Saturday, 23 January 2021


“Many fans like to think that ‘Doctor Who’ stories fit into a consistent framework. They draw links between the separate stories and try to explain away the discrepancies that ensue.”

...Lance Perkin said that...

“People who like science fiction want to explore brave new worlds whilst failing to understand simultaneously there’s one they’re living in right here and now.” 

...Sue Perkins said that...

”Would a nerd by any other name be as obsessive and lacking in social skills?”

...I said that.

I’m going to tell you something that you may find hard to believe...

If you read about ‘Doctor Who’ online, you can run into a lot of nerdish and obsessive behaviour.

...that is not the thing that you may find hard to believe. But reading some of this stuff has led me to wonder exactly what goes on in the recesses of the nerdish obsessive cranium. Why would minds so smart, albeit myopic, set themselves such a fool's errand?

Mostly people don’t care about this, because to them nerds are just for shunning – with their amazing abilities to store and recall information and their equally amazing inability to ever shut up about any of it. However, though the nerd is characterised as lacking empathy, it’s crucial to understand that from the nerd’s perspective it’s the world which is failing in its understanding of him.

Take the classic office nerd, and contrast that reassuring computer on his desk with the girl by the water cooler who sometimes smiles at him and sometimes doesn’t. It is unknown to the nerd why she sometimes smiles and sometimes doesn’t, so any journey to the water cooler becomes fraught with uncertainty. But the computer comes with a manual. It’s a delineable, predictable world contained inside a box. Look into that screen and all can be right with the world.

Though a common totem of this sort of thing, the computer itself is not actually necessary. Anything else which provides that safeness and security will do – be it model railways, Marvel comics or watching old ‘Doctor Who’ episodes on DVD. (There are radical politics nerds who memorise minute details of past strikes, riots and uprisings as an alternative to leaving the house. I have met them and can attest they are no more fun or interesting to be around than those who obsess over whether the D IN 'Tardis' stands for 'dimension' or 'dimensions'.)

’Doctor Who’ nerds can become so obsessive about the Whoniverse that some assume they take it for a real place. However, it’s more akin to playing armies when you were a kid. Some upstart from the opposite side would always claim to have shot you. Now you knew full well you weren’t actually shot; there was no blood pouring from your side, unbearable pain or any of the other normal giveaways. But the psychological association with the game was still too strong and you’d refuse the very concept. (He'd normally then punch you. That one was harder to deny.)

Particularly before New Who, during that off-air impasse, many people got their impression of the show entirely from the nerds – as if it was just a projection of the people who talked about it. They imagined (or more accurately, shunned) something of arcane and labyrinthine complexity. Unless you knew what a Rassocoplionator was and why it needed the Transhymonian Deferberator and why such a thing was only obtainable from the Quadrillion complex in F-space, you were quite hopelessly lost and better off waiting for 'The Generation Game' to come on.

Yet consider the penultimate episode of the relaunched show's first series - 'Bad Wolf'. The Daleks have reappeared in overwhelming numbers, and currently have their amassed exterminators aimed at Rose. Confidently, they order the Doctor to surrender. Naturally, we expect the closing theme tune to kick in about now.

It doesn't. Instead the Doctor just says “no”. The Daleks turn their eyestalks to one another, look about as perplexed as tin cans with eyestalks can and ask him to “explain this negative”. Instead he repeats it - “no.”

“But,” they insist, trying valiantly to get him to see some reason, “you have no weapons! No defences! No plan!”

“Yeah,” he replies, “and doesn't that scare you to death?”

The Daleks haven't managed to second-guess his plan because he hasn't got one. He'll just make it up as he goes along, like he does, and they've no real mechanism for coping with that. In some ways, the exchange is the archetypal moment for the Doctor. It’s the scene I’d show people wanting to know who the character was. The planners, the schemers, they're the bad guys of the Whoniverse. It's always ambiguous whether the Doctor's exploits restore order or disorder.

...but it's also the archetypal moment for the show. If the Doctor doesn't know what he's doing yet that's because the writer doesn't either. The Whoniverse was never some ordered place, with carefully annotated sheets of backstory and chronologoy. As our travels through the Hartnell years have shown, it was all made up on the hoof. 

He was originally made a man of mystery because no-one had the faintest idea who or what he actually was. The continuity creaks worse than any of the sets. Working something like that into a neat timeline is like trying to sculpt with marmalade. You can try. You can even try telling people you've succeeded. But that's about the extent of it.

But of course if you wanted a world built up in intricate detail, for many years you were out of luck. No longer. At the very least, not since ’Babylon 5’ debuted in 1993. A show almost entirely written by one man, J Michael Straczynski, with all the long-haul plotlines worked out in advance. Other, similar shows have followed in it's wake. Your shelf can now groan from the DVD box sets of them all.

Especially with 'Doctor Who' not even being on the air in 1993, fans gave up on it. They ceased grafting their fixations on a dead show which had never really lived up to them, indeed was never even intended to, and became ’Babylon 5’ obsessives instead.

