How Fanzines Helped Put Doctor Who Fans in Charge of Doctor Who

Before there were message boards and Tumblr, fans discussed the show via DIY zines—which helped keep the series alive and housed debates that have directly influenced the show.

When the BBC announced Scottish actor Peter Capaldi would play the 12th Doctor in its beloved sci-fi series Doctor Who, superfans quickly dug up a crucial fact about the actor: He’s a superfan, too. Capaldi, who takes over Doctor duties from Matt Smith in a Christmas Day special, has an enthusiasm for the show that dates back to the 1970s, when he authored stories for Doctor Who fanzines—small-circulation publications made and distributed by fans. See, for example, this 1976 article about the show's title sequences.

“Watching the abstracted light forms & patterns which appear in the opening sequence of Dr. Who has become a familiar ritual for all of us,” 18-year-old Capaldi wrote. “The wonder of the opening is that it manages to capture in only a very few moments of screen time the atmosphere of Dr. Who.”

Capaldi isn't the only amateur Who geek to go professional. Because of the program’s unusual history—it ran from 1963 to 1989 and then returned in 2005—many of its original fans are now its writers and producers. Showrunner Steven Moffat told The Guardian this year that he was "the original angry Doctor Who fan," and his earliest Internet postings about possible story ideas are still online today (and those ideas occasionally find their way into the show). Writers like Paul Cornell and Matt Jones graduated from zines to official Doctor Who novelizations and, eventually, episodes of the reboot itself.

"When the new show comes out, there's almost this feeling of, 'We've contributed to the success of this,'" says Paul Booth, an assistant professor of new media and technology at DePaul University and the editor of Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who. "There's a co-production feeling to it that, without the fans, it wouldn't have come back.”

As the longest-running science fiction series ever, whose generation-spanning viewer base has often been named one of the most intense and devoted fandoms ever, Who offers an case study in the way that modern fandom has evolved. The fanzines where Capaldi and others got their start may have seen their numbers decline over the years, but their DNA is all over the modern fandom in a way that distinguishes it from other sci-fi fanzine communities like that of Star Trek. Doctor Who fanzines not only helped keep the fandom alive during its hiatus, they've been a long-standing venue for fans to debate and police the limits of the Doctor Who universe—and these debates have had a direct and noticeable influence on the show itself.

The golden age of Doctor Who fanzines, when the number of zines peaked in the hundreds and their most famous writers were most active, lasted from the mid-80s and into the ‘90s. The explosion was enabled in part by new technology: In addition to the advent of desktop publishing that made producing quality zines at home easier, the rise of VCRs and commercial video releases by the BBC allowed fans to rewatch and catch-up on episodes, facilitating detailed, in-depth discussions about the show, according to Matt Hills, a professor of film and TV studies at the University of Aberystwyth.

Those discussions were also enlivened, paradoxically, by the show’s struggle to survive. While Doctor Who's ratings were underwhelming in the years leading up to the show's 1989 cancellation, the fanzine community’s interest intensified and its publications flourished, which Hills says isn't unusual for a fandom that feels its favorite show or its fan identity is threatened. Once the BBC closed the book on Doctor Who, it also prompted more fans to take up fan fiction and articles that playfully tackled the “what-ifs” they might have refrained from if the show had continued.

These publications didn’t just thrive then, they also played a major role in getting the show back on the air. During the hiatus, some of the most prolific and well-known zine writers were hired to pen novelizations of the show, which pushed Doctor Who into new territory. "The stories were longer, they were more adult, they were expansive, and, certainly, right after the series ended, they fleshed out the mythology of the Doctor and the Time Lords very much," Booth says.

Screenwriter and television producer Russell T. Davies, who lobbied for and later led the 2005 reboot, authored some of these novelizations and paid close attention to the writing coming out of this period. "He was aware that Doctor Who was capable of handling more complex themes, capable of handling more than just adventure tales," Booth says. "The novels absolutely showed that Doctor Who was robust enough to handle the type of material needed to make it appeal to adult audiences." Paul Cornell, for example, adapted his 1995 novel Human Nature into two episodes in 2007 that were named by The Daily Telegraph, Doctor Who Magazine, and IGN as some of the best Who episodes ever for the way they humanized the Doctor, then played by David Tennant.

In some ways, the zines’ success may have also led to a loss in relevance. Leslie McMurtry, the editor of The Terrible Zodin zine who’s studied the Doctor Who fandom, says the prestige of writing for fan publications declined in the 1990s as opportunities to take part in official channels opened up. In the 1970s and 1980s, official Doctor Who publications operated without much fan involvement, but in the 1990s, Doctor Who Magazine became more inclusive, and the novelization publishers’ had open-call submissions, causing a shift in attitudes toward fanzines.

"If you had an opinion and wrote well, you aspired to write for the best zines, and once the gates were open to be in an official publication, then the cream of the crop could have money and recognition," McMurtry says. "[While] they got absorbed into the official machinery, the second-tier writers filled in the fanzines, and maybe that's why it was perceived as less prestigious than before."

Unsurprisingly, the Internet is also to blame for the drop in the number of fanzines. The end of the Doctor Who zines' golden age coincides with the rise of some of its early Internet communities, where many of the conversations among fans migrated.

"There's often a temptation to see contemporary digital fandom as something radically new, but there are a lot of strong continuities between what fans did then and what they do now," Hills says. Fans won’t find animated gifs in the Xeroxed pages of zines as they would on Tumblr today, but the same kinds of content—fan art, illustrations, fan fiction, reviews, and essays, all in varying proportions depending on the publication—have appeared in both print and online spaces.

Who scholars say the main difference between the fanzine community and the online fandom—and there is some overlap between the two—is simply a matter of speed. A zine writer would submit a piece, wait for it to be published, and wait even longer for rebuttals—conversations would take place over months, and rarely across international borders. Today, fans can bang out reviews immediately after episodes air, or flip out in real time over casting news about the new Doctor. They even can report and respond to breaking news about the show’s production, though there were a few Who zines that operated in a more journalistic roles and actively sought scoops. 

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