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Kim Newman, Doctor Who. London: BFI publishing, 2005.

My rating: ***

Doctor Who (BFI TV Classics) Doctor Who by Kim Newman

Kim Newman is a well-known and prolific author of genre novels, overviews on cult and horror film and TV and a reviewer for the film magazine Empire.

This book, an entry in the excellent BFI TV classics series, is an enjoyable if sometimes hastily written, short handbook. It manages to provide a nicely opinionated overview of ‘classic’ Doctor Who with a few references to the new post 2005 series with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.

There’s no strong argument unifying the book but there are a number of thought provoking tidbits, a few of which I will dip into below.

It is good to see Newman confirm my own long held prejudice that from ‘1963 to K9, Doctor Who was important and from 1977 to 1989 it wasn’t.’ (p. 7) Like Newman, I stopped watching not long after the introduction of K9, the metal robot dog, which Tom Baker would kick in frustration behind the scenes. I didn’t mind K9 so much as Baker’s increasing tendency to treat proceedings as all a bit of a joke. I was more interested in the serious science fiction offerings of the Troughton and Jon Pertwee eras. After around 1977, as Newman says, the series degenerated into failed comedy, pantomime and self-referential fan-fiction.

Newman also provides a number of other insightful observations. For example, in relation to the fixed (and ghastly) costumes of the later Doctor Who. These costumes he describes as a ‘comic-book invention … unsustainable in live-action where audiences wonder if the hero is wearing the same, never cleaned, never-worn-out clothes for years on end’ (p. 97) The earlier Doctors if they had a certain style (ie Jon Pertwee’s Carnaby St Edwardian style) they still had different sets of clothes to their wardrobe.

I also enjoyed Newman’s remark in relation to Who merchandising that it became difficult to be scared of monsters like the daleks that had been turned into soft toys. (Speaking of soft toys, there is an excellent blog at Live Journal titled Who_knits: Time and Double Pointed Needles in Space which details a variety of Dr. Who knitting projects. And this is by no means the only Dr. Who knitting site on the net.)

Newman also notes with a surprising ambivalence for someone who has been involved in cult genre and fandom for so long, ‘in the 1960s, fictional events were not obsessively covered by the national press. Now no popular television drama can surprise audiences by writing out a character through murder, marriage or act of God (or have them outed as gay or a serial killer) without a leak making the front page of the tabloids’ (p. 40) He is discussing here the lack of fanfare that heralded the regeneration of William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton.

It would have been interesting to see some further elaboration on why these changes have occurred. My own view is that this shift marks a welcome move away from the hide-bound stranglehold of the scientific and Hegelian world view where only the rational and the empirically visible had any value, returning to a much earlier view that there is more to existence than what we can see immediately before our eyes. This earlier view is described by French historian Jacques Le Goff in his book The Medieval Imagination. It is a view which didn’t draw a rigid division between the fictional and the non-fictional.

Another observation I thoroughly approved of was Newman’s comment about the propensity of American series not to understand that ‘viewers who enjoyed the adventures, didn’t want to listen to whining characters who only wanted to get home and lead boring lives’ (p. 20). The Wizard of Oz has long been an exemplary fan disappointment on this front – as was its ending – ‘it was all just a dream’, a generic resolution universally loathed by fan viewers whenever it appears in a series or film.

Unfortunately, Doctor Who was not entirely exempt from this irritating hankering after home theme. One of the later companions, Tegan, was particularly tedious in this respect. This is something that Russell T. Davies (a hater of The Wizard of Oz ending) has deliberately gone out of his way to counter in the new series of Doctor Who – even if I do find these new outings problematic on a large number of other fronts. The Outland Institute blog very aptly describes the new series as ‘Neighbours in Space’.

Also of interest in this book, is Newman’s broad knowledge of other cult and genre television which he is able to reference in his discussions which goes a long way to contextualising Doctor Who in the context of other contemporaneous cult TV and film.

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UFO (1970)

My rating: *****

UFO series home page

ufo1
I first saw this series back in the early 1970s when it originally went to air on Australian television. I was fascinated by it at the time but it was not until 1995 during a visit to France that my vague and distant memories of the series were reactivated. It was playing on French television every evening in fully dubbed splendour.

UFO was Gerry Anderson’s (of Thunderbirds fame) first live action series and very stylish it is too. It is a monument to early 70s futurism – set in 1980 with ultra stylish fashion by Sylvia Anderson, futuristic gull wing cars, state of the art pre-microchip technology, lovingly crafted models of a whole array of vehicles, groo-oovy music complete with Hammond organ, as well as electronic music. It is of course a bit slow by today’s frenetic TV standards and the plots are resolutely and interestingly downbeat in true dystopian 1970s fashion.

The series centres around a secret government organization, Shado, (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation) which operates underneath a film studio in Britain defending the earth against a dying race of aliens who visit earth to harvest human organs to prolong their existence. This overall structure allows for stories which also focus on political machinations and character interaction as well as the examination of the foibles of human behaviour.

