The Quest is the Quest: Recovering Missing Doctor Who Episodes

Doctor Who, "The Enemy of the World"

The Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria hold on for dear life.

The announced recovery, and immediate merchandising, of nine previously missing episodes of Doctor Who has sent fandom into dances of joy. The whole saga reveals questions about the shifting value of media works, the hidden economies and politics of global television, and narratives of discovery.

First though, let me give the very short version of how dozens of episodes of Doctor Who (as well as many other 1950s and 1960s programs) went missing from the BBC Archives in the 1970s, and how fans and media historians have spent decades trying to find them. (The long version is to be found in Richard Molesworth’s unparalleled history Wiped!, which will no doubt have to go into a third edition after this week’s revelation. DoctorWho.TV also has a nice, new brief account up). It was standard practice of the BBC until the mid 1970s to junk most of its tapes and even films once their apparent usefulness (as either archive material ready for reuse, or commercial assets ready to sell to broadcasters outside the UK) had expired. There were seemingly sound reasons for this at the time in terms of resource management. Videotape was particularly expensive in the 1960s, and master tapes were routinely wiped and reused. Kinescopes–16mm film copies of live or taped TV programs–were only useful as long as they could be licensed. While the syndication market had certainly taken off by then, validating a shelf life of a few years, the longer-term value of television, either culturally or industrially, had yet to be realized at that point. Something can’t be effectively protected if it’s not valued (as we’re learning all the time about the planet itself, unfortunately). This policy reversed in the late 1970s, at which point the BBC realized it was losing its heritage, and efforts began to recover what was lost.

40 episodes of Doctor Who have been found since 1981, leaving 97 left missing, remaining to be found, or, more intriguingly, actually found but yet to be formally announced (as rumors circulating around fandom for the past year or two would have it; see below). The sites of these recoveries have been wildly varying, but all point to the cultural and economic power of British colonialism, even in the 1960s and 1970s (especially in Asia, Africa, and Australia and New Zealand), and the unpredictable and serendipitous fates of such systems when they end. Regimes most often don’t come to a clean stop, but rather tail off and fragment, leaving a mess for successor regimes to either ignore or sort out. Historians, museums, archives, and collectors of every interest have experienced or are familiar with stories of rescuing important artifacts or documents from trash heaps, attics, walls, or even on their way to incinerators. Such has been, and will continue to be, the case with recovered Doctor Who episodes, which have been found so far in dusty, forgotten storerooms or buried anonymously in collections, sitting for decades. While it seems incredible that these nine episodes (11, actually, including copies of the two that already exist in the archives) sat in a Nigerian television relay station untouched for over forty years, anyone who’s had to move out of a house or office after years or even decades knows just how much stuff–random stuff–can accumulate with minimal notice.

The discovery narratives themselves then take on the trappings of treasure hunting, clandestine meetings, and even subterfuge. Chance encounters lead to valuable finds. Furniture is moved, and out pop film cans. Secretive collectors have to be discreetly wooed. At its most romantic, this often veers into Indiana Jones or Maltese Falcon territory (and I have to think that the revelatory scene in that story must have actually played out at times in the hunt for missing episodes). Thus, this endeavor itself, when coupled with the sense of loss and tantalizing possibility (i.e., what the story could be, based on the bits and pieces that survive), elevate what once was (and let’s be honest here) a workaday, ephemeral television show into a religious text (in the sense of offering “proof” to reassure believers). The continuing belief, bubbling through fandom even after this week, that yet more episodes have actually been recovered, also adds a complicated filter of suspicion towards the BBC, perhaps still not forgiven for losing the episodes in the first place: they have them, so why can’t they tell us?

As with any “lost” cultural artifact, I’m glad these episodes are back. Indeed, since they come from a particularly “lost” era (1966-68) of my favorite TV show, I’m flappy-hands-of-joy ecstatic. I’ve only seen one of the recovered episodes so far, the first part of “The Enemy of the World,” but I’m already reassessing my thoughts on this story and this time in the show’s history. I’m sure the remaining episodes will open up more windows I didn’t even realize were shut. That said, in all our nostalgic glow and historic intrigue for the episodes themselves, we need to make sure that we don’t lose sight of the broader contexts of the “loss” and “recovery” of a cultural product, and the complex relationship of media objects to our identities as fans and as stewards of forgotten or even disavowed cultural regimes.

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The Sound of Doctor Who

The second panel I’m on at A Celebration of Doctor Who, immediately after the first one, concerns the series’ aesthetics. Instead of examining aspects of mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, or narrative design, I’m concentrating on what Doctor Who sounds like.

Sound has been a crucial part of the design of Doctor Who, from the very first appearance of the series on British screens on November 23, 1963. The first ghostly images of the original, swirly title sequence are accompanied by Delia Derbyshire’s landmark electronic arrangement of Ron Grainer’s theme tune. In a matter of seconds, Doctor Who has announced itself as new and alien, and it’s the sound–generated by various tone generators, oscillators, and hundreds of feet of tape loops at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop–that clinches it:

Note that as the theme fades out, the next sound we hear is the mysterious hum from a Police Box in a junkyard. Such sound effects were fundamental during the series’ first few years, as Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson, Dick Mills, and others in the Radiophonic Workshop created alien atmospheres, high-tech laboratories, weapons and tools, monsters, and of course, the most famous sound of all, the TARDIS dematerialization: 

At times throughout the 1960s (and at various points in the 1970s and 1980s as well), electronic sound effects and music bled into each other (occasionally even credited as “Special Sound”), emphasizing the relationship between the sound and image of “SF.” That is, electronic sounds (later generated by dedicated synthesizers) reinforce the mystery and otherworldliness of “proper” SF.

