Doctor Who Magazine in 1998, Paul Cornell waxed in appreciation of a 1979 Tom Baker story entitled “City of Death”. Set in Paris, this was a wonderfully silly story with a delicious cameo by John Cleese and Eleanor Bron and a memorable villain in the form of Scaroth (generally remembered as “the man with worms for a face”). More importantly, however, and to quote Cornell, this came from an era “when Doctor Who wasn’t the precious thing of a tiny minority, but the common currency of British television, with all the everyday competence and rough bravado that implies.” Of course, the fact that this tale’s viewing figures were the series’ best ever (peaking at 16.1 million, although benefiting from the technicians’ strike which had taken ITV off the air) adds an easy sort of credence to that assertion. But it’s still a good point. From our current perspective it’s almost impossible to imagine Doctor Who as the popular family series it once was. The programme, whilst arguably held in more affection, essentially had the same place in the viewer’s life as, for example, Casualty today. It was part of your night’s viewing. It was watched out of habit and enjoyed, but once that last howl of the theme fell away it wasn’t held diligently in the consciousness until the next episode (although the National Viewers and Listener’s Association would have otherwise). Similarly, to state openly that one watched Doctor Who wasn’t to evoke the rather edgy connotations such an admission would bring today. Everyone watched Doctor Who then; everyone was a fan from Michael Parkinson, to the mother and daughter team who stalked around the house rasping “we are Ice Warriors!”

Can it be stated, with any assurance, when the series moved out of the public domain and into the ownership of the fans? Probably not, although I can make a few assertions here which generally pinpoint certain evolutions within the production of the series. A proviso, however; it’s not the business of this article to get into any sort of theorizing about various movements backstage within the Doctor Who production office. We’ll stick to what happened up front, on the screen. So here’s a few thoughts offered on a fire and forget basis …

The amendment of the closing titles in 1980 advising us that Tom Baker played “The Doctor” rather than “Doctor Who” (as had been the case for the previous 17 years) seemed like a prickly correction, and one that the fans, in their growing earnestness, had been itching to make. “He’s not called Doctor Who, the programme’s Doctor Who!” – one of the many reasons why the two Peter Cushing films of the sixties are generally despised, in fact. In conjunction, there appeared to be a slight shift in the emphasis of the series – previously it simply just “was”; a popular mainstream teatime programme. Now, it began to develop a degree of self-awareness, and an inflated sense of its own importance. Of course, self-awareness in Doctor Who wasn’t a new discovery. Back in 1978 Tom Baker had looked straight into camera and commented “even the sonic screwdriver won’t get me out of this one”, and further back still to December 1965, William Hartnell had turned to camera and proclaimed “and a merry Christmas to all of you at home!” Such asides were products of whimsy, the former tartly undercutting the arbitrariness of many of the programme’s dramatic conventions and the latter simply a silly concession to seasonal good cheer. However back in 1980 self-awareness began to grip the programme in another manner. Doctor Who became to regard itself as more than just mainstream TV and asides to the programme’s past were made with the confidence that a “mythos” was being invoked. As though Doctor Who was now a text. In real terms, this is as misplaced as EastEnders‘ name-checking Reg Cox – and expecting us to know the relevance (which of course, it did: but that was during it’s 15th anniversary edition when such self-indulgence is acceptable). The programme was talking baby-steps away from the mainstream where TV lives and dies within its own timeslot, and moving slowly towards the ghetto – and the fans who awaited it there.

Sidebar time again: None of the above is to actually criticize the series en masse throughout the ’80s. And in fact the stretch of stories within which the change of emphasis began are soundly enjoyable and equal to anything else from the series’ past. The problem is: Doctor Who itself seemed to realize that … and started getting smug.

For the casual viewer (who still existed then), Doctor Who through the early part of the 1980s was characterized by lots of scenes of Peter Davison and his assistants talking in the TARDIS. The fans liked this sort of stuff, it seems. They – we – were fascinated by the TARDIS anyway and the idea of the Doctor actually having something approaching a “realistic” relationship with his co-travellers was appealing. We wanted to see Doctor Who explore its concepts as though they were real. For our casual viewer, however, it was perhaps a bit boring. The programme required a little more investment now – there was no longer the quick-fix of jokes, of easygoing stories and ever present jeopardy. The Doctor found himself trapped in recursive occlusions, and butting heads with old enemies – ah so it was Omega all the time (last seen 10 years ago and surely only remembered by an audience that should have long-since outgrown the programme)! This is not to rubbish per se the policy of bringing back old characters: but to cliff-hang on the recognition of one (the Cybermen’s return after seven years) is asking a mite too much. The Reg Cox Factor again. Significantly, the story titles had changed too: would you rather an “Arc of Infinity” or a “Terror of the Autons”? Which sounds more exciting: “Enlightenment” or “The Stones of Blood”? The series was drawing itself in, becoming more credible, but less showy … less accessible. Despite this, Who could still be considered part of the mainstream; it was the equivalent of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or The A-Team, both at the time considered to be the other side of the same coin. Most importantly, to be a Doctor Who fan was still a realistic proposition for the socially conscious schoolboy.

