By Mac Rogers
(Editor's Note: What we often forget about fandom is that many creators are themselves fans. I'm not talking about fan fiction (although that's it's own rich field) but rather what we think of as "respectable" writers. Jonathan Lethem, for example, was one of the founding members of the Philip K. Dick society prior to writing his first novels. Many young novelists and essayists consider themselves David Foster Wallace fans and while the conferences they attend on him are academic or literary in nature, they're still "cons" with their own social rules, shibboleths, pecking orders etc.
No where is the line between fan and writer thinner than in the worlds of what gets called "genre fiction." Joss Whedon is an obvious example-- as is George RR Martin who emerged from and is heavily a part of the Convention Universe-- but many science fiction, comic book and fantasy writers began as fans before they started creating their own work. Below, playwriting badass Mac Rogers talks about his love of Doctor Who, and how he's learned from it how to create out of his fannish impulses.)
First off, there’s almost nothing you need to know to watch an episode of Doctor Who. Here’s the basic breakdown:
- It’s about a man called the Doctor who travels through time and space in a machine that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside. He usually travels with young human (platonic) companions.
- Everywhere in time and space that the Doctor parks his ship, he finds himself having to contend with a pretty high-stakes situation, usually involving extraterrestrials. He seems to fend off scary monsters as much with his wit and compassion as with his vast intelligence.
- The Doctor looks human, but he’s not. He’s a Time Lord. All you need to know about that is that Time Lords live for a really long time (the Doctor’s way older than he looks) and that when they suffer a lethal injury of any kind, the “regenerate” – meaning they transform their body into a new healthy one.
And that’s it. For an almost 50-year-old science fiction series with a vast, intricate mythology. To watch almost any individual story, the bullet-points above are plenty – actually more than enough. You can be a hardcore Doctor Who fan if you want – and I’ve been at least a medium-core fan since I was eight years old – but you don’t really have to be to one enjoy it.
The relationship between Doctor Who and its fans is definitely one of the weirder fandom histories out there. Who fans in the US often forget that in the United Kingdom, the show has nearly always been broadly popular family entertainment. The original series (what is now called “Classic Who”) stayed on the air for 26 years due to a ramshackle hodgepodge of luck and innovation (Raymond Cusick’s design of the hugely popular villains the Daleks, the idea of regeneration keeping the show from being dependent on any one lead actor for example), but a big part if it was just that on Saturday evening, that’s what was on. It was aimed at both adults and children, viewers didn’t have a whole lot of choice (most of Classic Who aired pre-cable), so that’s just what folks sat down and watched. Doctor Who was a tradition, a habit.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Doctor Who fandom grew to a level that it began to actively influence the show itself. Prior to that, the only “continuity” on Who involved recurring popular monsters (the Daleks, the Cybermen) and recurring popular characters (the Brigadier, the Master). Very little effort was expended on making the scattered appearances of these characters sew together into one logical timeline. Indeed, two of the great Who classics of the seventies, “Genesis of the Daleks” and “The Deadly Assassin,” thrived on actively throwing out much of what the series had already established about Daleks and Time Lords. This is probably why active fan influence on the series initially proved to be so disastrous: a long-running show that went through so many creative regimes was already just about the most crowd-sourced thing on television. Adding fan input on top of that toppled the whole thing over.
John Nathan-Turner, who took over running Doctor Who in 1980, was the show’s first producer to spend a lot of time on the fan circuit, and the first to actively solicit input from superfans like Ian Levine. And here’s where the problem comes in: unlike general audiences – who tuned into the show for an enjoyable weekly adventure about a mysterious hero who uses his wits and worldliness to defeat the forces of evil and didn’t much care if the Time Lords of “The Deadly Assassin” were different from the Time Lords of “The War Games” seven years earlier – fans wanted everything to tie together in one logical continuity.
And that’s not Doctor Who. This isn’t one of those tightly controlled franchises, there’s no George Lucas or Roddenberry family overseeing every spinoff. Doctor Who is a baton that’s been handed off again and again for fifty years. It’s an endlessly self-reinventing story about a nameless man who enters stories and gorgeously disrupts them by the force of his personality and brilliance. It’s borderline folk art.
But when you’re a fan (and I include myself in this), that’s hard to accept. As a fan you want an airtight fictional universe. As Philip Sandifer points out frequently in his wonderful Tardis Eruditorium blog (http://tardiseruditorum.blogspot.com/), the rise of Doctor Who fandom coincided with the rise of home video and the release of many older Who episodes on video or in novelization form. When you suddenly have access to more than the story they’re airing in a particular week, your expectations change. Suddenly you want a 1967 Patrick Toughton story about the Cybermen to synch up perfectly to a 1982 Peter Davison story about the Cybermen, and that’s crazy. There’s been fan rage aplenty about continuity failures in Battlestar Galactica and Lost, and those shows only aired a few years each and were run by the same people the whole time.
So as Doctor Who became more nostalgia- and continuity-obsessed in the ‘80s, the scripts plummeted in quality, the audiences dwindled, and eventually the BBC canceled it in 1989. But an interesting thing happened then: the super-fans who are often blamed for killing the show became the ones who kept it alive. These were the fans writing the New Adventures novels and the Big Finish audio adventures that kept the Doctor Who flame alive through sixteen years and one failed American revival (which astonishingly tried to maintain continuity while piling on even more mythology) until Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies properly resurrected the show on the BBC in 2005.
