The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who – 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 Hype of the Doctor Tue, 17 Dec 2013 17:35:16 +0000 Matt Smith flicks a V-sign on Doctor Who Live: The AfterpartyI’ve recently written about the marketing of the Steven Moffat era, but here I’d like to look back at the promotional events of last month. ‘The Day of the Doctor’ stretched out into at least a week of the Doctor (if not longer) thanks to ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’, ‘The Night of the Doctor’, ‘The Science of Doctor Who’, ‘The Ultimate Guide’, ‘Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty’, ‘The Story of Trock’, ‘The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot’, The ExCeL Celebration, and more.  Indeed, such was the level of Doctor Who’s UK cultural presence that it reached number three in the cinema box office, its “red button” BBC offerings out-rated many BBC1 and BBC2 TV shows, and broadsheet newspapers carried front-page images of a Royal reception hosted by Sophie, Countess of Wessex.

Given this omni-coverage, and proliferation of texts that could easily be construed as paratexts (or vice versa), it’s hardly surprising that showrunner Steven Moffat has recently remarked in Doctor Who Magazine: “I dreaded this month, because… how do you pitch it at the right level. How do you make sure there’s enough Doctor Who without making people vomit with it all being too much? But it seems to be about bang on, I think”.

However, Doctor Who’s November ascension to the heights of hype brought with it a few unhappy voices: aggravated letter-writers and email-senders complained to the BBC’s Newswatch programme that BBC News coverage constituted advertising for a Corporation product rather than media/entertainment reportage, whilst The Radio Times’ letter section (14—20 Dec) included the following gem, from one Stephen Thompson: “Having enjoyed Doctor Who as young people in the 1960s and again as parents in the 70s, my wife and I decline to go along with the hype surrounding the 50th-anniversary ‘special’. Like the little boy who watched the king parading in his new clothes, we did watch it, but we found it incomprehensible… Labyrinth, also featuring John Hurt as a centuries-old survivor, though panned by the critics, was much better!”

The ‘hype of the Doctor’ becomes a thing in itself for these members of the public, inciting them to critique and reject excessive promotion from a public service broadcaster. The show’s production team were aware of this potential danger, however, with Moffat observing that there “has been more hype than I thought possible, and vastly more than I thought (in my weaker moments) wise.” For, as Jonathan Gray has noted, paratextual promotion’s mere existence can devalue a text. Hype indicates a text’s industrial and commercial roots all too obviously for some audiences.

Doctor Who is perhaps unlikely to be deemed ‘art’, but it can certainly be positioned as a public good linked to historical worth and cultural value. The Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, got in on this act when he aligned Who with the “nurturing” values and virtues of the BBC in a piece written for the anniversary edition of the Radio Times (23—30 Nov): “If I may be allowed a small plug, it was the BBC that brought William Hartnell to that scrapyard in 1963. The BBC who nurtured [the series]… and invented the miracle of regeneration to explain cast changes. And after the decision to cancel the show was reversed, it was the BBC who reinvented it with some of the best acting and writing on television, anywhere in the world. And you can now watch the Doctor …in 206 territories… Each has fans tuning in and buying the merchandise. …All that helps the BBC generate income to spend on high-quality programmes at home.”

Setting aside how this objectifies “the decision to cancel” the show, whilst attributing agency to the BBC for keeping Who alive via regeneration and reinvention, “plugging” something usually means selling it. And hype conveys a version of the same thing – it’s generally construed as a blatantly commercial practice. Likewise, members of the public who complained about the BBC “advertising” its own wares under the guise of entertainment news were also hurling a devalued discourse of commerce at the Beeb.

Doctor Who’s explosion of paratextual incarnations across November thus risked casting a market(ing) shadow over the BBC’s status as a public service broadcaster, over-writing royalty with revenue-generation. Though Tony Hall was quick to point out that Who’s money-making would help to fund public service productions, by aligning the show with a kind of blockbuster paratextuality, the BBC unwittingly cast itself as a hype merchant as well as the custodian of a valued creation loved by generations.

Meanwhile, getting 3D cinema tickets or entry to the BBC Worldwide-led Celebration event became neoliberal exercises in consumer sovereignty. In the first instance, punters had to compete amongst themselves to secure bookings, with a Celebration ballot only subsequently being run. Sitting in the front few rows at the ExCeL required a higher fee – a VIP TARDIS ticket – giving the impression that profits from the fan market were being keenly maximized by BBC Worldwide.

Whilst sections of fandom might embrace neoliberal common-sense, this ultimately leads to calls for Doctor Who’s merchandising/ticketing profits to be fed straight back into the show. Fan magazine SFX says in its review of ‘Day of the Doctor’, “More than half a million people watched it globally in cinemas, and it made £1.7 million in UK cinemas alone! Let’s pump that cash right back into Who, eh Beeb…?” But this is not something the BBC could ever entertain without fatally undermining its public service principles. BBC Worldwide is probably already putting amounts of money into the series – but little information on such funding has made it into the public domain. Just how much of Doctor Who’s budgeting can now – directly or indirectly – be traced back to Worldwide and its various commercial operations?

