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Panopticon VII - Doctor Who Convention, London, 1986

February 26th, 2008 (07:13 pm)

Once upon a time, the premier Doctor Who convention in its fandom was Panopticon, begun as the convention of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS) in 1977, taking the name Panopticon only in 1978, and run directly by the society until 1986; from 1987 the convention was run by Dominitemporal Services Ltd, a private company at first belonging to DWAS, but largely in private hands from about 1994. The last DSL Panopticon was in 2003, I think, but the present committee of the DWAS, though by no means the force in fandom that the society was twenty-odd years ago, are reportedly close to retaking control of the Panopticon brand.

Thanks to the good offices of someone unknown, I have come into a copy of the Reeltime Pictures production Panopticon VII - A Decade of DWAS. The convention was held over the first weekend in September 1986 at Imperial College London. This marked a return to an academic setting after the financial disaster of Panopticon VI in Brighton in 1985, which was I think the first time a British fan organization tried to copy the American model of having a guest-heavy convention in a hotel. There's an emphasis on contributions from the guest actors, who provide a good deal of forced jollity, whether in clips from their panels or in the frequent requests to wish DWAS a happy birthday. Sarah Sutton undercuts everything early on when she says that she comes to conventions to see her former co-stars. The various members of production teams past for the most part are simply polite. It's good to see so many people who are no longer with us, such as Innes Lloyd, Dennis Spooner, John Wiles and (I think) Peter Bryant. Lloyd frankly said that he was 'staggered' that the series was still going; but John Wiles seemed more engaged with his audience and told appreciative stories of how disruptive an influence on the BBC establishment Sydney Newman was.

Fan politics at the time placed DWAS in the camp most conciliatory to the embattled production office, while independent semi-prozine DWB railed against producer John Nathan-Turner and his casting decisions. The convention was famous - or infamous - for screening episode one of The Trial of a Time Lord on a projection screen to the main convention auditorium; production secretary Kate Easteal counted down to the start of transmission on BBC 1, so attendees could set off their party poppers as the titles rolled, but her timings were out of date and a continuity announcement reminding viewers that The Late, Late Breakfast Show followed Doctor Who ran unexpectedly, to a barrage of pops and wispy streamers.

The video plays down the crisis in which the programme found itself, concentrating on the tenth birthday of the society, but it couldn't be ignored; three minutes in presenter Nicholas Briggs, latterday voice of the Daleks but then becoming a prominent figure in fandom as the Doctor in the AudioVisuals series (unlicensed ancestors of the Big Finish releases), accosts a fan on some stairs. The fan has come over from Northern Ireland and has never been to a convention before, and says that he has come because it's the tenth anniversary, the series is coming back and "the special effects look good" [the trailers made use of the infamous budget-swallowing model shot] and that he hopes "the programme can get back to what it was." This was a fandom on the cusp of change, in sight of a time when it would have to make much more of its own entertainment, and with an idea of Doctor Who as a massive mainstream hit looking so unlikely few really believed it had ever happened. New companion Bonnie Langford, whom I think had already met American fans by this time, was not in evidence, and talk about the new season was directed to saying farewell to Nicola Bryant, who was presented with a basket of flowers. When cornered by Briggs to explain the Trial format, John Nathan-Turner looks hunted and agitated, and says that it was all Eric Saward's idea. This was on the day after episode one had aired, and it seems clear that to JN-T, the auguries were not good.

There's a lot of simple nostalgia, though; and how very 'Light Programme' mid-1980s Doctor Who seemed, with Sarah Sutton in a floral jacket and skirt seeming very conservative for a woman of twenty-five; Janet Fielding is, of course, dressed a bit more edgily, but the men are largely in very light sports jackets of a kind now rarely seen. This convention seems even more male-dominated than the Panopticons I went to in 1996 and 2000; there seem only to be two women attendees, and one of them is attached closely to a prominent male fan of the day and isn't asked her opinion about anything.

Comments

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: February 26th, 2008 09:45 pm (UTC)
Outsider

When cornered by Briggs to explain the Trial format, John Nathan-Turner looks hunted and agitated, and says that it was all Eric Saward's idea.

Interesting. In more recent years, each blamed the other for the faults of the mid-eighties, but I had no idea JNT was doing it before most of the story had been broadcast. It might indicate more long-standing doubts, unless the reaction in the convention hall was extraordinarily poor.

This convention seems even more male-dominated than the Panopticons I went to in 1996 and 2000; there seem only to be two women attendees, and one of them is attached closely to a prominent male fan of the day and isn't asked her opinion about anything.

There is, of course, a long-standing argument about the extent to which fandom is/was male dominated: did women like the programme, but not the 'organized' aspects of fandom e.g. writing fanzines and going to conventions? Did they want a more active role in fandom, but were kept out by male fans (I presume the people shooting the documentary were male fans)? Or were they not interested in the programme at all? And how many women need to be involved to be statistically significant anyway?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 27th, 2008 11:23 am (UTC)
QueenBat4

I'd meant to emphasise that none of the season 23 team were around on the convention Saturday except Kate Easteal. I think that reaction to the episode on the night was positive at the convention.

There were several prominent women in Who fandom at this point, principally in fanzine writing and editing. Names such as Jackie Marshall, Val Douglas and Brigid Cherry spring to mind; Ness Bishop turns up a few years later of course with the revival of Skaro. They were all still remarkable figures in a male-dominated world, though.

Posted by: wrong but wromantic (sally_maria)
Posted at: February 26th, 2008 11:21 pm (UTC)
Henry

Thank you for writing this up. As someone who's very much an outsider to DW fandom, it's fascinating to see the ways it varies from the US media fandoms I'm familiar with.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 27th, 2008 11:32 am (UTC)

If I was in charge of a digitization project for old Doctor Who fan productions of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, I'd be very happy!