Why do we watch Doctor Who?: A fan scholar’s perspective

Cross-posted at Doctor Her.

This line from ellecleg’s last post on Doctor Her really got my attention:

But let’s be honest, the series is called Dr Who. We tune in every week to watch the man who flies the blue box.

It got my attention because I really wonder if many fans watch Doctor Who for the Doctor. It seems unlikely, given how irreverent most fans are towards source material (the TV, films, or books they are fans of). Fans are all about re-interpretation, re-invention, and analysis based on their own experiences. That stuff doesn’t start with their fan and slash fic, with their cosplay, with their fan vids. It starts with their actual experience of watching the show. And ellecleg’s point was that most of us understand we’re watching a show about a White dude with a British accent, and so to complain that the female characters aren’t up to snuff is silly, since we all tune in knowing they’re secondary anyway. But I would hypothesize I great deal of female viewers don’t tune in to watch the Doctor at all.

Yes, the female characters are secondary. But that’s a production decision. And fans don’t generally let production decisions get in the way when there is still something to scavenge from the show. This is the beautiful thing about fans: they don’t let creators tell them how they get to experience the show. I mean, the creators often do tell us how to experience the show (*cough, cough,* George Lucas), but fans don’t comply. And I would say that fans don’t just ignore the voices from on high that directly tell them “You can’t read it that way,” but they also ignore plot details, the structure of casts, and other elements in shows that tell them how to read it indirectly. So even though the companions are definitionally sidekicks to the Doctor, plenty of women will still read those companions as the heroes. They’ll still read the Doctor as a genderqueer character they can relate to. And they can do all that while complaining that Doctor Who needs a lady protagonist every once in a damn while.

In John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture, he describes a study done on female Charlie’s Angels fans. I don’t know if you remember that show, but the endings of the episodes were awful. Fiske claims,

The narrative closure of each episode is strongly patriarchal, as is the pleasure offered by the visual style of the program, and a textual or ideological analysis would conclude that patriarchy is recuperating signs of feminine liberation. Yet many women have reported reading Charlie’s Angels selectively, paying attention to the strong women detectives and almost ignoring the signs of the patriarchal closure. Some said that they would typically leave the TV set before the end of the episode and thus avoid altogether one of the main moments of patriarchal narrative power. (143)

That last bit made me laugh out loud when I first read it. The women who saw Charlie’s Angels as a pro-woman, feminist show, just walked away during the part of the show that put the ladies back in their place. As Fiske argues, we can’t make any assumptions about fans based on an assumption that readers sit still and read/view the way the creators want them to, because “popular reading is often selective and spasmodic” (143).

I don’t have to walk away from actually watching it, but I can tell you that when I rewatch River Song episodes, I conveniently pretend that her entire existence was not predicated on the Doctor. I pretend she’s just a woman who happened along the Doctor and became her badass self because she’s badass, not because she wanted “to find a good man.” (For serious, Moffat?) Because I loved River Song before “Let’s Kill Hitler,” and I’ll be damned if Moffat is going to ruin her for me.

Cartoon Jenny and River dance together.

Cartoon Jenny and River do a dance. From Comic Who, by Marco Castiello & Elisa Moriconi. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Some fans may not excise parts, but add parts. An immigrant or refugee might read the Doctor as similar to them–an alien who doesn’t quite fit in, whose home is far away or lost. An LGBT person might read the Doctor as queer, a character who shares their experiences. An asexual person might read the Doctor as asexual, focusing on the Doctor in particular seasons. And all of them may have these “selective and spasmodic” readings and experiences of the show without giving up the right to critique the show for not having enough people of color, queer people, or asexual people, or for portraying those people’s experiences poorly. I can love my version of River Song without giving up the right to tell Doctor Who that it needs to feature more independent, badass, older women who aren’t literally revolving around the Doctor.

Even if you look at Doctor Her, we seem to talk about the Doctor not at all, and the companions a whole lot. Even ellecleg’s post is a love song to the female companions. (I think we can never have too many love songs to the companions on Doctor Who.)

So why do we watch Doctor Who? I imagine the answers are as varied as the viewers are. And the man in the blue box may be so much less important than the creators think he is.

(Update: For those of you coming here from Tumblr, the comments on the Doctor Her post are still open. Feel free to discuss there!)

5 thoughts on “Why do we watch Doctor Who?: A fan scholar’s perspective

  1. J. Keep

    Wonderful post.

    Reading it, I realize I do it with most all the fictional media I consume too.

    When I reflect back on Battlestar Galactica or Lost, for instance, I tend to ignore the ultimate god-explanation. After all, (to me) it was so much more enthralling and fascinating when I thought it would all have some logical (if farfetched) explanation. Just wiping away the seasons of plot and drama with “God did it” kind of removed the mystery and fascination.

    A lot of geek culture tends to shortchange romanticism too, from my point of view, and I live for it. So in my own mind I often find myself ignoring the little indications of celibacy or disinterest, and focus on the subtle notes that indicate towards a deeper, romantic bond between characters.

    Great read.

  2. Gabrielle

    This post describes thoughts that have been (trying to) form in my head, with respect to another fandom. I’ve recently started watching the new version of My Little Pony, Friendship is Magic, and while I really enjoy the show and its messages (apart from notable exceptions) I’ve not been able to get into the fan community at all. As the show is aimed at young girls, but has developed a cult following amongst adults (and primarily males), such men have worked very hard to create a space that reaffirms their masculinity and heterosexuality as MLP fans (because heaven forbid a space be for women or gay people). A side effect of this, in my experience, is the defining of liking MLP as a masculine activity, and strong resistance to seeing any of the characters in any extended light such as in lesbian relationships (characterised by IF IT’S NOT CANON IT DOESN’T MATTER and the like). I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I don’t feel I can be a fan in that setting, because the fans actively fight against re-imaginations that could account for marginalised viewpoints. And such viewpoints are important for people who don’t get relevant stories told for them.

  3. Mel

    The only time I watched Doctor Who for the Doctor was for Nine. Ever since then, it was solidly for the Companions, and when I couldn’t get into Amy, I stopped watching the show entirely.

    Pretty much every woman I know watches primarily for the Companions; a good number of them don’t even really like the Doctor much.

  4. Liz W

    From online communities, I have the impression that a lot of women fans watch New Who for the interactions between the characters rather than for any one character, and I agree with you that in many cases they do focus more on the female Companions than on the Doctor himself.

    I’ve also been told by a good number of male fans from the Old Who era that they don’t watch for the Doctor either, but for the stories; they view the Doctor as simply a narrative device to get them into the middle of the story. They have mostly been less interested in the character interactions, and have often found the direction of New Who somewhat unsatisfying as a result. I’m not sure how much of the difference is down to gender (and the social construction thereof) and how much to changes in the show between the old and new eras; my samples are skewed by knowing Old Who fans mostly from a pubmeet (majority male) and New Who fans mostly from Livejournal fic communities (majority female, I think). But certainly, I think there are large numbers of fans of both eras for whom the Doctor as a character is not the primary draw.

    Personally, I do watch primarily for the Doctor, but that’s because I have a fascination for morally ambiguous characters, not because I think the Doctor as portrayed is a particularly wonderful person. I also think the Doctor’s moral ambiguity is often shown most clearly when he’s acting against strong Companions, and besides, I’m in the camp that thinks the Doctor doesn’t necessarily have to be male in every regeneration; so I don’t see the Doctor’s centrality as necessarily determining the gender balance of the show as a whole. It is the way it is because of the choices of successive writers and showrunners, not because the format requires it.

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