Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 41 (rec.arts.drwho)

So there’s this thing called the Internet, and it’s kind of a big deal, so I suppose we should talk about it. I mean, it’s been lurking about in the background for a while, but it became a genuinely important thing in what Doctor Who was around this time, to say nothing of a somewhat important thing in my life. Because something we haven’t really talked about in the context of the Virgin era is the nature of Doctor Who fandom.

We’ve talked broadly about the way in which computers became standard consumer technology in this time period. The early 1990s were the period where everybody finally got around to agreeing that computers were the future. And so a sleepy bit of high-end technology called the Internet started trickling into mass consciousness. For those who are young enough to have always known an Internet based on the World Wide Web, it may be worth pausing to explain what this meant.

The World Wide Web was publicly launched in August of 1991. But it didn’t really hit breakout “everybody is using this thing” status for a few years. Major bits of the Web like Amazon didn’t even go online until 1995, and it isn’t until the latter half of the decade that “online presence” became a standard feature of practically everything. Up until the mid 90s the Internet was fragmented among a large number of services, not all of them meaningfully interoperable. You had a wide variety of services like (in the US) Compuserve, Prodigy, and AOL that offered their own closed-off e-mail systems, chat networks, discussion boards, games, and all sorts of other things. Prodigy, in 1994, was the first of these to offer any sort of interoperability with the Internet at large. Then there were little things like local BBSes - often just computers with modems that you could dial into via a phone number and access online services aimed at the local market.

You also had what we might call the Big Internet, which consisted not only of the World Wide Web but of e-mail and Usenet. For one thing, it’s the chunk that eventually came to eat all of the BBSes and independent services. For another, it had Usenet, a sizable collection of discussion forums and file-sharing services (which were distributed, essentially, by converting files into text). And one of those discussion forums was rec.arts.drwho. Which was about what you’d expect.

The idea that there was an online discussion forum about Doctor Who sounds like the most spectacularly unremarkable thing imaginable in 2012, but you have to realize that in 1993 Usenet was somewhat obscure. Commercial Internet Service Providers existed, but were rare and often charged by the minute. The bulk of Internet users were those who had access provided due to having an account on a system that provided larger services. In practice, this usually meant people affiliated with universities.

Which, in the early-to-mid 90s, actually meant me. With two parents at universities it was relatively easy for me to get such an account on a semesterly basis, and once I started taking actual classes there on the side it became downright easy. So I was lurking about on the Internet as early as 1993-94, and actually have a searchable history as far back as 1995. (Please, please, do not find my Usenet posts from when I was thirteen. Please. Though really, I have to wonder how it is that at 1995 I knew the details of Lala Ward’s appearance in softcore porn movies, as that’s apparently the content of one of my posts.) To say that this is a formative experience is an understatement. In my PhD program, I discovered that I had what can charitably be described as an abrasive style in e-mail discussions with my colleagues. After some poking at this, I realized that it comes down to the fact that when I was thirteen I was getting into flamewars on Usenet via my local university’s VAX network.

The Doctor Who of the early 1990s is an odd thing to grow up with. And I, being eleven in 1993, was not exactly active on Usenet at the time - I was strictly lurking, as much by choice as by an entirely sane parental decree. Still, the initial appeal was obvious. Of course an eleven-year-old kid whose Doctor Who books were being torn up and shoved in his desk appreciated the fact that he could play around on the computer and talk to Doctor Who fans. The Internet provided for the possibility of outcast communities in a big way. (The most obvious thing to point to is the way in which the furry community essentially required the Internet, although an ethnography of the way in which the BDSM community an the Internet interacted is something that really requires a book.) And as we’ve seen, Doctor Who was an outcast community in the early 1990s. Even within the UK, where Doctor Who always had contact with the cultural mainstream, there was something genuinely liberating about the Internet for fandom.

And this is where things get interesting from a critical perspective. Because there’s no good overview of the history of Doctor Who fandom. There’s archeological evidence - posts on Usenet to review, my own hazy memories, and the scattered records of people reminiscing about 1990s fandom. But this is a tentative reconstruction, and I both suspect and hope the comments section is going to be particularly interesting this time around.

