The Third Age of Fan


Only once in my life have I been kept awake by a hippopotamus.

The occasion was the 20th anniversary of Doctor Who in 1983. The incumbent producer of the programme had persuaded the BBC to mark the occasion with a large exhibition-cum-conference, attended by several thousand fans and all the surviving lead-actors, even semi-recluses like Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton. Although the event was over-booked, over-attended and over-crowded, it had a party, family atmosphere. Everyone applauded loudly when Heather Hartnell mentioned that Doctor Who was Bill's second favourite role, after an appearance in an Ealing-ish comedy as a civil servant who had swallowed a bomb. Peter Davison teased the actress who played his companion, Nyssa, about the skimpier and skimpier costumes she was required to wear in the programme. ('Apparently, some male fans wish you had stayed on for just one more story.') Anthony Ainley and Valentine Dyall traded evil chuckles.

The event was held in the grounds of Longleat castle, which was the site of a permanent exhibition of Doctor Who costumes and props. And a safari park. While the bulk of the attendees were families with children coming only for a single day, the hard-core fans stayed for the weekend and were given a patch of grass to pitch their tents in. Hence the hippopotamus.

Queuing to get into the exhibition site on the Sunday, I found myself in the company of a group of 25-28 year olds. This age can be gauged accurately from the fact that they were enthusiasts of Patrick Troughton, the second actor to play the Doctor: it follows that they had been 12 years old between 1966 and 1969. Now, part of the fun of a sprawling, out of control edifice like Doctor Who was that it had been made in lots of different styles and with lots of different casts, and fans could disagree vehemently among themselves about which period had been the best. I was 20, and naturally preferred the fellow with the scarf. However, these people were more extreme and partisan than most in their views. They spoke, with bleary eyed enthusiasm, of making for the merchandise tent when the gates opened, in order to pick up memorabilia which they would 'treasure for their rest of their lives.' They attacked the sorry state that the programme was then in, not only with the usual media jokes about cows bottoms (Peter Davison was better known for having played a country vet) but with homophobic innuendo about the producer, the endearingly camp John Nathan-Turner. They cast scorn on the absurdity of Tom Baker, wittily dubbed his predecessor 'Jon Per TWEE' and said that William Hartnell often farted on camera. And then they began to attack their idol, Patrick Troughton. Although Troughton himself had been a wonderful, talented actor (they gushed at nuances of his acting and his wit) his supporting cast had been awful and unable to act; on many occasions, monsters could be seen stumbling into unstable sets, the space ships and vehicles were laughable, and the scripts were corny and full of holes.

It will be remembered that sometime in the 70s the BBC's archivists had destroyed a large amount of black-and-white Doctor Who material. So very little of Mr Troughton's tenure on the programme survives: you would have thought, therefore, that none of us in the safari park could possibly have seen it for 14 years.

However, their was and is a legendary fan community which claimed to have gained access to many of these lost or unavailable programmes. Hence, these fans were engaging in an extremely clever piece of one-up-manship. Their attitude to stories shown in the 60s proved that they were part of this secret, mythical fan-freemasonry. The rest of us would have fed our Grandmothers to the hippopotamus to see 'The Tomb of the Cybermen'; but for them, it was nothing special. They had seen it so many times that they could laugh about the villain being a ham, the planet being a quarry, the accents being faked and the strings on the explorer's space ship being clearly visible.

I learned two valuable lessons that weekend. One, never pitch your tent near the hippopotamus enclosure. And two, a fan who likes the thing which he is a fan of is rather childish, rather naive, rather unenlightened. The true Doctor Who fan despises Doctor Who; the true Trekkie has nothing but contempt for Star Trek.

Once upon a time, a 'fan' was a quasi-religious worshipper of an icon with a silly haircut. I can remember news items about a girl-fan who had died for the love of David Cassidy, but who the hell remembers David Cassidy? A couple of years before the Whofest, there was a news item about a little American boy who had actually committed suicide because (whatever 'because' means in these situations) his favourite TV show, Battlestar Gallactica had been cancelled. This is very sad, because it means he will miss the forthcoming big-screen remake. But it still implies a pretty uncomplicated, unconditional, uncritical love of the series.

However, 'fan', particularly when applied to 'cult' (i.e. bad) television now has a wholly different connotation. New words, such as 'nerd' and 'anorak' have been coined to describe them. They are a wholly new type of entity: not mere fans, but fan-boys.

It would not be fair to say that the fan-boy does not like the thing which he is a fan-boy of. It would be more accurate to say that liking and disliking is irrelevant to his activity. Fan-boyhood grows out of nostalgia and therefore fixes its gaze on something ephemeral, commonplace and of low artistic value. It then attempts to catalogue it, study it, collect it—or in extreme cases re-enact it, thus investing it with significance and mummifying the memory.

