Why do we watch Doctor Who?: A fan scholar’s perspective

Cross-posted at Geek Feminism.

This line from ellecleg’s last post really got my attention:

But let’s be honest – the series is called Dr Who. We tune in every week to watch the man who flies the blue box.

It got my attention because I really wonder if many fans watch Doctor Who for the Doctor. It seems unlikely, given how irreverent most fans are towards source material (the TV, films, or books they are fans of). Fans are all about re-interpretation, re-invention, and analysis based on their own experiences. That stuff doesn’t start with their fan and slash fic, with their cosplay, with their fan vids. It starts with their actual experience of watching the show. And ellecleg’s point was that most of us understand we’re watching a show about a White dude with a British accent, and so to complain that the female characters aren’t up to snuff is silly, since we all tune in knowing they’re secondary anyway. But I would hypothesize I great deal of female viewers don’t tune in to watch the Doctor at all.

Yes, the female characters are secondary. But that’s a production decision. And fans don’t generally let production decisions get in the way when there is still something to scavenge from the show. This is the beautiful thing about fans: they don’t let creators tell them how they get to experience the show. I mean, the creators often do tell us how to experience the show (*cough, cough,* George Lucas), but fans don’t comply. And I would say that fans don’t just ignore the voices from on high that directly tell them “You can’t read it that way,” but they also ignore plot details, the structure of casts, and other elements in shows that tell them how to read it indirectly. So even though the companions are definitionally sidekicks to the Doctor, plenty of women will still read those companions as the heroes. They’ll still read the Doctor as a genderqueer character they can relate to. And they can do all that while complaining that Doctor Who needs a lady protagonist every once in a damn while.

In John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture, he describes a study done on female Charlie’s Angels fans. I don’t know if you remember that show, but the endings of the episodes were awful. Fiske claims,

The narrative closure of each episode is strongly patriarchal, as is the pleasure offered by the visual style of the program, and a textual or ideological analysis would conclude that patriarchy is recuperating signs of feminine liberation. Yet many women have reported reading Charlie’s Angels selectively, paying attention to the strong women detectives and almost ignoring the signs of the patriarchal closure. Some said that they would typically leave the TV set before the end of the episode and thus avoid altogether one of the main moments of patriarchal narrative power. (143)

That last bit made me laugh out loud when I first read it. The women who saw Charlie’s Angels as a pro-woman, feminist show, just walked away during the part of the show that put the ladies back in their place. As Fiske argues, we can’t make any assumptions about fans based on an assumption that readers sit still and read/view the way the creators want them to, because “popular reading is often selective and spasmodic” (143).

I don’t have to walk away from actually watching it, but I can tell you that when I rewatch River Song episodes, I conveniently pretend that her entire existence was not predicated on the Doctor. I pretend she’s just a woman who happened along the Doctor and became her badass self because she’s badass, not because she wanted “to find a good man.” (For serious, Moffat?) Because I loved River Song before “Let’s Kill Hitler,” and I’ll be damned if Moffat is going to ruin her for me.

Cartoon Jenny and River dance together.

Cartoon Jenny and River do a dance. From Comic Who, by Marco Castiello & Elisa Moriconi. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Some fans may not excise parts, but add parts. An immigrant or refugee might read the Doctor as similar to them–an alien who doesn’t quite fit in, whose home is far away or lost. An LGBT person might read the Doctor as queer, a character who shares their experiences. An asexual person might read the Doctor as asexual, focusing on the Doctor in particular seasons. And all of them may have these “selective and spasmodic” readings and experiences of the show without giving up the right to critique the show for not having enough people of color, queer people, or asexual people, or for portraying those people’s experiences poorly. I can love my version of River Song without giving up the right to tell Doctor Who that it needs to feature more independent, badass, older women who aren’t literally revolving around the Doctor.

Even if you look at this blog, we seem to talk about the Doctor not at all, and the companions a whole lot. Even ellecleg’s post is a love song to the female companions. (I think we can never have too many love songs to the companions on Doctor Who.)

So why do we watch Doctor Who? I imagine the answers are as varied as the viewers are. And the man in the blue box may be so much less important than the creators think he is.


