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‘Whoniversal Appeal: An Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Conference on Doctor Who, and its Spin-Offs’ at Cardiff University, 14-16 November, 2008

A conference report by Rebecca Williams

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Whilst there has been a recent flurry of academic interest in Doctor Who and its surrounding texts, this work has almost exclusively been restricted to books or journals. Indeed, with the exception of 'Time And Relative Dissertations In Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who' held in 2004 at the University of Manchester, there has been no scholarly conference dedicated to the so-called 'Whoniverse' (comprising Doctor Who, Torchwood, the Sarah Jane Adventures and any number of novelisations, audio stories or interactive elements). Enter 'Whoniversal Appeal: An Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Conference on Doctor Who, and its Spin-Offs' hosted, appropriately enough, at Cardiff University in the city which has become the 'home' of new Who.

This ambitious postgraduate conference consisted of six themed panels of papers, four discussion panels and a keynote speech by Dr. Matt Hills of Cardiff University and attracted attendees from all parts of the UK and the U.S. and Canada. As with any conference, this overview cannot offer a comprehensive analysis of every paper or panel. Rather, given my research interests in television and audiences, this review presents a snapshot of the work which was presented over the three days of the conference, and draws out some of the key issues which might warrant further academic attention.

Panels on the first day were concerned with sociology in the Whoniverse and masculinity in Doctor Who and Torchwood, which was explored via the changing representations of heroism and masculinity through the ten doctors (John Paul Green, Sunderland) and the character of Captain Jack (Blake Wilder, North Carolina State). Day one also featured a lively discussion panel on morality in Doctor Who which discussed ethical issues such as the Doctor's intent to kill an apparently helpless Dalek in 'Dalek', or the implications of Donna's mind-wipe at the end of season four. This was followed by the keynote speaker, Matt Hills, a Reader at Cardiff University and author of much academic work on Doctor Who, including the forthcoming 'Triumph of a Time-Lord'. Hills offered an overview of his personal fan involvement with the programme and how it had impacted upon his academic life. His talk, entitled 'I think we're at the start of Doctor Who Studies': New dialogues between fandom and the academy?' convincingly posited that fandom and academia might have much to learn from one another (an issue I will return to later). It was during the evening's entertainment, however, that academic and fan identities most clearly merged, with the arrival of special guest Gareth David-Lloyd (who plays Ianto in Torchwood) at the conference reception. It was in this space that the conference perhaps most closely resembled a more fan-centric convention, with attendees talking to the star, getting autographs, and having photographs taken.

The following day began, perhaps fittingly, with a panel entitled 'Fan Studies/Subversion'. Given my own research interest in television audiences, I wish here to tease out some questions for future academic attention. The first paper by K. Faith Lawrence (Southampton), entitled 'Torchwood: Subverting Fandom', argued that Torchwood deliberately includes elements from fanfiction within the series narrative. Lawrence argued that common fanfiction tropes such as male pregnancy and the deliberately 'queer' subtext of Torchwood means that it deliberately seeks to attract the subset of fandom which writes its own fanfiction (often sexually explicit 'slash' fiction) featuring characters and elements from the show. Whilst I concur that Torchwood seems intentionally designed to encourage fandom, this assumption requires further interrogation. For example, why is it important to analyse this apparently symbiotic relationship between text and audience? Moreover, what might the commercial imperatives be for writers who self-consciously build recognisable fanfiction tropes into a television series? And, finally, how subversive or oppositional can it really be to write fanfiction about or 'read' a text which already contains the elements which other fandoms may have to search to find in the subtext?

The second paper, Erica Moore's 'Constructing a Space for the Subversive: Critical Cultural Commentary in Doctor Who' offered a sensitive and convincing account of how moments of cultural commentary in Who (e.g. the inaction of the inhabitants of Satellite Five in 'The Long Game' as a comment on our own society) are often hidden beneath moments of comedy. Finally, Ross Garner discussed how fan responses to the return of the character of Sarah Jane can be understood through postmodern approaches to nostalgia and how the physical embodied presence of the actress leads to an affective audience response which the return of non-human monsters such as the Daleks and Cybermen cannot. The convergence of themes from the latter two papers was a good example of how seemingly disparate topics might dovetail, leading to some engaging discussions. The afternoon sessions covered the themes of Doctor Who and history as well as Doctor Who and philosophy, with the evening spent watching the seventh Doctor in 'Ghost Light' (a somewhat maverick choice of episode screening) with takeaway pizza. The conference drew to a close on the Sunday morning with the nostalgia and podcasting discussions, and the final panel on Doctor Who and real-world technology.