As if to distract from questions of profiteering, the global ‘simulcast’ was immediately badged with a Guinness World Record, awarded on Sunday November 24th. This had obviously been pre-arranged as a photo opportunity (and as a way of persuading paying customers at the Celebration that they were participating in an “historic moment”). Articulating the episode with a grandeur of reach, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ was paratextually inflected here by a preferred BBC interpretation; as a record-breaking achievement rather than a money-making activity. Who Guinness World Record

The BBC also addressed Doctor Who fandom via “red button” and online provision. ‘The Night of the Doctor’ and ‘The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot’ both blatantly catered to fan agendas whilst being made available at no charge. Were these texts or paratexts? Marketing for the Who brand, or gifts to fandom? I’d hazard that such ‘extras’ were liminal (para)texts, permanently caught in mid-regeneration between market and gift economies.

Whilst trying to make itself a kind of social glue uniting the nation (and multiple territories) around special event programming, the BBC consistently found itself enmeshed in commercial discourses of revenue, profit and (excessive/blockbuster) promotion. November’s week of the Doctor, and the hype of the Doctor, demonstrate an undecidability of commerce/public service, as each is caught up in the other, tangled together in an inseparably mixed economy. Throwing the Royal family, World Records, One Direction, and red button mockdocs into the paratextual mix, the BBC wants to be read as a source of public value: a giver of gifts rather than a shaper of hype. But like ‘The Day of the Doctor’, which rewrites the show’s back-story and yet fits into established continuity at one and the same time, the BBC’s celebration of the 50th anniversary rewrites the extent to which commercial operations can be built onto a licence fee-funded property, whilst still fitting into traditional PSB continuities of nation-building and community-serving.


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The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: Doctor Whose Fandom? Tue, 10 Dec 2013 15:00:14 +0000 Facebook page for “Peter Capaldi is the 12th doctor fan girls get over it.”

Facebook page for “Peter Capaldi is the 12th doctor fan girls get over it.”

When Peter Capaldi was unveiled as the new Doctor Who in August, The Daily Mail reported an “ageism row” as fans purportedly dubbed Peter Capaldi “’too old’ to play the Time Lord.” Although The Daily Mail cited negative responses from both male and female viewers and included positive responses from female fans, the negative responses were quickly ascribed in much of the press, and on social media, to “fangirls.” Witness the Facebook page, “Peter Capaldi is the 12th doctor fan girls get over it.” In claiming that fangirls alone were critical of the choice of the new Doctor, people simultaneously dismissed fangirls as lesser fans than male fans or “true” Whovians, and assumed that fangirl interest in the show was exclusively romantic or sexual, that Capaldi was seen negatively because he was not as erotically attractive as recent actors David Tennant, or Matt Smith. This, despite such fangirl reactions as the YouTube video “Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor! (A fangirl’s thoughts on this),” posted immediately after the announcement in which the self-identified fangirl says she is “glad it is not a younger guy. I am tired of these plot lines between the Doctor and his companions and all this… sexual tension.” As L.B. Gale writes in his online essay “In Defense of Doctor Who Fangirls,” “The assumption behind this ‘true Who fans’ conversation is that the ‘true fans’ are the geeky men who were able to get the ‘big ideas about humanity’ behind the show while the fair weather fans were all the little girls who were just pornographically enjoying the series because of how good looking Smith and Tennant are” The dismissal of fangirls is familiar to those of us who study pop culture as a stereotypical denigration of feminized mass culture in opposition to masculine “art.” It assumes that female fans are an add-on, derivative, and lesser than male fandom, which is assumed to be motivated by more serious interests (e.g., the vagaries of time travel vs. the appeal of TV stars).

In opposition, I would like to suggest that fangirls are not one fandom among many, or an add-on to the Whovian empire, but the ur-fans of Doctor Who, the original targeted audience and point of identification within the show. Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker essay on Doctor Who (“The Man in the Box: Fifty Years of Doctor Who”) makes clear that capturing a female audience was essential to the show’s original plan. When Sydney Newman, then head of BBC drama, decided to produce a science fiction series, he commissioned a report that argued against doing so: the report claimed that sci-fi was not only too American, but also, and more problematically, too unappealing to women. Intending to create a “loyalty program” that people would watch every week, and one that would appeal to women as much as men, Newman decided to “flout the genre’s conventions.” Newman hired Verity Lambert, the only female producer at the BBC, and together they determined that the Doctor should have a female companion to “add feminine interest.” Thus, the companion provides a relay for female viewers, a point of identification within the show.

Given the companions’ penchant for crushing on the Doctor, at least in the recent series (“all that sexual tension” the fangirl YouTube video cites), is it any surprise that young women might identify with Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, and Clara? All of whom, except perhaps Donna, at one point or another kiss and/or flirt with the Doctor. The companion is a built-in fangirl, one who encounters the Doctor accidentally, but once let into the Tardis (bigger on the inside, like a TV, as Lepore notes) commits to a “loyalty program” of traveling with him, leaving her everyday life behind (even bringing her boyfriend along for the ride in the case of Martha and Amy) – a life that Keara Goin says in her previous Antenna blog in this series is “made to seem secondary, bland, and lacking excitement.”

Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) in "The Day of the Doctor."

Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) in “The Day of the Doctor.”

The importance of the fangirl to the series, and her embeddedness within it, was reaffirmed in the 50th anniversary “The Day of the Doctor.” This episode featured among its characters a young geeky girl, Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), wearing the fourth Doctor’s scarf like a cos-playing fangirl, and enthusing over the Doctor, whose exploits she has studied. In this special episode, former companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) plays the Time Lord’s “conscience,” and wittily describes the basic premise of the series when she notes that he is “stuck between a girl and a box – story of your life, eh Doctor?” Here, the Doctor’s conscience reminds us that the fangirl fantasy is not external to the show but stitched into the fabric of the narrative, the essential story of the Doctor.

Nonetheless, while fangirls have been ascribed a certain role within the narrative and as spectators, fangirls have veered from the plot in fascinating ways. Looking around on tumblr, the fangirl epicenter, one finds numerous sites dedicated to Doctor Who. In addition to cute images of Tennant and Smith, or fantasy “ships” (or fan fantasy relationships) of the Doctor and his companion, there were images of Daleks, GIFs that celebrated reading (quoting the Doctor’s claim that books are the “best weapons in the world”), and archival images detailing the history of the show and sorting its timey-wimey logic. There are frequent gay “ships” related to the Tennant’s Doctor and captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), auteurist links between Steven Moffat’s Sherlock and his Doctor Who episodes in queer Sherlock “ships” between Sherlock and Watson or Sherlock and the Doctor, or pages that juxtapose fandoms for Harry Potter, Supernatural, The Hobbit, and more. Assuming that fangirl activity is limited to expressions of heterosexual attachment to young actors denies the range and complexity of these responses. It is a misplaced fantasy about the girl’s proper place in the Whovian universe.


The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: Of Anniversaries and Authenticity, Costumes and Canon Thu, 05 Dec 2013 15:00:00 +0000 The Four DoctorsIn many ways, Doctor Who’s Series 7 finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” marked the beginning of the golden jubilee celebrations (albeit six months early): the episode echoed a cherished tradition for major Who anniversaries by including new footage of past Doctors, as well as archival material. However, for the first time the new footage relied entirely on non-speaking stand-ins, their faces out of focus or in shadow, with the result that the principal signifier for each Doctor was his distinctive sartorial look.

Compared to the decidedly impressionistic recreation of past Doctors’ outfits by James Acheson and Colin Lavers in “The Three Doctors” (1972) and “The Five Doctors” (1983) respectively, Howard Burden’s costumes for the “Name” cameos show considerable attention to detail. This is particularly striking in the case of the First Doctor, who appears in the pre-credits sequence on Gallifrey and again at the climax. The body double here is seen only in long shots, which alternate with close-ups and medium close-ups digitally incorporating footage of William Hartnell. Each shot of Hartnell is tight and short enough that in fact only the most general costume correspondence was needed to make the body double a credible match. Yet Burden was evidently taking no chances; his homage to Maureen Heneghan’s original costume design was remarkably precise, at a stroke establishing “authentic” costume as a key value for the anniversary season. This use of costume as a marker of authenticity was to play out in unexpected ways, with various ramifications for Who tradition and canon, in both “The Day of the Doctor” and “The Night of the Doctor.”

John Hurt as The War Doctor in "Day of the Doctor."

John Hurt as The War Doctor in “Day of the Doctor.”

The culminating moments of “Name” introduced a past Doctor who was, from the audience’s point of view, not a past Doctor at all – the “forgotten” incarnation of the Time Lord played by John Hurt. While this brief, tenebrous sequence allowed little opportunity to see the details of Hurt’s richly textured costume, unofficial photographs from location filming had already revealed that in the fiftieth anniversary special Hurt would be wearing a leather “U-Boat” jacket similar to that chosen for Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor. The likeness was enough to provoke speculation well before “The Name of the Doctor” aired, and even before Hurt himself had disclosed that he was playing “part of the Doctor.” Fan interest was further piqued by the fact that Hurt’s double-breasted waistcoat bore more than a passing resemblance to the one worn by Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor in the 1996 TV movie. All this led to the quite reasonable supposition that Hurt might be “another version of the Eighth or Ninth Doctors.”

As it turned out, the melding of sartorial images is a function of Hurt’s playing a missing incarnation between McGann and Eccleston. The logic of Howard Burden’s costume choice in terms of branding and affect is easy to discern. The leather jacket, which is the dominant element of the outfit, reinforces the New Who aesthetic and allows the war-ravaged Hurt incarnation to stand in for the absent Eccleston. For the observant fan, the secondary detail of the waistcoat helps subtly to bridge New Who with the TV movie and thus Classic Who. (Hurt’s “sawn-off” version of the Classic-era sonic screwdriver represents another such visual bridge.) What’s particularly noteworthy about the War Doctor’s costume is that rebranding is achieved through a strategic break with Who precedent. Hurt’s outfit situates his Doctor “authentically” within the canon precisely by subverting the tradition that each Doctor’s costume should be unlike his immediate predecessor’s. Nor, as it turned out, was this to be the only such breach of this tradition in anniversary productions.

