By any objective standards, as a Doctor Who and Star Trek fan I am a failure as a parent. It’s a hot summer evening, and I suggest to my children that we put on an episode of Doctor Who (BBC 1963-1989, 2005-). This is met with polite but firm refusal. “One of the newer episodes,” I clarify with dwindling hopes, “with CGI.” With several streaming services to choose from, I know I’m fighting a losing battle. Matt Hills recalls his father’s passion for Doctor Who as a factor in his own fandom [1]. For my part, I’ve managed to pass on a love of science fiction in general, but when it comes to Doctor Who and Star Trek, I’m well aware that I’m being humoured.

Except that when we embark on our annual pilgrimage to a small beachside town in the summer holidays, it’s a different matter. A haven from the twenty-first century, there’s no internet, no streaming, and barely enough phone reception to send or receive the occasional text. To email or make a phone call means a long walk down to the jetty. After energetic daily outings involving boogie boards, kayaks, or beach cricket, everyone is spent and ready to curl up with a book or watch a film. The children negotiate a selection of DVDs to take with us each year, and I’ve been careful not to point out that they never seem to take quite enough. Because this is how Doctor Who finally entered our family viewing.

Fig. 1: Jon Pertwee as the Doctor. Image from the BBC.

One year, they had already watched all of their DVDs. They were hot, tired, and tetchy. The cupboard contained a small and eclectic range of DVDs that had been left behind at the beach house, more by accident than design. Among them was “Spearhead from Space” (Derek Martinus 1970), written by Robert Holmes and starring Jon Pertwee in his first outing as the Third Doctor. It was the first Doctor Who story filmed in colour, and the only one shot entirely on 16mm film [2]. We put it on and hoped the combination of ice-cream and alien invasion would quell the simmering discontent.

“Spearhead from Space” introduces the creepy Autons, plastic mannequins that are animated by the alien Nestene Consciousness that arrives on Earth after an apparent meteorite shower. Their invasion culminates in episode 4 when shop window mannequins come to life and start killing humans.





As Matthew Coady points out in a contemporary review for the Daily Mirror, the Autons have “an authentic sense of the uncanny” [3], such that many a viewer can no longer look at a shop dummy in quite the same way ever again. It is the ordinary object from daily life made monstrous, an unsettling form of monstrousness that was considered controversial for a program “produced for the family” [4]. The Doctor prevails, of course, with the help of scientist Dr Liz Shaw (Caroline John) and the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT), headed up by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). After a little initial restlessness in our younger audience members, the serial was deemed a success and they asked for more episodes.

My own childhood was partly organised around the broadcast schedule of Doctor Who [5]. While I’m not sure that I ever literally hid behind the sofa, like many other viewers who grew up with Doctor Who, I certainly considered it [6]. However, to echo Teresa Forde, “my experience of watching Doctor Who as a child is markedly different to my children’s interaction with the series” [7]. Today’s children encounter Doctor Who in a vastly different era, in which they are more likely to be watching non-linear content on their own devices, than broadcast programs on a family television set [8]. While the sci-fi concepts of old Doctor Who serials remain frequently unsettling, visually the practical effects are laughable to young twenty-first century eyes. As such, it was with disappointment but hardly surprise that I noted my children’s enthusiasm for Doctor Who swiftly evaporated upon our return to the city where newer fare is available in abundance. And yet, Doctor Who has become a new ritual of family viewing, as a staple of our beachside holidays.

When we were next at the beach house, I was told it was time for another Doctor Who. An annual tradition had somehow been forged, and quite by accident. New conditions were announced by our youngest viewer. It had to be in colour, and it had to be Tom Baker. Except for “Spearhead from Space,” which is granted a special exemption and needs to be watched yearly.

Fig. 2: Tom Baker as the Doctor with Michael Wisher as Davros. Image from the BBC.

Rather than the weeknight schedule of my childhood, and the suspense of waiting over a weekend for the next episode on Monday, for my children Doctor Who is inscribed with the drawn out temporality of school holidays, and the summer break in particular.

Our family experience suggests there is an intergenerational dimension to “choice fatigue” in the contemporary streaming era, a pleasure in artificially re-creating scarcity [9]. Relying on a relatively small collection of DVDs at the beach house creates a “simulated nostalgia” [10] for an era of Doctor Who our children didn’t live through, and an era of television scarcity they have never experienced. Doctor Who on the screen becomes combined with stories of Doctor Who off screen, as we’re asked each year to repeat our accounts of our childhood television viewing in the broadcast era. This intergenerational experience augments John Ellis’s concept of “choice fatigue… the feeling that choices are simply too difficult; a nostalgia for pattern, habit and an era when choices seemed few” [11]. Summer holidays at the beach, separated from everyday rhythms of life in both time and place, lend themselves to this nostalgic return, both real and simulated. This is time travel of a different sort, where parents are also strange relics of the past, sharing their youthful viewing experiences.

