Report From: Walking in Eternity, The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Conference
During the first week of September I travelled to the University of Hertfordshire in the UK to attend the Walking in Eternity conference, which marked the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. The small size of the event, coupled with the quiet pre-term campus, gave a comfortable, cozy feeling to the event, far from the crush of the typical large conference, and even more intimate than Flow. Hats off to Kim Akass and the staff at UH for being fantastic hosts (and for the copious coffee breaks!), and for even working in appearances from K9 and a Dalek (and Mat Irvine, one of the people responsible for the original series’ effects and props). Not many academic conferences feature scholars turning into beaming fans upon the sight of a “shooty dog thing.”
The papers presented explored many key aspects of the series, and its relationships to larger issues in media culture. What came out was simultaneously a sincere acknowledgment of the show’s unique status in British cultural history, and a critique of that role. The keynote presentations throughout the event clearly had this sense of assessment in mind. For James Chapman, who opened the conference, it was reconsidering Doctor Who as a media and cultural institution through its four key moments: its inception in the 1960s, its ritualization in the 1970s, its steep decline in the 1980s, and its global rebirth since 2005. All along the way, the series’ relationship to the broader public and BBC internal politics have been key to its changing stature. Matt Hills’ talk (based on his article in the new anthology he edited) gauged Doctor Who’s various anniversaries from “naive” through “hyped.” He raised the important issue of how we commemorate any event, since any marking of time is situated in particular cultural and industrial contexts (e.g., the recent rise of “fanfac” in many fandoms, and the fact that an anniversary-timed academic conference on Doctor Who even exists). On the final day, Lorna Jowett’s self-proclaimed “rant of a lifetime” offered a scathing but well-deserved critique of the series’ persistently disappointing treatment of women. While the new series has at times undercut the Doctor’s patriarchy and masculinity, and has offered potentially intriguing female companions, it has also consistently stuck them in dependent and damaged relationships with the Doctor. As this year’s loud and serious call for a female Doctor indicated (before Peter Capaldi’s casting announcement), the series’ traditional treatment of gender is increasingly becoming untenable. Jowett’s critique was echoed in similar papers throughout the conference, including Teresa Forde’s examination of companions’ memories of the Doctor, and Bethan Jones’ intriguing examination of fanfic writers’ reactions to the controversial 2011 episode “The Girl Who Waited.”
Other papers similarly reconsidered the series’ role in wider cultural discussions. Julian Chambliss and Richard Wallace both focused on the series in the context of 1980s politics. Chambliss tied the series’ cult popularity in the US in the 1980s to both a fashionable anglophilia and an argument for public broadcasting (and public dissent) against Reagan-era commercialism and conservatism. Similarly, Wallace identified how the series itself reacted to Thatcher with a series of Thatcheresque female villains and satires of big business, culminating in 1988’s “The Happiness Patrol.” Taking it to the present on the same panel, Claire Jenkins showed how Matt Smith’s Doctor and celebrity persona indicate a decidedly masculine and heterosexual “geek chic,” in alignment with contemporaries like Alexander McQueen and Pharrell Williams.
Some of the most intriguing work was directly on fandom, and showed both how fan studies continues to evolve, and how Doctor Who, with its great longevity and multiple iterations of fandom, presents a particular challenge to scholars. Paul Booth presented some of his fascinating ethnographic work on fandom’s alleged “generation gap,” which showed that while older and newer fans perceive projections of themselves from the other, neither group seems to actually hold any of the feelings ascribed to them by the other. Rebecca Williams used Giddens’ concept of “ontological security” to trace fan reactions to the departures of David Tennant and Matt Smith on social media. Leslie Manning showed how the Doctor is an advocate for greater neurodiversity, and how important he is for fans on the autism spectrum. Brigid Cherry profiled the women of the Doctor Who knitting and crochet community, who celebrate and share their fandom with handmade crafts and techniques.
The conference wrapped up with a roundtable discussion of the possibility of “Doctor Who studies.” While it’s inconclusive whether such a subfield already exists as such, and the cautionary lessons from “Buffy studies” are still fresh, it’s clear that now is the golden age for scholarly work on Doctor Who. Two new anthologies, from two publishers, were launched at this conference alone, joining the burgeoning list of work already published since the relaunch. As with the series and its paratexts, there is now clearly more work on Doctor Who than one can keep up with. However, as with any field centered on a particular media text or author, it’s far from certain how much work is really relevant beyond Doctor Who fandom. How would a named “Doctor Who studies” relate to people not especially interested in Doctor Who, and to larger questions and approaches from parent fields (not only media studies)? What is gained by this subdivision? Facing the other direction, towards fandom, how will scholars productively engage their academic approaches to Doctor Who with the increasingly sophisticated, always relevant, and fiercely creative work of non-academic fans? My experiences “crossing the streams” of Doctor Who academia and fandom have left me assured of the series’ cultural power, but concerned that we (i.e., academics) still haven’t quite figured out how to connect with fandom.
Still, this was an invigorating and thought-provoking conference that has widened my appreciation for Doctor Who and the scholarship it has inspired. Regardless of what happens after Matt Smith regenerates into Peter Capaldi, Doctor Who will continue, fans will continue to love it, and scholars will continue to study it. But, as with any cultural phenomenon, the question of how it all matters is still, thankfully, open.
“We did good, didn’t we?”
“Perhaps. Time will tell. It always does.”
Ace and The Doctor, “Remembrance of the Daleks” (1988)
This post is part of an ongoing partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and the Society for Cinema & Media Studies’ Cinema Journal.