Running the asylum? Doctor Who’s ascended fan-showrunners

 Leora Hadas, University of Nottingham |

 

In the autobiographical “The Writer’s Tale”, former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies entitled the chapter chronicling his experiences with online fandom with a single word: “Bastards” (Davies & Cook 2008). This is particularly ironic considering that Davies himself was once an ardent member of Doctor Who fandom, a reader of the Doctor Who Magazine and author of a Virgin New Adventures novel, “Damaged Goods”. Indeed it was this life-long fannish devotion that had led him to pitch the new series at the BBC, hoping, as he put it, that “if I like it this much, I can make other people like it.” (Davies 2013) This track record however was of little help to him when he ascended to producer status: in fact some of fandom’s complaints on the new Who centered around it being too “fannish”, even “fanwanky” (Hadas & Shifman 2013).

Doctor Who fan and series writer and producer, Russell T Davies.

Doctor Who fan and series writer and producer, Russell T Davies. Image Credit: SciFiNow.co.uk

This curious phenomenon in which former fans of various media franchises become the new producers, directors, writers and showrunners leading those franchises, has recently become widespread in global media. We might call it a geeky echo of the 1960s New Hollywood, when a wave of film-school-educated directors who had studied the work of European masters entered into and made bloom the American independent film world. On Doctor Who, Davies was joined by other longtime fans in Steven Moffat, Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman and Marc Platt, not to mention fan actors David Tennant and now Peter Capaldi. Nowadays, we see self-described Trekkie Roberto Orci writing for the Star Trek reboot films, longtime Marvel fan and cult icon Joss Whedon directing The Avengers and acting as creative locus for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and most recently J. J. Abrams hired to direct the new trilogy for his childhood inspiration Star Wars. These are the creators who, growing up with the New Hollywood in the 1960 and 70s, were witness to the creation and glory days of high concept franchises that make ideal prospects for revival by a media industry pressed for content and eager for highly brandable film and television.

The involvement of fans in the official production of media franchises is not entirely a new thing: Doctor Who unofficially employed fan Ian Levine as a continuity consultant in the 1980s. Star Trek, too, had its figures such as Richard Arnold and Susan Sackett who had begun as fans but became involved in the production in various capacities. The notable difference lies in the term coined by fans on the TVTropes Wiki for the current trend: that is, “Running the Asylum” (Running the Asylum 2014). The new fan-producers do not merely provide support in “fannish” areas of expertise such as continuity and technical issues, but take creative leadership of the franchise. This situation brings up two primary questions, on which Doctor Who – as a quintessential case – can provide us with a number of interesting insights.

First, what is the effect of this fan ascension on the relationship between fans and the production? This question holds particular relevance to the media industries as digital technologies – chiefly the internet – have made it possible for fans to be visible and powerful as never before. The ability to communicate and band together online has the potential to turn fans into a powerful lobby of sorts for their media of choice opposite studios and networks, and into publicists for the audience at large. Cultivating a loyal audience has become a key goal for media franchises in the ongoing struggle against audience fragmentation and search for alternative revenue streams in the form of transmedia storyworlds, merchandising and other forms of brand extensions.

However, the title of Davies’ chapter is testimony to the fact that a fan producer hardly guarantees fan approval. Davies and current showrunner Steven Moffat have both more than once ran afoul of Doctor Who fandom in making comments that have been interpreted by that fandom as a betrayal of their fannish roots, a much worse crime than mere ignorance or disregard on part of non-fan producers. Both can stand as cautionary tales of the difficulty of managing fans. Davies’s infamous comment calling his fan critics “ming-mongs” (Setchfield 2008) generated enough outrage for Moffat to hastily reassert his own fannish identity as “a proper list-making-borderline-autistic fan”, “head mingmong” (Lesnick 2008). Moffat has called himself the original angry Doctor Who fan (Harrison A 2013), yet during his showrunning tenure, had closed down his Twitter account after repeated conflict with fans. To leverage fan identity then is nothing obvious, a useful lesson for other franchises making the attempt.

 

Showrunner

Writer and producer Steven Moffat at ComicCon 2013

Fan criticism of Doctor Who‘s fan-producers has been levelled on several accounts, yet most interesting of those is the above mentioned claim of “fannish” writing on the show. Davies has bore the brunt of this accusation, though Moffat was not spared. Davies’ inclusion of families for the Doctor’s companions, domestic scenes and romantic plots had fans complaining that the material was more suited to fan fiction, and that companion Rose Tyler was Davies’s self-insertion character. The fourth series finale “Journey’s End”, featuring the Tenth Doctor’s clone becoming romantically involved with Rose in a parallel dimension, was explicitly decried as “fanwank” – writing for pure fannish pleasure that would bore and put off the general audience, with the pleasured fan in this case being Davies himself. A common sentiment in fandom was that in writing as a fan, Davies was putting the show’s popularity and thus continued existence in danger.