Inflected not only by parental fandom but also location and class, Doctor Who, for our children, will be irrevocably associated with long summer days, the hot Australian sun, scorching sand, cold ocean water, and languorous evenings at the beach house. It seems my children will grow up with Doctor Who after all, if a little belatedly, by virtue of my own fandom but also happenstance.

 


Djoymi Baker is a Lecturer in Media and Cinema Studies at RMIT University, whose work examines genre studies, fandom, and myth in popular culture. Djoymi is the author of To Boldly Go: Marketing the Myth of Star Trek (I. B. Tauris, 2018) and the co-author of The Encyclopedia of Epic Films (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Her current research projects examine children’s film and television history.

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Hills, Matt. 2002. Fan Cultures, London & New York: Routledge, p. 58.

[2] O’Neill, Phelim. 2013. Doctor Who: Spearhead From Space. The Guardian, 13 July, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jul/13/this-weeks-new-dvd-blu-ray

[3] Quoted in Howe, David J. and Stephen James Walker, 1998, 2003, Doctor Who: The Television Companion, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/classic/episodeguide/spearheadfromspace/detail.shtml

[4] Coleman, Lindsay. A Needle Through the Heart: Violence and Tragedy as Narrative Device. In Gilliam I. Leitch (ed.), Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on Themes, Characters, History and Fandom, 1963-2012, Jefferson NC: McFarland, pp. 142, 148.

[5] Tulloch, John and Henry Jenkins. 1995. Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. London & New York: Routledge, p. 111.

[6] Berry, Steve (ed.). 2013. Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who. London: Gollancz.

[7] Forde, Teresa. 2013. ‘You Anorak’: The Doctor Who Experience and Experiencing Doctor Who. In Paul Booth (ed.), Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who. Bristol: Intellect, p. 63.

[8] Habyts. 2019. 10 TV shows that will make you wary about giving your kids Netflix. 19 September, https://habyts.com/10-tv-shows-wary-kids-netflix/

[9] Turner, Graeme. 2010. ‘Choice Fatigue,’ Community and the Mutations of Television, Flow, 29 October, https://www.flowjournal.org/2010/10/choice-fatigue-community-and-the-mutations-of-television/

[10] Taurino, Giulia. 2019. Crossing Eras: Exploring Nostalgic Reconfigurations in Media Franchises. In Kathryn Pallister (ed.), Netflix Nostalgia: Streaming the Past on Demand. Lanham, Maryland, p. 188.

[11] Ellis, John. 2000. Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty, London: I.B.Tauris, p. 171.

 

References

Berry, Steve (ed.). 2013. Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who. London: Gollancz.

Coleman, Lindsay. A Needle Through the Heart: Violence and Tragedy as Narrative Device. In Gilliam I. Leitch (ed.), Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on Themes, Characters, History and Fandom, 1963-2012, Jefferson NC: McFarland, pp. 142-156.

Ellis, John. 2000. Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty, London: I. B. Tauris

Forde, Teresa. 2013. ‘You Anorak’: The Doctor Who Experience and Experiencing Doctor Who. In Paul Booth (ed.), Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who. Bristol: Intellect, pp. 62-71.

Habyts. 2019. 10 TV shows that will make you wary about giving your kids Netflix. 19 September, https://habyts.com/10-tv-shows-wary-kids-netflix/

Hills, Matt. 2002. Fan Cultures, London & New York: Routledge.

Howe, David J. and Stephen James Walker, 1998, 2003, Doctor Who: The Television Companion, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/classic/episodeguide/spearheadfromspace/detail.shtml

O’Neill, Phelim. 2013. Doctor Who: Spearhead From Space. The Guardian, 13 July, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jul/13/this-weeks-new-dvd-blu-ray

Taurino, Giulia. 2019. Crossing Eras: Exploring Nostalgic Reconfigurations in Media Franchises. In Kathryn Pallister (ed.), Netflix Nostalgia: Streaming the Past on Demand. Lanham, Maryland, pp. 9-23.

Tulloch, John and Henry Jenkins. 1995. Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. London & New York: Routledge.

Turner, Graeme. 2010. ‘Choice Fatigue,’ Community and the Mutations of Television, Flow, 29 October, https://www.flowjournal.org/2010/10/choice-fatigue-community-and-the-mutations-of-television/