Doctor Who, geek fandom and Comic Book Guy

What happens when the episodes you love don't match everyone else's? Here's what it feels like to do fandom "wrong"...

This article contains spoilers for Doctor Who: Love & Monsters

During my first year at university, I met up with some other Doctor Who fans. This was 2007, when Tennant-mania was starting to overwhelm Britain and a then-45-year-old show was inexplicably the height of cool. After drinks and awkward small talk in the student bar, we turned to the question. The question you ask whenever you meet another fan. The question that’s hidden in plain sight…

No, not “Doctor Who?” Not even ‘who’s your favorite Doctor?’ Rather: “What’s your favorite episode?”

As we went around the group, the obvious candidates were named: Blink, Human Nature, Dalek, Utopia. Titles that are hallowed in the annals of Nu-Who history. Finally, it was my turn to contribute.

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“Love &  Monsters”

In the silence that followed, you could hear everyone’s estimation of me drop. And keep dropping. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d just made a Doctor Who fan faux pas. A major one. One akin to farting in front of the Queen at a state dinner, or admitting you prefer Wings to the Beatles.

See, there’s a problem with Love & Monsters. A problem every Doctor Who fan knows. To quote The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy, Love & Monsters is the Worst. Episode. Ever.

In the years since my abortive attempt to connect with other fans, I’ve become used to the laundry list of failings attributed to my Nu-Who favourite: the humour is terrible. The writing is terrible. It has a terrible monster designed by a 9-year old child.

Add to that its ‘happy’ ending that leaves a female character trapped inside a paving slab for all eternity, her agonizing half-life as a disembodied face living in a man’s wardrobe ignored in favour of pre-watershed oral sex jokes.

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I know all this. And, yet, I still can’t help myself. Maybe it’s the mood I was in when I first saw it. Maybe it’s my own goofy sense of humour. Maybe it’s the ELO-heavy soundtrack, or Peter Kay’s total commitment to playing the grossest monster in Who history.

To put it simply: I love Love & Monsters. Monstrously.

Now, I’m not here to talk you into loving it too. That’s a fool’s errand, believe me. I’m not even here to talk about Doctor Who (although there will be plenty of that). I’m here to discuss something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Something that I think affects all of us as fans.

I’m here to talk about The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy.

You know the Comic Book Guy. He’s the guy who knows everything about his favourite show, except how to enjoy it. The guardian of his favourite series. The guy who scoffs if you try to suggest that season X is better than season Y, then cites a dozen fan polls to prove he’s right. He’s the fun police, the happiness patrol, if you will.

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And I’m worried we might possibly be turning into him.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that anyone who doesn’t like Love & Monsters is some sort of Simpsons caricature. (Even I’m not that sadly obsessed with the episode.) But I do think there’s a tendency among fandom, especially online fandom, to get overly-prescriptive about our favourite shows.

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take Star Trek as an example.

If you’re a Trek fan, you don’t just say that you love the show. You say you love Next Generation and the original series, enjoy DS9, find Voyager boring and think anyone who likes Enterprise is a fool. Your personal rankings probably vary, but they’re there all the same.

The trouble is that these rankings start to become set in stone. After a certain point, people no longer argue about the relative merits of Enterprise. It’s taken as read that it’s the worst, just as The Next Generation and The Original Series are the best. Eventually, to even suggest that Enterprise is the most-interesting Trek show becomes impossible. If you think that, you can’t possibly be a ‘real’ fan.

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That’s what I mean when I say we’re all becoming the Comic Book Guy.

Maybe you’ve noticed this, too. Maybe your preferred Star Wars is The Phantom Menace. Maybe you prefer new Simpsons to the 1990s ‘golden age’. Maybe you think Spider-man 3 is the best superhero film ever, Adam Sandler the greatest actor, and your favourite Beatle is Ringo. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you’ve probably experienced something like what I felt in that Student Union bar. That strange feeling like you’re somehow doing fandom wrong.

When you think about it (it’s a bit of a stretch, but bear with me), fandom’s just a newer, safer version of the tribes our ancestors used to live in way back when. It’s always been natural for humans to clump together for shared interest. For our ancestors, that shared interest was staying alive and warding off sabretooth tigers. For us, it’s finding other people who enjoy the time-travelling adventures of a 2,000 year old alien.

In a funny way, similar rules still apply. Primate cultures survive by ejecting members who upset the status quo. To question things is to invite calamity, starvation and sabretooth tiger attacks. In a very removed way, we can act like that in fandom. We respect received opinion about our favourite show. We attack those who dissent, even if the only catastrophe this invites is a re-watch of The Phantom Menace.

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My point is that we’re hardwired to feel like part of a tribe. We want to belong, even if our modern group is a handful of fellow geeks on online message boards. That means that when we get fandom wrong, it can feel oddly isolating.

I don’t think I’m alone on this one. I’d wager a lot of us have had experience with fandom being too rigid. It’s wonderful that everyone has opinions (strong ones, too), but it can sometimes seem like received wisdom is used to shut down conversation. Love And Monsters is the worst episode of Doctor Who. No arguments. Season 7 is Matt Smith’s low-point in the role. Accept it. Enterprise is Star Trek for idiots. Don’t upset the status quo.

Sadly, this means something’s reputation can blind us to its merits. No, I’m still not trying to convert you to Love & Monsters fandom. Instead, I’m talking about classic Tom Baker serial City Of Death.

Released in 1979, the story was utterly panned. Reviewers called it “pure farce” and said its characters were “so stupid as to be unbelievable.” Today, City Of Death is considered one of the best examples of Doctor Who – ever. If they’d had the internet in 1979, you have to wonder if it would have ever have had the chance to be re-evaluated.

Of course, as numerous after-school cartoon specials have taught us, fitting in with the other kids really shouldn’t matter. If you think the greatest Matrix film is Revolutions, it shouldn’t bother you what the Comic Book Guys out there think. It should be enough that Revolutions makes you happy.

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But fandom isn’t a private thing. I love Doctor Who and I want to shout about it – if not exactly from the rooftops then at least on Twitter. I want to hang out with other Who-fanatics and discuss how utterly amazing this weird, fifty-year old show still is. I want to go to the Doctor Who Experience and get so excited that people mistake me for a very tall child.

I just don’t want the Comic Book Guy explaining to me why my favourite episode is a big pile of dog poop every time I do so.

I suppose all I’m saying is that it’d be nice if we kept an open mind about things. That we focused on the love we all feel for a show about a flying Police Box from Gallifrey, or a space federation exploring new worlds, rather than the differences between our opinions.

Because that’s the wonderful thing about fandom – as I guess everyone here knows. It’s a group of people gathering to celebrate something they love, something so imaginative and wonderful that they can’t keep quiet about it.

It’s wonderful that the internet has brought so many of us together. It’s wonderful that fandom is now something the vast majority of the population unashamedly embraces. It’s a hugely positive development.

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It just might be even nicer if we didn’t feel the need to put others down when their opinions don’t conform.