UFO still has a very active fan base. In the mid to late 1990s I subscribed to the fan email list for a couple of years. What is interesting about the series is that attracts fans of both genders who while I was on the list at least played out in classical fashion the strict gender roles that are often apparent in fandom. At one stage on the list the female slash fans left in high dudgeon, fed up with the male fans’ concentration on building models which replicated those in the series. The classic case of females being focused on ‘relationships’, as opposed to a male focus on hardware and plot points.

What struck me in a recent reviewing of the series was the ubiquitous smoking and the presence of a well-used alcohol dispenser (very futuristic) in the head of Shado, Commander Straker’s, office complete with labels such as ‘bourbon’ and ‘whiskey’. In our current health obsessed times these reckless smoking and drinking practices so prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s are shocking to contemporary sensibilities. Smoking on Moonbase – even more so – given the air and life support constraints in such an environment. On this front, another 1970s TV series Department S is a shining beacon, featuring a writer of detective fiction and secret agent Jason King in the full glory of his outrageous sideburns at the wheel of his Rolls, flute of champagne in one hand, cigarette in the other. Driving with your hands full indeed!

I mentioned above the alcohol dispenser sporting various helpful labels. Amusingly absolutely everything is labeled in the series. The videophone on Straker’s desk is labelled ‘video phone’. A bug-tracking device that the second in command, Alec Freeman, uses in one episode is labeled ‘bug detector’ or something along those lines. There are also meals dispensers labeled ‘American’, ‘Russian’, ‘French’ and so on on Moonbase. Perhaps the crew working on the set needed guidance or perhaps the audience needed to know what all these futuristic props were for. But one has to wonder at an allegedly top secret organisation which clearly labels all its mobile units and planes with its own logo (Shado).

Returning to alcohol, one might also mention the ubiquitous use of drugs as well in UFO. Legal, illegal and experimental drugs are a constant feature.

In one episode, ‘The Long Sleep’, which was originally withdrawn from broadcast because of its drug references, two dropouts experiment with LSD and we see a long psychedelic scene of them tripping. The consequences of this experimentation are dire indeed, with abduction by aliens and death as the ultimate penalties. The girl comes out of a coma ten years after taking the drugs only to get injected with more drugs – a dangerous memory drug by an alien agent and also by Shado. Death ensues. Truth and amnesia drugs and other experimental drugs are also used liberally by Shado on its own personnel, on members of the public and on aliens. A member of Shado whose wife is a little anxious showers her with offers of sleeping pills which she obligingly takes.

To our morally disapproving eyes in the early millennium this all seems very shocking indeed.

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Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.
My rating: ****

Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Studies in Culture and Communication) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins

This is the seminal foundational text in terms of academic studies of fandom. Even if it was published in 1992 before the explosion of internet fandom and a more mainstream (even if still grudging) recognition of fan practices, it is still chock full of useful and current ideas.

This well written and highly readable book has done a great service in single handedly promoting the possibility of academic fan studies an invitation which has been taken up by numbers of others since.

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Theorizing fandom

Cheryl Harris, Alison Alexander (eds). Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture, and Identity. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1998.
My rating:***

Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity (The Hampton Press Communication Series) Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity by Cheryl Harris

This is a rather useful edited collection about various media fandoms and fan practices. There is the usual stuff on slash included. Of course the book’s appearance in 1998 means that it was published before the real take off of online fandom.

I particularly enjoyed (non slash focused) chapter 10 by Cinda Gillalan on the TV series War of the Worlds fandom and its rejection of the hero codified by the makers of the series as being attractive to female viewers in favour of a character in the series with more marginal attributes.

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Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (eds.) 2006. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

My rating: ***

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet My review
Quite interesting with some useful if rather rushed definitions of the some of the jargon used by fan fiction writers in the introduction. A large proportion of the articles in this edited collection are about slash. Slash represents, in terms of volume, the smallest section of fan fiction but it is one that academics gravitate towards with a passion – all that transgression and interesting deviance to wax theoretical over!

Annoyingly I have had to link to Wikipedia again but it does include the most comprehensive and easily accessible set of online references concerning slash.

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Rebecca W. Black. (2008). Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies). New York: Peter Lang.
My rating: ***

Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies) Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction by Rebecca W. Black

This book uses current educational theory to discuss adolescent fan fiction. The book is useful in that it attempts to argue for the importance of fan fiction as an educational tool in promoting literacy. It also points out the fundamental discordances between the way knowledge is structured and delivered in schools and the way fan writing and communities work. However some of the characterisations of what is happening in schools are perhaps a little old fashioned – but this might in fact be a reflection of what is occurring in American classrooms and as such does not necessarily apply outside the USA.

Unfortunately the author only offers rather vague suggestions as to how teachers might work with fan fiction and their students. It could indeed be done but would require teachers who were very experienced and knowledgeable in terms of how fandoms, media technology and social networking operate.

But this is definitely a start. Fandom and fan fiction have been highly stigmatised, and given fan fiction is the fastest growing type of writing in the world today it is good to see some recognition from the educational sector of this form of literary engagement.

For extended discussions on how fan reading and practices might be harnassed in an educational setting see Henry Jenkins’ blog Confessions of an aca-fan.

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