Paul McGann as The Eighth Doctor in "The Night of the Doctor."

Paul McGann as The Eighth Doctor in “The Night of the Doctor.”

Among the biggest surprises of the jubilee season was the Eighth Doctor’s scintillating return and regeneration into Hurt’s incarnation in “The Night of the Doctor.” For this “minisode” Howard Burden designed an entirely new outfit for McGann. At one level this was no doubt a response to the actor’s well-known dissatisfaction with his original costume and wig. However, as with Hurt’s costume, the main function of the new ensemble was surely to form a bridge, this time between the War Doctor and the Eighth Doctor’s own prior image in the TV movie. For “Night,” McGann once again wears a frock coat and patterned silk waistcoat, but this time more muted, the coat being earthier in tone than the TV Movie original and made of a soft, matt, woolen fabric rather than flashy panne velvet and satin. In other respects the costume tends “prophetically” toward the militarism of Hurt’s outfit. Thus the canvas soldier’s leggings worn by the War Doctor are prefigured by the Eighth Doctor’s leather gaiters, the War Doctor’s khaki field trousers by his predecessor’s tobacco brown twill work-pants, and even Hurt’s tattered scarf by McGann’s casually knotted silk neckerchief.

Paul McGann as The Eighth Doctor.

Paul McGann as The Eighth Doctor in the audio drama series “Eighth Doctor Adventures.”

The Eighth Doctor’s costume for “Night” was also interesting for what it was not. In 2012 Paul McGann secured approval to introduce a new outfit, satchel, and sonic screwdriver into publicity and packaging for the Eighth Doctor audio dramas he records for Big Finish Productions. The new costume was very close to Eccleston’s: leather pea coat, tee shirt, and jeans. Clearly it was too close for the purposes of the anniversary specials, with their sleight-of-hand sartorial “retcon” of the War Doctor incarnation. There is slight irony in the rejection of the 2012 costume, given that one of the most discussed aspects of “The Night of the Doctor” has been the name checking of the Eighth Doctor’s Big Finish companions, which effectively established his audio adventures as canon. Yet brand logic evidently required that this new inclusiveness apply only to the aural component of Big Finish’s work, not to all its “televisual” trappings.[1]

This is the sixth post in The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who, Antenna’s series commemorating the television franchise’s fiftieth anniversary and its lasting cultural legacy. Click here to read the previous entries in the series. Stay tuned for Pam Wojcik’s upcoming entry on Tuesday, December 10.

[1] Matt Hills, “Televisuality without television? The Big Finish audios and discourses of ‘tele-centric’ Doctor Who”, in Time and Relative Dissertations in Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who, ed. David Butler (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), 280–295.


The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: Celebrations, Conferences, Conventions Tue, 03 Dec 2013 15:00:17 +0000 Like many television programs with a strong fan base, Doctor Who has thrived not just on the television screen, but also through celebratory fan conventions. For fans in 2013, Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations arrived with pomp and circumstance, fanfare and flourish: This year, celebrations have been de rigueur.


Doctor Who Official 50th Celebration in London, 2013.

For Doctor Who the fiftieth anniversary, as Matt Hills has described, is not just a way of marking a milestone for the television series, but also an “epic collision between fandom and brand management.” This collision can be seen not just in the way the BBC releases minisodes to appeal to fans in a fashion that Hills has called “trans-transmedia,” but also in the many in-person celebrations being held at the anniversary. These celebrations have taken many guises: from professionally-run, BBC-organized affairs, to academic conferences (the report of which Derek Kompare has nicely written), to fan/scholar celebrations of Doctor Who, to fanrun conventions, to record-breaking cinema extravaganzas, to fan-oriented screening parties, the sheer number of fan celebrations demonstrate the continued affective and communal power of a cult television franchise like Doctor Who.

Chicago TARDIS.

Chicago TARDIS convention.

This past weekend (November 28–December 1), I attended (and presented at) Chicago TARDIS, a local fan-run convention with over 2,500 attendees, 30 guests, and 160 panels and events. Chicago TARDIS manifests the collision between fandom and branding. The panels at Chicago TARDIS included both professional actor/crew presentations (three original Doctors were present, as were a number of companions and ancillary content creators), while also featuring more fan-oriented panels like “Fangirls are Real Fans, Too,” “The Danger of Fandom Entitlement,” and “Heroes (or Chumps?) of Cosplay.”

TARDIS has been running under that name for 13 years, and emerged after the demise of HME/Visions, a Chicago area Doctor Who convention that ran from 1990­–1998. In her book The Doctor Who Franchise, Lynette Porter describes how “some guests prefer” attending smaller events like TARDIS or other fan-run US conventions like Gallifrey One and Hurricane Who, “because they provide that personal touch and are smaller, less stressful events” (151). Although fans of Doctor Who have met informally since the beginning of the show, organized fan conventions for Doctor Who started in earnest in the UK on Saturday 6th August 1977, with the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s convention, later named Panopticon. The first US convention was held in December 1979, with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker and producer Graham Williams in attendance (there because of the last minute cancellation of the production of Shada).

Program from the first Doctor Who convention in the U.S., 1979.

Program from the first Doctor Who convention in the U.S., 1979.