Davies is a divisive figure for Who fans, but I just freaking love him. Here you have a hardcore, I mean hardcore fan who was able to set aside his encyclopedic knowledge of the series in order to focus on that core story again: the brilliant, compassionate adventurer who travels time and space with a young human companion. Davies hit on the brilliant idea of reintroducing the Doctor to viewers through the eyes of the companion, Rose Tyler. We never needed to know more about him than Rose did. The storyline unfolded, instead of being info-dumped on us.
Sure, I’ll concede that a lot of Davies’ tactics were crass (the icky Doctor-companion ‘shipping (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shipping_(fandom)), awkwardly working “The Weakest Link” into a storyline, etc.), but you know what? It worked. Doctor Who is back on television with a legion of new fans and an unprecedented level of global popularity. If you’re a Who fan, you owe Davies big. And that’s before you even take into account his signature accomplishment with what many people call “Nu Who.” He didn’t completely discard Nathan-Turner’s engagement with fandom. He just replaced the continuity-porn with something subtler and more fascinating: he made Doctor Who, to a large extent, a show about fandom.
In “Rose,” the first episode of the 2005 revival, Rose Tyler tries to learn more about the Doctor after a fleeting initial encounter. She tracks down a chubby, balding man who keeps a scrapbook filled with sightings of the Doctor while his family rolls their eyes indulgently. The scene is unquestionably about a Classic Who fan trying to pass on his interest to a younger generation. Once Season 1 of Nu-Who was a success, an emboldened Davies amped up this theme with Season 2’s startling “Love and Monsters,” which revolved around an eclectic group of ordinary Londoners who had all briefly run into the Doctor at one point or another and haven’t been able to shake their fascination. They find one another over the internet and start meeting up in person. Initially their meetings are all about the Doctor, but gradually they start opening up to one another about their lives and even form a fun, impromptu band.
“Love and Monsters” is rightly criticized for being too inside baseball (the villain is an Ian Levine caricature) and for ending on an unbelievably misguided sex joke (it’s on Netflix Instant if you want to suffer through it), but Davies’ vision of the positive side of fandom here is worth considering. Davies is saying: fandom is a beginning, not an end. If you and several other people love the same TV show, then that must mean you all love certain qualities that the show exemplifies, and that shared love is the basis for a deeper human bond that transcends the original interest.
When Steven Moffat took over Doctor Who in 2010, he took Davies’ fandom metaphor to a new level with the stunning Season 5, which is about a woman named Amy Pond who had a dramatic encounter with the Doctor as a child, and, although she didn’t see him again for twelve years, never forgot him. And it’s Amy’s memories, at the climax of the season, that end up saving the Doctor from obliteration. For a series that is primarily run by and written by former fans, this is a pretty defiant mission statement: The things you cherished most in your childhood are in fact not to be put away when you become an adult. They can in fact be integrated into your adult life.
But it’s Davies I want to return to, when I think about how fandom has affected me as a writer of science fiction plays. Specifically a speech he wrote for an episode of his Doctor Who spinoff series Torchwood. You don’t need to know much context: aliens are menacing the Earth, the Earth’s governments are cow-towing to them in the most craven manner possible, and one of the heroes, Gwen, wonders why the Doctor (who’s never appeared on the show before) hasn’t interceded. Gwen speculates, “All those times in history when there was no sign of him, I wanted to know why not, but I don't need to ask anymore. I know the answer now. Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame.”
Now on one level this speech is ludicrous. The Doctor’s seen all manner of human misbehavior on the show and never turned away in shame before. This goes beyond continuity, this is kind of series-betraying. But more than that: we don’t need to know why the Doctor didn’t prevent the Holocaust or the Spanish Inquisition. We understand, instinctively that real life is well outside the mandate of Doctor Who. (It reminds me of the hilarious bit in Die Another Day where they make a point of noting that James Bond was locked up in a North Korean prison on 9/11, as if the question on everyone’s lips that day was “Where was Bond?”)
But on another level I love this speech. I love the desolation of it, and the way it takes responsibility in the wake of that desolation. The Doctor, the one who’s better than all of us, the one who swoops in and makes everything all right… well he’s not coming today. It’s just us. The highly fallible humans. The ones who can’t escape in a time machine. The ones who can die. Either we’re going to solve this problem or no one will.
I just finished a rewrite on the final installment of The Honeycomb Trilogy, a science fiction epic for the stage. When you regularly write in a genre of which you are also a fan, there’s always a delicate balance to be struck between the instincts of the fan and the instincts of the storyteller. Fan impulses aren’t usually helpful in the writing process. As a fan I want something I like to expand into perpetuity, but as a writer I need the discipline of established endpoints. As a fan I want to spend scene after scene just hanging out with the characters and getting to know them, but as a writer I need to move the story forward. As a fan I want to prioritize world-building over sticking to the throughline of the drama, but the storyteller in me wants the opposite. The fan wants my characters to do the right thing and be happy. The writer wants them to do whatever makes sense to get what they want, and for the natural consequences to follow.
But rather than repressing the fan side of myself, I prefer to take a page from Davies and react to it instead. I, very consciously, write science fiction set in a world without the Doctor. No mysterious, witty stranger is going to save the day. No character has an ageless, omniscient view of events; everyone can only see through the narrow slats of their own prejudice and desperation. No one regenerates; if they die, they die. And no one gets to fly away in a time machine when it’s over. If they survive, they have to make a life in the aftermath. The Doctor’s not there in The Honeycomb Trilogy, and I never completely forget that. For a fan, the story of adulthood is quite often the story of heartbreak, of the discovery that the beautiful thing you cherished as a child doesn’t really exist.
But that’s really, really okay. If the Doctor materialized outside my house tonight and offered to take me with him, I wouldn’t go, and not just because I’d be afraid. My loved ones are here. My stories are here. I’m happy to stay on the ground and be a fan.