On Differences Among Fandoms

Over on TrekBBS there’s a discussion ongoing about what Titan’s Star Trek Magazine can and should be. In the course of the conversation, one of the suggestions is that it could be more like Doctor Who Magazine, and there have been explanations proffered as to why that’s not feasible, from licensing concerns to differences in the fandoms themselves.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve recently been musing on the nature of Star Trek fandom. Since the discussion was trending in that direction, I offered my thoughts on the subject. In the interest of archiving them permanently, I’m also offering those thoughts here, though with some formatting alterations and contextual changes. 🙂

Without further ado…

The differences between the two fandoms are interesting, and I’ve long wondered why the two fandoms are so vastly different. The conclusions I’ve come to:

1) Doctor Who has no Gene Roddenberry-like figure. Yes, Who fans can talk about different producers and different script editors, but Star Trek is, somewhat inaccurately, seen as Roddenberry’s baby, and fandom has long assigned him credit for things he had little, if any, involvement in. Who fandom recognizes the differences between the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era and the Graham Williams era and would never assign the strengths and failures of one to the other, for instance, but many Star Trek fans are confused as to the extent of Roddenberry’s involvement in the Animated Series and the films, and Roddenberry’s own historical revisionism over the years muddied the waters. As an example, I just read an article about how Roddenberry insisted that the computer used in Star Trek IV be a Macintosh because Roddenberry owned one of the first Mac Pluses, yet the problem with that is that Roddenberry’s involvement in the film was nil, and Roddenberry could insist all he wanted, but the decision was ultimately up to Nimoy and Bennett. The end result — Who fans have tended to be more engaged with the history of their series, because their series has a history, while Trek fans aren’t as engaged with the history of their series.

2) The keepers of the Who flame during the Interregnums were fans, and from those keepers the creators of new Who were drawn — Paul Cornell, Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat — which gives Who a broader link to its past because, going back to the first point, Who fandom is more aware of its past. Trek doesn’t have that same connection between the professionals and the fandom, the lines aren’t as blurred. And until recently, the people producing Trek have shown very little awareness for anything going on outside their boxes. The ancillary products seem to be of more value in Who, while in Trek there’s a feeling of disposability.

2A) As a corollary… Ian Levine was never in a position to say that Doctor Who Magazine didn’t count, while Richard Arnold was empowered to be narrow-minded and fundamentalist about what counted and what didn’t. The different perceptions of canon between the two fandoms has some effect on the shape of fandom. If, as is the case in Star Trek, you know that some things don’t count officially, there’s an unspoken message that it’s not important, or it can be skipped.

3) Doctor Who fans start at an earlier age, so there’s a childhood nostalgia factor attached to Doctor Who in the minds of many fans, which Star Trek, by and large, seems not to have. Also, Doctor Who is a family program, while Star Trek is ghettoized into the science-fiction genre. Thus, Who fandom is more socially acceptable, while Star Trek fandom is niche.

I, personally, would prefer a Star Trek fandom that were more like Doctor Who fandom. I wonder where Star Trek‘s Lance Parkin or Paul Cornell is. Or, for that matter, where its Lawrence Miles is. We do have our Craig Hintons, though. (Mollmann, I’m looking at you.) But I also accept that Star Trek fandom is a vastly different beast than Who fandom. There’s a lot of inertia in Star Trek fandom, a lot of institutionalization.

Vive la difference.


Steve Roby had a good comment in response to this:

Everything else in the post is gold, but basically, this is it in a nutshell: there’s no mythical Creator of Doctor Who. There’s no Authority. And that parallels what the shows are about. One’s about a more or less military organization, part of a hierarchical structure with clear lines of authority; the other is about a guy who dislikes all that stuff and just wanders around.

Star Trek fandom seems predisposed to need authority (all those “Gene Roddenberry would never have allowed this to happen” posts from people who clearly don’t know how little core Trek stuff was created by Roddenberry) and canon. Doctor Who fandom seems to manage nicely without it. An oversimplification, perhaps, but I think there’s some truth to it.

This is very true.

A Doctor Who fan would never look to Sydney Newman or Verity Lambert to tell them what Doctor Who should mean or what it should be. Their tenures with the series were short in comparison to its longevity, and the series moved on from what they had done. Some of the core concepts of Who — like regeneration, like the Time Lords themselves — simply weren’t thought of when Lambert left the series in its third season.

Novelist Chris Bennett rightly points out that while a Doctor Who fan would never erroneously assign producer John Nathan-Turner blame for, say, the 1996 FOX television movie, Star Trek fans routinely blame Brannon Braga for Insurrection or Nemesis, films in which Braga had no involvement whatsoever. Again, Doctor Who fans have a better engagement with their series and the history of their series.

I should also note that I’m speaking of the differences in the fandoms in their native countries. The American experience of Doctor Who is vastly different than the British experience of the series, and American Who fandom has some significant differences to its British counterpart. American Who fandom is older, niche, and more Star Trek-like. But the lack of an Ur-Creator in Doctor Who still has the same effect — a greater tolerance for and appreciation of the ancillary products.

I should note that when someone came into Doctor Who fandom appears to have a significant effect. Among newer fans, I’ve found some perception of Russell T. Davies as the Roddenberry-like Ur-Creator, an appreciation of the series’ pre-2005 past isn’t always there, and there’s a greater tendency to treat Doctor Who as having a film-centric canon in the way that other media-sf franchises, such as Star Trek or Star Wars, have. However, I think that as the baton is passed from Davies to Moffat and the series changes as a consequence, new Who fans will come to understand that Doctor Who is anything but a static series.

If you can’t tell, I hold Doctor Who fandom up as the example of what a media-sf fandom should be. For all I know, there are Doctor Who fans who think their fandom should be more Star Trek fandom-like.

As I said above, vive la difference. 🙂

3 thoughts on “On Differences Among Fandoms

  1. According to David Howe’s book “Doctor Who: The Eighties,” in 1986, Michael Grade of the BBC *did* turn to Sydney Newman to tell him what Doctor Who should mean or what it should be. The results were… interesting.

    (One of the companions was to be “a homesick girl of 12 wearing John Lennon-type Dickensian spectacles (she’s stylish). On Earth she played a trumpet in the school orchestra… Sometimes it irritates Doctor Who when he’s trying to think. ‘Hush child! You’re addlepating me!'”)

  2. In a way, Diane Duane is the Paul Cornell of Star Trek, in that each wrote arguably the best novel ever written based on the series, which in each case was the only novel ever to be adapted into a TV episode (The Wounded Sky/Where No One Has Gone Before, Human Nature). Each also created one or more of their respective franchise’s most memorable characters never to appear on screen, and the characters in question were all strong females (K'(s)’t’lk, Ael, Benny Summerfield).

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