In contrast, music and dialogue are relatively secondary in the sound mix in the early years. Of course, the dialogue has to convey the plot, and the music (usually in brief “stings”) punctuates the emotional moments. But the sound effects are the basis of the series’ world-building, and what make it inescapably Doctor Who. In the first six seasons, these sound effects (and musical cues) were even piped into the soundstage during primary recording, helping the actors and crew locate themselves on alien worlds (post-dubbing music and sound effects became standard in the 1970s).

As the show’s style changed, this general emphasis on sound effects remained, with “alien” sounds locating the Doctor and friends (and us) in “alien” environments (or, in the Pertwee years, familiar spaces made “alien”…)

Along the way in the 1970s, however, the music changed from otherworldly compliment to more familiar counterpoint. After spending much of the Pertwee years favoring synthesizers, Dudley Simpson switched to more acoustic, chamber-like scores in the second half of the 1970s (with a half-dozen musicians, usually french horns, clarinet, piano, and percussion). This was the sound of this era, as alien atmospheres receded in favor of Simpson’s “organic” duets with Tom Baker’s velvet baritone.

When John Nathan-Turner took over as producer in 1980, he aimed to overhaul the look and sound of the series. Simpson was an immediate casualty, as the composers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (including Peter Howell, Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb, Malcolm Clarke, and Jonathan Gibbs) took advantage of rapidly developing music technology to craft all-electronic scores. By this point, electronic sound effects were still a mainstay, of course, but meshed more clearly with the music, particularly since they came from the same production house for several years.

In the embattled last three years of the classic series (1987-89), and despite a dwindling budget, the sound mix changed again, with more melodic, motif-driven music up front, and a new focus on the sound and texture of dialogue. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor was far and away the most vocally expressive and varied Doctor to that point, and when paired with Sophie Aldred’s (sort of) working-class Ace and a wide range of expressive guest roles, the net result were voices that were not only conveyors of verbal information, but (finally) conveyors of character.

When Doctor Who returned in the mid-00s (setting aside for the sake of space the one-off 1996 TV Movie, which faithfully followed 1990s American genre TV conventions in its design), its sound design completely inverted the original formula. Television itself was, of course, now over fifty years old, rather than still fresh and weird, as it had been in 1963. Accordingly, as episodes are now tighter and faster, having to compete more for attention, dialogue is now king, and Murray Gold’s earwormy, wall-to-wall music is its queen. Sound effects are still there, of course, but are much more ad hoc and functional, rather than immersive (e.g., the new series’ ubiquitous sonic screwdriver). The scope of the SF sensibility is now carried primarily by the relatively sumptuous visuals and music, with most of the remaining “alien” sound effects being conveyed by various alien voices.

Moreover, in contrast with the general “BBC English” of most of the previous Doctors (save Hartnell’s “old man” tics and McCoy’s indulgent Scottish burrrrrrr), each contemporary Doctor has a very particular verbal style: Christopher Eccleston’s unabashed “Northern” patter:

David Tennant’s emo mockney (though it’s a shame he couldn’t go with his native Scots):

and Matt Smith’s Oxbridge nerdisms:

Starting with Billie Piper’s council estate princess Rose Tyler, each of the companions has also had a distinct vocal style. This emphasis is reinforced with the increased function of dialogue in the narrative: there’s not enough time to linger in as much in spaces and silences, and so dialogue conveys not only plot information, but also character (usually variations on biting wit), and greater subtext.

So, while sound of course continues to structure the series (and in more complex constructions and mixes), it’s important to consider the overall function of sound effects, music, and dialogue within the context of particular moments in the series’ history.

The DNA of Doctor Who

It’s been about 15 months, but yes, I’m still here. I’ve been busy.

I’m posting now because I’m off to Chicago this weekend to participate in A Celebration of Doctor Who, a one-day event at DePaul University’s Loop campus, organized by fellow aca-fan Paul Booth (thanks, Paul!). All day on Saturday there will be one-hour panels featuring many Doctor Who scholar-fans, and screenings of classic and current series episodes. The format of the sessions is geared, correctly, towards conversation rather than presentation; more like Gallifrey and less like SCMS. We won’t have a whole lot of time to present our individual piece of the panel, so I thought I’d present my pieces in more extended form here. This post concerns my thoughts about Doctor Who‘s DNA; the next post will offer my assessment of sound in Doctor Who.

Every long-running media story or setting (what the industry also calls a “franchise”; see Derek Johnson’s excellent new analysis of the concept) carries the DNA of its origins through every iteration. Consider:

  • Sherlock Holmes – rooted in 19th century urbanism, Victorian morality, ascendent forensic science and criminology, pop fiction
  • Star Trek – A product of the Sixties: the Cold War, the space race, changing geopolitics, the civil rights movement, and even the counterculture, all tempered with a strain of militarism and the flying fists of mid-60s action-adventure TV
  • Star Wars – A soup of Seventies neo-mysticism, mythology, Tolkien, movie brat cinephilia, and early Silicon Valley technophilia

No matter what happens down the line, that original formula is still there, passed on, if also modified along the way. Each of these particular franchises currently has major iterations in imminent release and/or production, and all of them still very much bear these original marks (even Sherlock and Elementary, which each somehow manage to successfully transfer Doyle’s Victorian London to the 21st century London and New York, respectively).

