Can I be honest? Despite the fact that I’ve watched it for as long as I can remember, and have spent a considerable amount of cash on its various related merchandise over the years, I don’t really like to identify as a Doctor Who fan. This is partly because such a proclamation would immediately prejudice a sizeable section of academia against me, and partly because, as I discovered at the only Who convention I ever attended, I am not particularly comfortable in the company of people who announce themselves as fans. My experience of fandom is that what should be a community – or at least a shared pleasure – too often takes on the nature of competitive rivalry; a need to show off one’s knowledge or enthusiasm, coupled with the defensive, proprietorial feeling that these other people have somehow intruded on one’s territory. I have seen it happen in the best and wisest of people – yes, I do include myself in that statement – and it is not an attractive trait.
As a child, Doctor Who was one of my favourite TV programmes – along with Star Trek, (original series and animated), Batman, Logan’s Run, Bagpuss, Pipkins, The Basil Brush Show and Emu’s Broadcasting Company. I was not especially discriminating; if it was telefantasy, or featured a puppet, I would happily watch it. However, despite being the proud recipient of the Denys Fisher Doctor Who and Leela dolls on Christmas Day 1977 – and failing to win a prize at the Silver Jubilee fancy dress street party earlier that year, dressed as a tin foil Dalek – I doubt I would have described myself as a fan, even if the word had been in my vocabulary. Doctor Who was just one of several among my childhood pleasures. When, then, does one realise one has moved into fan territory? Well, I almost certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time, but for me it must have been some point after my mum took out a subscription to Doctor Who Weekly, which was launched in late 1979. I still have my copy of the first edition, now very battered, missing its back cover, and with full and imaginative use made of the free transfer set (and therefore not worth very much, I’m afraid).
This new publication provided me with all sorts of background information on the show (such as which actors had played the Doctor before Tom Baker, and for how long) that I could previously only half-remember from the Blue Peter features they did whenever the Daleks were coming back. What had hitherto been a television show that I very much enjoyed watching – but could bear to miss if we got back late from a Colchester shopping trip – had now become my thing; the show that I knew more about than any of my friends. This pleasurable knowledge served me well over the years – or so I thought. In fact, my sustaining devotion was gradually establishing a psychological distance from my non-Doctor Who fan peers that only widened as I progressed (though I’m not sure that’s the right word) through my teens.
This was fair enough when the show was still riding high; the arrival of Peter Davison in 1981 brought the show a new lease of life, and for the first time one could buy a Doctor Who Easter Egg in Martin’s newsagents (always a key indicator of the zeitgeist). However, by the time I turned sixteen my fan status was having a serious (and detrimental) impact upon my social life. Basically, nobody wanted to snog a Whovian – as I now knew we liked to term ourselves, and would tell anyone who was interested (no-one was).
If being a Doctor Who fan could be regarded as an adolescent malaise (and I think it could), it took Sylvester McCoy to cure me. Although I had been a stout defender of sixth incarnation Colin Baker (himself a stout Doctor Who), this new guy’s stories just seemed to lack something. Five minutes into McCoy’s second adventure, ‘Paradise Towers’, I announced to my family that I was going upstairs to do some studying, and within weeks had cancelled my subscription to Doctor Who Magazine (as it was now called), putting away childish things forever (or so I thought).
It would be several years before I was tempted back as a serious devotee, and how that came about need not be recounted here. Suffice to say that, although the Denys Fisher dolls and Palitoy Talking Daleks now once again adorn my living space, these days I prefer to keep my fan credentials firmly under my wide-brimmed, floppy hat. I no longer ask people as an ice-breaker who their favourite Doctor is, only to roll my eyes when they respond with any name other than Patrick Troughton or Tom Baker (though, just between ourselves, those are the correct answers), and until today have, for the most part, limited my fannish showing off to those occasions when I am with friends who feel the same way. However, when I am teaching my enthusiasm for the programme must still shine, like the lamp on a battered blue Police Box, because a number of students have approached me over the last week or so to enquire what I thought of the finale to the latest series of Doctor Who. I must admit this makes a pleasant change from being asked to explain how to reference a quotation within a quotation, or to remind them when the next assessment is due, or what they are supposed to write, or what they are supposed to think.
Google ‘Doctor who fan backlash’ and you will discover numerous webpages from the last two years detailing the outrage of certain fans at various of the changes made by current show runner, Chris Chibnall, from the casting of Jodie Whitaker as the Doctor (which infamously prompted the ire of uber fan Ian Levine, who was responsible for retrieving many of the ‘lost’ episodes back in the 1970s and 80s) to the perceived political correctness that spoiled series eleven for many. This year the show has faced accusations that it has become too preachy; the Doctor’s underwhelming response to Graham’s (Bradley Walsh) concern that his cancer might return came in for criticism, and the inclusion of Jo Martin as the first black Doctor was, for a few, as upsetting as it was confusing.
