Dr. Geek: All the Whovians Unhappy in the Whoverse

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When Matt Smith announced that he was leaving Doctor Who after the 50th Anniversary Special and the annual Christmas episode, the fans of Who, known as Whovians, took to the Internet to discuss who could, should, and would be the 12th (or — Spoiler! — 13th, actually) Doctor.  But more than just bandy about possible actors’ names and place bets on the likelihood of this or that person, there was also a Web-wide discussion over the politics of Who.  Being that this is the 21st Century, and the Doctor has been played by a white male for the past 50 years, fans and critics went beyond the traditional white male characterization.

There was much discussion over having a woman play the Doctor, beyond comic relief from a parody sketch — after all, the fans said, it has become Who canon that a Time Lord could change gender during a regeneration, thanks to the involvement of Neil Gaiman.  But current Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffat, who some fans have become increasingly critical of over the past years, played down the idea of genderswapping the Doctor with comedy.

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And there were those who called for the Doctor to no longer be white, to reflect the myriad of other ethnicities on the planet the character has chosen to be the champion of.  Sure, the Doctor could still be a he, but why not represent Africa, Asia, the Middle East?  Why does he always have to look like the traditional British colonizer?  According to Neil Gaiman, again, this perhaps could have happened in the recent past, but the actor who had been sought for the role turned it down.

And Dame Helen Mirren apparently wants to see, at some point, a gay black female Doctor, which prompted Moffat’s above attempt at comedy.  There did not appear to be as many others calling for a homosexual Doctor — keeping him while and male but homosexual would at least have been a step in the more progressive direction, one could argue.  Interestingly enough, there has been far less concern about the Doctor seemingly being a British person, once more from an upper crust, which smacks of the colonizing forces that impinged themselves so much on peoples around the world.  The Doctor’s holier-than-thou, protecting-the-people-who-don’t-know-better approach to his duty as protector of Earth could be easier to swallow if he did not so rhetorically and aesthetically represent the British Empire which sought to do just that within the past several centuries (and still do today in some places around the world).

However, on a gala event from the BBC on August 4th, 2013 (yes, we are that far into the 21st Century), that was also broadcast in the United States on BBC America, the “secret” was revealed — giving this new Doctor far more fanfare than given the past three for the relaunched series.  Perhaps to counter all of the publicity these political discussions online had been receiving about a need for a change with the next Doctor.

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But the announcement came, and the Internet went abuzz.  Peter Capaldi, perhaps best known as the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker from In the Loop and The Thick of It, would be the next Doctor.  Capaldi, as with other recent Whoverse actors, is not new to the series, having appeared in both Doctor Who (“The Fires of Pompeii”) and Torchwood (“The Children of Earth”).  Now taking over as the Doctor for the show’s eighth season since its relaunch in 2005, perhaps the choice can be seen as traditional (another old white British male), as worthwhile (Capaldi brings both good comedic timing and nice dark tendencies), and somewhat nepotistic (hiring from within is always a safe way to go).

The response to Capaldi’s new gig has been mixed, with some feeling the series missed an opportunity to explore new terrain and be a progressive program (not that television, as a capitalist pursuit, has ever really sought to be such).  The hiring has been called moving “backwards in time”, “depressing, disappointing”, and a “shrug”, while others found the move to be, quite simply, brilliant.  The casting of an older lead has brought up the scourge of “fake fan girls”, as some wonder how fan girls, recent to the Whoverse and said to love it only for the handsomeness of David Tennant and Matt Smith, will leave the fandom in droves with the older, less sexy Capaldi.

Why the problems?  Why are we seeing such a range of responses to the hiring of an actor to play a character?

Along with CBR writer Christopher J. Olson, we have some thoughts as to what is causing the fractured fandom, of why all the Whovians in Whoverse are not uniformed in their response to the new Doctor.

Science fiction has traditionally been targeted to a male audience, and given its fantastical conventions, it is often assumed to be a genre that is primarily aimed at children.  These assumptions apply to the long-running Doctor Who, which in the United Kingdom is marketed more toward children, and widely considered to be a children’s show.  However, while the genre may dictate that the text appears to be aimed at a particular audience, there is enough flexibility in the series to allow for multiple audience identifications and thus cross-gender and cross-generational reception.

This is especially true of the new Doctor Who series.  Relaunched by Russell T. Davies, a self-identified fan of the series, the show would be populated by producers, writers and directors who all qualify as “fan-producers”, who knew how to craft a series that would contain elements for both mainstream and fan audiences.  Such crafting included genre hybridity, where more romance storylines and arcs were introduced to present or suggest romantic and sexual relationships for the Doctor and those he either traveled with or met during those travels.  The series moved from being more episodic as it was in the past (even if those episodes spanned several half-hour episodes) to being more serial, with mysteries to be answered over the course of an entire season.

