A Showrunner Goes To War: Doctor Who and the Almost Fans?

June 6, 2011
By | 18 Comments

With episode 6.06 having transmitted in the US, and 6.07 – the ‘game-changing’ midseries finale – already broadcast in the UK, this week seems like a good time to ponder the issue of Doctor Who spoilers. Continuing my focus on authorship, I want to consider how the online fan culture of spoiler-hunting impacts on notions of authorial craft and control.

Showrunner Steven Moffat recently berated Doctor Who fans for posting full details of episodes one and two after the series six launch: “can you imagine how much I hate them? …It’s only fans who do this – or they call themselves fans – I wish they could go and be fans of something else!” Seemingly having a “Bastards” moment (Russell T. Davies’s infamous title for chapter three of The Writer’s Tale discussing Internet fandom), rebellious fans were once again the problem.

I’m not interested in whether Moffat was right or wrong, but rather in the performative nature of his statement – in what it does more than what it says. Back in Triumph of a Time Lord I identified the “info-war” that’s been symbolically fought between the fans and producers of NuWho. Sections of fandom have consistently sought spoilers ahead of broadcast, acting as pre-textual poachers by contesting the interests of brand guardians long before the TV text has unfolded. Already, following Moffat’s critique, Internet fandom has divided into collaborative and rebel camps: Doctor Who Online has declared itself “spoiler-free”, while Gallifrey Base continues to allow spoilers.

Readers may want to offer nuances here, but I’d hazard that US showrunners are rarely known for publicly criticising their shows’ fandoms, and are quick to apologise if “dipshits” hits the fans. Yet Doctor Who has form on this; Moffat is following in the footsteps of Davies. Online fans might regularly criticise production teams, but I’m not aware of Radio Five Live mounting a feature off the back of this, nor BBC Breakfast Time inviting Benjamin Cook in to discuss what (Moffat’s invented forum regular) Killdestroyer208 thought of last week’s ep. The showrunner’s cultural power extends beyond controlling what goes into the text, and into the terrain of the eminently newsworthy, especially when it’s a ‘showrunner hates fans’ riff on ‘man bites dog’.

What interests me is why Doctor Who seems especially prone to this, and from producers who are themselves life-long fans. Is it the perfectionism and the idealism of the fan – transposed into a production mentality – that gives rise to such ‘ranting’? It certainly shares the edge and the sting of habituated fan commentary. Is it the fans’ habitus, the critical voice of fan culture itself, that is on show (albeit professionally recoded) when Moffat and Davies chide sectors of fandom? To my ears, at least, they sound more than a touch like disgruntled fans unhappy at developments, assuming the freedom to say so very loudly as if posting to a forum rather than writing a book or speaking to a BBC reporter. Steven Moffat is Killdestroyer208… but what would have been forum grumblings now have a very different cultural reach.

Commentary has pondered the sense of entitlement felt by sectors of online fandom – but what of the entitled (fan-)showrunner? These privileged creatives seek to control a brand, but they can’t (yet) control how their shows are read, nor how audiences behave. Moffat’s stance implies that, for the show’s benefit, he should be given a degree of spoiler-impeding control over both fans and the press. And the press may well play ball; they are industrially dependent on good will in order to gain access to preview discs, interviews, launches and the like. Fans, however, are less malleable; in the digital age they inhabit an informational economy – seeking spoiler information; scouring agents’ pages for casting news; watching filming in public locations, and tweeting outsider info. And this is what Steven Moffat’s dismay flags up: industry outsiders can’t be silenced so readily.

There’s another important context here, though: the BBC as public service TV. US commercial television operates within a discursive context of ‘serving the consumer audience’. Even today, I’m less sure that BBC TV drama and its production cultures inhabit that same world, for good or ill. Moffat seems to work within a paternalistic value system where audiences don’t know what’s best for them, and where they need to be shown how to behave. This resolutely public service voice wants to set the rules of the narrative game in advance for citizen-fans. Not coincidentally, I think, Moffat’s initial complaint about these detailed spoilers – in his ‘Production Notes’ column for Doctor Who Magazine 434 – also seized upon the “bungling, ham-fisted English” (2011:6) used by fans to write up eps one and two. Moffat isn’t quite calling these ‘almost fans’ stupid, but their literacy is certainly called into question. This schoolteacher-showrunner isn’t just entertaining the audience, he’s educating and informing the naughty kids too. Properly disciplined, tutored and creative screenwriting calls for properly disciplined, tutored and creative audiences.

