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.

Disdain for that immediacy–and a new generation of Who fans brought in by the reboot–has led to a small zine renaissance with titles like Fish Fingers and Custard, started by Daniel Gee in 2010 and available in both print and PDF editions (the latter of which gets more than 3,000 downloads per issue). "You get people posting opinions during the episode sometimes, passing judgments on writers, producers and actors before they get a chance to digest it and listen to other opinions," writes Gee. "The main thing that I like about fanzines is that each piece has (generally) been thought-out, researched, and is intriguing to read.”

Because of the show's intergenerational fan base and the openness of the Internet–it rarely takes more than a username to hang with other superfans and see their work–the online Doctor Who fandom is somewhat decentralized, gathering around particular interests the way zines had their own preferences. Galifrey Base, for example, is one of the largest Doctor Who fan forums online, but it's focused more on the classic series, and it's not a main hub for fanfiction. "People become linked to certain venues they see as their home," Hills says. "Some [spaces] might be more welcoming to younger fans or female fans, while some might be dominated by older generations or masculine fandoms."

That’s important, because the Doctor Who fandom hasn't always been, and sometimes still isn't, friendly to female fans. By McMurtry's estimates, male fans outnumbered female fans around three to one during the classic series' run, and as fan Karen Dunn wrote in McMurtry's zine The Terrible Zodin, "There was nothing more likely to bring the Juke Box at the Fitzroy Tavern [a longtime gathering place for Who fans] scraping to a halt than a woman in a Tom Baker T-shirt scrolling in." The perception was that female fans didn’t care about the show's writing or it's science fiction elements as much as they cared about the attractiveness of the Doctor or potential romantic relationships—a perception that still linger in some circles. Some zines provided a gender-blind space to participate in the fandom without having to confront these attitudes, while other zines provided a welcome outlet for women who were interested in writing, say, romantic fan fiction.

The series reboot has attracted considerable more female fans, possibly because the show, compared to the classic series, has taken on a higher emotional intelligence that McMurtry suggests attracts more women. But during the classic Who era, it was actually both male and female writers on both sides of the Atlantic who were paying close attention to the emotional subtext of the show in zines like Frontier Worlds (edited by Peter Anghelides, who went on to write Doctor Who novelizations), Queen Bat, and Jelly Baby Chronicles.

"Perhaps the fanzines were anticipating the way the show has gone," McMurtry says.

Or perhaps the show was just paying attention to conversations happening in its fanzines—it wouldn't be the first time. Debates about the Doctor Who universe that unfolded in zines in the 1970s and ‘80s are not only still relevant, they've often influenced or been incorporated into the show itself.

The Doctor's sidekicks—the companions—have long been a part of the series as mostly platonic pals, but two Doctors in particular inspired a number of conversations in fanzines about whether that could or should ever change: the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), who had a number of female companions, and the fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), who was one of the younger and better-looking Doctors. Jackie Marshall, an editor of Queen Bat, wrote in an issue of Stock Footage that the Doctor wasn't "above" attraction to his companions, and that the relationship between the fifth Doctor and companion Tegan in particular went "beyond mere friendship." Writing for Paisley Pattern, David J. Darlington argued that while the fifth Doctor had a particularly close bond with another companion, Peri, they certainly weren't in love.

"A lot of the fan debates that were going about whether the Doctor should have relationships with his companions, about the history of the Time Lords, the history of the doctor and his enemies, you can see those debates emerging today," Booth says. "In the' 80s you have people talking about 'The Doctor should never have a relationship!' or "It's very obvious they have a relationship!' Today, when we see the Doctor kissing his companion, that's almost the product of the fandom from the early days. The fans today are taking that into account."

In the run-up to Peter Capaldi's casting announcement, many Who fans wondered whether it would be good for the show to break out of its usual white, male Doctor and increase diversity—some have accused Moffat and the show of being inherently sexist in their treatment of female characters. (As a member of the Time Lords race, The Doctor, when mortally injured, can take on a new physical form and personality.) Those conversations aren't new. Articles about whether the Doctor could ever be black or female, and what that would mean for the show, can be found in zines like Aggedor 5, which in 1984 ran two articles about the topic: "The Doctor: Should She Be Black?" by Simon Lydiard and "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" by Pam Baddeley.

The 12th Doctor turned out to be another white guy, but there are other fan debates that Moffat has taken into account, as seen in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” which featured just a handful of Doctors. "Steven Moffat's decision to pare down the number of Doctors and really focus on the story is telling," Hills says. "I would suggest that's because he's been so aware of fan criticism of multiple Doctor stories in his role in the show."

The current production of Doctor Who is a particularly self-referential show, filled with often-subtle nods and winks to previous incarnations of the series. There's an economic motivation behind their inclusion—they can encourage older fans to tune in while spurring younger fans to play catch-up by buying Doctor Who DVDs and books—but it's also sentimental, too. Doctor Who has plenty in common with major media brands, but Hills calls it a "fan brand" because the responsibility of maintaining the fictional universe's consistency and coherence falls to them, even the ones running the series in an official capacity. Fans don't always agree about what Doctor Who should be, and in fact, that's part of what makes them special—"You know you're at a Doctor Who convention when you can't agree on what you like about Doctor Who," Booth says—but determining the boundaries of its universe and debating what’s official Doctor Who canon are activities that fans have the most stake in, and they're activities that often played out in the pages of fanzines before they did on the Internet.

"Fans do the same type of things they used to do offline, and they do it for the same reasons—to meet people, form communities, be creative, and show their appreciation for something they love," Booth says. "It’s a show and a fandom that thrives on growth and expansion, and fans want to share that with people."

Growth, expansion, transformation—the theme of evolution naturally comes up a lot when talking about Doctor Who and its regenerating hero. And as Capaldi ushers in the next evolution of one of television’s most beloved characters, it’s hard to imagine what the show would look like if zines didn’t give him and others the space to do those very things.