Conference Report on Doctor Who: Walking in Eternity – An International Interdisciplinary Conference Celebrating 50 Years in Time and Space

Posted by Dr Ross Garner

University of Hertfordshire, 3-5 September 2013

Conference Report on Doctor Who: Walking in EternityLast week I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the University of Hertfordshire’s conference that centred on critically examining and celebrating fifty years of the BBC’s long-running science fiction series Doctor Who (1963-89, 1996, 2005- ).

The conference was organised by one of the founding members of the excellent tele-centric journal Critical Studies in Television, Kim Akass, and provided an opportunity for a range of scholars and fan-scholars to come together to explore, critique and debate multiple aspects of the programme’s past and present. The scope of the papers included addressing various fan practices (from established forms such as fan fiction to female knitting groups), text-based re-examinations of ‘classic’ stories that have been frequently maligned by fans (such as the interesting paper by Victoria Byard (University of Leicester) which examined the gendering of language, space and knowledge in 1977’s ‘The Invisible Enemy’) and a keynote speech that critically engaged with the timely concept of television anniversaries (this was by Professor Matt Hills from the University of Aberystwyth). In short, the conference presented a diverse range of perspectives and topics that the Doctor himself would have been proud of.

A full overview is therefore impossible due to the myriad theoretical approaches, methodologies and examples that were employed across the three days. Consequently, I’ll just comment on a couple of themes that emerged from what was a hugely enjoyable and good-natured event. Hell, it even featured an appearance from special effects wizard Mat Irvine and K-9 before the conference dinner!

The first notable set of debates that emerged across the conference concerned examining Doctor Who from the position of Gender Studies. Lorna Jowett (University of Northampton) delivered an impassioned key note speech at the start of the third day which soundly critiqued ‘new Who’ (e.g. the series since its 2005 return) on these terms. Jowett demonstrated with aplomb how, although the show works through contemporary constructions of masculinity, its female companion characters are always defined as ‘waiting’ for the Doctor and so are ancillary to the programme’s titular lead.  

Moreover, Jowett highlighted how, in what is the 50th anniversary year, the show’s production remains highly gendered due to the absence of women as writers and/or directors. Although this position could be critiqued for overlooking the role that female professionals such as Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner had in bringing the series back, or Caro Skinner’s role as Executive Producer between 2011 and 2013, it highlighted the inequalities that continue to circulate around the programme both on- and off-screen. Such issues are arguably highly pertinent to Doctor Who given that two women (Verity Lambert and Delia Derbyshire) played important roles in the series’ genesis back in 1963. Hopefully, Jowett’s paper will act as a marker for future work exploring Doctor Who in terms of gender. Surely there’s scope now for an edited collection on the subject as part of publisher IB Tauris’ ‘Who Watching’ range?

The concept of gender and Who  had also emerged earlier in the conference as the aforementioned Derbyshire’s importance to both Doctor Who and the development of electronic ‘music’ in the UK more generally was demonstrated via David Butler (University of Manchester) treating delegates to multiple entries from the  recently-acquired Delia Derbyshire Archive. For those unfamiliar with the name, Derbyshire worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop between 1960 and 1973 and was responsible for the electronic arrangement of the Doctor Who theme (alongside many other cues used by television and radio).

Butler played an astonishing forty-minute audio-visual instillation that showcased how indebted our contemporary understanding of the potentials and possibilities for composition via electronic instrumentation are to the work of people like Derbyshire. As much as I adopt a cautious attitude towards making such assertions due to the collaborative nature of TV production, Derbyshire nevertheless deserves to be recognised as a true pioneer within British television. This status is of special importance because, for the most part, discussion of the ‘key figures’ influencing British television have been heavily masculinised via recourse to such people as Ken Loach, Tony Garnett and Dennis Potter. Noting Derbyshire’s contributions to television’s soundscapes (and beyond) may make a start in redressing this imbalance.

The second theme that emerged from the conference was an indifference towards examining Doctor Who within its national context as a series produced by an institution guided by the principles of public service (however loosely these might occur nowadays). This was not always the case: the opening keynote from James Chapman (University of Leicester) highlighted the insights that locating Doctor Who within its production circumstances, as well as wider social and cultural trends, can produce.

At the same time, my own paper, which examined post-2005 Doctor Who’s simultaneous appeals to industrially-imagined ‘quality’ and ‘popular’ viewer profiles as a result of the show’s requirement to satisfy public service responsibilities arising from its status as a primetime BBC One series, foregrounded these discourses. However, some of the (otherwise excellent) papers could have acknowledged the BBC’s public service remit to round out their arguments. For example, David Simmons (University of Northampton) presented a fascinating paper concerning production and reception attitudes towards the short-lived Adventure Games series. Highlighting the negativity directed towards these games by self-identified ‘Hardcore Gamers’, Simmons demonstrated that these paratexts were evaluated in terms of both fidelity and their (lack of) ability to offer innovative and highly playful gaming mechanics. Although this may be true for this particular audience subculture, it would have been good to have seen greater consideration displayed towards the BBC’s responsibilities towards improving computer literacy during The Adventure Games’ time period and how these were partly constrained by the need to be accessible to a range of age groups including young children and the elderly.

Similarly, Derek Kompare (Southern Methodist University) presented another excellent paper examining the ‘Classic’ DVD range and how these construct histories of Doctor Who in terms of the expectations of their target audience of (mostly white, middle-class, middle-aged) fans. However, despite the irreverent way in which some of these titles construct versions of television history, I would still argue that residual elements of the BBC’s public service responsibilities can be identified here in that, although they may be informed by the imagined preferences of fans, ‘classic’ Who DVDs still provide their audience with some educational knowledge concerning the production context. These are minor gripes and such absences probably arise from the desire of the presenters to acknowledge different aspects of production and/or reception such as ‘classic’ Who’s circulation at a global level or within particular interpretive communities.

However, I’d still argue that we need to remember that, irrespective of the incarnation under the microscope, Doctor Who remains the product of a publically-funded institution that still evaluates the success of the series at the national level.

In summary, ‘Walking in Eternity’ demonstrated multiple reasons why academics (and others) remain interested in Doctor Who as its golden anniversary approaches. Let’s hope that future scholars will still be looking engaging with the series in fifty years time but that we won’t have to wait that long for another conference like this one.