The major thing to realize about the Virgin era is that the fan/production distinction was almost completely erased. One of the most notable things about Virgin was that they had a completely open submissions policy. They’d read a proposal from anyone, you didn’t need a literary agent to pitch to them, and if they liked it they bought it. This isn’t quite unheard of, but it’s very unusual. And what it meant was that a large number of writers came to write for Virgin coming through fandom. As I’m pretty sure I mentioned in passing, Timewyrm: Revelation was originally a piece of fanzine-published fanfic. Multiple writers - Daniel Blythe, Steve Lyons, Justin Richards, and Lance Parkin at the very least - have their fanzine writing mentioned, whether implicitly or explicitly, on the back cover author blurbs of their first books.

This is, of course, the only way it was going to work. The Virgin line was financially successful primarily because of existing Doctor Who fans. The novels weren’t bringing in substantial numbers of new fans. That’s not to say that there weren’t anecdotal-level exceptions here and there, but for the most part during the so-called wilderness years the only path into the books was from the existing fanbase. And when your only meaningful audience is existing fans that’s also your only probable pool to draw writers from.

And in the Virgin era this was a particularly weird mix. Because Virgin, as an editorial presence, was quite permissive about what could go on in the books, but relatively down on reusing old concepts. (They did more in the Missing Adventures, but in the New Adventures there were actually very few “sequel” stories, Blood Heat being quite an exception) This meant that the authors it attracted and groomed came out of Doctor Who fandom, but were the sorts of writers who were comfortable doing original science fiction instead of Doctor Who continuity porn. Many were writers who would happily move on to other things eventually. This was in and of itself a different environment, and explains why the new series has drawn writers from the Virgin pool at all.

But this is what characterized Doctor Who fandom in the early nineties. There wasn’t a firm line between fans and professionals. People jumped from one category to another, sometimes based on social connections, but equally often based on raw talent. And big names who did Doctor Who professionally mingled with the hoi polloi, both on rec.arts.drwho and in social gatherings like the Fitzroy Tavern. Plenty of fans were also making strides in real television production as well, and so you occasionally get someone like Steven Moffat, who did a short story for Virgin, was a real name in television, and also was a regular at the Fitzroy Tavern and has some rec.arts.drwho posts - indeed, people found and dusted off one of his posts after A Good Man Goes to War aired and it turned out he’d recycled an idea he’d dashed off in 1995.

This meant that Doctor Who fandom in the early 90s wasn’t like other fandoms. We’ve stressed several times in the program’s history that it’s not, in normal circumstances, a cult television show as we understand that term. And nothing exemplifies that quite like 90s Doctor Who fandom. It’s instructive to dig up Paul Cornell’s License Denied and read through the stuff there and how at times aggressively mocking it is. That’s par for the course. Bitchy humor was a part of 90s fandom. So was openly disliking large swaths of the show. Yes, some of this was just a defense mechanism against the show’s cancellation, and if often went a bit too far in trashing things. But another part of it was just that Doctor Who fans weren’t the worshipful cult television fans that other franchises had. (If nothing else, the infamous Moffat interview that gets casually cited as evidence of Moffat’s views on Doctor Who needs to be taken in light of the nature of 90s fandom and a few drinks.)

Much of this came from the peculiarities of the early nineties, with a side of the peculiarities of the UK and the fact that it’s just not that big an island and that the Fitzroy Tavern can be close enough to drop by at least occasionally for a relatively large amount of the population in a way that no place in America ever could be for Star Trek fans. The US’s sense of fandom was always more based on conventions, which existed in the UK, but didn’t have the same status. And when Usenet and rec.arts.drwho made it possible to have a community that connected Australians, Americans, Brits, and other English-speaking fans in a fast-moving, always-on discussion the norms of odd British fandom survived the transition. That could only have happened in the early nineties, when the Internet was large enough to connect, say, Kate Orman to Jon Blum (to pick a particularly significant example) but still small enough to allow the social norms of the Fitzroy Tavern to survive the transition. And so we got a fandom not quite like any other.

