Derek Kompare – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: The Lost, Missing, and Redacted Adventures of Doctor Who Tue, 05 Nov 2013 17:41:53 +0000 Doctor Who is that, despite its academic and popular scrutiny, there are many gaps in its history, which remind us that histories - including media histories - are always only assembled from the perspective of the present. ]]> Well-Mannered_WarAs is often claimed in scholarly and fan accounts, Doctor Who is arguably the most scrutinized series in television history. Seemingly every moment of its run–from the initial outlines in 1962 to the latest rumors of next season’s episodes–has been documented, analyzed, and historicized. An endless and expanding range of retrospective articles, zines, books, videotapes, DVDs, podcasts, and tumblrs have woven an increasingly dense and complex history of the series. While this started at least as far back as 1973, it has periodically notched up in intensity and depth, as ground is retilled again and again and again for even more nuggets.

That said, one of the defining characteristics of Doctor Who is also that, despite this incredible scrutiny, there are many gaps in this history. Much of it is still “lost,” or “missing,” or similarly enigmatic. These persistent mysteries continues to inspire the series’ fans, but also reminds us more broadly that histories–including media histories–are always only assembled from the perspective of the present. Absence is as important as presence in our assemblage and understanding of remaining traces of the past.

The primary embodiment of “lost” rosemariners-forweb_cover_largeDoctor Who are of course the 97 episodeswhich remain absent from the BBC archives. When nine previously lost episodes were secretly recovered, and finally publicly released a few weeks back, it was a legitimately massive event, an actual archeological find (complete with a residue of colonialism). Rumors of even more found episodes abound now, but will always persist as long as the archive is incomplete.

But these episodes are far from the only “lost” stories in the series’ history. Aborted story concepts, in various stages of development, have also been found, dusted off, and adapted and produced (as “Doctor Who: The Lost Stories”) in audio versions from Big Finish Productions. Offering up alternative histories of moments in the series’ production, the gap these particular “lost stories” fill is tantalizing glimpses down roads almost taken.

J-N-T-Cover (cropped)Deeper behind the scenes, some of the grittier aspects of the series’ production have only recently begun to surface, after decades of being “lost” under shinier, romantic mythologies. These less-than-pleasant details, including William Hartnell’s racism, Patrick Troughton’s multiple families, and producer John Nathan-Turner’s exploitative sexual encounters, are now part of the series’ established history. Significantly, each of these particular figures has long passed away, raising the perpetual historians’ question about myth and redaction. Accordingly, similar mysteries surrounding the current series (e.g., the real reasons for Christopher Eccleston’s or Freema Agyeman’s departures, or the casting processes in 2009 and 2013) will likely remain fannish speculation for quite a while.

However, gaps like this are not only part of the series’ production; they’re baked into its fictional narrative as well. The title itself–Doctor Who?–indicates a core mystery that will never be resolved (despite some dancing around the enigma in the last couple of seasons), leaving perpetual gaps in the Doctor’s biography. Massive chunks of the grand narrative of Doctor Who will forever remain “lost” and “missing,” with more than enough narrative space between on-screen stories to fit decades of off-screen adventures, including those alluded to in the series itself; those published in licensed novels, short stories, and audios; and, of course, countless fanfic.

SF author and lifelong Doctor Who fan Paul Cornell once famously declared that “in Doctor Who there is no such thing as ‘canon’.” While I’d certainly agree this certainly applies to its sprawling, contradictory narrative, as a media scholar I’d argue it also applies to its production history. Fan lore, once unquestioned, might be thoroughly debunked. What’s important and “known” today may not be the same tomorrow. As the show continues, and new generations of fans continue to board the TARDIS, the perception of the series’ on and off-screen pasts will also continue to change, and while missing pieces will continue to be discovered, there will always, thankfully, be much that will be forever lost.

This is the third post in The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who, Antenna’s series commemorating the television franchise’s fiftieth anniversary and its lasting cultural legacy. You can read Matt Hills’ inaugural post about multi-Doctor specials here and Keara Goin’s post about the Doctor’s female companions here. Stay tuned for new posts in the series most every Tuesday throughout the remaining weeks of 2013.


Report From: Walking in Eternity, The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Conference Wed, 25 Sep 2013 14:57:51 +0000 DWconf_and_Dalek

Participants at the Doctor Who: Walking in Eternity conference. Photo: Howard Berry.

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.


Mediating the Past: The Future of Media History Wed, 27 Jun 2012 12:39:53 +0000

**This post is part of our series, Mediating the Past, which focuses on how the past is produced, constructed, distributed, branded and received through various media.