Untempered the programme rolled on into the mid-’80s to face threat of cancellation as it headed into its 23rd series. Suddenly “time” had been called and for the fans we found ourselves lumbered with a series that, despite a show of public support for our Doctor In Distress, no one really seemed to like or understand. The viewer was beginning to see that Doctor Who wasn’t for them anymore; and it was essentially this that Michael Grade verbalized. Colin Baker’s portrayal was an interesting attempt at pushing the accepted parameters of the programme, but his characterization seemed to be formulated specifically to challenge the fan; a bold but narrow-sighted undertaking. The following year, the fans were to be even more challenged by the casting of Bonnie Langford, an ill-judged but good-hearted effort to pursue a more populist path, signifying that Doctor Who was indeed still primarily a family show. But of course it wasn’t; Who had found the niche. Thus we found the series in a worst of both worlds scenario, the mainstream audience for so long ignored had finally turned their backs on the Doctor whilst the fans were now quite ostracized. Of course, the irony is that fan culture, being what it is, always reveres a perception of how Doctor Who really should be, based on the last “era” (a fan-ish term) but one. If Doctor Who was still in production now it would surely be deemed but a “pale shadow” (the fan-ish criticism) of the Langford Era.

From thereon in the series was pretty much an irrelevance for all bar the committed ones. When Sylvester McCoy squared-off against the Daleks so little seemed at stake. Only five million of us got involved – although it has to be said we were well entertained. Alas, the conversations the next day in lunch-breaks across the land were based around the mugging of Alec Gilroy and not that Daleks could actually go upstairs. And it was somewhere during this last leg of our trek that to be a Doctor Who viewer became a social no-no. Somewhere between Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy the Doctor became persona non grata. Perhaps it was simply because the programme had weeded out all the casual viewers, that those left could only be an overly enthused minority. Enthusiasm worries people, generally. It makes them uncomfortable. Enthusiasm for a TV programme within which – crucially – the effects aren’t even very good, borders on the offensive.

From this reading, it would seem that the series was very much hoisted by its own petard, playing to the fan (at times positively provoking the fan), and forgetting everyone else. But that’s not quite the case. During the height of The Bonnie Langford Era, the BBC’s Did You See …? featured a nine-minute slot entitled “Doctor Who in Decline.” Included in the programme, amongst others, was super-fan Ian Levine who explained: “The last eight or nine years have seen a very steep decline in the quality of the show and it’s become a sort of mockery pantomime version of its former self”. Two years previously Levine had appeared in the popular press, smashing up a television set in protest over the postponement of the 23rd series. Now he was boasting: “I have seen every single Doctor Who episode that has ever been transmitted. There were actually a couple I missed at the time when they were actually on the air but of course I have got them on video since then so I am now in the position to say I have seen every single one and missed nothing … Apart from getting a video collection together and having every Doctor Who apart from 118 episodes which are missing and lost forever unless some private film collector turn up copies, I’ve got a pretty amazing collection of TV scripts from the series, a lot of the original props … a couple of hundred of the old black and white recordings which I like to keep on film (that way if the video’s damaged the film’s preserved), and a lot of books from around the world; a lot of American magazines on the show and a lot of British mags …” Here Levine is staking a claim to the series, his vast list of Who treasures marking him out as a fan who has paid his dues (reminding us of the fan rites of passage) and now has more of a claim to the ownership of Doctor Who than the programme-makers themselves, and fatally, the “normal” viewing public. “It’s my show” is Levine’s message. And there therefore by extension the Doctor has become tainted by the grasping ambitions of a man who would seem to the majority of the public as – well – a bit weird. Overly acquisitive, obsessive: a bit of an anorak. But it’s actually even worse than that. Our man Levine – the anorak who owns Who – doesn’t even rate it. This message would be carried, although in coded form, by the press (“Fans’ verdict on Time Lord – exterminate!” was The Star’s headline).

This struggle for the ownership of the series between the fans and the programme-makers reached its climax in 1991 when a coterie of enthusiasts mobilized and created the “Save Doctor Who” campaign, an effort using legal action and a proposed mass phone-in to the BBC on 30 November to force the Corporation into making a new series. Whatever harm this highly-strung project may have done to the profile of the series was incidental, it was dead now anyway, although it reflected badly on the fans who proved they were people not to do business with. The mass phone-in turned into something of a misfire, and a squabble as the fans argued with the BBC over how many calls were actually made. Whatever the true story was, it did seem clear that this folly was vastly under subscribed. By the middle of the following year, the legal action was dropped, but pledges were made instead to dethrone BBC1 controller Jonathan Powell: “Doctor Who can only realistically come back on BBC1, and that means lobbying for a change of Controller!” Another grandiose gesture as the fanbase grappled for control.

From time to time, there’s talk of a Doctor Who comeback, normally as a theatrical release. It scares us fans rigid. Since the early ’90s we’ve finally accepted that – yes – the BBC can stiff us but the dignified thing to do is just let it pass. With no Who in production there’s actually not much else to fight about. But every time there’s a rumble of a revival we get a little twitchy. We don’t want to see someone else making Doctor Who, because it would no longer be ours (and that’s what it is, now). Who as an ongoing concern would steal the Doctor away from us. And more than that, we actively don’t want to see the Doctor on cinema screens by which means he would be taken to other countries; to the world. It would put him in a sphere within which we would have no influence – yet only our interpretation of the series is right, only we know how to respond to him. And only we may say what is Doctor Who.

The irony is, of course, that to have Doctor Who stolen from us would actually be to see justice being done. Because we stole it first. We stole it from the family audience, the casual viewer, the mainstream. It’s they who should feel aggrieved; yet it is they who will cope best if – when – the Doctor returns.