In the case of Doctor Who, while its original manifestation is still primary, it has had three more alterations significant enough to affect the current series. Like other strands of DNA introduced and passed on in other living things, these aspects will always be part of whatever Doctor Who will be in the future (more or less, as we’ll see).

1-Ian Barbara Susan (pub)First, and fundamental, is the series’ origins in the BBC of the early 1960s, which launched its function as a national institution. Famously conceived as Saturday family tea-time fare meant to bridge the afternoon into the evening, with the ostensible function of being broadly “educational” as well, Doctor Who in its first 17 seasons (1963-80) represents the cultural assurances of public service broadcasting in its prime. While it still adjusted to changing styles and producers over this time–the differences between, say, “The Daleks’ Master Plan” (1965-66) and “Spearhead From Space” (1970), broadcast exactly four years apart, are much starker than the differences between the similarly spaced “Planet of the Dead” (2009) and “The Bells of Saint John” (2013)–the series still functioned primarily as a national broadcast institution, alongside many others from the BBC of the 1960s and 1970s.

3-Jo (Colony In Space)This sensibility is clear throughout this span. The Doctor is an emphatically English (not quite British yet) agent of disorder: he may not do things the “right” way, but he always gets the “right” result. Established history can’t be altered, but humanity (i.e., England) will persist far into the future. Those Troughton-era “bases under siege” survive and face down real monsters. Jon Pertwee transforms the Doctor into an English action hero on English soil, sometimes facing down reactionary and destructive national powers, and ultimate Doctor Tom Baker channels the classic cool of Englishmen from Oscar Wilde to David Bowie as the unflappable eccentric.

Times change, though. Around the time producer John Nathan-Turner (known by fans as JNT) assumes the reins in 1980, Doctor Who gradually shifts from being a national institution to a cult institution. The series, like so many other pre-Thatcher British institutions at the time, finds itself increasingly marginalized and abandoned by the new establishment. It was literally displaced from its institutional home on Saturdays at this time, and aired instead in the middle of the week for most of its last decade.

6 (Vengeance On Varos)7-Ace (Greatest Show)

At the same time, however, it began to be fervently embraced by a newly organized and rapidly expanding (thanks to international distribution) fandom. With the mainstream turning away, Doctor Who, led by JNT, embraced its cult status. The producer and his cast made regular appearances at conventions around the world. The series both ran from its past (in storytelling style) and towards it (in increasing use of old monsters and continuity). The Eighties Doctors symbolized this turn away from comfortable hegemony and towards brash marginality: Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor may have the most obviously “English” wardrobe of all, but  is nonetheless seen as a crazed outsider in many of his stories. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor brandishes his contrarian aesthetic and demeanor like a knife. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor clowns like Chaplin to mask a brooding, deceptive heart. By the time McCoy’s Doctor had picked up his trademark question-mark umbrella in 1987, the series made its last turn down Cult Alley, because that seemed all that was left to go. Accordingly, Doctor Who closed out with some of the most unusual, bracing, and divisive stories in its history, including “The Happiness Patrol” (1988), “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” (1988), and “Ghost Light” (1989).

04revelationWith no more TV series in production, and almost no interest from the BBC (aside from the aborted attempt to relaunch the series in 1996), the “cult” essentially assumes ownership of Doctor Who in the 1990s. While known as the “wilderness years,” these are more precisely its “indie rock” years, when fan writers, greatly inspired by the tone and style of the McCoy era (but drawing concepts and characters from the series’ entire history, as well as tropes in Eighties and Nineties SF and politics) wrote and edited licensed novels “too broad and deep for the small screen” (as the original Virgin tagline put it).

The Virgin and BBC novels were Doctor Who at its most experimental: with darker themes, complex plots and characters, and long-running narrative arcs. This was also Doctor Who at its most “adult,” although in retrospect (from the viewpoint of one of those “adult” fans of the books at that time), and despite some stunning additions to the saga (such as Paul Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation  [1991], Kate Orman’s The Left-Handed Hummingbird [1993],  Gareth Roberts’ The English Way of Death [1996], Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman’s So Vile A Sin [1997], Lawrence Miles’ Alien Bodies [1997], and Lance Parkin’s The Infinity Doctors [1998]), it was, on the whole, more the sort of earnest, slightly callow “adult” material that only those in their smitten twenties could produce. Holy TerrorIn 1999, inspired in part by the success of the novels at keeping Doctor Who alive and kicking, fan-led Big Finish Productions began releasing full-cast audio dramas (with stories featuring, by 2012, regular appearances by all five of the living classic series Doctors, and almost all of their companions) which faithfully recreated the sensibility of the TV series while retaining some of the more experimental innovations inspired by the novels. Big Finish has released some of Doctor Who‘s most original and compelling adventures, with Colin Baker’s unfairly-maligned portrayal of the Sixth Doctor particularly rehabilitated in stories like Rob Shearman’s The Holy Terror (2000) and Jubilee (2003), Jac Rayner’s Doctor Who and the Pirates (2003), and Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman’s The One Doctor (2001).