Doctor Who fan conventions are different than Doctor Who exhibitions, as Philip Sandifer describes. In her chapter on the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay, Melissa Beattie points out the exhibition has served not only to revitalize Cardiff, but also to reinforce the dominant, commercial meanings of Who. Indeed, unlike fan-run conventions like Chicago TARDIS, more official, BBC-sanctioned events tend to seem “much more like a traditional museum with… displays and structures,” according to Beattie (178). The famous Doctor Who Exhibition in Longleat or the Doctor Who Exhibition in Blackpool were both long-running museums of Doctor Who props, monsters, and memorabilia.

Doctor Who Exhibition in Blackpool, UK.

Doctor Who Exhibition in Blackpool, UK.

In general, professionally-run conventions like the Doctor Who Experience or the BBC’s own 50th anniversary celebration tend to reinforce the dominant readings of the show with panels articulating authorized behind-the-scenes information or discussion with actors and crew. In contrast, smaller, more fan-run conventions tend to allow a plurality of voices, with panels discussing fannish activities like “Fandom Culture Clash” and “You Know You’re a Doctor Who Fan When…” That being said, many fan-run conventions also have crew and special guests in attendance, and many feature fan-friendly fare. There may also be a UK/US difference in convention styles, and the line between guest and participant is often more blurred at fan-run conventions.  According to Zubernis and Larsen’s Fandom at the Crossroads, more corporate organizations like Creation Entertainment tend to reinforce the barrier between fan and celebrity, even while simultaneously seeming to erase it. At Chicago TARDIS, interaction with guests is less regulated and often happens seemingly on accident – in the hotel bar, in the lobby while waiting for a cab, even walking across the street to Target (last year I literally ran into Sarah Jane Adventures actress Anjli Mohindra while making my way through the hotel doors).

As we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, it’s important to recognize that meeting in-person to celebrate the show is nothing new. Many Doctor Who conventions are now decades old. 2013 may mark a higher level of visibility for the program than ever before, but its fans have met for decades before now. What is different today is what Hills notes of TV anniversary celebrations: they “take on different meanings within reconfigured industry/audience contexts” (p. 217). Fan conventions are similar, and the annual consistency of conventions allows them to take on new dimensions. Unprecedented levels of access to behind-the-scenes news, celebrity personal lives, and production details make professional conventions often a reiteration rather than a revelation of information.

Meanwhile, the growing popularity of fan-run celebrations seems to be developing just as social media and the web provide copious avenues for fans to meet and congregate online. In my own research on Doctor Who fan conventions, I found that, for many fans, coming to Chicago TARDIS was less about meeting guests and more like “a family reunion,” where they could see the friends that “got” each other’s quirks. That TARDIS is always the weekend of Thanksgiving increases its familial quality: Thanksgiving is to celebrate with our family, to relax by the hearth, and to enjoy the company of those – and the shows – we love. The fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who may now be behind us, but like the Doctor himself, they will continue to develop and regenerate for many years to come – and, judging by these cosplayers, below, the future is assured.


Cosplay. (Photo Credit: Jef Burnham)

Paul Booth wishes to thank Ian Peters and Jennifer Adams Kelly for providing information about TARDIS and background on Doctor Who conventions in general, as well as for their help in the early stages of this post.

This is the fifth post in The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who, Antenna’s series commemorating the television franchise’s fiftieth anniversary and its lasting cultural legacy. Click here to read the previous entries in the series. Stay tuned for Piers Britton’s upcoming entry on the costuming in “The Name of the Doctor” this Thursday, December 5.


The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: “The Night of the Doctor” Thu, 21 Nov 2013 15:00:26 +0000 The opening scene is familiar to any Who-fan: sparks flying, a ship moments from crashing, the word “Doctor” perking ears up. The companion – ever distressed and female – is unsurprised at the sudden arrival of a mystery man and, quickly quipping, proves herself worthy of traveling with the Doctor. All standard Doctor Who fare – until the T.A.R.D.I.S. comes into view, and the would-be companion pulls away. She would rather defiantly die in an explosion than step aboard the ship of a war-crazed Time Lord.

Paul McGann reprising the role of the Eighth Doctor

Paul McGann reprising the role of the Eighth Doctor, from “The Night of the Doctor”

As Matt Hills points out, “The Day of the Doctor” has relied heavily on social media to establish the importance of this event, so it’s no surprise that showrunner Steven Moffat is making use of YouTube to hype the episode. Yet “The Night of the Doctor” has so much more importance than just setting the stage for what is quite possibly the largest simulcast event the world has seen. Though just under 7-minutes long, this short nonetheless marks an important addition to the Doctor Who universe, answering longstanding questions and shaking up canonical knowledge in one go.

Despite the brevity of his onscreen tenure, the Eighth Doctor lived on for years in the extended Who Universe; he served as the Doctor in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip for 9 years, appeared in 73 spin-off novels, and is featured in numerous BigFish Production audio dramas. The adventures he’s had and the friendships that have been developed are beloved among fans of the extended universe. Yet, the relevance of these stories to the main television canon has long been in question. So when the Eighth Doctor, facing regeneration, says “Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly… friends, companions I’ve known, I salute you,” he does more than pay tribute to their contribution to his adventures. This line cements the existence of these characters in the official canon of Doctor Who, legitimating years of production work and ensuring that Paul McGann’s addition isn’t just limited to an hour-and-a-half TV movie.

