Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 41 (rec.arts.drwho)
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.