That’s not to say that there weren’t recognizable patterns from larger fandom. I remember being troubled back in the early 90s about a line of criticism towards Kate Orman for, in essence, being a bit high and mighty on rec.arts.drwho. Even then I couldn’t help but notice that none of the male writers were subject to that critique. That was distressing. As were a wealth of fairly typically male-led threads devoted to objectifying the female characters. And, you know, it’s not like hilariously obsessive Doctor Who knowledge wasn’t a thing.

But equally, it’s important to read the Virgin era in light of what it was. The ambivalence about the series that the books often show may partially be anxiety over the low nature of Doctor Who compared to “real” science fiction. But it’s also just a savvy fandom that has a lot of people who didn’t indulge in the “my show should never have been cancelled” bullshit game, and who were well aware of the things that had sent the series off a cliff. The truth is, it’s not as though Doctor Who doesn’t deserve a healthy level of skepticism towards large swaths of its history.

There’s a balance to be had, of course, and it’s something we talked about back in the Dark Season/Century Falls entry. The savage mockery of nineties fandom isn’t the only way to handle the appropriate skepticism towards the past of the show. There is the openly camp approach, or the sort of “I love it because of its rubbish aspects” attitude of Running Through Corridors. But in the grimdark obsessed nineties that wasn’t quite on the table yet.

So what we got was very much a “best they could” sort of thing. It looks a bit stale now, but it’s been more than twenty years for some of the New Adventures. Blood Heat is almost as dated today as An Unearthly Child was when The Five Doctors aired. For all that it’s easy to criticize the New Adventures for not being willing to stand up for Doctor Who, we should remember that their embarrassment wasn’t just post-cancellation trauma. It was part of developing a realistic and professional relationship with the series.

Fandom coming to terms with what was genuinely wrong or not up to snuff in the classic series - while still, obviously, loving it to pieces - was part of learning how to make the show anew when the same generation of fandom eventually took it over. To take the infamous Moffat interview as an example, Moffat holding the series’ feet to the flames and being willing and able to articulate specific critiques of it was part and parcel of the process of learning how television writing works such that he could, you know, do a good job of it. And this was a real and necessary step in the evolution of the series. As I've said before, there wasn’t a way from Survival ending to 2005 that didn’t go through this sort of self-critical phase. The Virgin era and its tendencies are products of the material historical and social conditions they were made in. They were what Doctor Who had to be in 1993. That it wasn’t the be-all and end-all of Doctor Who and that there was still substantial room to develop can hardly be called a problem when Doctor Who also has at least another twenty years of development to go through.

Equally, there are many sorts of self-critical fandom. Which brings us around to Kate Orman.

17 comments:

  1. I get the feeling that the existence of the "Tavern" crowd helped create a barrier between metropolitan and provincial fans. Or was a symbol of that barrier. At least for those of us who didn't encounter an internet until the late 1990s.

    Your argument about the relatively small geographic size of the UK meaning that the fans felt they knew each other does, I feel, apply with more accuracy to the major national conventions such as Pan\Manopticon and Dreamwatch.

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  2. "But another part of it was just that Doctor Who fans weren’t the worshipful cult television fans that other franchises had."

    That seemed to change when the show came back though, in a big way.

    "If nothing else, the infamous Moffat interview that gets casually cited as evidence of Moffat’s views on Doctor Who needs to be taken in light of the nature of 90s fandom and a few drinks."

    I'd also put that down to institutionalised snobbery towards the show in the very BBC that Moffat was then working in.

    As for whether it made him a better showrunner for it, I marvel at how he made such joyous, multilayered and well-crafted stories, when his Doctor Who standard was the Davison years.

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  3. 1990s fandom was a bizarre place. I was a fan in the 1980s in the sense I watched the show and bought the books, but it was only in the mid-1990s that I emerged into fandom, which, for me at least, revolved around Rec.Arts, the Galaxy Four shop in Sheffield, Doctor Who Magazine and the Tavern. And it was the new-cover style NAs (Happy Endings on) and the early BBC Books that coincided with this point.

    At this time I was around 16-18 years old, finishing my A-Levels and then heading to university in West Yorkshire. The Tavern became a monthly ritual of cheap train tickets to London, getting progressively drunk, reading Tat Wood and later Lawrence Miles' home-made fanzines and then racing back to King's Cross for the last, 2 1/2 hour train ride home, and a taxi that got me back to my shared house at about 3am.

