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Dissecting Fandom: Why Are You A Doctor Who Fan?

Fandom, fandom, fandom. Why do we love Doctor Who? What is the nature of this thing, fandom, which explains our loyalty and our enthusiasm? Which is so baffling to those who don’t share our commitment? Why do we stick with the show? Why do we stay loyal to it, even when it isn’t very good sometimes? Why do we get upset when people attack it and why do we rush to defend it from such attacks? Why do we get so angry when people in charge of it mess about with it and, as we see it, spoil it?

I am very interested in the phenomenon of fandom as a feature of the personality. I don’t think it’s ever been properly explored as a psychological phenomenon. Not being a psychologist myself, I resolve nonetheless to try and get to the bottom of it. Here goes…

I read an article about the nature of fandom in The Times a few years ago. The writer said that Doctor Who fandom was based in immaturity: fans were people who loved a programme in childhood and, because they had never grown up and had never left their childhood, still liked it as adults. This is obviously a nasty point of view from someone who considers himself immensely superior: a much more mature, rounded, complete, adult, interesting individual than we fans playing in the sandpit of the planet of the Cheetah people, but perhaps there is a grain of truth in what he wrote. (Who said, “There’s no point in being an adult if you can’t be childish sometimes”?)

Back to the question. Why do we love Doctor Who so much?

If you ask a fan how they got into Doctor Who, they will often tell you a story about how they first encountered the programme. Pretty soon, their eyes will start shining, they will smile and exude infectious happiness. For many people, their first encounters with Doctor Who were when they were very young children. Early childhood is a time when you are being formed as a personality and when the impressions you receive are indelible. As far as Doctor Who is concerned, the show may link the you of today back to a time when you knew you were safe, protected, and loved. I remember being four years old and watching Jon Pertwee’s first season with my four brothers, all of us lying on our stomachs in a semi-circle round the television – a happy, family experience. I remember watching the show for the first time in colour, going down the road to the home of a kind family friend who had a colour television and would give Simon (my twin) and me coca cola and crisps while we watched Carnival of Monsters (she would then exit the room and leave us to it: she wasn’t a fan). We were still there three years later, watching The Hand of Fear on its first broadcast. Coke, crisps, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, and colour television: what better happiness could there be for a 10 year old in the 1970s? Russell T Davies attested to the power of childhood memory and television when he said that, when you are 80, you will remember the television programmes you watched as children even when you can’t remember very much else. I’m 55 and I become 10 years old again when I remember watching Planet of Evil in colour, back in London, 46 years ago.

So, of course, the nasty article in The Times is right when it says that love of the show is linked to happy memories of childhood, which are always the most powerful memories and which, when tapped into when we watch new episodes of Doctor Who, release those strong feelings again: or do so, at least, if we like the new episodes which are being offered to us. Do we like the new episodes best which remind us of our childhood favourites, which conform to our notion of “proper Doctor Who”? Do childhood notions of “the best” Doctor Whos set a standard by which current episodes are judged? Discuss.

Some people rather patronisingly write about “comfort literature” – the books we return to again and again when we are feeling down, which cheer us up. Doctor Who is comfort television.

And what’s wrong with that? A character in Davies’s Queer as Folk watches Doctor Who because “it makes him happy”. Quite right too. People who disparage comfort reading or Doctor Who as comfort television perhaps do so because they consider such things weakness: the only thing worth demonstrating is strength! Cast childhood rubbish onto the fire! We should read masculine, strong literature while building for ourselves mighty lives and crushing the weak beneath our heel. I am the Master: you will obey me. Perhaps people who deride and despise nostalgia, sensibility, and emotion are afraid of their own sensitivity. Perhaps that’s why the Master turned off The Clangers and Tellytubbies: the strong sentimental appeal of each was getting to him and threatening to undermine his status as an evil genius.

So, the nature of fandom is partly based in the appeal of happy memories. These strongly root us into a time when we were happy; the memory is released again when we watch a new episode and part of our new happiness is composed of that memory. Memory is part of identity (“A man is the sum of his memories, a Time Lord even more so”). I think the psychological power of fandom is rooted in something beyond simple memory and is, in fact, a question of identity. Without wanting to sound too pompous (I know it does sound pompous), I think the nature of fandom is profoundly linked with who we are and how we define and understand ourselves as people.

Of all the genre programmes and films, many genre fans most identify with, and love the most, those which have run for longest: the decade-long franchises of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who (I believe these are sometimes referred to by sci-fi merchandisers as, the Big Three). If fandom is profoundly linked with identity, with the make-up and foundation of our own personalities, then our identities are most closely entwined with those franchises which are as old as (or even older than) we are. Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who, have, for many of us, been there for as long as we have been on the Earth and moments in our own lives are linked with moments in our experience of the preferred franchise.

