Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten:” Fandom, Nostalgia and the Doctor Who Experience

Bethan Jones

 

2017 has been the year of finales for Doctor Who. Peter Capaldi will be bowing out as the twelfth Doctor in the Christmas special; Steven Moffatt steps down as showrunner at the same time; and the Doctor Who Experience (hereafter DWE) in Cardiff closed its doors.

The Doctor Who Experience

A purpose-built facility which housed a number of props, costumes and displays from both classic and new Who, the DWE opened in June 2012. It consisted of four separate areas: the reception and café, which featured Doctor Who related murals and items from the show; the walk-through, in which visitors ‘helped’ the Doctor escape from a second Pandorica by virtue of various interactive elements; the exhibition space which housed the various props and costumes from the series; and the gift shop, which sold both readily available and exclusive merchandise. The DWE was marketed as “the BBC’s thrilling family attraction in Cardiff”[i] and indeed, both times I visited there were many more family groups in attendance than single people or couples. The BBC are aware of Doctor Who’s generational appeal (Booth and Kelly, 2013) and deliberately target the Experience to fan-families as well as the individual fan. This generational appeal, the affective relationship the fan has with the fan-object, and the “specific liminality” (Booth 2015, p.108) of the DWE thus combine to create a powerful nostalgic space in which fans engage with their object of fandom and their own life-course as fans, as well a space in which new memories are made.

 

Some scholars have been critical of the DWE’s commodification of fandom and the disciplining of certain groups of fans. In detailing his journey through the DWE, Paul Booth notes the 2013 addition of a replica of the First Doctor’s TARDIS console which “further reinforce[d] this new and classic Who nostalgia/novelty” and “managed to at once capture both the nostalgia and novelty of the Experience” (2015, pp.114-115). The DWE, he argues, reveals the historical presence of the show “only through nostalgic continuity with the present” (2015, p.115). The DWE thus “allowed the proper fans (consumers, passive, contemporary) to thrive while giving cult fans (producers, active, historical) little acknowledgment (2015, p.116). Melissa Beattie further argues that a particular, selective image of Cardiff, “reinforced by associations with Doctor Who […] is presented and reproduced at the expense of elements of the city’s heritage that have been deemed unhelpful, like its multicultural, impoverished past, or overly complex, like multiple iterations of Welsh identity” (2013, p.198). Teresa Forde, however, notes how a themed object can represent “something temporally specific: time spent with someone at the Doctor Who Experience; the memory of watching a favourite episode or Doctor; pleasure in (shared) readings or interpretations” (2013, pp.66-67). While I acknowledge the critiques that Booth and Beattie outline, I nevertheless argue that the DWE cannot fully control the fan’s affective experience of the site, or indeed the memories they have or make. Instead of being passive consumers of the DWE, fans are engaged in a multi-faceted affective process: responding to the videos, exhibits, props and displays; relating these (internally or vocally) to aspects of their own lives and fandoms; and creating new memories which inextricably link the experience of the DWE to their past and future fannish life course.

The closing of the DWE allows us, therefore, to examine the role that sites of fan-tourism have on fans’ memory-making processes and the ways in which these processes are affected when these sites close. Rebecca Williams notes that “The ending of a beloved fan object […] can be a difficult and traumatic experience for fans [and] can often lead to potential threats to fans’ self-identity, self-narrative, and their sense of ‘ontological security’” (2016, p.144). Williams talks specifically about television series, but fan responses to the closure of the DWE also evidenced the upset some fans experienced. The DWE Facebook page was one such medium through which fans talked about the loss, initially in comments to unrelated posts and finally in comments to posts about the last days of the venue. One of the earliest comments left about the closure of the DWE was on a November 2016 photograph of a new handprints exhibition. The fan in question wrote:

Please BBC, don’t close the Doctor Who Experience. It will be a huge loss for whovians and for Cardiff
We went especially to Cardiff from France with a friend to visit the Doctor Who Experience, and we discovered a very nice city. Now I want to go back there to visit the city itself…
Please, save Cardiff and the Doctor Who Experience.

Is it the end?

Although the closing date had not been made public (or even agreed by Cardiff Council and the BBC), the poster used the DWE Facebook page to undertake a form of direct activism. The post itself highlights the fan knowledge of the impact of Doctor Who fan tourism on Cardiff itself as well as the loss of the DWE to fandom as  whole. Yet the fan’s own individual fandom is referred to. They visited Cardiff because they were Doctor Who fans, yet while there experienced the city as an entity in its own right.

The DWE is thus inextricably linked to the poster’s non-fannish memory-making as well as their fandom. Implicit in the post is the suggestion that returning to the city after the closure of the DWE would negatively affect the future memories the fan may make. The first post made by the DWE to reference the closure of the site was on 7 April 2017, resulting in 308 shares, 382 comments and over 1,300 reactions (including 402 sad faces and 5 angry faces). Among the comments left by fans, several referred to wanting to visit the attraction with family members:

So gutted it’s closing I was hoping to take my granddaughter when she is old enough as I have been a fan all my life 🙁🙁😭

This was one of the best experiences of my life and I really wanted to bring my daughter when she was old enough to appreciate it.