And then, seemingly out of the blue in 2003, the BBC takes Doctor Who back to television, reclaiming it as a national institution in the classic mold. However, now the model national institution isn’t reassuringly English, but rather pitched as a global media franchise, the flagship of a solidly entrepreneurial BBC. While the “wilderness years” DNA clearly influenced the new iteration’s respective showrunners (Russell T Davies, who actually wrote one of the Virgin novels, and Steven Moffat) and many of its writers, and has been tacitly acknowledged by long-term fans, publicly it’s been elided, as if the show disappeared “sometime in the 1980s” and miraculously reappeared in 2005. Thus, the DNA of the 1990s is effectively hidden in the 2000s-10s, though its influence persists.

bellsofsaintjohn

Doctor Who is now both populist and cult, a combination that couldn’t have existed back in the 20th century. It’s unabashedly promotional, clamoring for attention across multiple media and product platforms in a very crowded media marketplace. Davies and Moffat have been incessant MCs, propelling a global hype machine, because they have to be. On-screen, the staid pacing of the classic series and meditations of the novels and audios have been replaced with a slick, thrill-ride ethos. The new series Doctors are younger, extroverted, and more than a bit narcissistic, “clever boys” needing and seeking attention in a way that never mattered as much before. Plots–in particular, under Moffat–have emphasized time travel, alternate realities, and long-running narrative arcs, as well as a much broader emotional spectrum than was ever seen previously on screen.

All that said, the flexibility of the concept–a strange, seemingly immortal being has adventures in time and space in a small blue box–has certainly been proven time and again.  Unlike Holmes, Star Trek, or Star Wars, who remain tied to stricter confines of character, tone, and setting (countless parodies notwithstanding), Doctor Who can continue to regenerate. Every time it does, however, it will continue to carry the DNA of its previous incarnations.

The Fandorica Opens: On Gallifrey One 2012

As expected, I had a fantastic time at Gallifrey One’s Network 23 Doctor Who convention in Los Angeles. There are already many great write-ups online (check the list at the bottom of the post), all well worth reading. This review differs in that I’m trying to balance my fan and academic perspectives on the event.

The obvious point of comparison is with academic conferences. I’ve been going to both fan and academic events for almost the same amount of time (over two decades), and in many respects, fan conventions have a remarkably similar vibe, but with the critical difference of less anxiety and judgement. As with academic conferences, the main engine of cons is social: striking up conversations with strangers, or just picking up where you left off with old friends. While there are differences–not everyone can be on a panel or have an awesome costume or hang out in the green room–cons are a far less hierarchical space than any academic conference. Almost nobody’s actual real-world career hinges on their demeanor or appearance at a con; given most of the con goers, including many of the celebrity guests, hang out in the lobby talking and drinking till the wee hours, this is a very good thing indeed. Because of this lack of rank, discussions at Gally were always as relaxed, open, random, profane and long as they could be (once past that nerdy awkwardness that all of us shared, and that Radio Free Skaro podcaster Warren Frey pointed out is now, bizarrely, a trendy affected hipster trait). Indeed, many of the best conversations I had at Gally did not even involve Doctor Who, or television.

Tiki Dalek

The Tiki Dalek, or, as I called it, Gilligan's Dalek (Flickr photo credit: jtrummer)

As at MLA, NCA, SCMS or every other academic gathering, there were also many discussion panels at Gally. However, rather than a series of anxiously scripted presentations, panels were instead joyfully rambling gatherings that nonetheless produced much more engagement than the usual scholarly session. A panel of SF writers discussing managing their creative lives was particularly energetic and direct, offering up seasoned, pragmatic, and occasionally contentious advice on work-for-hire, creative control, and finding an agent. Interaction between panelists and audience throughout the weekend was always informal, with a minimum of restraint, especially given the rapid 55-minute sessions. Understandably, some sessions, in the large main room, functioned more formally, with media-savvy fans interviewing guest actors, directors, and writers. But even then, discussions were lively and intriguing, as was especially the case in the revealing “Doctor Who in the 60s” panel which featured long-time fan/producer/writer/editor Gary Russell interviewing original 1963 actor William Russell and director Waris Hussein, and 1965 companion Maureen O’Brien. While certainly not all panels were as coherent or engaging as they could have been, that’s always the case at SCMS and every other academic gathering I’ve ever attended as well. In that regard, thankfully Gally doesn’t go rigidly non-stop from 8 till 6 in two-hour chunks, but rather has a more open and sociable schedule that encourages sleeping in and staying up late. Nothing “officially” started till 10am at the earliest each day, and in addition to the perpetual “lobbycon” (the unofficial party that ran nonstop in the Marriott lobby from Wednesday through Monday nights), there were many late-night events and panels, a few starting as late as 1am, each night of the con.

Moreover, the vibe at Gally was also very distinct from that at Comic-Con, and most other cons, for that matter. While the sheer scope of Comic-Con insures its own particular appeal to geekdom (myself included; this year will be my fourth), it’s also a much more impersonal experience. One cowers at the foot of the temple of pop culture amidst tens of thousands of teeming pilgrims at Comic-Con. In contrast, Gally, while growing rapidly (with a record 3183 coming this year, a 45% growth from the previous record set in 2011), still feels homey and informal, rather than public and anonymous. It’s a huge party, vs. a massive festival. In comparing the events, a few of us reasoned that the physical exhaustion of just one day of Comic-Con is about equal to that of three days of Gally, with the net enjoyment of the latter much greater than the former. Moreover, given that all involved at Gally love love love Doctor Who, there were no turf battles over space or influence of particularly distinct demographics or fandoms (as has unfortunately been the case at Comic-Con, especially in the recent years of its massive growth).

