Doctor Who and the changing face of audience reactions

From fanzines to forums, Andrew explores how Doctor Who fan opinion has evolved over the years

Whenever an episode of Doctor Who is broadcast now it’s quite easy to get a sense of how it’s been received within online communities. Websites review the episodes and people comment on those, folk post on social media and forums, and podcasts offer dissection and discussion in the aftermath.

Prior to the internet, the main outlet for review and opinion pieces were the printed fanzines that sprang up in the late seventies and eighties. Prior to that the main source we have for viewers’ responses were the BBC Audience Research reports, which weren’t carried out for every story and mostly only looked at one episode per story. What’s interesting to see is how contemporary opinion doesn’t always match up with current fan polls (specifically looking at the Doctor Who Magazine polls of 2009 and 2014).

As Mark mentioned in his article about City Of Death, fan opinion on the story upon broadcast wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. In a 1979 TARDIS fanzine, John Peel (who later adapted several stories for the Target range) wrote: “To my mind, the acting once more was appalling… And Duggan was so stupid as to be unbelievable.” Chris Dunk, while praising the majority of the story, also criticised “the apparent need for Tom Baker to ‘play for laughs’.”

Generally, City Of Death was well received, but there are other examples of long-established classics getting mixed reviews or having baptisms of fire (not dissimilar to Love & Monsters and The Rings Of Akhaten), only reaching high status due to the advent of home video and DVD, and then a new influx of fans after the series’ return in 2005. You tell someone in early nineties fandom that Paul Cornell had written a Third Doctor comic and they’d stare at you on a number of levels.

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Going back to the very start, and the first episode of Doctor Who – now widely regarded as the best episode of the opening story – was regarded in press at the time as an enjoyably quaint throwback to silent movies and a fitting broadcast to precede The Telegoons (a rod puppet adaptation of The Goon Show with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe).

While there was a minority of positive responses, The Aztecs did not land with Sixties viewers: ‘A local government officer wrote, fairly typically here, that he was “afraid that this series has gone on far too long; the danger and escape therefrom fall into a never varied pattern length and repetition – result, ennui”.’

The Dalek Master Plan responses largely pillory The Feast Of Steven and criticise the following episode by saying “The storyline gets more and more complicated. Only Who addicts would follow this episode” – so it turns out that criticism has been around for more than 50 years.

The first episodes of each Doctor were often regarded differently on broadcast. Patrick Troughton’s debut, The Power Of The Daleks, took the bold step of not only recasting the role of the Doctor, but also giving viewers the option not to trust this new version. While the story is now highly thought of (ranked 19th in 2014, 21st in 2009 despite no episodes existing in the BBC archives), at the time the Radio Times received polarised letters from fans (one comparing the show to Coco the Clown) and an Audience Research Report for Episode Three suggested widespread discontent with the new Doctor, complaining that he was playing the role for laughs, clowning around and “over-exaggerated. Whimsical even.”

On a similar theme, The Mind Robber was described as ‘too silly for words’ and ‘ridiculous rubbish which could no longer be described as science-fiction’ – so it turns out these criticism have been around for more than 50 years.

Spearhead From Space’s first episode received mixed reviews, as did Robot’s (with viewer comments about Tom Baker echoing the criticisms of Troughton). For Robot there were more positive responses were from long term fans, so we can see fandom starting to break away from differently discerning viewers by this stage. It’s interesting to see these responses to stories in the context of their initial broadcast, rather than showing someone a whole story on DVD. In the case of The Silurians we get a report on the final episode, where audiences are warming to Jon Pertwee but we again get a mixed response to the overall story, especially the now oft-praised resolution.

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Through these audience reports we can see the different groups who watch Doctor Who forming. Some feel it’s a serious science fiction programme. Some regard it as a children’s show. Some dismiss it as a children’s show. Some love it as a children’s show. You can imagine some of this latter group growing up with Doctor Who, never letting it go, and becoming the long-term fans who defended Robot, and who started making their own fanzines.

Doctor Who now has an established fan base of people who have grown up watching it, skewing the original audience to significant effect. The early Tom Baker stories target an older audience, with script editor Robert Holmes commenting in the Daily Express “It’s geared to the intelligent fourteen-year-old, and I wouldn’t let any child under ten see it.”

This produces – concerns about violence aside – a generally positive audience response around the time organised fandom kicks into gear (The Doctor Who Appreciation Society formed in 1976). We see more fanzines, informed by long-term interest in the series, and older fans respond well to the show’s now being aimed at 14 year olds. That is, until The Deadly Assassin is broadcast:

‘…the most important question about the adventure is not “How does it fit in?” but “Is it worth trying to fit in?”. – David Fychan

‘WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?’ – Jan Vincent-Rudzki, President of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society.

It took fans years to adjust to the depiction of the Time Lords in The Deadly Assassin, with the reaction strong enough for fans to consider rejecting it from canon. It was ranked 21st and 20th in the polls mentioned earlier, which begs the question: what has happened to the magic of Doctor Who? What’s transformed this story from utmost desecration to a beloved cornerstone of lore?

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Simply put: fandom happened.

Infamously, the season 19 Doctor Who Magazine poll showed fans rating Kinda as the least good story of that series, with Time-Flight fourth out of seven (also ahead of Castrovalva and Four To Doomsday). Time-Flight later came 196th (out of 200) and 237th out of 241 in Doctor Who Magazine polls. Kinda, meanwhile, rose to a nice 69 and 63 respectively.

Fan opinion is generally consistent but capable of radical shifts. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, fanzines continued to look back at previous stories and re-assessment took place within the pages that had once spluttered with splenetic invective. Secondly, people realised that there was a fanbase and, according to the principles of our current economic system, milked that cow dry, shot its child and sold that on as well. Non-fiction episode guides about Doctor Who appeared, with Peter Haining’s A Celebration coming out for the 20th anniversary. In these books one person’s opinion, prior to the advent of VHS, could influence fan consensus for years.

It was books like these that resulted in Time-Flight’s fall from grace long before it was released on video in 2000. To be fair, when it did become more widely viewed (it has since been released on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming services) the general consensus was that it wasn’t the best story.

It’s worth considering, when you see the many reactions to a new episode, that there are these examples throughout the show’s history where consensus changed over time. Whenever something seemingly seismic happens in Doctor Who the show and most of fandom – given time – go along with it and feel embarrassed by their previous childish insults and all caps fury. Especially when it turns out these criticisms have been around for more than 40 years.

Looking at received fan wisdom one thing is clear: history can be rewritten.

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