Many of those lamenting online may simply need a period of time to adjust to the re-making/re-modelling of the latest production team. However, there is also an underlying sense of proprietorial outrage; I mean, they weren’t even consulted about this. The simple fact is that the only people who actually own the show are the BBC, and they can pretty much do what they want with it, whether viewers/fans like it or not. As it happens, I don’t much like the show at present – but I’m not going to let it spoil my day, let alone ruin my year. By the time this blog goes out the news will be old hat, but the revelation in ‘The Timeless Children’ (and stop reading right now if you are a fan and yet somehow haven’t seen it) that the Doctor is not, after all, a native Gallifreyan – but is still a Time Lord, with a string of previous incarnations that she can’t remember – has neither rocked my world nor provoked me to frustration and impotent rage.
This new information does not significantly alter the fact of the Doctor’s televised adventures, and whether the new origins storyline becomes a major plot thread, or is either ignored (like the fact that the Doctor is half human, which caused quite a stir back in 1996 when announced on-screen by the Master; does he just make this stuff up for a laugh?) or ret-conned (we all know that the Master lies, and so does the Matrix; see ‘Trial of a Timelord’) – it doesn’t really matter, does it?
One student I spoke to said, rather touchingly, that they felt the new development did a disservice to William Hartnell, who most fans think of as ‘the original, you might say’. He has a point, but this need not actively impair anyone’s enjoyment of the show when re-watching old episodes, whether they proclaim themselves fans or not.
Back in series eleven Chris Chibnall announced that he was abandoning the complex story arcs that had characterised predecessor Steven Moffat’s era. I found the results rather limp, but noticed that this simpler approach seemed to appeal in particular to non-fans; people who had not really watched the show before, or who had quite liked Billie Piper and David Tennant, only to subsequently drift away. Various colleagues and friends started telling me how much they were enjoying the new episodes, and I was slightly envious of their pleasure, because I did not feel as engaged as them.
There is nothing remarkable in this. Long-running shows ebb and flow in popularity, and viewerships come and go. From the BBC’s perspective, a sizeable mainstream audience may be preferable to a devoted but comparatively small fan following, but the former is arguably harder to sustain. If fans are honest, not everyone experiences the same level of enjoyment for each individual era of Doctor Who, whether they evaluate the show in terms of lead actor (the most obvious tool for comparison: who is your favourite Doctor?) or production team (Hartnell, Troughton and Tom Baker all had several producers and script editors, making for a little more variety of approach). The Chibnall era of Doctor Who is not one I think I will ever count among my personal favourites – and that’s fine. I have a sizeable DVD and Blu-ray collection I can turn to whenever I feel the urge (this now includes even Sylvester McCoy, whose run of episodes I grudgingly accept did improve towards the end – so I may change my mind about Chibnall/Whittaker), and anyone who doesn’t can now access the old episodes via a Britbox subscription. One of my oldest friends, who has never called himself a fan, turned to the iPlayer box set after he and his family enjoyed Jodie Whittaker’s first year as the Doctor. He now has very pronounced views on the virtues of Peter Capaldi versus Matt Smith (insanely, he prefers Capaldi), while his children have come to regard me as a minor deity because I can quote chapter and verse on the different versions of K9.
This is, of course, all as it should be (particularly me being a minor deity). I can’t expect Doctor Who to be tailored to my expectations or demands, and historically the show has foundered when it makes too decisive a move towards fan service. Chibnall’s decision this year to feature a greater reliance on returning characters and recurring story arcs makes me wonder if this was always part of his master plan, the result of a directive from above, or whether he simply lost his nerve after the mixed reception of series eleven (which, despite chiming with many casual viewers, is now being described as ‘lacklustre’).
As I write, the BBC is playing a whizz-bang iPlayer trailer of series twelve’s best bits that seems to offer something for everyone. But if nothing else, the split reaction to ‘The Timeless Children’ has demonstrated that show runners can’t please all the viewers all of the time – whether they call themselves fans or not.
Dr Richard Hewett is a lecturer in media theory. He has contributed articles to The Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Critical Studies in Television and Adaptation. His book, The Changing Spaces of Television Acting: From Studio Realism to Location Realism in BBC Television Drama, was published in 2017, and will be out in a slightly more affordable paperback edition this summer. It has quite a lot of stuff about Doctor Who in it.
 I recall one attendee at the Forgotten, Lost and Neglected conference audibly announcing that, if anyone starting banging on about Doctor Who, they were off.
 Panopticon 1996. Ask not why; I never speak of it.
 Yes, I know the main character is called the Doctor, and Doctor Who is the title of the programme. It just reads better this way. And please don’t write in saying that this is anti-stoutist, because Colin himself made a similar joke about his size on Saturday Superstore in 1985.
 This is how the late Terrance Dicks always described Tom Baker’s headgear in his Target novelisations.
 Another fan reference.
 This is a line delivered by Richard Hurndall when playing the First Doctor in place of the late Hartnell’s for ‘The Five Doctors’. Hartnell never actually said it.
 The more I watch Graeme Williams era stories, the more time I have for them. But truth be told, I’m still a Philip Hinchcliffe man.
 I am tempted to write ‘Who knows?’ at this point, but must resist – although, as any fan will tell you, resistance is futile.