Of course they didn’t. 

Some may have become ’Babylon 5’ obsessives as well, but ’Doctor Who’ didn’t lose any of its totemic status. If all they wanted was the safe harbour, the long list of new terms to learn and characters to memorise, how come?

I'm saying that that the Whoniverse draws in the nerd precisely because of all this, because it’s such a muddle, so antithetical to Straczynski's meticulous timelines or Tolkein’s punctiliously detailed little maps.

In ‘Terror of the Autons’, the Doctor admits of the Master “I do sometimes think the cosmos will be a duller place without him.” So it is with the nerd and discontinuity. Rather than fearing continuity lapses, nerds seek them out. They find them exhilarating and dangerous. Isolating and neutralising their threat is the nerd equivalent of extreme sports. (But still not quite as challenging as talking to the girl by the water cooler.)

The alternative is a world too safe, too cosy. As Blake so wisely said “the bounded is loathed by its possessor.” (Disclaimer: Not the Blake who had the Seven.) Combatting discontinuity is the nerd’s equivalent of keeping spice in the marriage. To some extent we all do this. We watch thrillers because they make us jump, while knowing they will operate only inside controlled parameters.

Stan Lee (of Marvel comics fame) intuitively grasped this about the nerd when he invented the institution of the no-prize. Nerds won this (ie no prize at all) if they spotted a continuity error in a Marvel strip. But they could win a double no-prize if they then came up with a way of explaining away this error! Letters flooded in taking him up on this deal. Blood was up, a new sport was coined. The girl by the water cooler remained ignored, her sometime smile un-de-encrypted.

Now a little bit of what you fancy does you good. At the end of ‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’, Susan elects to stay behind with her human boyfriend. At that point, no-one had made up the bit about Time Lords living super-longly, so it seemed a reasonable idea. So, in order not to spoil the moment, while watching I write a quick ‘fix’ in my head. I imagine that, in some unspecified way, Susan surrendered her extra-long and two-hearted Time Lord life, and chose to become human. Arwen and Aragorn all over again. The story can then play out unhindered by future continuity.

But when such fixes become not just important in their own right, but functionally replace the stories, then the wood has been swapped for the trees, the flag of nerdery is flying high and suddenly I have something better to do.

In short, despite the screeds of stuff I have written on some cheapo old TV show, both on this blog and on message boards, I am now going to claim... and the bit which you may find hard to believe... I am not a nerd over ’Doctor Who.’ 

Well I said it was going to be hard to believe.

(And don't click here.)

As Mark Fisher has said: “Watching something like ’Star Wars’, you immediately think two things. Its fictional world is both impossibly remote, too far-distant to care about, and too much like this world, too similar to our own to be fascinated by. If the uncanny is about the irreducible anomalousness in anything that comes to count as the familiar, then Fantasy is about the production of a seamless world in which all gaps have been monofilled.”

If he's right, Science Fiction may well be the genre where the Uncanny and Fantasy clash. Of course something like horror has its lore. Crucifixes finish Vampires, head-removal dispatches Zombies, just as sure as shaking a six lets you pass go in 'Monopoly'. But no-one worries very much about how the two of them can be un-dead in the first place. The most famous modern zombie films, Romero’s Dead trilogy, deliberately taunt us with blind alley non-explanations. We are in the realm of the uncanny. 

But put vampires into science fiction, such as in ’Doctor Who’s’ ‘Vampires in Venice’,  and suddenly we need to be told why they don’t have reflections in mirrors and all the rest. (Disclaimer: I am admittedly picking on a crap episode.)

And yet Science Fiction contains within it a spectrum, at which ’Doctor Who’ is very much at one end. Though the title character is a scientist, not a rocket-ship pilot, it was never concerned with getting the science very right. Fans of ‘proper’ science fiction tend to disparage the show for this very reason.

But personally, a large part of what attracts me to the show is the Uncanny. It presents a disordered universe with mystery at its heart, which can never quite be delineated or reduced to sense. Even our guide, the title character, is a mystery in and of himself. He is at home among the unhomely.

Disclaimer 1: It might be argued that only the truest nerd would deny his own nerdosity. Mark Fisher also, somewhat shrewdly, noted “It's always other people who are 'fans'.”

Of course I’m a fan of the show to be writing about it, and you’re probably a fan too for bothering to read any of this. But “fans’ is also a handy short-cut term. When a fan calls another fan a fan, he means something else. By the act of pointing he means the next step beyond, a uber-fan, an obsessive. “Fan” is really a euphemism for when I don’t want to actually say “nerd”.

Disclaimer 2: None of this is to suggest I endorse the shunning of nerds. It would be truer to say that I farm them. I avail myself of the fruits of their labour without bothering to recompense them all that much. They spend their time gathering together a whole load of information so I don’t have to.