I had an epiphany at Half Price Books one day last spring. They had placed hundreds of DVDs (including many TV box sets) into special clearance racks, priced at $3 each. These weren’t the usual bargain-bin titles, but mostly major releases of the past several years. While they still have several shelves devoted to DVD and Blu-Ray, this was a significant clearing-out of media with apparently little perceived value. It dawned on me at that moment that if the looming end of the DVD was hitting used book stores, than it was time to prepare for it.

We live in an era of incredible access to media, and an increasingly impressive array of digital tools with which to curate and analyze them. That much is certain. However, we’re also living through an era of media extinction, as physical media forms disappear to the proverbial “cloud.” A four-decade boom in accessible and convenient physical audiovisual media (from the audio and video cassette to the Blu-Ray disc) is clearly ending. Media distributors are more concerned about lining up digital license agreements than securing physical shelf space. Media hardware manufacturers emphasize internet connectivity and streaming apps rather than optical disc drives. Moreover, the newest generation of laptops and even desktop computers do not even have optical drives.

As physical media, and the ability to play it, disappears, we’re told to look to the clouds. The impermanence of the metaphor, as I look out on a cloudless sky, is telling. As longstanding battles over online content distribution have indicated, the content of the cloud will always be contingent. The phrase “on demand” associated with the cloud is best understood as “only what’s available today, under these specific terms, which will probably be different tomorrow.” This uncertainty applies to every ostensibly physical media form we might use, as books and periodicals become e-books, microfilm becomes PDFs, and film and television become streaming videos, and all become locked up  in “the cloud.” Moreover, it applies equally to media consumers at all levels, including academic research libraries.

Thus, this Age of Digital Plenty is at best an exaggeration, and at worst bullshit. Unless you have a hard copy (or an external hard disk) on your shelf, and the necessary hardware and/or software to use it, you’re at the mercy of the clouds. Even the illicit corners of the Internet may not save you (lest we forget what happened to Megaupload).

This shift from atoms to bits corresponds with and exacerbates a more existential challenge: what is history for? More precisely, what is media history for? While this has always been the key question at the heart of every investigation of the past, it has rapidly become even more pressing. Mediated traces of the past keep piling up faster and faster, yet our attitudes towards them reveal a growing separation between instrumental and historical uses. On the one hand, the now-classic postmodern value of remixing and repurposing bits of the past has certainly been a liberating, and at times, provocative practice. However, it has coincided with a retreating cultural interest in the contexts of the past, as “history” is understood more as arrays of “cool stuff” and “cool stories” than as narratives of the present. Our pasts are either mythologized (cf Mad Men, or the retromania critiqued by Simon Reynolds), or deliberately ignored (all the “boring stuff” nobody has yet posted on tumblr). An ongoing debate in television blogging and criticism of late has even seriously questioned whether pre-1990 (or more commonly, pre-Sopranos) television has any aesthetic value, as if it were the primordial muck from which today’s “serious and ambitious” television emerged.

As curators of the media past, we not only need to critically engage with these historiographical ideologies and methods in these times of shifting temporality and materiality; we also need to politically intervene on the past’s behalf, protecting physical media, whether on print, microfilm, film, vinyl, tape, optical disc, digital code, or any other form. While it is essential to also work to convert and maintain online access to digital versions of these media (yes, in the cloud), we can’t assume that offline resources will always be there. Sometime within the next decade, there won’t be any more DVD shelves at Half Price Books.


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The Empire Strikes Back?: NBC at the 2010 Upfronts Sun, 23 May 2010 13:00:53 +0000 Seen from the outside, the upfronts are one of the oddest rituals in American television. As the culmination of an expensive, inefficient and anxiety-ridden process stretching from late fall to mid spring, the annual unveiling of fall schedules to potential advertisers, jaded industry reporters, and (by way of increasingly elaborate PR campaigns) the viewing public, is simultaneously pivotal and inconsequential. While it’s certainly true that the scheduling of programs is important, it’s virtually impossible to peer through network spin to get a sense of the actual deals made. The industry narratives that build up and erupt over many weeks make for engaging stories, and sometimes contain some insights (e.g., the internal politics of the aborted revival of The Rockford Files). However, they may also distract us from the larger structural issues that have a much greater impact on the industry. As Alan Sepinwall’s account of this years’ upfronts indicates, everyone knows it’s all dog-and-pony, and that the execution is almost always rote. But like film premieres, they do serve to punctuate production and promotion schedules, and offer a bit of ceremonial glitz before the reality of failure sets in by mid-fall.

Case in point this year: NBC. NBC-bashing has been such a part of industry culture for so long, including from within the Peacock itself, that similar attacks on the other networks always feel secondhand. That said, the last several years have been a particularly satisfying bonanza for NBC anti-fans, as the network has had a scant few shows anyone really cared about, and an incredible string of self-inflicted wounds (from the hiring of Ben Silverman to the firing of Conan O’Brien). Thus, the story going on is of a network desperately trying to prove it still matters, with the added subplot of a looming and potentially game-changing corporate merger with Comcast.