That said, as undeniably enjoyable and community-building an event as Gally is, there are certainly a few issues with the way time and space are manipulated there (see what I did there?). Despite an overwhelmingly positive and welcoming atmosphere, and a near gender balance (on the whole; see below) and diversity of sexualities, the con is still not as racially diverse as I thought it would be. Then again, neither are academic conferences, unfortunately. Diversity of fandoms is also an intriguing tension, as Emily Kausalik examines in her account of the weekend. Gally provided panels on many avenues of interest–from interviews with the series’ actors to discussion of its works in other media forms to explorations of its production history to critiques of its representations of sexuality to discussions of fancraft–but this resulted in some Balkanization along interest and (to an extent) gender lines. I missed a few more typically female-oriented fannish panels (on topics like shipping and cosplay) that I had planned on attending in favor of hanging out with several of my old, and admittedly mostly male, fan friends. Again, a situation not unlike SCMS, sadly. I owe fellow acafan and feminist Doctor Who blogger Courtney Stoker a particular apology for missing her late-night cosplay/crossplay panel in that regard, but look forward to her write-up (until then, here’s a great interview she gave to io9, along with some excellent photos).

Courtney Stoker as the TARDIS

Acafans cosplay too! Here's Courtney Stoker, as the TARDIS (Flickr photo credit: bio_grrl)

Speaking of cosplay, this was an area which frankly blew me away at Gally. I’ve been going to cons off and on for over 25 years, and have  probably seen thousands of costumed fans. But the creativity and craftspersonship I saw at Gally was at another level of awesome. There were the expected sea of scarves, bow ties, fezzes, and skinny bespoke suits that you’d expect from the most popular Doctors. But there were also many companions, obscure villains, and even more obscure one-off characters, all in amazing detail. Most impressively, however, were the overwhelmingly female cosplayers who “versioned” particular characters or themes. I lost count of how many incredible crossplay and femme Doctors, Captain Jacks, Daleks, and even TARDISes I saw; the pictures here indicate just a fraction what went on all weekend. The typical Comic-Con costumes seem like castoffs from the Halloween rental store by comparison.

The great level of dedication and love shown to Doctor Who by the most devoted fans–most clearly in cosplay and other fanart, but also in more archival endeavors, such BroaDWcast‘s mission to catalog every run of the classic series in every country–is probably what most discomforts academics. However, it’s also fandom’s greatest similarity with academia. Who other than the academic or fan devotee would trawl through dusty archives looking for discarded bits of knowledge, or frequently re-read or re-watch a text with an eye for new analyses and interpretations, or critique and reconfigure the very acts of devotion? While I still don’t agree that everything is/could be fandom, or that “acafan” is a useful long-term designation, I left Gally more encouraged than ever that these worlds are not only compatible but could powerfully work together. I’m working on a few projects that hopefully do just that.

In the meantime, of course, I’ve already registered for The 24 Hours of Gallifrey One in 2013, celebrating 50 years of Doctor Who. Hopefully I’ll see you there as well!

Eleven and the Girl Who Waited

The Amy Who Waited and a Femme Eleven (Flickr photo credit: bio_grrl)

More Gally coverage…

Twitter hashtag: #gally (unofficially; the con itself prefers #gallifreyone, but most of the attendees favor #gally)

Forum: Gallifrey Base (the largest, and one of the longest-running, Doctor Who online communities)

Some Reviews:

Emily Kausalik, “Gally Rewind: A Tale of Two Cons” (with an excellent back-and-forth between Emily and Courtney Stoker in the comments)

fangirlknitscarf, “Geek Girl Gushes: Gallifrey One’s Network 23”

Kyle Anderson, “The Wrath of Con,” Nerdist.com

Armillary Observations, “The Maturing of Doctor Who Fandom, or 3 Reasons Gallifrey One is a Must-See for Who Fans”

Crave Online, “Gallifrey One 2012 Video Interviews”

Teresa Jusino, “Gallifrey One 2012: The Who-iest Place on Earth,” Tor.com

Andrew Reynolds, “Gallifrey One Review,” Kasterborous.com

Going Back to Gally

DK and Dalek

Aca and fan at Comic-Con. That's me on the right.

This weekend I will be in Los Angeles at the 23rd annual Gallifrey One convention. Gallifrey One, or “Gally” as its attendees call it, is the largest, longest-running Doctor Who convention in the world. I’m finally going back after a six-year absence, during which time the revived series (starring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and, currently, Matt Smith in the title role) has achieved massive global and American success. This in turn has fueled attendance at the con: at my last Gally in 2006, attendance was about 750; this weekend, over 2500 people are expected to turn out.

This is my fourth Gally. I attended the very first one way back in 1990, and did not attend for years due mostly to living in Madison as a grad student of limited means for the remainder of the decade (though I did regularly attend the midwestern DW/SF con of that time, Visions, held down the road in Chicago; the original site, last updated in 2000, is still up). I finally went back in 2005 and 2006, but haven’t been able to justify the time or expense since then, until now.

So, why go back? This is complicated, but cuts to the core of my identity.

While I’ve long loved SF and SF media, I’ve always had a mixed relationship with organized fandom. I’ve known and admired many amazing people actively involved with fandom (some of whom for over twenty years), and shared their passions and interests in person at cons, through newsletters and zines, and online. However, at the same time, I’ve also always been unable to “fully commit” to fandom. In large part, this has been a matter of time, particularly during grad school, and when my children were very young. But overall, I’ve realized this reluctance is more a longstanding result of my scholarly orientation, which, while generally supportive of the political idea of fandom, has not been especially welcoming to its affective expression. The party line in cultural studies has generally gone like this: fandom is great if it’s for or against something substantial (and especially subversively); but fandom for fandom’s sake is kinda embarrassing. Cultural studies’ primary theorist Stuart Hall crystallized this sentiment in his 1981 article “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” which ended with his dismissal of the idea that popular culture mattered beyond the political.

