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Doctor Who Fandom

by David Carroll, 1991

I played charades last night, and I won even. Or at least my team won and, I'll have to admit, not with any great help from me. The two clues I had to mime were 'Character: Shirna, Vorg's assistant, a third rate hoofer.' and 'Object: The apparently gigantic electronic circuitry inside the miniscope.' Enthusiasts of a certain TV program may recognise those phrases as referring to a Jon Pertwee story, Carnival of Monsters, and while I myself recognised them it didn't help me get either out within the four minutes.

Not that I haven't had my moments, like working out 'Monster: one word, five syllables.' Terileptil. For the uninitiated that's from a Peter Davison story called The Visitation, and who cares if it's only got four syllables anyway.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Doctor Who fandom. A group which the so-called average person sees as a lot of pimply teen-age boys who like Tom Baker and do childish things like, well, play charades.

I've been addicted to this wonderful TV programme for some, God Almighty, ten years or so and have long got over justifying my interest to the doubting majority. I'm no longer a teenager and my complexion, while never perfect, isn't too bad. I certainly don't mind Tom Baker, though his tenure as the Time Lord contained what I regard as one of the show's worst periods. To me the Doctor is one Sylvester McCoy, a short, Scottish actor who has recently not only surpassed those before him but added his own sense of mystery and power to a character who had been on our TV screens for twenty-seven years.

And, while this is supposed to be an overview of fandom lets take a quick look at the show itself, which exists almost completely separate from its supporters.

It was conceived by a man called Sidney Newman (with the help of Donald Wilson, Verity Lambert and others) as a partly-educational sf/historical show about a 'crotchety old man in a Police Box'. It was produced by the BBC's Drama Division (not the Children's Division, though it was recognised children would make up a substantial part of the audience) and made its first appearance on the twenty-third of November, 1963. It starred William Hartnell as the rather selfish anti-hero who kidnaps two of his Grand-daughter's teachers in his TARDIS, a Police Box that somehow travels through time and space.

Four episodes later the Daleks were introduced, by accident as it happens, though that's a longish story, and Britain became Doctor Who mad, the Daleks themselves creating enough merchandise to rival the scale of Batman last year.

The show continued, the Daleks turning up occasionally, and many other monsters were seen, occasionally rivalling the original for popularity, the Cybermen being the prime example. The historical stories, whilst superbly produced, were slowly weaned out (they were never as popular as the straight sf/adventure format), it was revealed the Doctor could regenerate, change his physical form to allow for a new actor and a new interpretation, science-fiction turned to horror, horror turned to action and back to horror again.

By this time, the latish 1970's, Tom Baker was well-established in the role, the fourth actor to play the Time Lord. The Doctor, for a long time more hero than anti-hero, had still the arrogance and impatience he started with, traits he only really lost during Jon Pertwee's (No. 3) and Peter Davison's (No. 5) time in the TARDIS (which goes a long way towards explaining why they are my two not-as-favourite Doctors). It did have plenty of children watching (about 30% of the audience) but it always had skated close to the line of adult drama and many times its levels of violence were brought into question, at one time it was the show most mothers wanted banned. After a particularly rigourous campaign by Mary Whitehouse the show was forced into down-right silliness (for a start Douggie Adams became script-editor). As always, it kept going, changing concept again back to serious science-fiction, then to a strange combination of black humour and true adult drama, then silliness, and finally, in 1988 and 1989, back to what it had always been best at, horror. And that's where it is at the moment. It's currently being suspended, no Doctor Who was made in 1990 and probably none will be made this year. But it's been suspended before, and we're always hopeful.

'We', of course, being the die-hard fans because, somewhere along the line, the general public lost interest, seemingly unable to take in the sheer variety of the program. To most Australians Doctor Who is Tom Baker being clownish, and that is just one of it's many, many facets.

The program has had 7 different Doctors, 26 seasons, 158 televised stories and well over 700 individual episodes (a little over a hundred of which, sadly, no longer exist).