    Aside from the free fanzines (which I have squirrelled away in my garage somewhere and now have a yearning to dig out), only Doctor Who Magazine gives a sense of how exciting and pluralistic fandom was then, when people genuinely cared about the quality of the next EDA and when you genuinely debated which Season 26 story was the template for the New Adventures (obviously Battlefield, although I always thought Survival was a better bet for a new series model - and was smugly proven right 10 years later).

    Happy times. Strange that the period I feel most nostalgia for is the one moment when it seemed the TV Movie's perceived failure had killed the chance of ever getting the show back on air.

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    1. That would put the two of us at, around, the same age (I read Happy Endings the summer I turned 17.) I was in the US, obsessively collecting my NAs (only finishing about a third of them - I think Phil Sandifer had a similar experience), lurking on rec.arts.drwho, and kind of wishing I lived in a place where I could actually run off and have bitchy, snarky arguments about Season 26.

      On the train home this evening, I Googled my old AOL e-mail address and rec.arts.drwho, and read some of the utter crap I posted when I was 16. I think I was desperately hoping someone would quote me in their sig file.

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    2. Re-reading my last comment... dear lord. I was basically Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine, except instead of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, it was Lance Parkin.

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  4. I've never heard of the Fitzroy Tavern, but I note that fans still informally meet on the first Thursday of the month.

    I'll be in London for a course on the first Thursday of the month. I might just drop in...

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  5. Tommy:
    "I marvel at how he made such joyous, multilayered and well-crafted stories, when his Doctor Who standard was the Davison years."

    As with other things I've seen, I put it down to the Peter Davison era being-- in some way-- a "good idea" that was DONE BADLY.

    I suppose one could compare it to "THE MALTESE FALCON". It was filmed badly, twice. Then John Huston, in his directorial debut, did it again. Need I say more?

    Shortly before he passed away, Huston said in an interview, "There's no point in remaking a classic. The thing to do is take something that was done badly, go back to the original source material, and do it right."

    Apparently, Huston never read the novel. He got ahold of a copy, handed it to his secretary, and told her, "Here, type this up into a screenplay." And then he filmed it verbatim.

    While I admit some terrible books have been turned into great films, the opposite is also true. But you also can take a great novel and turn it into a great film. You just have to really want to, and not let ego or outside concerns get in the way. (In the case of the Davison era, that would include JNT, Eric Saward, AND the 2 guys in charge of the BBC who really hated the show. All 4 of them!)

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  6. I dunno about DW fandom being unique for "bitchy humour" and "openly disliking large swaths of the show", at least as far as Usenet fandoms go. Back in '98 I was on rec.arts.comics.dc.universe, and I remember a lot of elaborate bitchiness, and discussions that boiled down to The Stuff That Has Been Published More Recently Isn't As Good As The Stuff From When I Was A Kid vs The Stuff That Has Been Published More Recently Is Better Than The Stuff From Before I Was Born. (As someone who tried to avoid flamewars, I quickly learnt never to mention being a fan of the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern, any more than I'd mention being a McCoy fan in radw.)

    I wasn't as involved in Star Trek groups, but from what I saw they were mostly The Show I Watched When I Was Growing Up Is Better Than The Other Versions Of The Show, Especially The Most Recent One. There may have been bitchy humour as well; I wouldn't be surprised. This has always struck me as just how fandoms work.

    Since I've almost gone a whole comment on a Pop Between Realities post without mentioning Terry Pratchett, which clearly can't happen (especially if we're talking about my Usenet memories) here's a conversation between Sir Terry and the producer of the "Hogfather" TV miniseries, which Terry later related at a con, as best as I remember it:

    Terry:
    Now, you do realise that if you go onto alt.fan.pratchett or something, the fans will be tearing it to peices?

    Producer:
    What do you mean? They won't like it?

    Terry:
    Of course they'll like it. They'll tear it to peices *anyway*. They're fans. It's what they *do*.

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    1. Re: the bitchiness of fandom - in the mid-1990s the biggest bitch fight of all was between Star Trek fans and Babylon 5 fans. Especially when DS9 started to (allegedly) rip off B5...