While this view of popular culture, and fandom specifically, has certainly changed in cultural studies over the past three decades, and “fannish” modes of engagement have become arguably dominant across media culture, there remains a whiff of suspicion in academia about active participation in affective cultural engagement, as if you can’t “cross the streams” between the two worlds. Attempts to bridge these gaps, most notably through the concept of the hybrid “academic fan” or “acafan,” have explored intriguing conceptual territory over this period, yet have remained unsatisfying, as the series of discussions at Henry Jenkins’ blog last summer bore out. (bonus: here’s my colleague Suzanne Scott on her own misgivings about the term and fannish identities) I’m uncomfortable with the term “acafan” primarily because it leaves out many other possible perspectives (producer, consumer, citizen, viewer, owner, etc.), reducing the range of viable encounters with media texts to a narrow band of intellectual and/or affective engagement.

Rather than continuing dodging the issue, however, I’ve come around to embracing the contradictions; it’s either that or continued frustration, after all. I am an academic. And a fan. In that order as well, for what it’s worth. Moreover, I am also a producer of media content and media knowledge, a consumer of media products, a media mentor to my children and students, and a citizen of media-facilitated states. There is no one “hat” I, nor anyone else, can decide on. Accordingly, I’m trying to grasp experiencing the world through these multiple conceptions. My growing appreciation for comics has led me to new courses and research projects, but it has also given me a greater understanding of the variety of cultural production, distribution, and consumption in the digital age; fostered an addiction to Wednesdays at Keith’s Comics in Dallas, and inspired me to attend the San Diego Comic-Con every July, as both a scholar (observing the cultural economies of fandom up close) and a fan (standing in line for hours to see Matt Smith and Karen Gillan). When I talk about my experiences at Comic-Con in class, students always ask if I go to enjoy it or study it. I always say, “Yes!”

My return to Gally this week extends this embrace back to my roots with old friends, and my first fandom, Doctor Who. The scholar in me is looking forward to seeing how the con has grown and attracted a new generation and new modes of fandom; the fan in me just wants to hang out, meet friends, and talk about Doctor Who, SF, and whatever else comes up for three days. I see this as not only reconnecting with this milieu, but forging new models of engagement across these streams. Indeed, with the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who looming in 2013, I’m hoping to make enough connections to spark a new collaborative project (that’s both “aca” and “fan” in the best ways, but also engaged with broader contextual issues), but more on that later…

I’ll report back on Gally. In the meantime, I challenge all of us to think more about how our streams cross (outside of academia, fandom, and every other box we live in), and how to cross them with others.

The 2009 Frames All-Star Team

As 2009 dawns, I thought I’d recognize all that made my 2008 bearable (and occasionally inspiring). Since my year divides roughly into two seasons — college football, and the rest of the year — I’ve decided to name an all-star team. These were my MVPs, on both sides of the ball.

OFFENSE

QB – Barack Obama – For keeping cool in the pocket, and methodically moving the ball downfield. That said, under the circumstances, winning this election was comparatively easy compared to the real task at hand. Keep cool, Mr. President.

RB – Ben and Rose Kompare – To be honest they drive me a fair way up the wall most days, draining between 60 and 80 percent of my energy and attention. However, they keep right on moving forward, and remind me what it’s all about.

RB – Heath Ledger (RIP) as The Joker – Full disclosure: we just saw The Dark Knight a few days ago (life with little ones = summer movies in winter on DVD).  I was literally haunted by this performance, dreaming of the Joker after seeing the film. The rest of the production was also compelling, but Ledger’s Joker was on another plane, taking a well-worn character that’s been around for over six decades and making him exactly of the moment. One could easily imagine that weird, uber-smart, misanthropic and vaguely scary guy you knew in high school or college showing up like this, and meaning it, a decade or so on.

WR – everybody involved in Battlestar GalacticaThey’re all done with it, having wrapped production a few months back, but we’re still to see the last ten-plus hours of this existential saga. Even when they get a bit sloppy, as with the shaky Mutiny on the Bounty arc, it’s compelling (like, say, Miles Davis on an off night). Like the best receivers, they go deep, and make things happen. Bring home the cat, guys.

WR – Henry Jenkins – The very model of a 21st century media scholar, and a helluva person in his own right. Consistently pushing, never staying put, and generously bringing us all along. And in 2009, he’s literally moving forward to what looks to be a more prominent position at USC, after many years at MIT. Good luck, Henry!

TE – Tim Anderson – After some challenging times, Tim’s had an amazing 2008, with a new family and a new job, and he’s poised again to challenge Media Studies. Plus, he’s kind of built like a tight end.

C – William Petersen – Having reviewed all 190-odd episodes of CSI for my book this year, I am in awe of Petersen’s nine-year performance as Gil Grissom. It’s kind of the inverse of Ledger’s, all underplayed and thoroughly normative, but at the same time carrying heavy burdens. Grissom has been through hell the past three years in particular, and Petersen’s made that transition subtle yet compelling. Hats off for nine years, and for seeing Grissom through to his end.

OL – Google apps – They’ve made my life so much easier, to the point that I scarcely run anything that’s not anchored in my web browser anymore. Gmail alone is a godsend, but Google Reader and Google Maps are incredibly versatile apps. It’s been the reinvention of the personal computer.

OL – Sean Griffin – I’ve several amazing colleagues in my division at SMU, but only one Sean Griffin. Tireless, brilliant, dedicated to our little community (and to the Meadows School in general), and always doing it with aplomb and good humor. And he always throws a heckuva soiree.