Well, you can send a love letter to the fans, e.g. ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ recently, but telling them how to express their love? “I order you to love the show in this way (spotting the in-jokes and intertextualities crafted for you) but not in this way (sharing detailed spoilers which have fan-cultural currency and status)”. Series five and six may be exploring the catchphrase “Silence will fall”, but where Doctor Who spoilers are concerned this remains wishful thinking. Perhaps contemporary TV authorship means losing definitive control over the parcelling out of narrative shocks and surprises, and accepting that sections of fandom will frequently pre-view beloved shows. Though these fans may, like gangers, become devalued replicas or simulacra of fandom in the eyes of production personnel, they’re not about to dissolve away. Producer-versus-fan tension rumbles on, when a showrunner goes to war.


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18 Responses to “ A Showrunner Goes To War: Doctor Who and the Almost Fans? ”

  1. Jason Mittell on June 6, 2011 at 9:38 AM

    Nice thoughts on spoilers – having been accidentally spoiled on “Good Man Goes to War”‘s key reveal, I’m sympathetic to knee-jerk anti-spoilierism (even though my case was due to regional delays, not active fan hunting & posting)! The LOST producers took a similar anti-spoiler position in regards to fans who spoiled season finale twists, calling them out as not “real fans” and the like.

    I guess I’m enough of an old-school auteurist to agree with Moffat, Darlton, etc. that spoiler circulation is a bastardization of the text, paring down (hopefully) nuanced storytelling into simplistic plot summary. I understand why some fans want them, but I sympathize with creators wanting viewers to discover their storyworld first through the specific form & style that they painstakingly created. Once that incarnation is available, discussion & remix should thrive, but I’m all for allowing the object to exist first before it gets transformed.

    • Matt Hills on June 7, 2011 at 4:33 AM

      Thanks for your comments, Jason — and for a useful reminder of the piece on spoilers that yourself and Jon produced. I wonder whether the LOST producers were as vitriolic as Davies and Moffat have been in their opposition to sectors of online fandom, as the tone of the NuWho showrunners’ comments does seem quite pronounced. Also, I’m fascinated that you consider spoilers to bastardize or effectvely rework the text — would you include ‘official’ paratexts in that process of textual distortion, e.g. episode synopses in the press/publicity materials etc? Or do you subscribe to the view — vocally expressed by some Who fans — that official programme info and promotional paratexts *can’t* be spoilers, by definition? To me, this spoiler/teaser binary doesn’t seem workable, so I’d argue that the BBC’s own marketing of Who always-already bastardizes ‘the text’ — it isn’t just fans who ‘spoiler’ the transmitted TV show. For instance, the official BBC synopsis for ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ revealed some key aspects of the ending to ‘The Almost People’, and was in the public domain several weeks before broadcast! And famously, a Radio Times cover of Dalek-human hybrid Sec revealed the cliffhanger ending to one NuWho episode the week before it was broadcast, something which hugely annoyed many fans.

      • Jason Mittell on June 7, 2011 at 9:24 AM

        From the creators’ standpoint, marketing/promotion departments can be spoilery, and in the US at least, producers have very little control of that aspect of paratextual circulation. (Matt Weiner has been over-the-top in his policing of AMC’s promotions of Mad Men, refusing circulation of critic’s screeners, pushing for promos with no plot, etc.) Darlton was never quite as vehement, but they did freak out a bit when the s3 finale’s twist was leaked.

        While I don’t believe there is a “pure text” and everything else is extraneous, I also think there is a core text that’s designed to be consumed in a particular way. It doesn’t have to be, and folks like Kristina are free to develop their own reading strategy, but the producers should feel free to assert their intentions that there is a way to read it “properly” (i.e. following their intent). Again, for me the line is when the text is released in its intended form (episode airing, in this case) – before that, posting information summarizing the plot angers creators in a way that I’m sympathetic to. But after that, it becomes part of the larger dialog.

        As for the issues you & Kristina raise about the power relations involved here, I agree but willingly submit to the domination – the process of being told a story is in part about submission to another person’s creative vision. There’s always resistance & interplay (it’s Foucauldian power), but it’s not a level playing field – and I don’t think that most fans want it to be. The joys in being manipulated, tricked, surprised, and taken for an emotional ride are crucial to the act of narrative consumption. I think authorial lamentations about this issue are less because they want total control, but because they see this joy being thwarted & don’t understand why people would give up that pleasure (that such fanboy auteurs embrace).

        (Ducking for inevitable pushback from Kristina…)

        • Kristina Busse on June 7, 2011 at 11:58 AM

          Oh Jason, how I wish I could inevitably push back 🙂 But I’m actually much more conflicted about this issue, because I do understand that the power relation is necessarily imbalanced and that there are indeed good reasons to give up that control.