And while a lot of the old stuff looks a bit shaky to eyes used to the special effects of movies with multimillion dollar budgets, it had always been up there when it comes to television technology. Ron Grainer's theme music was the first piece of commercial electronic music, composed some time before the appearance of the first synthesizer (which was, by the way, worked on by some of the show's incidental musicians). The null-gravity effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey were adapted from techniques pioneered in Doctor Who. Hell, it even beat Star Wars to the concept of a cute robotic side-kick. These days the sets don't wobble, the opening credits are computer-generated (not as slick as those for Star Trek: The New Generation I'll grant you, but DW is still, as always, a low-budget show) and the character and plot-based stories are supported by special effects that simply look real. Low-budget, but state-of-the-art, and the latest Season contains some of the highest quality examples of television production I have ever seen.

Does that explain why people dedicate large amounts of time, money and effort to a piece of entertainment?

Yeah, it does, actually. So lets take a closer look at fans and fandom.

In Australia the average age of Doctor Who fans is 201/2 and about 80% of them are male. Data Extract, the official news 'zine of the ADWFC (Australasian DW Fan Club), is currently shifting about 1100 copies an issue. There are many regional clubs as well as the ADWFC, usually at least one for each capital city or largeish region, and an organisation called SCOT (The Supreme Council of Time Lords) exists to bind them together and organise such things as the annual Double Gamma awards for contributions to ANZ fandom. The biggest success of a club recently was the Brisbane DWFC which gained some 140 members in short time. Each of these clubs puts out there own publication, or clubzine, for its members, and indeed fanzine production is a major part of Australian fandom, with many personal 'zines reflecting different views and creative slants existing. Because of the nature of the country we're spread out over huge distances, but still manage to get together for parties, weekends and occasionally larger conventions, with guest stars and all.

This is a uniquely Australian way of doing things and makes an interesting comparison to American fandom. While only 38% of Americans have heard of the programme, 6% of the population regard it as their favourite show. Fandom there is orientated more towards Conventions and far less towards fanzines, and while Star Trek is the more popular program DW fandom is both bigger and better organised. 62% of American fans are female [1], in stark contrast to both here and England, where it's about 5%.

Aren't statistics wonderful?

But what they don't tell you is why people do this sort of thing in the first place. Maybe you've just got to be the right sort of obsessive. Take me for example.

Am I the world's only serious Bewitched fan? It's doubtful, but as far as I know I am. When it was on in the morning late last year I started compiling an episode guide, ending up with a 28,000 word document (despite covering only 20% of the episodes before having to give it up for work). As another example I'm also a bit of a Linda Blair fan and, while I'm not exactly going to start writing extensively on the subject I've seen Exorcist I and II, Hell Night and Repossessed, am still looking for Bad Blood and Summer of Fear, and want to see a couple of her non-horror films, if I can find someone to see them with (mainly because I don't have a video, which makes it all somewhat harder).

But is that what Doctor Who fandom's about? Not really. Fandom is about being social, about meeting people with common interests. And sure, we watch videos and talk about the show a lot, and have DW masterminds and charades and theatre sports, but we also go to movies and have parties and hit the town. I went to Phantom of the Opera in Melbourne recently with a South Australian friend of mine I met through Doctor Who (she came up to Sydney for a convention) and had a great weekend.

I suppose one of the best things about Doctor Who is that it's free. All you need to do to enjoy the show is sit down in front of the television every now and again. There's a lot of merchandise, but its all optional extras. And if you've finally gotten sick of Tom Baker repeats there are people out there who have just about any story you'd want to see, and many you've probably never heard of. You've just got to get involved, make friends, have some fun.

But, of course, being just slightly obsessive doesn't hurt any.


[1] These figures from a 1988 survey by 'Coast to Coast' and supplied courtesy of Doctor Who in America, by David Richardson, in Dark Circus#5.

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