The Trouble With Teaching Doctor Who

A professor of "Doctor Who Studies" says serious gender analysis often devolves into fannish classroom debates over which Who is better.

BBC America

In Fall 2013, undergraduates at the University of Redlands, a small private school in San Bernardino County, California, could find an unusual offering in the course catalogue of the visual and media studies program: “Doctor Who: Transmedia Travels.” Piers Britton, who teaches television studies and art history, promised to explore the texts of Doctor Who—and not just the classic series (1963-1989) and the revival (2005-present), but also the TV movie, novels, and audio plays that continued during the hiatus between the two.

So, should college-age Who fans out there start filling out their transfer paperwork and making plans to relocate to the halfway-between L.A.-and-Coachella suburb in hopes of joining the next round of the class?

“I will never teach another class on Doctor Who!” Britton says now with a hint of a grin. “That class, quite candidly, was a gimmick. I was doing it purely and simply because of the 50th [anniversary of the show].”

Britton grew up in Yorkshire, England as a huge fan of Doctor Who—at a time when, for all the show was far more mainstream than it’s ever been in the U.S., it was still on “the kooky end of the spectrum,” he says. “What was mainstream was to like James Bond and Star Trek.” But he held onto that fandom—in particular his affinity for Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor (“For me Tom Baker is still the Doctor,” he says)—as he built his career as an art historian with a particular research interest in Renaissance-era costume.

And it was costume that drew him to apply his powers of academic analysis to Doctor Who: “There’s a scene from an episode from 1980 called ‘State of Decay,’ and there’s a totally inconsequential shot where Tom Baker walks back up this horizon to the TARDIS. And he had a stunning costume, almost all plum-colored, relieved with some burnt oranges and some aubergine purples, and I noticed a detail, which is that the coat had a half-belt on it. And I thought, ‘Somebody’s really thought very hard about that.’”

In conversations with colleagues and editors, that moment blossomed into him co-writing the 2003 book Reading Between Designs: Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner and Doctor Who.

That book, along with his more recent TARDISbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who, is part of a body of what Britton only half-jokingly calls “Doctor Who Studies.” Professors like Matt Hills of Aberystwyth University in Wales, (“the doyen of the field,” Britton calls him) Paul Booth of DePaul University and Cathy Johnson of the University of Nottingham top a list that’s only getting longer.

In a classroom context, Britton has mostly approached Who through the costuming angle, teaching “Designing for Science Fiction Television” (with June Hudson, the very woman who designed that Fourth Doctor costume) half a dozen times at Redlands. But when heading into that class about the show itself, he was well aware of the challenge that awaited him. And as with most things Who these days, it boiled down to the great divide of fan culture: Do you prefer Russell T. Davies, the showrunner who revived Doctor Who in 2005, or Steven Moffat, who took the reins in 2010?

Professor Piers Britton (University of Redlands)

“It’s very hard to get students to move out of a vein of fannish engagement with a text, no matter how well you scaffold it,” he says with a sigh. “A scenario where you have a table divided in two between the Davies-ites and the Moffat-ites going at each other hammer and tongs—that was where I saw the flashpoints coming, and sure enough, they came.”

One of the “scaffolding” frameworks Britton set up had to do with analyzing Who (old and new) through the lens of gender, which took some work on his part, even among students accustomed to feminist analysis.

“It was too easy for them to see the kind of girl-power, spunky modern companions as OK with whatever they imagined feminism to be, and the old-school companion who’s screaming and saying, ‘What do we do next, Doctor?’ as obviously problematic,” he recalls. “But the ones who were most resistant tended to be the males of the species—or at least the straight males of the species, because they haven’t had to consider whether entitlement is right.

“They were all absolutely on the money as a class by the end of the semester,” he says, “but it was rough going.”

In my previous articles for The Atlantic, I’ve made it clear that I think Moffat comes out on the short end of any analysis of the treatment of gender issues. Britton, for his part, doesn’t see a direct comparison between the two showrunners on this score as particularly useful. “I’m afraid I must disappoint you,” he says, offering instead something resembling a Classic Whovian’s “a plague o’ both your houses” position. “Suffice it to say that I don’t like crass, reactionary sexism and essentializing ‘humor,’ and I don’t like the ongoing reinscription of women’s lack of agency, especially when it’s a function of mawkish writing that’s emotionally manipulative. Doctor Who was endemically guilty of the latter for the first five years of the revival [Davies], and has intermittently exhibited the former in spectacularly appalling and painful ways in the years since [Moffat]. I wish that this were not the case.”

And these kinds of debates are nothing new. “One of the features of the landscape in Doctor Who fandom from the 1970s onwards was an acute awareness of who was in charge, and a very vocal response from the fans about what they found acceptable and what they didn’t,” he says. “And well into the 1980s there was a diehard group who were very powerful in fandom who didn’t like anything after [Third Doctor] Jon Pertwee. What’s now regarded as the golden era of Doctor Who—the period from 1974 to 1977, which, to me still stands up incredibly well—was loathed by many fans at the time. There is a longstanding tradition of hating the incumbent producer and production team.”

Though he won’t take sides in the most recent iteration of Great Showrunner Showdown, he has a clear preference between RTD’s and Moffat’s primary leading men: He’ll take Eleven any day. “I thoroughly disliked the Tenth Doctor, which has almost nothing to do with David Tennant, whom I regard as a very accomplished actor with enormous charisma, and almost everything to do with the way the character was written,” he says. “The ‘Lonely God’ conceit became frankly nauseating, consistently privileging his narcissism over the experience of those around him; this reached its nadir in ‘Journey’s End.’ Ten represents precisely the kind of British alpha male I was happy to leave behind when I moved to the U.S.”

And now that fans have had the big reveal of the Master/Mistress’ return and are hanging on a silvery, handle-headed cliff between parts one and two of Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Twelfth Doctor, what’s his take on how it’s unfolded? He did like part one of the finale, but his watchword for the season as a whole is “inconsistent.”

“I saw a Doctor who interested me in ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline,’ and a reasonably closely related Doctor in ‘Listen,’” Britton says. “Otherwise, Capaldi—a consummately subtle actor—has been struggling with wildly uneven material, some of which seems to have been written for his predecessor and some for a generic ‘New Who’ Doctor whom he clearly is not. The sloppy handling of writing for Capaldi stands in sharp contrast to the tightly controlled management of all three of his predecessors in New Who in their debut seasons. I’m hoping that—even if we have to endure the current authorial regime for another year—next season he can hit his stride.”

Numerous critics have noted that companion Clara Oswald has been written with far more complexity this year than before, giving actress Jenna Coleman something to get her teeth into. But even in light of this, Britton sees too much that hasn’t changed in her characterization. “I’m afraid I continue to see what I’ve seen almost continuously since Series 2: The formation of an interesting, complex, attractive female companion whose character integrity is diminished by key male figures, above all the ‘hero,’ who are at best controlling and at worst emotionally abusive,” he says. “It’s not funny and it’s not cute and I wish that Doctor Who’s producers would cease and desist.”

However those issues get worked out—or not—Britton is adamant that, outside of possibly bringing Doctor Who into his costume-design course, he won’t engage with them again in a classroom setting.

“I have a too-complicated relationship with Doctor Who,” he concludes, a bit wearily. “I kind of wandered into writing about it, and I went many years without liking it at all. So, you know, I don’t need to do that to myself again. I’ll stay with Hitchcock, thank you very much. Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”