For fans in the UK, who experienced the show as it unfolded week by week and year by year on its first broadcast – who couldn’t binge on box sets and endless repeats – we can closely identify stories, episodes, and periods of Doctor Who with our personal history. The show got older as we got older. We can remember the episodes which we watched in very early childhood; as 10 year olds; as teenagers; as young adults; in our middle age; and even in our old age. People talk about “my Doctors” being, say, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, because those are the Doctors we remember most fondly from our early childhood, the most formative age for the personality. (Former Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “a Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker man” – make of that what you will.) We link the programme with moments in our own lives. For example: I moved from London to Sussex in 1976; having seen The Hand of Fear in colour on a family friend’s colour set, I had to watch The Deadly Assassin in black and white again because I had to watch it at home and we didn’t have colour TV. The Deadly Assassin, 1976, the sense of being unsettled after moving house, and disappointed at having to watch Who in black and white again, are all packaged together in my memory. In 1981, Simon and I bought our first VHS video recorder and were able to tape The Five Faces of Doctor Who: what ecstasy to be able to watch an episode of Logopolis again at seven in the morning before going off to sixth form college! At university, five or six of us freshers at the University of Kent clustered round a portable colour TV to watch The Five Doctors on a distinctly snowy screen. As a young teacher in my first job, I rather glumly watched The Trial of a Time Lord before going off to rehearse my students in a production of Macbeth.

So being a Doctor Who fan means that, as the Wirrn absorbed the humans, the programme has been absorbed into ourselves: as part of our memory and part of our identity. Our response to Doctor Who goes beyond the intellectual response of media or literary criticism: we are aware that some episodes are stinkers and we prefer some periods of the show to others; we even love some stories or periods of the show and hate others. A critical awareness that, say, Delta and the Bannermen isn’t very well written doesn’t mean that we then abandon Doctor Who and put it behind us (put off childish things, wrote St Paul). I think that the fan’s identification with the programme is akin to football fans’ support for their team: we cheer them on when they do well; castigate their rubbish performance and the foolishness of their managers when they do badly; despair of their uselessness and talk loudly of the glory days when they go down 3-0 to Cambridge United but, however rubbish they are, would (probably) never dream of giving up on them.

This identification with Doctor Who perhaps helps to explain why fans get so upset and angry when they think the programme is badly served by its actors, showrunners, and writers. Back in 1978, some fans’ reviews of, say, Nightmare of Eden were full of bile, spitting with rage about “scenes of stupid farce and the worst acting I’ve ever seen on the programme”: letters in the next edition of the fanzine from people who had read the review and enjoyed the episodes would express hurt and dismay, and would wonder how people who hated the story so much could even call themselves fans of Doctor Who. Fast forward 43 years to the current debate about Chibnall’s version of the programme. So much of the anger and disappointment about Chibnall’s writing, or Tom Baker’s ad-libbing, or Douglas Adams’ scripting is, I think, attributable to a perception that these are an assault on something that we value so highly: something that is so much part of our memory and identity, something that we love. We would be outraged, hurt, and upset to see our wife or husband or partner or child assaulted: we feel much the same sort of emotions when we see Doctor Who assaulted. Perhaps all this helps to explain the dismay expressed by some fans at Chibnall’s latest wheeze, and the counterblast from people who, loving the current incarnation of the programme, are equally hurt by criticism of it. Both sets of fans love the programme and seek to defend it from those who are perceived as attacking it.

That’s why people who dislike Doctor Who, or who don’t possess the fan gene, find it so easy to rile us. Bullies, of course, find one’s weak spot, seize it, and twist it. They call us geeks. They are the Not We. Back in 1977, someone told me that the TARDIS in the model shot at the end of Horror of Fang Rock looked like a carton of tea: I immediately felt furious rage and pain.

The nature of the phenomenon of fandom is, I think, down to memory, identity – it is a large part of who we are, it is bound into our understanding of ourselves – and, strongest of all, love. We love the show, or at least, we love our understanding of what the show should be.

Memory, identity, and love compose the phenomenon of fandom: and the greatest of these is love.

What do you think, dear reader? What do you think explains your love of the programme? Do you link a period in your life to your watching of the show? Please post your thoughts below!

Frank Danes

Dissecting Fandom: Why Are You A Doctor Who Fan?

by Frank Danes time to read: 8 min
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