Most obviously, the short illuminates an unknown part of the Doctor’s personal timeline: the circumstances around the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration. It had been previously presumed to lead directly into Christopher Eccleston’s run as the Ninth Doctor, but we see that McGann instead transforms into John Hurt. Hurt’s involvement in “The Day of the Doctor” has been official for awhile. Indeed, he appears at the very end of “The Name of the Doctor,” with the tag “Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor.”

from "The Name of the Doctor"

From “The Name of the Doctor.”

His role, however, was not known for certain, and fan rumors abounded about whether he was a Future or Past Doctor, or an older incarnation of the Eighth Doctor himself. The revelation that he’s an in-between Doctor has disrupted the significantly important numbering system used to differentiate the Doctors – which has, in fact, been used throughout this very article to differentiate Paul McGann’s Doctor from the rest. If McGann was the Eighth Doctor, is Hurt the Ninth? Do all the Doctors move up, so Eccleston is now the Tenth, Tennant is the Eleventh (losing the nice symmetry between ten and Tennant)?

Many fans find this form of retconning disruptive to the core of Doctor Who (though as one fan pointed out to me, can a show about time travel ever really be considered retconned?). Conscious of the disruptive effect, Moffat has addressed the issue in Doctor Who Magazine, issue #467, stating that “He’s very specific, the John Hurt Doctor, that he doesn’t take the name of the Doctor. He doesn’t call himself that. He’s the same Time Lord, the same being as the Doctors either side of him, but he’s the one who says, ‘I’m not the Doctor.’ So the Eleventh Doctor is still the Eleventh Doctor, the Tenth Doctor is still the Tenth…”

war doctor

From “The Night of the Doctor.”

Yet “The Name of the Doctor” specifically introduces Hurt as “The Doctor.” This identification is changed to “The War Doctor” in “The Night of the Doctor,” so perhaps the adjective is enough to preserve the canonical numbering system. Whether or not this change violates the spirit of the Who mythos is still up in the air – and probably won’t come down until after “The Day of the Doctor” airs on November 25th. Keen fans anticipate yet another YouTube release; listings for additional “The Day of the Doctor” material have popped up online, hinting at a soon-to-be-released four-minute video called “The Last Day.” In the meantime, theories abound, and whatever happens on “The Day of the Doctor” is certain to dramatically alter the future – and the past – of Doctor Who.

This is the fourth 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, Keara Goin’s post about the Doctor’s female companions here, and Derek Kompare’s post about the gaps in the series’ history here. Stay tuned for new posts in the series most every Tuesday throughout the remaining weeks of 2013.


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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.


The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: Clara Who?: Re-Imagining the Doctor-Companion Model Tue, 29 Oct 2013 13:00:46 +0000 claraoswaldWho is Clara Oswald?  This is the question that drives much of the narrative arc for series seven of the hit British sci-fi show Doctor Who (1963-1989, reboot 2005-present).  But the question I seem to be asking myself is: What makes Clara different?  Is she a new breed of empowered companion or just the most recent incarnation of the standard post-feminist heroine we have come to expect from the program since its 2005 reboot?  What is clear, however, is that the dynamics of the relationship between the Doctor and Clara is unique.

Just as fundamental to Doctor Who as the Doctor himself (the gendering of who needs to be addressed separately in its own post), the various companions are right at the Doctor’s side for his adventures in time and space.  In her work on Doctor Who, Lindy A. Orthia (2010) succinctly characterizes the traditional role of the Doctors’ companions: “Dramatically, the function of companions is threefold: (a) to scream and be rescued, (b) to enable the plot to be explained to viewers, and (c) to provide a point of identification for viewers” (54).  The primary companions since the show’s return in 2005—Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amy—maintain this role, yet are at the same time depicted in a post-feminist fashion that suggests that even though the Doctor is represented as smarter, wiser, more educated, and over all better suited for travel through time and space, these women are empowered to make their own decisions and take independent actions as they accompany the Doctor.  However, as the “companion” their real-time lives are made to seem secondary, bland, and lacking excitement.  Life with the Doctor is often constructed as an escape; they are rescued from banality by a white Time Lord in a blue box.  They might disagree with the Doctor, disobey his wishes, and talk back to him, but, in the end, it is the Doctor who saves the day.  These post-feminist heroines, while clearly distinguishable from dependent sidekick companions from the show’s first few decades, still easily fit into the Doctor-companion model described by Margaret and Michael Rustin (2008), in  “The Regeneration of Doctor Who”, where “The Doctor…took an innocent younger companion on adventures in his special vehicle, and on these adventures protects her and everyone else from danger” (146).  But what about the Doctor’s newest companion, Clara?  Is she just a reincarnation of this ubiquitous model?


Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amy

Played by British actor Jenna-Louise Coleman, the character of Clara Oswald is really a series of characters, all similarly named and appearing physically identical.  Referred to by the Doctor (portrayed by Matt Smith) as “the impossible girl” (“The Bells of St. John”), Clara is a mystery both to audiences and the Doctor.  From the viewers’ perspective, Clara is a character that seems to be immortal, sacrificing her own life to save the Doctor again and again.  She runs into the Doctor multiple times, across time and space, each time playing the pivotal role in the Doctor’s success and survival.  “Feisty” (“Journey to the Center of the Tardis”), brave, and independent like her predecessors, Clara finds her travels with the Doctor thrilling.  Yet the fashion in which the show frames her as a companion is different.  Her real-time life is sacrificed in order to replicate herself into what character River Song calls “echoes” (“The Name of the Doctor”); splicing herself in order to be present at every point in the Doctor’s timeline.  Clara’s identity is created as inextricably linked to that of the Doctor, her sole purpose to exist caught up in the fabric of the Doctor’s timeline.

the doctor's timeline

Clara’s Self Sacrifice as She Jumps into the Doctor’s Timeline

As Alec Charles (2008) has previously noted in“The War Without End?”, “It is [the Doctor’s] human companions, his surrogate family, who provide not only the emotional center and the moral compass but also the dramatic and diegetic motivation for the series” (459).  Yet, in the case of Clara, her role is more than just indeterminate member of his surrogate family; she is his surrogate mother.  Connoted as irrefutably maternal—most explicitly shown through her employment as a Victorian governess in “The Snowmen” and a nanny in what could be understood as her real-time life—it could be argued that Clara is merely the traditional mother archetype, just re-packaged.  In the final episode of the current series, “The Name of the Doctor,” she explains to the viewer that “I’m born, I live, I die.  And always there’s the Doctor.”  It is at the end of this episode that we are provided the answer to the question: Who is Clara?  She tells the audience “Always I’m running to save the Doctor.  Again, and again, and again…I’ve always been there, right from the beginning.”  Taking on the responsibility of the Doctor’s well-being, Clara positions herself as the Doctor’s caretaker.


Clara is there to Save Every Regeneration of the Doctor

Clara’s independence and brash nature can seem like a break with the normative femininity that framed the characterization of the previous companions. However, the revelation that this companion was “born to save the Doctor” ultimately aligns her with a regime of representation that constructs motherhood, and the self-sacrifice inherent in that, as the paramount purpose of women.  Yet as a character that has redefined the Doctor-companion relationship, Clara is able to stand apart from the more recent post-feminist companions by flipping the savior-saved dynamic on its head; simultaneously fulfilling the traditional, modern, and re-imagined companion roles.

This is the second post in Antenna’s new series The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who, commemorating the television series’ fiftieth anniversary and its lasting cultural legacy. If you missed Matt Hills’ inaugural post earlier this month, you can read it here. Stay tuned for regular posts in the series throughout the remaining months of 2013.


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The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: What’s Special About Multiple Multi-Doctor Specials? Tue, 15 Oct 2013 13:49:30 +0000 This is the inaugural post in a new Antenna series, The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who, which commemorates the television series’ fiftieth anniversary and its lasting cultural legacy. Stay tuned for regular posts in the series throughout the remaining months of 2013.

You may well have noticed that this year is Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary. A number of the show’s prior anniversaries have featured what fans like to call “multi-Doctor” stories in which different incarnations of the good Doctor team up to fight evil together. “The Three Doctors” (1972—3), “The Five Doctors” (1983), and “Dimensions in Time” (1993) have all contributed to this subgenre of Time Lord entertainment, but the multi-Doctor story hasn’t just been a birthday gift. TARDIS Wikia lists some 77 such stories, many of them hailing from officially-licensed comic strips and short stories. Indeed, the Big Finish Short Trips series accounts for some 20 or so multi-Doctor stories just by itself. What gets counted, and what gets left out, remains a matter of debate in this exercise: for instance, TARDIS Wikia rather pointedly includes unmade “The Dark Dimension” and excludes “Dimensions in Time” (infamous for upsetting long-term Who fans with its EastEnders crossover and almost total incoherence).

These “specials” may appear to be in danger of becoming slightly less special in 2013, however. Arguably, there are no less than four multi-Doctor stories currently on the go or pending: “The Day of the Doctor” on TV for the anniversary day of November 23rd, and Big Finish’s audio adventure “The Light at the End,” along with IDW’s licensed “Prisoners of Time” and Big Finish/AudioGO’s “Destiny of the Doctor.” The latter two efforts don’t need to involve actors who played the Doctor – just their likenesses and descriptions – whilst Big Finish’s own special release features all of the “classic” Doctors via performance or technological trickery. Finally, the BBC TV special looks set to involve Matt Smith and David Tennant, plus John Hurt as a previously unknown incarnation, as well as possibly another “classic” Doctor.

Multi-Doctor stories are special to fans for a variety of reasons. They help to bind together Doctor Who’s vast narrative world, suggesting that rather than a series of different eras and production phases, all the Doctors are simultaneously whizzing through time and space, and might bump into each other at any moment. Converting production contingencies into a co-present Whoniverse is a handy trick, but multi-Doctor TV stories also emphasize what Paul Booth calls in Time on TV a “temporal displacement” of incarnations. Assorted Doctors are taken out of their timestreams and timelines (in production terms, the 1960s through to the noughties) and combined in potentially nostalgic confections. Amy Holdsworth’s book Television, Memory and Nostalgia ends by taking “Time Crash” (2007) as emblematic of how TV engages with past and present: “Time Crash” is, we’re told, “not a collapse of past and present but an affectionate evocation of television’s significance to our understanding of and relationship to both.” All this, and a decorative vegetable too.