Others talked about having tickets to the DWE bought as birthday presents by parents or partners, or visiting the DWE each year with friends. From these comments alone the DWE features as an important part of people’s lives, functioning as a means by which younger family members can be introduced to the fandom or as an experience shared by groups of friends united by their fandom. Christina Lee, in her analysis of Harry Potter fan-tourism, noted that “in several cases the tour was a family affair” (2012, p.56) and Heather Urbanski (forthcoming) likewise explores her experience of Disney and Star Wars tourism as,

 

a deeply personal, affective one, as many of my experiences involved attending events with family. Family and aca-fandom have combined for years through such experiences as the (now discontinued) Star Wars Weekends from 1999 through 2015, the Last Tour to Endor party in 2010, and the RunDisney Inaugural Dark Side Challenge Race Weekend in 2016—all hosted at Walt Disney World in Orlando. My first costume for WorldCon was a Jedi robe, my niece and nephew wore custom costumes (designed and created by my mother) for the Last Tour to Endor, and I have traveled hundreds of miles the past two years just to see the new Star Wars film on opening night with my sister and her children.

The DWE, then, as well as a commodified, mediated space bound by the official discourse of BBC Wales, was nevertheless a place of importance for fans and families.

This theme continued to be expressed in replies to DWE posts. As the date of closure drew closer, so too did the number of fans expressing sorrow that they wouldn’t be able to visit with their children, and the number of fans thanking the DWE for enabling them to share their fandom with their families. Key to many of these comments was memory – families and friends used the DWE to create memories and these memories would be treasured long after the closure of the attraction. Similarly, tickets for the last few days of the DWE also sold out quickly highlighting not just the importance of the site to fans, but the desire to ‘be there’ at its close and become part of the DWE’s legacy in addition to the closing day forming part of the fandom experience. Indeed, some fans used the closing day to make their own future memories, with Wales Online reporting that one fan proposed to his girlfriend inside the TARDIS at the DWE:

The 26-year-old was instigated into the crazy fandom of Doctor Who by Annabel, who grew up watching the television show with her family.

“I am over the moon!” The 24-year-old said, “I am still really surprised. What has made it so emotional is the fact that the exhibition is closing today.

“This is definitely the top place that he could have proposed to me. He has done a good job.” (Squires 2017, np).

The relationship between marriage proposals and fan tourism has not yet been theorised (this may be due to the fact that the number of proposals at site of fan tourism is statistically small, although I would suggest that affective relations to the fan-object as well as memory-making processes are at work). However, the convergence of proposal, fan-tourism and threat to fannish ontological security at the DWE’s final day contribute to the memory-making process and link the DWE not only to these two fans’ future life course, but create a story about the DWE. As well as exhibiting the material props from Doctor Who it brought fans together across time and space, and becomes a key element in fans’ identities and memories.

 

Bio: Bethan Jones is a PhD candidate in the University of Huddersfield. Her thesis examines cult television, nostalgia and fandom with a focus on The X-Files and Twin Peaks revivals. Bethan has written on a range of topics relating to gender, fandom and digital media and has been published in the journals Sexualities, Participations and Transformative Works and Cultures, among others. She has co-edited journal issues on transmedia board games, Fifty Shades of Grey and crowdfunding, and her co-edited book on crowdfunding was published with Peter Lang in 2015.

 

Bibliography

Beattie, M. (2013) ‘The ‘Doctor Who Experience’ (2012- ) and the Commodification of Cardiff Bay’, pp. 177–91 in M. Hills (ed.) New Dimensions of Doctor Who: Adventures in Space, Time and Television. London: I.B. Tauris.

Booth, P. (2015) Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.

Lee, C. (2012) ‘Have magic, will travel’: tourism and Harry Potter’s United (Magical) Kingdom. Tourist Studies, 12(1): 52-69.

Squires, C. (2017) ‘There was a wedding proposal on the final opening day of the Doctor Who Experience’ Wales Online. 9 September. Available at http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/whats-on-news/wedding-proposal-final-opening-day-13596256. Accessed 1 October 2017.

Urbanski, H. (forthcoming) ‘The Kiss Goodnight from a Galaxy Far, Far Away: Experiencing Star Wars as a Fan-Scholar on Disney Property’, in S. Guynes and D. Hassler-Forest (eds.) Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Williams, R. (2016) ‘In Focus: Ontological security, Authorship and Resurrection: Exploring Twin Peaks’ Social Media Afterlifeʼ. Cinema Journal 55(3): 143-47.

 

[i] http://www.doctorwho.tv/events/doctor-who-experience/ accessed 8 August 2017. The Experience website has since been amended to reflect the site’s closure.

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