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Catching up with the world, continued

November 5th, 2006 (02:55 pm)

Both 'Auld Mortality' and 'Spare Parts' are stories that develop fan preoccupations - one imagining a situation where the Doctor never left Gallifrey, the other relating the untold origins of the Cybermen. 'Auld Mortality' shows a Doctor who is effectively imprisoned in a world based on his own research and imagination, which could be read as an allegory for the fan condition. Marc Platt, who wrote it, was the second writer with a career in fandom as a writer of articles (often about Ice Warriors, I think) and fiction to contribute to the television series (with 'Ghost Light' in 1989), but hasn't broken through into non-Who writing. His alternative first Doctor, content to research the history of humanity and only experiencing it though simulacra, could probably describe one sub-section of fan culture.

The structure of 'Spare Parts' feels a little stretched, probably the result of my continuing to understand dramatized Doctor Who as a story told in pictures as well as words. Marc Platt wrote this one as well, and while fandom picked up on the details from 'Spare Parts' to make their way into 'Rise of the Cybermen'/'The Age of Steel' on television this year (for which Marc Platt received a 'With thanks to..' credit) he's aware of the same problem as the 2006 production team, that the Cybermen are based on a set of fears which now appear dated. I'd not appreciated fully how far the quasi-1950s setting isn't just a period detail to emphasise the sense of human community which the Cybermen will sweep away, but also an expression that Mondas is a society reliant on mechanics and ignorant of the 'spare part' surgery of the early twenty-first century. Nyssa is described as an expert on stem cell research at one stage, but this only excites passing interest; machine augmentation is in control of the imagination and culture. Yes, the Cyberman which results from the incomplete conversion of Yvonne Hartley is as affecting as I'd read; and Sally Knyvette's Doctorman Allen is good to listen to, particularly as she decides to get drunk on her way to Cyber-processing, chattering about a shared oblivion with a cheery cynicism.

I end up inflicting my thoughts on shifts in fan culture on several undergraduates at the moment, and I was struck again yesterday by the potential polarities between the Doctor Who fandom I learned about over twenty years ago, and the polystranded fandom of today. I was looking at a thread on Roobarb's DVD Forum concerning DWB, the underground precursor of today's newsstand zine Dreamwatch. DWB was a monthly Doctor Who fanzine earned its reputation by combining often impassioned reporting and editorializing, its main targets being the Doctor Who production office of John Nathan-Turner and the executive committee of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, with authoritatively-researched articles on the fantasy and science fiction television of the 1960s and 1970s and, by the early 1990s, the new series emerging in the US. It has always stood accused of encouraging fan hysteria and behaving as if Doctor Who ought to be the centre of every reader's life, with headlines including 'JN-T Must Go Now' and 'We Won't Let the Doctor Die!'. The participants of the forum were of a similar age to me or older, all male, and remembered DWB for interesting them in the past of British telefantasy. DWB's attitude made Doctor Who fans feel as if they were part of a small elite who knew better than anyone else about how the series should be made, and who appealed to their superior knowledge of the televisual past to legitimise it.

The fans of the 1980s were content, and proud, to be Doctor Who fans with occasional secondary interests; latterday internet fans build a portfolio of enthusiasms, particularly the fiction writers. The latest flowering is yuletide, which I've seen spreading across several LJs in the last few days. This is a fandom where lots of people have read their Henry Jenkins and are out textually poaching and claiming the products of a commercial creative environment as latterday folk culture. It's part of what I wrote about way back in my article 'The Ascent of Fan' for Skaro back in 1993, that "We (meaning Doctor Who fans) have nurtured the myth. Now it can go out and return to the world." I was thinking that Doctor Who was in the process of taking its place in mainstream culture again; and indeed the internet makes fan activity much more accessible to a larger number of people. In the late 1990s, when I put the article online and speculated about writing a sequel, 'The Descent of Fan', I was mourning the disappearance of the fanzines, as the new fan writers either went online or gravitated straight to the prozines. I still think that message boards can encourage all the kneejerkness of a DWB without the reflection, but the blogosphere has allowed the development of more reflective writing and an explosion in fan fiction. The vast majority of online fanfic writers seem to be female, too; and the increased role of women in Doctor Who fandom has some relationship with the greater interest displayed in story and character by the current generation of fans over speculation about production conditions - but then, the current production office isn't as leaky as that of John Nathan-Turner in the 1980s. There is still as much obsessive lunacy in Doctor Who fandom today as there was twenty years ago; but it's bigger and so there are more people with whom to establish sane corners.

The rise of mass fandom online has been reflected in the emergence of SFX as a house journal, combining coverage of film and television, games and comics, and books. Barriers have been broken down but have also built up the assumption that fans of one thing are likely to be interested in something else, or at least have a functional literacy in it, which isn't always the case, so a new kind of peer group pressure forms. I'm not immune to this; I can at least say that I've read a Pratchett book all the way through now (though how he has become as successful as he has still eludes me, but more in my long-promised books post) and have been dabbling in anime with help from a few people. All I'll say for now is that Steamboy has far more to do with contemporary Japan and its preoccupations than the nineteenth-century Britain it imagines.

I'm not going to deliver everything that I promised in the last post here; perhaps another time. The reason I've been able to catch up with audios, and also DVDs such as the BBC 'Quatermass and the Pit' which I've been sitting on for a year or more, is that I've been doing much more working from home, whether on TGW items brought back from the office for me to work on as a freelance, or on the biographical footnotes for a new edition of an eighteenth-century correspondence. Most of the works I need for this are in the Bodleian, but the other week I bought 'The Complete Peerage' on CD-ROM, probably my favourite reference work apart from TGW and Old TGW.

'The Complete Peerage' lists everyone who bore a peerage title in the UK and its constituent kingdoms before 1900, with a supplementary volume listing new peerage creations up until 1938. When I was a lot younger I used to pore through the volumes soaking up the eccentricity of many of the peers and the self-consciousness of the house style. Anecdotes are contained in lengthy footnotes and in the later volumes (produced in the 1940s and 1950s, well after the cut off date of 1900) they also include chattier summaries of the careers of post-1900 successors to the title, always concluding with the words 'But of course, he is, as a peer, outside the scope of this work.' So, I can combine research with aristocrat-spotting. My favourite peer at the moment is probably John Bligh, third earl of Darnley, who allegedly believed that he was a teapot, though I now find that story isn't actually in 'The Complete Peerage'. A pity. Still, it's always good for finding the people who became lords by administrative error.