OL – Lifehacker – This site is crazy addictive, but also thoroughly useful, with everything from video conversion tips to coping with job loss. It protects us fearlessly, making our lives easier.

Willie Tuitama, in his last college game

Willie Tuitama, in his last college game

OL – Willie Tuitama – The four-year starting quarterback of my University of Arizona Wildcats, he’s not flashy like Florida’s Tim Tebow or those Big 12 guys, nor as rock-solid as USC’s Mark Sanchez, but he’s as good as it gets when he’s on, calmly toying with opposing offenses. Four years of highs and disastrous lows ended with a sharp, flawless performance against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl on December 20 (I was there!). He holds every significant QB record in UA history, and, more importantly, weathered the storm of uncertainty alongside Coach Mike Stoops to finally (finally!) get us back to a winning record and a bowl game.


DEFENSE

OLB – Mad Men – It’s on defense because it represents all that has been great about the medium of television for the past sixty years; i.e., defending it now from becoming irrelevant. Moreover, in its rich vision of the early 1960s, it waves the flag of historiography, i.e., of critically examining its sources and not pretending to be a window to that world.

MLB – Sally Kompare – She’s defended me more reliably and more readily than anyone else has for half of my life. In 2008, she made some major changes, and we’ve both grown more as a result. Plus, she’s very effective against those shifty running backs, Ben and Rose.

OLB – My iPod – Oh, iPod, what did I ever do without you? In 2008, you served up gigabytes of my standard writing music (soundtracks and classical), helped me organize fixations on 1950s-60s pop and contemporary indie, and kept me enlightened with scads of podcasts. And you kept the world out when I needed it most.

DE – The Colbert Report and The Daily Show – Unbeatable as always, but particularly on-target in this crazy election year. Nailing the opposition relentlessly, four days a week.

DT – Daily Kos I only really get into the Kos in an election year, and although I’m only a lurker there, I found its diarists reports, commentaries and calls to action invaluable in 2008. After an entire existence in the Bush years, it’s going to be interesting to see how the community, and the whole progressive blogosphere, evolves now that the Democrats are the government.

DT – Russ Pennell – Having only been hired on Lute Olson’s staff last spring, he took the reins of the men’s basketball team in the wake of Olson’s surprise November retirement. Even though he has to wear the badge of “interim,” and will almost certainly not be around next fall, he’s completely redesigned the Wildcats’ style. This team could have completely folded, but they’re 9-3, and look to be a legit threat in the Pac-10. Memo to UA athletic director Jim Livengood: don’t rule him out entirely for the future.

DE – Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow – For expanding the challenge to the Fox (or, in CNN’s case, Fox-esque) mentality, and reawakening my greatly lapsed faith in television journalism.

CB – Console-ing Passions @ UCSB – The best conference I attended this year, in many respects. True, the incredible California climate and jaw-dropping beach views might have swayed me a bit, but this was an academically solid event through and through. Excellent feminist analyses of television texts and social contexts, and a well-managed theme of “women in production.” In these leaner times, conferences per se are looking more and more like extravagances. But if they can maintain this high standard, they’re well worth the expense.

CB – Heather Hendershot – The incoming editor of Cinema Journal inherited a very solid title from Jon Lewis, but has upped the ante with a swath of new departments and a more varied structure. These are changing times for SCMS and for academic organizations and publishing in general, and Heather’s meeting those challenges with verve and thoroughness. In 2008, I also loved geeking out with her over BSG, and am more and more convinced about her fifth Cylon theory.

George Carlin, 1937-2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

S – George Carlin (RIP) – He’s been vital for the last 35 years, but perhaps never more so than during the last eight. Thank you, George, for shouting the truth and never letting up.

S – 30 Rock – Yes, television comedy is in a pretty sad state at the moment (as is all of television, but that’s a larger story). Thankfully, we have Tina Fey. The more I watch, the more I realize how amazing this show is. I’ll still go with Arrested Development as the sitcom of the 2000s, but 30 Rock is a suitable heir to a “backstage” TV comedy tradition that goes back to The Dick Van Dyke Show, where completely implausible characters and situations thrive. Where else on TV are you going to get an updated take on Ted Baxter and Georgette (in the forms of Tracy Jordan and Kenneth)?

SPECIAL TEAMS

Catherine Tate as Donna Noble

Catherine Tate as Donna Noble

K – Catherine Tate – One of the truly fantastic things about Doctor Who has been its consistent ability to surprise us, and one-up itself. Many people (myself included) were dubious about the revival of Ms. Tate’s Donna Noble, this time as the regular companion. But, like a place kicker under enormous pressure, Tate nailed it every time, fleshing out the fairly one-dimensional character seen in “The Runaway Bride” with pathos, wit, intelligence, anger, and joy.

P – Grant Morrison – Faced with writing two universe-shaking DC Comics titles this year (Batman and Final Crisis), Morrison fearlessly aimed high, challenging readers, artists, and fellow DC writers to keep up. While the end results of these dark narratives have yet to be seen, they’ve provided a hell of a ride thus far.

Comic-Con and Media Spaces

I realize it’s a bit late after the fact to talk about Comic-Con 2008, but I’ve had some thoughts bouncing around for the last few weeks after my experience there (and have had many other things on my desk since then).

