Whose Fanwank is it Anyway?
Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth
There’s not much left to say about The Stolen Earth that my estimable colleagues on this blog haven’t already said, but something Neil mentioned in his fabulous, nail-on-the-head review got me thinking about fanwank so I thought I’d make a few generalisations and see where it takes me. There were loads of references to the “classic” series in The Stolen Earth and previous episodes, but there were also many more references to stuff that has its origins in the new series. The Shadow Proclamation goes right back to Rose, the Medusa Cascade was mentioned at the end of series 3, and there are many other examples since the series came back, not least of which all those shennanigans about the Face of Boe. Fanwank has been defined in lots of ways but this one is as good as any other: “A term used in Doctor Who fiction to refer to any piece of work which reuses old monsters or characters purely in an attempt to stir feelings in the groins of sad anal fanboys.” I think that you could also refine it slightly by saying that it’s also any piece of work “which references old monsters or characters purely in an attempt to stir feelings in the groins of sad anal fanboys”. What’s interesting about the definition is that it’s all about the target – fanwank gets the sad fanboys going – and this is what seems to drive a lot of the hostility towards those Doctor Who episodes which they perceive to be loaded with stuff that supposedly leaves the general audience bewildered.
I was particularly struck by this hostility when I read a comment on another forum from someone who’s a fairly high-profile fan but decidedly keen on distancing himself from the sadder fanboy types. He’d watched Turn Left and decided that “the Fanwank God had been out fanwanked by RTD”, the episode had been a “Doctor Who fan’s wet dream” and he could “imagine them bouncing up and down with excitement as each new companion death was casually announced via background news reports”. This made me laugh at first, but then I started wondering who exactly these Doctor Who fans were supposed to be, especially as the bulk of Turn Left was about revisiting moments from the series since RTD came on the scene. There’s a weird consensus in some circles that the only people who could possibly enjoy things like the detail of those background news reports are the old-style weak lemon drink type of fans who make transcripts of each programme while chuckling into their handwritten Big Finish synopses. This is, of course, nonsense, and the notion only exists because the people who perpetuate it are themselves bound up in another, less-celebrated part of the old-school fan mindset: fear of continuity. It’s a given among some fans that the classic series withered away because it became increasingly inward looking and incomprehensible to the general viewer because of the obsession with continuity during the John Nathan-Turner era. The argument is OK as far as it goes, but tends to ignore other crucial problems such as wayward producing, disastrous casting and frequent recourse to the “Will this do?” school of script-writing. But the spectre remains at the feast. It takes only a small reference to the past in current Who to start the siren voices plangently crying “Too much fanwank – it’ll lose the public – playing to the fans.”
The absurdity of this position really came to the fore when Doomsday was transmitted. The battle of the Daleks and Cybermen was characterised by some as pure fanwank, something that even fan fiction writers would have thought twice about. But this fanwank episode was watched by over 8 million ecstatic viewers, only the merest fraction of whom could be described as fanboys. Surely something as niche a concept as fanwank loses all meaning if it’s applied to something that appeals to a mainstream channel’s popular audience? Forget the weak lemon drink fans watching Turn Left – all 0.5% of them – and remember that a huge swathe of the audience enjoying the references to Matha and Sarah’s deaths and the rewriting of earlier events are young males and females (yes females) who have been happily watching the series since 2005. They are not like the old fans in the 1980s who staunchly gathered around a minority interest show and who relished the supposed cut and thrust of continuity madness. They are in a world where the national press features lengthy articles about Bad Wolf and Saxon. They are in a world where series arcs and motifs don’t alienate anyone. The average “I’m better than fanwank” fan is the one who says, seemingly every week, that episode x featured “too many references to something that happened earlier in the series – the audience won’t understand it”, and retains this view undaunted by all the other evidence (ratings, AIs, word-of-mouth) which suggests that not only are the audience not alienated, they are lapping it up and screaming for more.
I sometimes wonder if these loons actually understand that television is a bit different nowadays from when Colin Baker was strutting his stuff. I have some sympathy for the view that Doctor Who gets a bit bogged down with its series arcs, but that isn’t same as saying that the general public have problems with them. The programme is mild in comparison to US shows that are increasingly adopting the true serial form. Network television channels with large audiences are showing Lost, Heroes, Prison Breakout and so on, but I don’t hear people having paroxysms whenever a character from Series One of Lost suddenly reappears in the series 3 finale. The world didn’t end when Buffy showed up in Angel. I didn’t feel moved to shout “the audience will be confused” when a minor first series plot point became significant in the final series of The Wire. Television is at its best when it can exploit a long and complex developing narrative, and this pattern is increasingly supported by the development of iPlayers, downloadable episodes and DVD season boxsets. So for Doctor Who fans to worry that some footling story arcs are the harbingers of doom is the highest form of 1980s paranoid nonsense.
The Stolen Earth has been slagged off in various places on the web as being a confusing and frantic mish-mash of elements from the Davies era, and on more than one occasion as having appeal only to fanwank obsessed fans. I find this view depressing and wrong-headed. The current Doctor Who viewers are the fanwank obsessed fans. That’s the point. They like fanwank. For fanwank and continuity, read “modern television storytelling”. In this case sometimes ropey modern television storytelling. OK – there were quite a few nods to classic era Who, but they had no impact on the story and were just a nice bit of window dressing for the main event which was to give the general audience the culmination of a story that began with Rose. Imagine the eight-year old boy or girl who started watching the series in 2005. The Stolen Earth must have been like all their Christmases at once, and who would begrudge them that just because a few of the weak lemon drinkers liked it as well?