NBC’s schedule, unveiled last Monday, has been interpreted as an attempt to “return” to big-time broadcasting after noodling around with alternative models over the past few years. It certainly looks like that on first impression, particularly after the disastrous Jay Leno experiment of 2009. While it will be months before we’re into these series to really get to know them, their packaging now is clearly indicative of how the network hopes we’ll perceive them, as Jonathan Gray reminds us. Based on the descriptions and trailers, most of the new shows certainly feel like classic “broadcasting”: high-concept, crowd-pleasing, relatively risk-light material (e.g., Chase, from Jerry Bruckheimer; Law & Order: Los Angeles, from the still-at-it Dick Wolf; and Undercovers, from JJ Abrams), with The Event taking up the open heavily-serialized conspiratorial thriller slot now that 24, Heroes, and Lost are no more. Even the new comedy Outsourced feels like a distilled amalgamation of their returning Thursday shows (the last remaining bastion of “buzz” currently left on NBC, unless you’re a Chuck fan). Conversely, only Love Bites, a romantic comedy anthology, treads sort-of new ground (given its been 40 years since Love, American Style), but its scheduling feels entirely functional, like it’s being tossed out there as a gesture to creators and critics to indicate NBC’s willingness to “take chances,” which basically means “this doesn’t really have a chance, but look! It’s ‘different’!” (let alone the sad reality that this Sex & The City retread probably passes for “feminism” in some Burbank offices).

In an era where ratings metrics are shifting, and the premise of commercial broadcasting appears precarious, the upfronts may seem like a vestige of a dying regime. However, given that this is also an era of brands–i.e., hot shows, and in theory, hot networks–the upfronts also serve to launch anticipation on multiple fronts. Accordingly, it’s ultimately not about the head-to-head schedule, but the shows as brands, and the overriding narrative that coalesces around the network. That is, at least until they actually start showing up in September…


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Mind The Gap: Watching Doctor Who in America Sat, 24 Apr 2010 07:30:59 +0000 Doctor Who looked like from "the other side of the pond"?]]>

Eleven different actors have played the title role in Doctor Who. The newest (and youngest), Matt Smith, is now enjoying his initial run as the Doctor, alongside a new co-star (Karen Gillan, as the mysterious Amy Pond), and a new showrunner in Steven Moffat, who has taken over the reins following Russell T Davies’ wildly successful revival of the series since 2005. If you’ve been waiting for a jumping-on point, this is it.

For the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a series actually peppered with such cleavages, which provide incoming production teams the opportunity to exercise some change while still maintaining the series’ core concept: the (mostly) all-ages adventures of a strange man and his friends who travel in time and space in a blue box that’s bigger on the inside. While I’ll grant what Matt Hills shrewdly points out in his recent Antenna post (i.e., that, due to the pressures of maintaining a popular commercial brand, this particular transition feels more like a continuation of the previous era than a clean break from it), there’s still new riches aplenty here. Moffat has repeatedly described his take on the series as “dark fairy tale,” vs. Davies’ more epic melodramas. Based on his previous scripts, and the first two of this new season, this is exactly what’s being delivered: creepy-yet-whimsical stories that shout “Boo!,” tweak your nose, and slip right past your cynicism.

That said, this stylistic blender has also forever marginalized the series in the US. Doctor Who has had a small, but devoted, audience on this side of the pond for over thirty years, which has steadily expanded since the series’ revival. However, it’s a love based mostly from a particular kind of US-based Anglophilia. In the 1970s and 1980s, the series took hold in this country not on early Saturday evenings, as it did in the UK, but on late Saturday nights, hidden away like buried treasure on PBS stations alongside similar “exotic” BBC imports like Fawlty Towers, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Blake’s 7. Accordingly, we Americans tend to fall in love with Doctor Who for not being American television. American television can’t fathom whimsy. It can barely handle universal, all-ages entertainment any more. Moreover, while there’s no shortage of riveting dramas on American TV today, our expectations are too wired in boring old realism (even in our fantasy series) to allow the kind of “bonkers” tonal range Doctor Who thrives in, and too wed to notions of “sophistication” to let children in. There’s nothing on American TV that can thread silliness, horror, elation, and heartbreak at the level and speed of Doctor Who; we just don’t have a conceptual place for it in our televisual landscape. Joss Whedon’s works (especially Buffy and Firefly) arguably come close, and other series have certainly had moments (the Hurley episodes of Lost come to mind), but they’re all still firmly “adult” television. There’s no home for anything that dares to bridge these gaps of genre, style, and audience age. It’s fair to say that it’s anomalous in this regard on UK TV as well, though to a lesser extent.