          The place where I’m torn is the issue Matt brings up in his comment, namely where the control and where the text begins and ends. I have actually heard as many hardcore nonspoiler fans complain about nonfannish spoilers (opening TV Guide or an accidental twitter) than they do about fannish ones (usually involving debates about cut tags and whether an emotional response constitutes a spoiler and…)

          Because as much as we want to think of auteurs as single independent geniuses, they are not. Not only are there actors and production personal, there are networks and…in short, the authorial domination may indeed be corrupted on any number of levels, and whose spoilers are authorially condoned and whose aren’t?

          Or said differently, why is TV Guide OK to spoil and doesn’t get yelled at but random fanboy is? Like Matt, I’m not quite comfortable with establishing these clear lines, and that’s only in part because I don’t like “being manipulated, tricked, surprised, and taken for an emotional ride” 🙂

          • Myles McNutt on June 8, 2011 at 1:19 AM

            For the record, I yell at TV Guide and equivalents for spoilers all the time. But that’s just me. 🙂

        • Kristina Busse on June 7, 2011 at 12:04 PM

          Oh, and I forgot to share another great spoiler debacle I came across last week and y’all may not have seen yet: Twitter Glee prom episode spoiler with firing threads by showrunner and…

          Also, how much am I loving that this seems the first time the subscribe to comments feature’s actually working on Antenna!

  2. Kristina Busse on June 6, 2011 at 10:42 AM

    Matt, I really like your reading of Moffat as the not so mildly condescending paternalistic figure who knows better and gets to tell fans how to properly watch the show. In a way, I guess, that’s the ideal of many authors/auteurs, remaining the dominant partner in a power game over the text and its meanings.

    Your focus on spoilers is fascinating. Usually we see these debates over interpretations, and it’s much easier to have a hard core reader/audience line. When authors publicly disagree with reader interpretations, they mostly just tend to expose their own inability to have made their meaning clear in their texts. But spoilers aren’t really about readings of the text as much as they are about modes of reading.

    Unlike Jason above, I don’t think we can or should let authors control the reading process. He suggests that the “object” should be allowed to exist, but to me the question is what constitutes the object. Is it the finished product or is the process of production and reception part of it? Are the official trailers, often meant to mislead, part of that object? And how and when do viewers resist these particular presentations?

    I know I’m probably odd, but I tend to spoil myself aggressively. I read endings in books and watch my favorite shows on ffwd before rewatching them slowly and carefully. In stories and TV, I often refuse to read/watch every part as they are shared and instead wait to be able to take in the entire story/season/show so I *can* spoil myself.

    To me there’s a weird power game in place where author tries to tell reader *how* to read, assuming that all readers read alike. So the paternalism is definitely there in not just what but how to read and interact with the text, trying to control the reception (expectations, disappointments, surprises,…) as much as possible.

    It’s curious how especially those writers who used to be fans (RTD, Moffat, Joss) are the most vocal in dissing fans when they don’t agree with *their* visions. But I think you may have put your finger on an explanation: showrunners should remember the cultural capital they wield and not interact with fans as quasi-equals rhetorically.

    • Matt Hills on June 7, 2011 at 6:24 PM

      Thanks, Kristina, and sorry I’ve not replied until now (been away external examining today). I find it intriguing that attitudes to spoilers can vary so much even between acafans (!), e.g. Jason’s stance — enjoying being subjected to a creative’s vision — versus your own take on wanting to perhaps feel greater mastery over a text. I don’t spoiler myself quite as aggressively, but I usually enjoy spoilers, even very major ones. And I agree that “the object” of the text is a tricky thing to isolate, despite taking Jason’s point that he’s not referring to a “pure text” but rather to a “core” aesthetic artefact. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that showrunners overstep their mark when they wish away textual poaching altogether, and construct or posit a “right” way to read ‘their’ show. This ‘rightness’ strikes me as itself discursive or extratextual; it’s supposedly a given — just ‘in’ the text — yet it’s supplementary, an extra-textual addition insisted upon in interviews, tweets, or promotion.