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    2. Gods, yes. That was a tiresome time to just be a guy who liked shows about space stations.

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  7. The novels weren’t bringing in substantial numbers of new fans. That’s not to say that there weren’t anecdotal-level exceptions here and there, but for the most part during the so-called wilderness years the only path into the books was from the existing fanbase.

    Maybe I'm just an anecdotal-level exception, but my experience of fandom is that there are lots of people now in their 30s who did become fans through the NAs. At the time, they were widely available in the science fiction section of any library or bookshop - the bookshops in my hometown all had prominent displays of them (I was once told that, at their peak, they accounted for something like 20% of UK Science Fiction book sales). If you were a slightly geeky teenager in the UK at that time then you would almost certainly have read several of them, even if you didn't really remember watching the TV show - and even if you never made the jump to becoming a fan. Yes, the absolute number of people who became fans as a result of the NAs was smaller than the number for, say, the Pertwee era of the TV show. But it wasn't as insignificant as you make it out to be.


    Incidentally, I first encountered radw (and the internet) when I went to university in 1996. Although it was several years after graduating before I eventually managed to get regular internet access at home. Whilst I'd say that the idea of the internet entered the public consciousness about 1994 or so, home internet access only really became a majority thing during the 21st century.

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    1. During The New Adventures and the first 18 months of the BBC Books (up until about the time Fitz turned up - which co-incided with the announcement of the Big Finish audios) it really felt like these novels *were* Doctor Who, and really mattered. I met people at university in my first year (1997-98) who had come to DW through the books, and it was through the novels that I rekindled an interest that had kind of faded between about 1990 and 1995.

      At the end of the 1990s, the audios kind of became where it was at, and I think definitely after the Paul McGann audios started, the books were always struggling to make an impact and resorted to ever-more complicated story arcs in response.

      The Interference two-part novel was the last I really remember being an event. But the Compassion arc was eclipsed by the excitment of the launch of the audios, and then the even bigger news that Paul McGann was going to play the Doctor for Big Finish. After all, when you've got the actual eighth Doctor making new Doctor Who, the EDAs were always going to struggle to compete. Similarly, once the TV show returned, the audios were challenged - I suppose the benefit being, as "past Doctor plays" they weren't in such head-to-head competition with TV as the audio and print adventures of McGann's Doctor.

      I'm interested to see how Phil tackles this, and which eighth Doctor audios (which, for my money, are still the best BF has done) he chooses.

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    2. I got into the show through the 30th anniversary repeats, but it was the books which really made me a fan. I mention this now because Iceberg and Blood Heat were my first two original Doctor Who novels (though I don't think I got them until after they'd been out a while). I never bought the NAs regularly at the time, but I avidly collected the Missing Adventures from about Lords of the Storm onwards. So even if they weren't actively capturing new people, they were certainly consolidating casual or curious viewers into long-term fans.

      By the time the BBC novels came along I picked up pretty much everything as soon as it came out. Although I'd seen most of the TV series by then, I cared about it a lot less than I did about the books. I still have days when I think I'd rather have the books back instead of the TV series.

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  8. Could you be a bit more specific about the Norms of the Fitzroy Tavern? What was it about these gatherings that got picked up by radw?

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  9. My abiding memory of radw is the eternal Pertwee vs McCoy flamewar, which seemed to be driven by a few obsessive haters of McCoy and all his works, and fuelled by some enthusiastic McCoy fans who had no strong opinions on Pertwee one way or another.

    Behind all this there was a sense - which I think does have some validity - that these two eras represent opposite poles of what Doctor Who is or can be, and the endless flameage was in part the expression of a real ideological divide, besides being a reflection of the personality problems of some radw regulars.

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    1. I do find that a lot of the people I know who like Pertwee really do dislike McCoy. I think you're right that they are polar opposites.

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    2. I was a Pertwee fan - still am, in fact - and hated the McCoy era. But that was before I actually saw it, so you can tell how rational that was! Not that I slagged it off or anything - Doctor Who didn't register on my radar in the first half of the wilderness years, and not much in the second half. Having finally seen the McCoy era, I've realised that (most of) it is actually rather good. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I prefer seasons 25/26 to seasons 8/9, though 7 beats 24.

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