Thankfully, the megachannel universe is big enough to let Doctor Who in, via BBC America, which is making the new run its signature series (though it has long slipped across the Atlantic unofficially via BitTorrent and other means).  So far so good for BBC America, which scored a record audience for the season premiere last Saturday. Still, taken as a proportion of the national viewing audience, the series draws about one-fortieth the viewers it claims in Britain, where it is one of the BBC’s most popular series, and one of the nation’s most familiar cultural texts.

Thus, while I will always love Doctor Who, I realize that I have ultimately experienced it as an exoticizing tourist. I regret that I’ll likely never see an American series with as much heart, panache, and unadulterated joy. I also wonder how the reverse situation–i.e., the arguably “Yankophilic” interest in American vs. British dramas among British TV scholars over the past decade–has developed, and whether we really do see the same things in these shows.


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Report from SCMS: Wednesday Thu, 18 Mar 2010 07:32:25 +0000

Note from the Editors: Many of the Antenna editors are at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Los Angeles this week. This makes running the store as usual a little hard, especially since there will be no free wifi in the Bonaventure Hotel (insert grumbly comment or exclamation here). Instead, therefore, we’re asking some Antenna writers to cover the proceedings with a series of daily reports. Business as usual will return on Monday.

At five days, twenty-four sessions, and eighteen tracks per session, this is a monster-sized SCMS conference, primarily due to having last year’s cancelled event mashed-up into it. Accordingly, more than ever, at least in my 20 years of attendance, there is much of potential interest in virtually every session. It’s particularly heartening to see the growing complexity of both the “C” and “M” in SCMS, with panels, workshops, and papers on all manner of media.

While the work is certainly intriguing and the face time is, as always, invaluable, the academic conference format, particularly bereft of an active online backchannel, feels increasingly like a ritual exercise rather than an energizing intellectual experience. We’re clearly at a point where discussions of the “future” of conferences are really about the present, and we need to have robust, serious discussions about what this experience should mean in an era of instant, on-demand intellectual exchange. Thankfully, this year, such discussions are scheduled for day three of this very conference…

That said, my frustration with the conference format contrasted with the energy and engagement on offer at the panels I saw today. One of the best features of SCMS have always been teaching workshops, which continually tackle the “how do we do X in the classroom” issues with a mix of giddy idealism and calm pragmatism. We’re geeks for pedagogy, after all, and sharing our triumphs and failures can be cathartic and inspiring. There was general agreement at such a workshop Wednesday morning that teaching film and media theory to undergrads that continues to be vital, though there was uncertainty about how that vitality is best conveyed. That said, all agreed that the primary point was about process rather than outcome, i.e., teaching students to theorize, via intensive and innovative reading and writing assignments, rather than merely serving up leftover Bazin. The growing interest in non Euro-American film theory was also acknowledged, with all participants grateful that the Internet has enabled greater discovery and sharing of such works (e.g., the ongoing translation project at the SCMS website).

After that, most of the rest of my day was spent in two fascinating panels contemplating authorship, which has surged back into consideration over the past few years. A morning panel examined how television form and authorship always intersect in complex ways. Norma Coates’ ongoing revision of the account of popular music and television focused this time on “cultural interloper” Jack Good, whose passion for theatrical “excitement” basically invented rock’s visual iconography in the 1950s and 1960s. Karen Vered explored why the variety genre has been missing from accounts of early Australian television. Heather Hendershot considered how Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology series recreated a particular niche of cinematic auteurism. Finally, in a comparative study, Michele Hilmes explored the relationship between representations of authorship and the very structure of British and American broadcasting.

The afternoon panel centered on changing conceptions of creative authority in contemporary television and transmedia. I found that Denise Mann’s opening account of the industrial machinations behind the official transmedia extensions of Heroes dovetailed nicely with Derek Johnson’s closing analysis of different forms of “licensed authorship” in Battlestar Galactica’s relationship with its fans. Intriguingly, NBC Universal owns each property. At the same panel, Jonathan Lupo studied the formation of queer-themed cable networks Here! and Logo, arguing that their pursuit of the queer market came at the neglect of attention to the queer audience; and Daniel Bernardi and Kevin Sandler presented their ethnographic account of the production of The Shield, focusing primarily on the conflict between the series’ writers and actor Michael Jace over his character’s homosexuality.

This work on authorship (broadly speaking) is particularly significant today, as it taps into neglected considerations of matters like licensing, copyright, and industrial authority: all concepts we’d do well to understand not only from the distance as scholars, but also in the fray, as fans and cultural producers.