I’ve attended many media conventions (aka “cons”) for over twenty years, and while I’ve seen a fairly wide range of size and scope, I’ve never had a fundamentally dissimilar experience at any of them. In other words, they all function more or less identically. If you’ve never been to a con, imagine large groups of people milling around a hotel or civic convention space, attending panel sessions, screenings, and workshops in the small rooms, and hearing keynote addresses and buying merchandise in the big rooms. Indeed, with the exception of a relatively small number of people dressed in costume (as well as a lack of insecurity and posturing), it looks more or less like an academic conference or trade convention. People talk, people walk, people watch people, people drink, and people buy crap.

That said, Comic-Con exponentially ratchets up the scale of this experience.

Welcome to Comic-Con 2008

Welcome to Comic-Con 2008

The sheer size of the event is a cliché, but a warranted one. I’ve been to sold-out football games and concerts before, but this was easily the largest event I’ve ever attended, in terms of numbers of people simultaneously converging on a single place. The San Diego Convention Center, as Kristin Thompson pointed out, is itself so gargantuan that you can’t capture it in one image from street level. But every corner of that space was still full of people on both days I attended. Every concourse, meeting room, sidewalk, restroom, exhibit booth, breezeway, and ballroom: packed. Even floor space along walls and around support columns was scarce.

You really can’t overstate this, and I still find it immensely significant, though I’m also a bit ambivalent about it. It challenges the dubious claim that online culture has made physical contact obsolete. Well over a hundred thousand people–the vast majority of whom are otherwise fully tapped into online communities–had come to the SDCC, at considerable expense of money and time. If so many people are willing to come so far (or at least, for Southern Californians attending, at such cost) then physical proximity must still matter. But proximity to what, exactly? Is it just to be around their flavors of consumer culture?

I’m increasingly interested in how media companies–i.e., The Powers That Be, or TPTB, in fanspeak–navigate and negotiate in fan-dominated spaces. Thus, my main academic interest in attending Comic-Con was in scouting it out as an example of what John Caldwell refers to as “contact zones,” i.e., as spaces where the media industry contacts “civilians,” be they the press, investors, aspiring entrants, or fans. In this case, the “industry” included not only the major film studios, television networks, and cable channels, but also comics publishers, game publishers, and toy and collectible manufacturers. Though the weekend is certainly centered on the fan perspective (see below), all of the categories of “civilian” listed above were present at Comic-Con. Accordingly, as I realized over my two days there, proximity takes on multiple dimensions at the con. Fans are close to “stars” (whether actors, writers, artists, or directors) and new media products (i.e., upcoming films, TV shows, comics, games, etc.). Aspiring industry workers are close potential employers or network contacts. Media companies are close to the press, potential partners, potential employees, and (lastly) potential consumers.

The proximity of media company to press is the one that matters most to Hollywood. Like most events from the perspective of industry, it’s the media coverage that matters, not the actual experience. Accordingly, the infamously packed Hall H–the largest room in the SDCC, where the biggest film and TV projects are previewed–gets the brunt of media coverage. Indeed, aside from a couple of elevated VIP platforms in the main exhibit hall (set up for TV interviews) this was apparently where most of the press was camped out. The resulting mainstream coverage was skewed towards big projects, with a smattering of quotes from somewhat lesser-known-to-the-mainstream figures (like comics writer Geoff Johns, and America’s Favorite Geek™, Kevin Smith). From this perspective, the tens of thousands of fans at the SDCC functioned as publicity props, there to fill B-roll and offer enthusiastic testimonials.

That is, the audiovisual performance of “fandom” (however narrowly defined by Hollywood) in such venues is considerably more important to media corporations than anything real fans actually do. This gap between different expectations and perceptions is a critical juncture in contemporary popular culture as TPTB openly court fans, and is at the crux of my ongoing research.

Still, even though I never made it into Hall H (despite waiting for over an hour for the Watchmen preview), there was plenty going on everywhere you looked. Under the veneer of corporate promotion, this is still a fannish event. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t focus on the big things so much, because there’s little to be gained from being in attendance at those panels that can’t be gleaned from press coverage and umpteen blogs. There’s so much more to see and hear there if you’re not focused solely on Hollywood: Cape comics. Indie comics. Anime. Manga. Literature. Video games. Role-playing games. Costuming. Collecting. These media, practices, and people are still compelling and vital, and they are why Comic-Con–and every con–are still important spaces.

Waiting in line to duel

Waiting in line to duel

In the end, despite my initial bewilderment, I was impressed by how much Comic-Con restoked my inner geek (or not-so-inner, from my wife’s perspective). I was winding down my comics infatuation prior to Comic-Con, but found it wound back up again afterwards. I’m again interested in what’s going on on screens big and small, and how smaller companies are having a go of it. I’m enamored with particular genres (SF and superheroes for the most part), and excited to see how they continue to develop.

I also embrace the term “geek,” controversy and all, because my experience at Comic-Con has made me more comfortable with it. To be “geek” today is any many ways no different than at any other time in the past half-century: focused on minutiae and worlds well out of the mainstream, always seeking out cracks in supposed “reality.” As a parent, I endeavor to pass the geek on to my children (as so many people my age, gratifyingly, did in person at Comic-Con). What’s different, and much, much better today is that geekdom, broadly speaking, has no social boundaries. Attendees at Comic-Con came from every gender, ethnicity, age, ability, and orientation, making it a far more cosmopolitan space than almost any other you could encounter. The only demographic spike was age (probably averaging close to 30), but I’d argue that was more out of convenience and social mobility than anything else.

Geeking the next generation

Geeking the next generation

I feel more like a geek now than I did before I went. And that’s a good thing. I look forward to attending next year, and in exploring how media, fans, industries, and my own passions intersect in the meantime.