But Holdsworth is right to draw attention to how past and present are set in new relationships by these time crashes or collisions. Indeed, it could be argued that returning actors, re-inhabiting roles they may not have played on TV for quite some time, are likely to create pastiches of prior performances, mannerisms, and catchphrases. And as Richard Dyer has so eloquently noted, at its best pastiche allows audiences to know themselves “affectively as historical beings.”

A small number of Doctors get their “Day”?

So, does “The Day of the Doctor” look set to work in this way? I would suggest not: its publicity poster (pictured above) stresses Smith and Tennant, with Hurt relegated to a far smaller image. Rather than audiences being inspired to reflect on their relationship to some fifty years of pop-cultural TARDIS travel, only a production span of seven years or so is called to mind (2006—13), making this both a curiously compressed relationship between (recent) past and present as well as one which focuses strongly on more youthful Doctors. Hurt’s older figure seems likely to be a villainous version of our protagonist, as well as representing a new face rather than a reminder of earlier productions. Of course “The Day of the Doctor” resonates, as a title, with the anniversary date and its global premiere along with #savetheday hashtag. Youth-orientated media culture seems well served here, as does a kind of event TV “presentism” that’s slightly at odds with a special assumed to commemorate fifty years. It’s not about decades of the Doctor, it’s about a “day.” And it’s not about ageing actors cueing memories of past Who, it’s about two fresh-faced TV stars and a guesting big name thesp. Peter Capaldi’s imminent tenure suggests the show isn’t afraid of older Doctors, but on the strength of “The Day of the Doctor” and its current paratextual presence, you’d be hard pushed not to feel that it wants to brush Doctor Who’s age, and the passing of production time, under the carpet of Rassilon.

And then there’s the matter of multiple multi-Doctor tales. Rather than cohering across media platforms, these seem to float in their own islands of quasi-canonicity. “The Light at the End” can presumably only feature Doctors one through to eight as a result of Big Finish’s standard license, while Big Finish/AudioGO and IDW get a shot at “the eleven Doctors.” Perhaps comic book readers are felt to be more attuned to “team-up” stories, but each of these audio/comic adventures feature monthly releases focused on a different Doctor, eventually layering into a sequence featuring all incarnations (and perhaps allowing greater interaction between them as the anniversary year comes to a head). Instead of primarily uniting Doctors in a magical, memory-spanning collision of past and present, these reunions and recombinations seem driven by medium-specific release patterns (an audio or comic a month makes industrial sense: a TV episode a month ranging across incarnations would be extremely quirky scheduling). And alongside industry release patterns, these multi-multi-Doctor “specials” are also conspicuously delimited by commercial licensing deals: Big Finish can unite “classic” Doctors in “The Light at the End,” even if the TV series seems intent on limiting itself to current and previous incumbents (more temporal compression than temporal displacement). The outcome seems surprisingly fragmented for what could be a grand bridging of all eras.

“Classic” Doctors reunited.

There is a more celebratory interpretation, mind you: perhaps Doctor Who’s big day has not fallen entirely prey to marketing ploys, event TV presentism, and BBC Worldwide licensing deals. Perhaps the decision to focus on a smaller number of Doctors than fans might have expected isn’t such a bad thing (“The Day of the Doctor” could almost be entitled “The Two Doctors” or “The Three Doctors,” depending on your view of the John Hurt/missing incarnation revelation). After all, “The Five Doctors” has been criticized by Jim Leach for a “breathless and diffuse” narrative resulting from the effort to cram in so many protagonists, while Keith M. Johnston accurately describes ‘Dimensions in Time’ as “Doctor Who reduced to visual spectacle… dispens[ing] with narrative logic to offer the programme’s ‘greatest hits’.” The spectacle of seeing many Doctors on screen – an unusual special effect, to be sure – apparently works against narrative. By focusing only (or primarily) on Doctors Ten and Eleven, “The Day of the Doctor” implicitly responds to generations of fan disappointment and critique aimed at multi-Doctor stories. It’s concerned with telling a strong story rather than providing excessive “Doctor porn” (a lot like “continuity porn,” but focused on the Doctor’s different guises). Fans incessantly engage in aesthetic debate over what makes good Who, and “The Day of the Doctor,” written by a producer-fan, strikes me as highly cognizant of previous fan discussions and aesthetic commentaries (spectacle over narrative; incoherence over structure) that have surrounded the “multi-Doctor” category.

Mannequin mania?

In the end, what may be particularly special about all these “specials” is the extent to which they combine industry sense (release patterns; licensing; promotional “stings” and hashtags; restricted paratextual publicity) with fannish critique (“too many Doctors spoils the TV storytelling”). And this epic collision between fandom and brand management offers a different kind of multiplicity altogether.


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