This begs the second major question regarding the presence of former fans in the industry: namely, what is the effect on the franchises themselves. Are the fans right in recognizing the potential pitfalls of the fan-turned-producer and their warnings of the dangers of fanwank? Indeed, Matt Hills had pointed out the anti-fan discourse of the new Who production: Davies and his crew, having lived through the show’s cult years, were adamant in their denial of any active catering to the fans, seeing their mission as the reclamation of the show for mainstream popularity (Hills 2010).  Nonetheless Hills also notes that nods to the old series did find their way into the new show, to no detriment in its popularity. What fans may have missed, leaving perhaps to the consideration of academics, are the potential advantages for a producer with fandom experience in cultivating fandom and creating a show that can be engaged with in “cultlike ways”. Steven Moffat’s two series as showrunner so far have incorporated many elements that may be called “fanwanky”, including highly complex storylines relying on time travel, mysteries that viewers are invited to become involved with and attempt to solve, and extensive use of continuity, references and self-reflective meta. There can really be no fanwankier a moment than in the sixth series finale “The Day of the Doctor”, when the Tenth Doctor comments to the Eleventh: “You’ve redecorated… I don’t like it”, directly quoting the Second Doctor’s complaint to the Third in the first multi-Doctor episode “The Three Doctors”. This did not however get in the way of the episode winning the Radio Times’ Audience Award at the 2014 BAFTAs.

The lines have clearly shifted between the overly fannish, the permissible and the openly celebratory. If in the 1980s, Levine’s involvement with the BBC was subject to controversy – fan lore often blames the descent of Doctor Who into cult status on the show’s increasing reliance on its own continuity and fan base – today, industry and individual media professionals are able to use fan identity as a promotional tactic. A creator working on a passion project will always be seen in a more positive light than an appointee brought in by network executives – or worse, media conglomerate overlords – to work on a story to which they have no personal connection. In turn, “passion project” are powerful buzzwords by which to sell any media product to an audience significantly larger than the loyal fandom. Though Davies and Moffat were both well-known figures in British television prior to their work on the show, it was their passion as fans that had enjoyed much of the focus in their appointment as showrunners. With its cultural prominence, long and rich fandom history and complex relationship with the cult label and with its fandom, Doctor Who stands as an excellent starting point for exploration, both historical and contemporary, of the dynamics between media professionals and media fans. As both media fandom and showrunners, the Davies and Moffat model continue to garner industry, popular and academic attention, the interaction of the two becomes a rich and interesting subject for continued study – one that Doctor Who fans turned scholars are in a unique position to tackle.

 

References:

Davies, Russell T 2013, ‘How I’ve grown up with Doctor Who over the last fantastic half century’, The Mirror, 17 November. Available from: http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/russell-davies-doctor-who-50th-2801364#ixzz32T0I4BpI

Davies, Russell T & Cook, B 2008, Doctor Who: The writer’s tale, Random House, London.

Hadas, L & Shifman, L 2013, ‘Keeping the elite powerless: Fan-producer relations in the ‘Nu Who’ (and new YOU) era’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 16, pp. 329-343.

Harrison, A 2013 ‘Steven Moffat: “I was the original angry Doctor Who fan”’, The Guardian, 18 November. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2013/nov/18/steven-moffat-doctor-who-interview

Hills M 2010 Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the twenty-first century, I. B. Tauris, London.

Lesnick S 2008, ‘SDCC excl. interview: Steven Moffat on Doctor Who‘, Comingsoon.net, 24 July. Available from:  http://www.comingsoon.net/news/tvnews.php?id=47147

Setchfield, N 2008, ‘“We have a twenty-year plan….”’, SFX 12 March.

‘TVTropes’ Running the Asylum [wiki article], April 21, 2014. Available from: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RunningTheAsylum

 

Bio:

Leora Hadas is a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, working on promotional authorship in the United States media industries, and an organizing committee member on the Industrial Approaches to Media project.

One thought on “Running the asylum? Doctor Who’s ascended fan-showrunners

  1. Interesting point about some of the writing feeling like fan-fiction. I guess there’s a distinction between fun, referential, cult-cultivating details and wish-fulfillment rubbish like Rose getting to keep a blow up 10? What do you think of the way the fan-showrunners are clearly bowing to pressure form the ‘bastards’/’ming-mongs’? Because some of the comments Moffat made about casting a woman as the doctor seemed to imply he went off the idea because ‘fandom’ couldn’t get on board with the idea.

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