Overall, the conference was at its most successful in its discussion panels. For example, the Saturday pre-lunch industry panel featured Ron Shearman (writer of the episode 'Dalek') and Barnaby Edwards (a Dalek-operator and writer/producer/director for Big Finish). Edwards returned for the following day's panel on Nostalgia and this, along with the panel on the unofficial fan Doctor Who podcast, 'A Podcast of Impossible Things', was perhaps one of the conference's strongest points. It was in these panels that fandom, academia and industry/production most successfully cohered, leading to genuinely insightful discussions of production and writing processes which were inflected with personal recollection and humour.

Similarly, it is quite remarkable that so many people from across academic disciplines should come to a conference on a television series and its spin-offs, particularly given the derision and dismissal which media studies still often faces from other academic schools. However, it is also this interdisciplinary approach that presented some of the conference's major problems. Whilst dialogue between schools such as philosophy, history and sociology are certainly to be welcomed, there was a sense that many of the attendees were reluctant to engage in debate over the merits or limitations of their own approaches to the series. Whilst this may stem from academic (particularly postgraduate) insecurity over the validity of our own subject areas it was disappointing to see potentially interesting and reflexive discussions closed down by the attestation that "it's a discipline thing" or "well, that's how its done in [insert subject here]". The very definition of inter-disciplinary is to provoke dialogue between different approaches and schools of thought, and it would have been fruitful to see, for example, more discussion of how the principles of media and television studies might intersect with, or complicate, the more literary-based approaches of some of the papers and how the various disciplines represented at the conference might benefit one another.

Furthermore, despite my genuine belief that, in concurrence with Hills' keynote speech, the boundaries of fandom and academia should be contested, I found the way in which fandom was often represented at the conference to be somewhat problematic. Many non-media scholars spoke of the 'audience' or how the audience would 'read' or interpret texts, as though Doctor Who has one singular meaning which can be understood, rather than the polysemic text which media studies would treat it as. There were also elements of John Fiske's 'transparency fallacy' in papers that sought to unproblematically transfer theory onto the text without considering the specificities of the televisiual medium. Furthermore, whilst (slash) fanfiction and those who support these pairings are certainly present in many fandoms, at points this form of fandom appeared to be the only one represented at the conference. Given the lack of a fully theoretical paper on fans of Who/Torchwood/SJA, Lawrence's paper on slash (as well as the numerous references to the attraction of 'queer' subtext in non-related papers) meant that these readings of the show tended to dominate some of the discussions. To be clear here, it is not my suggestion that this fan practice is 'wrong' in any way. Nor am I arguing that fan and academic identities cannot successfully work in tandem. Rather, given Doctor Who's wide-ranging audiences and diverse fandom, it was a pity that this was not better represented and that an alien visiting from Raxacoricofallapatorius, Klom or some other planet from the Whoniverse would have returned home with the impression that all fans want to see is Jack and Ianto shagging.

Despite, then, the somewhat surprising lack of media and television studies approaches to the text and the absence of any in-depth consideration of the Whoniverse's audiences, the conference was enjoyable and stimulating. Many of the papers compelled us to look at Who in new ways and to consider how it might represent contemporary concerns about society, identity, and culture. It can only be hoped that, given the increase in academic publications within 'Doctor Who studies' that further conferences pay attention to this successful and influential television show but that more attention will be paid to the specificities of the television medium and a wider variety of audience and fan responses.

A conference report by Rebecca Williams

Rebecca Williams recently completed her doctoral thesis on online television fans in the Department of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. She currently works at the University of Glamorgan where she is researching Welsh media audiences and is about to embark on a project on Doctor Who and Torchwood. She wishes to thank Ross Garner for his discussions regarding the arguments put forward in this review.


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