Now, before we start waxing superior to the nerds, let's be clear that all they are doing is taking a perfectly normal type of pub conversation and turning it into a hobby. We have all sat around with friends and said things like: 'Good grief, do you mean to say that you remember Crackerjack as well?' Brian Aldiss once said that soldiers on the front line in a foreign country become obsessed with English bus tickets and jam labels.

Any sort of fact gathering — particularly if the facts are mildly difficult to get your hands on — can become a vaguely interesting way to pass the time. Bus tickets, newspapers, football programmes, train numbers, pub signs — all can become an object of study in their own right. On the scale of human futility, this seems a fairly innocent vice. When Doctor Who fandom got started, the only way you could possibly find out the name of the assistant in the mini-skirt in about 1968 was by swapping memories with other fans. When someone tells you ('It was Zoe...I seem to remember them finding her on a space station...' 'Hell, I remember that episode...we had kippers for tea') the smell of those long ago Saturdays comes flowing back.

But then, of course came the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some fool invented the video recorder, and we all got to watch the old episodes again....

The programme on which all my childhood nostalgia is fixed on is not Doctor Who but the Tomorrow People. There's been a recent eco-friendly revamp of the series, about which the less said the better. In its original form, it was the ultimate primary school day dream. Any child under 16 is potentially a mutant. Without warning, your Telepathic Powers may manifest. Once this happens, the other Tomorrow People will contact you, and take you to their secret base. There, you will spend your time defending the earth from evil aliens. I don't know about protecting the earth from aliens, but telepathy and instantaneous travel always felt as if it would have been useful during maths tests and cross-country runs. So from agres 7 to 12 or so, I practically lived the series.

To my knowledge, there are no Official Guides to the Tomorrow People or Tomorrow People fan movements: very few people even watched it, because it was on against Blue Peter. So I have vague, confused, very rose-tinted (and black-and-white) memories of it. The one with the shape changing robot. The one about the alien schoolboy. The Scottish one.

Last year, the first episodes were released on video. I was wild with joy about being able to re-visit this old dreamscape. I put the tape in the machine. The opening sequence was suddenly familiar. So was the theme tune. If I had had a petite madeleine to hand, I would have dipped it in my tea.

What I did not remember, of course, were the haircuts. Or the shoes, the clothes, the flared trousers. The fact that everything, including hyperspace, is in friendly, psychedelic colours. And the really stunning quality of the dialogue, acting and plot.

I haven't felt the need to buy any more tapes.

Were I fan-boy, this discovery would not have made any difference. I would have kept faith with my 12 year old self by becoming a world-leader of Tomorrow People fandom. I would have become the consummate fanboy: an expert on the programme, able to list every single thing which was crap about it....

So: we started out as fans, people who like a TV show and took this liking slightly to excess; and we developed into fanboys, people who ritually hoard and catalogue such objects as a substitute for liking them.

But just recently, something stranger has started to happen. People are writing things with the fanboys in mind.

Consider the X-Files, which has episodes and whole seasons totally impenetrable to anyone who has not watched it from the beginning. Consider Babylon 5 with acting and scripting that makes the Tomorrow People look sophisticated, but with a single narrative planned to emerge over 5 years. (That's 92.5 hours of people saying 'I love you son/I love you too Dad.') Consider the comic book Sandman, a joycean web of internal reference, with the addition of a cute goth-chick for people to dress up as. Who watches this stuff? Fanboys, that's who.

The fanboy is a very lucrative market. He might have been genetically engineered by a marketing department. He is Brand Loyalty made flesh. Once you have captured him, he will read and buy everything you write; he will also buy any tea cosies or knitting patterns which you chose to endorse.

Obviously, material being written specially for the post-fan boy cannot have the same nostalgic punch as material which has acquired fan status simply by being old. It makes up for it by labyrinthine complexity on multiple-plot threads. Speculations about which character will get off with who, and scholarly discussion about what really happened in the off stage hobbit/hawkman war fills up endless hours in the pub. The post-fan aspires to the condition where the person has read the episode guides, memorised the synopsis, and learned the character stats for the role-playing game is at no disadvantage to the person who actually watched the programme. Content is all, execution and artistic merit is nothing. Babylon 5 is the consummation of this approach.

And, it a very sad fact that my beloved Doctor Who became perhaps the first of these post-fan texts. What none of us in the queue had realised in 1983 was that the programme was being produced by a fanboy. We were pleased when fondly remembered characters from 10 years previously started to re-appear. We revelled in references to the programme's past: you probably wouldn't regard the address 76 Totters Lane as particularly significant, which shows how much you know. We were pleased when speeches and sometimes whole stories were written to explain contradictions and inconsistencies which had cropped up over the previous 20 years.

In 1989, the BBC celebrated the 26th anniversary of Doctor Who by canceling the series. It never restarted. Mysteriously, no-one was watching it anymore.