Much of this (like how Susan came to name the Tardis or what the D really stands for) is functionally useless. But every now and again it can be stuff which comes in quite handy. This is in fact what the internet was invented for. You used to need a tame nerd on stand-by, to act as a kind of walking Wikipedia. Nowadays I can avail myself of the info they’ve provided, then at any time click on the little cross in the corner to get rid of them. It works for me...

PostScript: For the accompanying image to this, I did try to find an on-line equivalent for that silvery mirrored paper stuff that reflects your own image back, but had to give up on it...


  1. Lots of interesting insights here. So naturally I am going to respond mostly to the few places where I don't quite agree.

    But the computer comes with a manual. It’s a delineable, predictable world
    contained inside a box. Look into that screen and all can be right with the world.

    I think this metaphor would have worked much better in, say, 1981, when computers were micros, and anyone who put their mind to it could understand literally everything about one. Here in 2021, computer have become far more mysterious and unpredictable than any girl by the water fountain.

    The Whoniverse was never some ordered place, with carefully annotated sheets of backstory and chronologoy. As our travels through the Hartnell years have shown, it was all made up on the hoof.

    ... Or, if we are being pedanti, our travels have shown that the Hartnell era was all made up on the hoof. There has certainly been something closer to an actual plan in other eras. But, I agree, never much like a plan.

    I'm saying that that the Whoniverse draws in the nerd precisely because of all this, because it’s such a muddle, so antithetical to Straczynski's meticulous timelines or Tolkein’s punctiliously detailed little maps.

    I think you're giving Tolkien rather too much credit here. While he was certainly capable on investing vast energies into the Middle-earth back-story, he had little concern for consistency outside of the two actual novels -- which is why Christopher Tolkien's job in editing The Silmarillion was so much about choosing specific versions of the various stories from the wide range of alternative and mutually contradictory versions. (You may also recall that in very early drafts of The Hobbit, Thorin was called Gandalf. And in very early drafts of The Lord of the Rings, Strider was called Trotter, and was a hobbit with wooden feet.)

    As Blake so wisely said “the bounded is loathed by its possessor.” (Disclaimer: Not the Blake who had the Seven.)

    I am ashamed to admit it, but I did assume you meant Blake from Blake's Seven, so I needed that disclaimer. Perhaps I need to rebalance my high culture and pop culture.

    But put vampires into science fiction, such as in ’Doctor Who’s’ ‘Vampires in Venice’, and suddenly we need to be told why they don’t have reflections in mirrors and all the rest. (Disclaimer: I am admittedly picking on a crap episode.)

    Oh, no, I'm not having that. It's flawed, of course -- what Doctor Who story isn't? But it has some superb caharcter moments for Rory and a surprisingly congent explanation for the vampire powers; and, most importantly, it's just beautiful to look at.

  2. 'Computers' to me is pretty much an interchangeable term with 'software'. The computer is just where the software 'lives'. How the computer makes that software work is pretty much magic in my mind.

    Is 'pedanti' the plural term for 'pedant'? (That's a pedantic joke about pedantry! There are levels going on here, levels!)

    Has anyone done the fanfic yet about the one Blake being the descendent of the other? With the big end-of-season reveal that the Federation is a front for Urizen? Bonus points if it's done by illuminated plates.

    There is neither a threat nor a promise in the land that could make me say a good thing about 'Vampires Of Venice'.

  3. Also, 1981 would probably count as a relatively recent culturl reference from me.

  4. Saw this in my feed and I'm all like "ah well, Andrew's going to go on about bloody Dr Who for a while. No matter." And then you start quoting Mark Fisher and the uncanny I'm all like "fuck yeah!"

    1. This'll actually be the last Dr. Who post for a while. Those other two might come up more soonishly, however...

  5. Doctor Who continuity is all very well if you approach it as a game. (Like the Sherlockians, trying to work out exactly what bus Holmes caught in a particular story when they know perfectly well that Conan Doyle didn't care.) If it interposes itself between you and the actual TV show, not so much.

    I think that the idea of Doctor Who is sometimes more important than the actual episodes. I think when early fans said that William Hartnell had, and Tom Baker didn't have, a quality they called "magic" one of the things they were talking about was the sense that the same programme and the same characters could do The Celestial Toymaker one week and the War Machines the next -- that fantasy and a sci fi and mock history were all somehow part of one big tapestry.

    1. Yes to both. Though, as these posts have most likely given away, I also like the idea of a TV show capturing its own era. So it's continual reinvention of itself is more important to me than the continuity..

      I wonder if the idea of a TV show needed to be more important than the show in the old broadcast days, when its appearances were by necessity strictly rationed. It meant the main place the show lived was in your head.

    2. "The idea of a TV show capturing its own era" — yes, yes, yes! It's a big part of what makes older episodes significant now: they way the different futures they portrayed depicted futures as seen from back then. In the same way, I love re-reading Asimov's "Foundation" stories not so much for the 20,000-years-in-the-future stuff, as for the ways it reflects the 1950s.

    3. I reckon that if you just switch the TV on to some random film or TV show, you can often guess the era it's from more quickly with science fiction than something contemporary-set.