      I wonder if it’s about time to analytically rename ‘spoilers’, as the term obviously carries a sense of ‘spoiling’ narrative pleasure, implying that that pleasure is (or otherwise should be) a given, somehow ‘natural’ and self-evident. But what if so-called ‘spoilers’ are felt to be ‘enhancers’, provoking cognitive productivity (how will that story development play out? what could that mean? is that convincing?) and enabling further audience speculation? For at least some fans, spoilers don’t so much ‘spoil’ a “proper’ reading as offer a short-cut to enjoyable and valued activities of speculation. Perhaps what so upsets showrunners is the sense that audiences are almost skipping the main course (the core text) to get straight to dessert (audience speculation and discussion). ‘Spoilers’ — or enablers, or enhancers — thus seem to make fan collectivities and debates more affectively vital than the audience-text relation that showrunners aim to commodify, create and cultivate.

      Showrunners want an ontology (of the beloved text); what they’re sometimes unhappily confronted by are fan epistemologies — what can be known, and how, and when, and what does it mean?

  3. larry rosenthal on June 6, 2011 at 4:39 PM

    Ironic that such a statement would come from a “creator” tasked with the show running of a “time traveler” IP in the early 21st century mediaverse world.:) As any time lord or tardis knows,It’s all in the FLOW today, not the fixed points in time or in artifacts.;)

    Todays Transmedia fanz are not required nor desiring of simple “story” or “narratives”– although most transmedia writers being hired today would not want to know this;)— might hurt there paycheck demands– the media Fanz CAN and want to immerse in the IP’s FLOW-in all its mediums… never really caring about the “writers” intent of any specific element.. but what they need to get/feel out of the experience.. Experiences that are of the moment, not requiring nearly as much linear “direction” as the TV generation that Moffat, and Myself btw- were born into and grew up in… Ageneration still stuck in comparing life to movies/narratives for understanding- kids today–don’t.

    The 21st century is a “feeling” media era, not a “thinking-literate mans era”.. for good and bad… all one really has to do is ask the Doctor, cause he’s of course, seen it all before;) well in the future.;)

    anyhow- i enjoyed the last 6 years of Doctor,,, and that’s as an american who grew up with 60s-70s TREK, not Who..but did know as a mediabastard, who Tom Baker was and that scarf guy show was about…;) But eh next and last incarnation of the Doctor– hell be you artificial augmented “companion” in a pod device- not an acted/scripted character in a story where you only watch HIM and THEM, RUN !!!!

  4. Tony Sobol on June 6, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    I don’t really see expectation management as a big issue as ultimately, you *have* to see the text at some point. Ultimately, you can’t fix a bad story for the reader after the fact. It’s not really a power game IMO, just an attempt to maintain the previously dominant mode in an Internet culture that’s seeking to erode it.

  5. Adam Shaftoe on June 6, 2011 at 5:24 PM

    Moffat said that “…stories depend on surprise, stories depend on shocking people, stories are the moments you didn’t see coming”. A fair point to be sure, yet an over simplification of what I think it is to tell a story.

    A good story, especially one told in genre fiction, is about the tone and mood conveyed through the acting as well as the subtext conveyed through costuming and set design. While malicious spoiling of plot is a tactless move, it shouldn’t follow that it will ruin a viewing experience.

    Consider that SyFy, back when it was Sci-Fi, spoiled a few episodes of Battlestar Galactica with their trailers. Yet those bad advertising decisions didn’t invalidate the artistic quality of the episodes in question.

    On paternalism I think you have hit the nail on the head, Matt. I wonder though, at what point would Mr. Moffat allow people to talk about a particular episode. Ought in-depth discussions of a particular theme wait until every network and affiliate has aired the episode in question? I for one think that critical inquiry shouldn’t be subjected to the will of a television producer. Or to put it another way, if a piece of art has been debuted then it is fair game for discussion, regardless of it is showing in your particular city.

  6. ianzpotter on June 6, 2011 at 6:50 PM

    Interesting. Think “bumbling ham-fisted…” may well be a very deliberate echo of the “ham-fisted bun vendor” line in ‘Terror of the Autons’. Moffat inviting fandom to think of itself as the newly-recruited Jo Grant, doing *entirely* the wrong thing before she knows better. Is he suggesting that fandom may similarly grow to become one of the Moffat series’ most beloved companion, but is causing problems more than helping at the moment because it’s not learned the rules? Showrunner=Doctor, Fandom=Assistant? Overthinking? Here?