  1. You know, it’s amazing how much better the River Song arc works if you just pretend she was being sarcastic when she said she was ‘looking for a good man.’

    I personally excise three lines out of the episode School Reunion (my mental editor is BRILLIANT) and it makes me feel so much better about her.

    I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was too young to remember, and I always classified it in my head by companions, not by Doctor. It’s only now reading this that I realise that’s why I’m always a bit flummoxed by the ‘who is your Doctor’ question, and have at least four different answers to it.

    When I was a kid, my companions were Sarah, Jo, Romana I, Nyssa, Ace. I had a soft spot for Victoria based largely on production images, and I adored Polly, based only on the novelisation of The Highlanders. I had a mad crush on Turlough. If I’d seen the new series as a kid I probably would have loved Rose best, and Amy, the way my daughters do now.

    These days I feel a lot more connected to Barbara, Liz Shaw, Leela and Romana II (based largely on their audio adventures), and Ace, always Ace. In the new series, my absolute favourites are Donna and River and Jack, though I try not to hate on any companion.

    I find myself revisiting the companions of the show that I disliked when I was young, and trying to overcome the biases I had built up then. Tegan, Peri and even poor old Mel are far more interesting to me with adult eyes.

    There’s still no saving Dodo.

    But yes, I always blink a bit, I’ll admit, when people (even people on this blog) dismiss the companion role as secondary, or sidekick, and imply there’s something wrong with that. Because the Doctor is just the Doctor. He’s fine and all, I like him, I like some more than others, but he’s never been the compass I use to navigate the show.

  2. Oh, and to add – do you really think that the creators think that the companion isn’t exactly as important as the Doctor? Because I’m not sure about that at all.

    Certainly Rose in her first season was given equal weight (to the point that fanboys complained), and the companion’s role in the show has been hugely boosted in New Who, with far more in the way of character arcs, credible introductions and exit stories – even when we don’t like what they do, there’s a lot more thought that has gone into them overall than the more scattershot approach in the old days, where a companion was HUGELY lucky to get a good opening or closing story, and INCREDIBLY lucky to get stories that explored their character in between the beginning and the end.

    Worth noting that in the old 90’s New Adventures novel days, one of the firm writing rules was that you were not allowed to write from the POV of the Doctor – his mystery was supposed to be preserved. I’ve always sort of felt that the Doctor is too alien to identify with, like Sherlock Holmes. It’s the human characters whom we are supposed to empathise with, viewing the adventure through their eyes.

    That makes the companions (and occasional companion substitutes) pretty damn important.

    • I think the creators think the companions are important, but mostly insofar as they relate to the Doctor. The creators mostly think the *relationships* between the Doctor and the companions is important. But this is still a show centered around the Doctor’s subjectivity. Can you even imagine, for example, an episide with only the companion that doesn’t even reference the Doctor? Like a flashback episode that doesn’t mention him? I sure can’t, yet we have companion-less episodes regularly between companions. We only know as much companion background as is important to her relationship with the Doctor. We don’t meet companions’ friends or family unless they intersect with the Doctor’s storyline.

      The companions are important. The Doctor is central.

  3. Nightsky says:

    I’ve actually encountered a term for the sort of selective editing fans engage in: head canon. As in, “In my head canon, Charlie didn’t exist and his ‘angels’ were badass on their own.”

  4. R. Taylor says:

    And all of them may have these “selective and spasmodic” readings and experiences of the show without giving up the right to critique the show for not having enough people of color, queer people, or asexual people, or for portraying those people’s experiences poorly.

    Yes. I like that being a fan doesn’t mean you have to like every single thing about the show, and that a worldwide community of fans is constantly interpreting and reimagining Who all the time. Do I want more positive, realistic, deep portrayals of people from marginalized communities? Of course I do. But one of the things I love about being a Whovian is that the fans are bigger than the show. We can love it without simply accepting it uncritically; we can relate it to our own lives and call out when it falls short. I can’t leave the real world outside when I consume Doctor Who, and I can’t leave Doctor Who outside when I’m in the real world, and that’s what the best stories are for.

    • Nightsky says:

      This is one of my favorite things about Who: you’re not only allowed to like the good parts while laughing at the bad parts, you’re encouraged to.

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