The diehards of doom! Why Doctor Who is the show fans love to hate

For 56 years and counting, Whovians have been railing against the wheres, whys and, well, everything about their beloved series. Will anything quell this rage?


This was the question posed in full caps by the president of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society in its magazine, TARDIS.

The year was 1977, and the story under scrutiny was The Deadly Assassin. Today, this Manchurian Candidate-riffing conspiracy thriller is regarded as one of Doctor Whos all-time greats, from the height of Tom Bakers stripy scarf imperial phase. But youd never have guessed that from Jan Vincent-Rudzkis hatchet job, which railed against its tautological title and the rewriting of Whovian lore.

If this seems like a funny way of showing your appreciation for something, the DWAS, as it was known, wasnt alone. Over at the rival Doctor Who Fan Club, the story also came in for a kicking. So fed up was DWFC secretary Keith Miller with the way the programme has degenerated, that in 1978 he shut up shop altogether, asking: How can you be president of a fan club for a programme youve lost faith in?

Pretty easily, as it happens. Because since when has liking Doctor Who been a prerequisite of being a Doctor Who fan? If you dont believe me, try braving Twitter after any episode airs. This series, there has been hair-pulling over everything from whether the Doctor was right to betray Sacha Dhawans Master to the Nazis to her frozen response to Grahams cancer fears (the latter prompting the BBC to issue a rare clarification on a characters motivations).

Even an episode as lauded as last months Fugitive of the Judoon, in which Jo Martin was revealed as a hitherto unseen incarnation of the Doctor, infuriated a vocal minority, aghast at how it might impact the shows continuity. Similarly, The Haunting of Villa Diodati which even the most stubborn Who refusenik must concede was a banger has upset some by contradicting a previous hook-up between Mary Shelley and Paul McGanns Eighth Doctor in Big Finishs audio adventures.

Infuriating a vocal minority … Jo Martin as the Doctor. Photograph: James Pardon/ BBC

There also exists a small but noisy rump of fandom committed to broader wailing about how woke Doctor Who is now DEAD TO THEM (some though not all are fully-fledged #NotMyDoctor misogynists).

But it was ever thus. In 1966, the BBCs own audience research department published a report on the negative response to Patrick Troughtons puckish Second Doctor, with complaints that he was idiotic and a pantomime character. A few years later, Baker the great godhead of Doctor Who was described in the same forum as too stupid for words.

The 1980s were a particularly choleric period. The BBC even provided disgruntled followers with a platform to air their grievances, with superfan Ian Levine condemning Doctor Who as a mockery of its former self on the review show Did You See …? (Levine also posed for an infamous press photo in which he smashed his TV with a hammer.)

When Sylvester McCoy debuted as the Doctor in 1987, the DWASs top dog penned a damning op-ed for the Daily Mail in which he concluded that the show was slowly, but surely, being killed. Shortly afterwards, a rare peace broke out, with fans agreeing that McCoys later adventures were the finest the show had produced in years. Obviously, thats when the BBC cancelled it.

When Doctor Who did eventually return 16 years later, it proved a ratings smash, under the guidance of Russell T Davies, especially the three series with David Tennant as a rock star Time Lord.

The rock star years … David Tennant as the Doctor. Photograph: BBC

But Doctor Who fans werent put on this Earth to enjoy Doctor Who or, god forbid, agree with mere viewers. There were complaints about burping bins and farting monsters. There was endless bellyaching about Davies ex machina the term fans adopted to describe Daviess fondness for hand-waving plot resolutions. And the outrage at Catherine Tates casting as companion Donna Noble was so vociferous Davies was forced to speak out against those dark corners of fandom that react as if the world is ending.

His successor, Steven Moffat, endured similar barbs from the so-called faithful. His watch was deemed too complicated, though it also coincided with the rise of Twitter, a forum that has done more than anything else to amplify bizarre grudges. Naturally, when current showrunner Chris Chibnall came in and dialled down Moffats knotty plotting, fans protested that it had become too simplistic again.

If Doctor Who seems like a show that has been disappointing its devotees for 56 years and counting, perhaps that is to be expected. After all, no other TV series in history has shown such a wilful disregard for anything approaching a house style, happily pressing the re-set button every week and leaping between planets and time zones, comedy and tragedy, psychodrama and space opera.

Besides, it can be healthy to mock the things we love. Half the fun of being a Doctor Who fan is celebrating those moments where the show falls short of its vaulting overambition. Which, when youre trying to map an entire universe of wonders and terrors on a BBC budget, is often. (This is the show, lest we forget, that once staged a Concorde hijack in BBC Television Centre.)

Case in point: in 1986, two of Doctor Whos writers were subjected to a handbagging from a group of diehard fans on BBC feedback show Open Air. Among them was a teenager who offered a quietly devastating critique of the cliched scripts full of running up and down corridors and silly monsters. His name? Chris Chibnall.

In 2018, Chibnall dismissed his younger selfs words as a load of nonsense. Maybe they were, maybe they werent. Either way, its a comforting reminder that, whenever anyone lifts a rock to expose those darker, damper corners of fandom Davies warned about, chances are what emerges will be a load of nonsense as well. Any show that continues to provoke such passionate debate is clearly doing something right. Its when the arguments stop he needs to worry.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/feb/19/the-diehards-of-doom-why-doctor-who-is-the-show-fans-love-to-hate

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