  7. Melissa Beattie on June 6, 2011 at 7:45 PM

    Interesting post as always– a few random thoughts from my sleep-deprived brain: I take your point about showrunners wanting to enforce codes of fan behaviour (for lack of a better term) and readings, and I’m reminded of what Butcher (2003) was saying about how transnational television makes it difficult to establish a dominant or ‘proper’ (i.e., authorially-intended) reading when the audience is going to filter any attempts to do that through local cultural contexts anyway. I’m also reminded of a Tweet from Graham Linehan about how he felt that giving Father Ted to the audience/the world (and losing control of it) was what he was aiming for. Which just proves that humanity is annoyingly complex…

    I’m also wondering if perhaps the term ‘spoilers’ needs to be…not necessarily redefined but maybe reexamined, mostly due to global viewing (I’m guessing there may be work on this sitting somewhere in my ‘to read’ stack, so pardon my possible reinvention of the wheel). For example, differentiating between casting spoilers (‘oh, Alex Kingston’s in this one’) minor spoilers (‘Oooh, the Doctor’s visiting Area 51’) and major spoilers (‘The Pandorica is a prison for the Doctor’) have been around since I entered fandom a couple of decades ago. But nowadays everyone has differing ideas on what’s a spoiler and when– UK getting the ep a few hours ahead of the US (except for this week and next), and Canada, Australia and other countries getting it later on. (One of the dedications at the Ianto memorial was from an Australian who hadn’t known he’d been killed off until she visited in Jan 2010!) I’ve not seen any sort of consensus about when it’s ‘safe’ to talk openly (nor do I expect to!).

    Finally, I’m reminded of a story told to me by a friend finishing his PhD in Late Antiquity. He was marking a bunch of student essays on Roman history, specifically about the Emperor Augustus, who (according to this student), after a military victory, would divide up the spoilers and give them to the soldiers.

    • Matt Hills on June 7, 2011 at 6:49 PM

      Thanks, Mel, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve just suggested above that perhaps we need a whole new terminology in place of the ‘spoiler’, but you are quite right, we also need to think more carefully about types and degrees of ‘spoiler’ — perhaps analytically developing a sort of spoiler hierarchy or taxonomy. (What’s the collective noun for spoilers? A subforum? An outrage?).

      Jason suggests that it’s the moment of broadcast that is crucial — once a show’s been shown then it’s open season on fan speculation, whereas narrative information circulated in advance of TX is a spoiling spoiler. But obviously this begs the question as to where different national transmissions fit in, meaning that transnational online fan cultures either recompose themselves at a national level, or that fan etiquette and communal norms have to be developed to avoid upsetting fellow travellers (though even there, I suspect there are limits to whether and how that can work — if one country is months or even years behind another, then it seems unlikely that ‘spoiler’ fan discussions will not reach the ‘lagging’ group).

      I also like your mention of casting spoilers — seemingly another mode of spoiler, since this level of information reveals character involvements/appearances without necessarily giving away any other narrative detail. Cast lists are certainly readable (and are read) by some fans as spoilers, even when they are official programme information.

      The more I think about it, the more I feel that a large-scale empirical research project — or at the very least a new edited collection — is called for on fans’ attitudes to ‘spoilers’ (what spoilers are; extents and degrees thereof; differences and similarities across different fan cultures; divisions within specific fandoms etc). Spoilers aren’t just an incitement to fan productivity — they should be inciting more academic debate too, following the sort of work already done by Jason and Jon Gray.

      • Matthew Kilburn on June 16, 2011 at 10:02 AM

        Interesting – I’ve long wanted to put together some notes on the changing attitudes of Doctor Who fandom towards ‘spoilers’, given that the fandom itself predates the term. I’ve got some material but need to sort it out, and coming from outside the field I’d need to establish a framework.

  8. SpeakerToAnimals on June 15, 2011 at 4:53 AM

    I’d liken spoilers to heckling. Its like shouting out a punchline before its ready to be delivered in order to look clever, when, in fact, the heckler has merely seen the routine during rehearsals.

    You can argue that its ‘free speech’ but the result is that those who are presenting an argument – and Moffat’s stories are more erotetic than RTD, who had other priorities, in that they follow a a premise through to a logical conclusion – are ultimately silenced by being prevented from doing so in the manner his ‘argument’ requires.

  9. SpeakerToAnimals on June 15, 2011 at 7:28 AM

    I’d also be wary of dismissing Moffat’s argument as ‘paternalistic’ as fans in possession of spoilers are as much in a position of power as the production team in that they too can decide whether to give away plot details to people who do not wish to hear them and so dictate the way the text is read.

    The simplistic dichotomy between ‘paternalistic’ producers and ‘powerless’ fans masks unequal power relations *within* fandom.

    I’ve only ever blocked one person on my email because he insisted on sending me BSG spoilers after I had asked him to stop. Those with the resources to download programmes from overseas are generally wealthier and more technologically more savvy than those who do not: to claim that they are ‘challenging’ the dominance of the author without recognising their own power over poorer, or less IT literate viewers, is to mask another power game as ‘resistance’.