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What we see in Doctor Who due to these new trends is something academics call a “polysemic rhetoric”.  This means that within the text of Doctor Who there is not just one message, one main point, or one overarching ideology that the producers have put forward.  There is not just one type of person “being hailed”, as French philosopher Louis Althusser might call it, by the text: the message of the text is not just appropriate for one type of person to receive it.  Instead, there are multiple messages being encoded into the text, which allow for multiple types of readings of the text, which allow for multiple types of peoples to be hailed by the text.  Doctor Who’s polysemic rhetoric allows for a flexibility in who can get something out of watching it, which allows for audiences beyond children and their families to find it fascinating and worthwhile watching.

And, indeed, it seems that the new Who has managed to hail a wider swath of people to watch it.  Upon its relaunch, the series generated a higher level of awareness around the globe, thanks to the social medium that is the Internet.  Such as in the United States, where the series has developed a fanbase that included adults and women, people watching it on their own, not because of some children in their lives.  However, with new fans who do not fit the mold of the target audience you sought, there comes new motivations and expectations for what your series will deliver to keep them engaged.

Cultural critic Celeste Condit believes that knowing that a text is polysemous is not enough to understand how different people engage with it.  She believes it is also important to understand an audience as being polyvalent.  That is, that each person in an audience will come to the text from different contexts — different life experiences, situations — which lead to each person having different motivations and expectations of what they will receive from the text, which can then lead to different identifications, interpretations, and meanings taken from the text.

We can see the fans of Doctor Who representing this idea of polyvalence by their different approaches to fan fiction, such as those who favor Tennant’s Doctor over Smith’s Doctor, or who favor a particular romance over others, such as 10/Rose shippers.  We can also see varied importance drawn from the text by whom people dress as during cosplay, with some choosing a companion, a Doctor, an enemy, or the TARDIS herself.  We each focus on what we want to in the series and take from it what we want based on where we are in life.  And what we focus on and what we appropriate may change upon subsequent viewings, as where we are in life changes.

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The theory Olson and I have is that the predictions of and responses to the new Doctor derive from this intersection of the polysemic text and the polyvalent audience.  Doctor Who has purposefully set out to reach the widest audiences possible through the ways the new series has been constructed.  And it has accomplished this, but in doing so it has reached out to an audience that has widely varying motivations for and expectations of the series.  In creating a polyaudience, it has created a very divergent set of motivations for and expectations of watching that could be hard to continuously respond to in such a way as to meet those motivations and expectations.

And it appears that, increasingly, those motivations and expectations will be for more progressive characterizations of the Doctor.

A polyaudience is going to have a greater potential for tensions and contradictions in how the fandom responds to the text.  When a text reaches out to a fairly thin slice of audience, it can better determine that audience’s motivations and expectations and feel comfortable with the limited range of polyvalence there.  Thus, when you are targeting only children and their parents, you can feel safer in assuming that you know what those people want and then deliver it to them.

But the new Who did not keep their text strictly designed for children and their parents; they threw in more romance stories, more genre hybridization, more seriality — more complexity to try to lure in more types of audiences.  But in doing so, you draw in their potentially conflicting ideas about what the text should deliver.  And one of those conflicting ideas right now is on how the Doctor whould be characterized.

With creating a polyaudience, Doctor Who is now faced with answering the question: how do you keep a highly divergent audience happy?  As Abraham Lincoln once said: “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.”

Maybe some of the audience will leave now because they do not have a handsome Doctor to watch.  If the romance storylines are dropped, maybe others will go as well.  If the plots become too cartoonish, then still some others may go.  If it goes too dark and bleak, then parents and their children may tune out.  Maybe those seeking someone other than another white male will tune out in protest.

Doctor Who has been walking a fine line in trying to please the various factions in its polyaudience.  The public discourse and debate surrounding the hiring of Capaldi may be the latest crack in the fandom to fracture it more fully, leaving some segments of the audience behind as the series pushes forward into the next 50 years.

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About CarrieLynn Reinhard

I've been a scifi fan all my life, so I figured I should actually make money being so. And since I've always wanted to be a scientist -- at one point I was convinced I knew how to clone dinosaurs from their hollow bones -- the career path of being a scientist who studies fans and their media obsessions made the most sense for a woman obviously way too influenced by Jurassic Park. I've been all around the world studying fans, superheroes, virtual worlds, digital games, the media industry, and various media technologies. Now I'm an assistant professor in new media studies and audience reception studies at Dominican University just outside of Chicago, and discuss my research and other issues in the world of geekdom at my blog, www.playingwithresearch.com.