Friday 25 April 2014

Who’s Changing

Director: Cameron K McEwan
Producer: Elisar Cabrera
Cast: Lots of folks
Country: UK
Year: 2014
Watch now - see end of review for Distrify link

I wouldn’t normally watch a feature-length documentary about Doctor Who fans but this one was produced by my old mate Elisar Cabrera so I gave it a punt. Elisar, those of you with long memories may recall, was there right at the start of the British Horror Revival (or arguably just before it) directing Demonsoul and Witchcraft X and producing Virtual Terror (under the pseudonym ‘Elisar C Kennedy’). We shan’t hold that evidence against him.

Before commencing the review, it’s probably best if I explain my own thoughts and position vis-à-vis Doctor Who, so you know from whence I am coming in my praise/criticism. I started watching Who at the commencement of the Jon Pertwee era. In fact my earliest memory of anything is seeing Patrick Troughton’s final episode when I must have been about 18 months old. Interestingly, this documentary starts with some folk recalling their first memories of the show, with several saying that it’s their earliest memory of anything and pretty much everyone picking the final episode of a particular Doctor.

I then watched the series continually until the Bonnie Langford era when even I couldn’t stomach it any more, though I did return for Sophie Aldred. What I never did was become an actual Doctor Who Fan. Never joined the fan club, never bought a fanzine, never attended a convention. My slice of fandom was Hitchhiker’s Guide and it was through the Hitchhiker’s fan club that I was introduced to wider SF fandom, including a range of conventions from 1984 onwards. But these were general sci-fi cons, catering for Who, Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica etc etc. And they were small, intimate cons of maybe 100-200 fans, in a hotel, getting very drunk indeed with a couple of guest actors/writers/whatever hanging out in the bar. Later I ran my own cons, edited the HHGG newsletter and rose to the dizzying heights of HHGG fan club president. So I know of fandom, but not specifically of Doctor Who fandom. And in any case, it has very much All Changed Since I Were A Lad.

Cameron K McEwan’s film is a good overview of Who fandom in its current state with some interesting stuff about the past which personally I found more interesting, though that may just be my status as an old fart. Considering that it’s basically 80 minutes of talking heads and people walking around cons, Who’s Changing is strangely compelling and curiously watchable. It’s not self-indulgent and seems aimed more at the ‘lay Whovian’ like me rather than the hardcore fan who actually attends these things (though they will presumably want to watch it as well). It’s certainly a lot, lot better – more sympathetic, more informed, more observant – than a similar thing would be if it was made for TV broadcast.

Unsurprisingly, none of the Doctors themselves are on show here except in still photos (although one interview was cheekily filmed in front of Tom Baker’s autograph queue). However, it does have Leela and Ace from the old series and, from the new one, Madame Vastra, Jenny, Strax, the little girl who played young Amy and the fat blue bloke who was in a couple of episodes. And while show-runners RTD and the Moff are also absent, there are a number of people who have written spin-off books, comics, audio adventures or even actual episodes, including Eric Saward, James Moran, Gary Russell and Jeremy Bentham. Plus lots and lots of fans.

What the documentary addresses, its main theme, is the revival of Who in the 21st century, including the salient point that those who brought it back were active fans of the original series and the way that Who fandom has now massively broadened, both geographically and socially. While the fans are, by their nature, enthusiastic and positive, there’s a refreshing lack of bland “David Tennant is so dishy!” fangirl squealiness. Although one thing I took away from watching this, unremarked in the film itself, is that contemporary fans of the new series seem largely uncritical, whereas ‘old school’ fans recall that part of the joy of fandom was complaining about the rubbish episodes.

I started rewatching Who when it came back in 2005 (I also recall seeing the McGann movie, actually at one of the sci-fi cons I helped to run). I came to the new show with absolutely no expectations; in fact I had made such a good job of avoiding spoilers that I didn’t even know they had abandoned the awful old multi-episode format so was genuinely surprised when ‘Rose’ wrapped up after 45 minutes. In my critical opinion, the new version is vastly better than the old, not just in the obvious effects but in the stories, the writing, the direction and the acting. I have no interest at all, not even a nostalgic one, in rewatching any episodes from the 20th century. As for all that Missing/New Adventures tat they published during the wilderness years, I tried to read one once and it was just dreadful. (A witty writer once observed of the Missing Adventures: “From where exactly are they missing? What’s that you say? From the shelves of discerning readers? That’s a bit unkind.”)

However, the above notwithstanding, the show seriously lost its edge when the Moff took over from RTD. I can say with hand on heart that I absolutely loved virtually all of the Eccleston/Tennant episodes and have been massively disappointed with virtually all of the Matt Smith episodes (through no fault of the actor), to the extent that I probably wouldn’t bother still watching if it wasn’t for TF Simpson. (TF was about 18 months old when we sat him down to watch ‘Rose’.  A year or two later he cornered me with a quizzical expression and asked, in all seriousness, “Daddy, Doctor Who’s not real, is he?” And a year or two after that he developed an increasingly obsessive attitude to the show to the extent that my living room is nowadays a sea of Doctors, companions, Daleks, Cyberman, Sontarans, Silurians, Weeping Angels, sonic screwdrivers and at least three different Tardis playsets. Good grief.)

Anyway, the point of all the above is that modern fans of NuWho seem uncritical of the show and thus miss out on one of the great joys of fandom, which is complaining about the thing you love. They also don’t seem to drink very much, possibly because their cons are in hangar-like convention centres rather than hotels, possibly because they’re not actually old enough, or possibly because they’re just too boring. Alcohol and crushing disappointment – that’s what makes a true sci-fi fan.

A lot of the fans interviewed are in costume, and I have absolutely nothing against costumes at sci-fi cons. Forry Ackerman invented the idea before the war and I’ve probably worn a few in my time, although nothing like the level of handiwork on show nowadays and usually only for the costume contest and/or the Saturday night disco. However, I refuse to use the ghastly American term ‘cosplay’. It’s fancy dress, plain and simple. Fancy dress is great fun and some people put enormous time and effort into creating costumes which are either exact replicas or wildly imaginative, for which they are to be commended. But it is just fancy dress, folks.

There’s even talk of ‘crossplay’ which is fancy dress drag. There’s some toot about how women can dress up as male characters but men can’t dress up as female ones, and that this reflects society and it’s something which empowers women when they drag up but which emasculates men yada yada yada. That was one of the few points when I wanted to give the documentary a good slap because the simple, unstated truth is that a woman in male clothing is hot, while a man in female clothing is funny. It’s not impossible, but very, very difficult, for a bloke in drag to actually look sexy. But then again, it’s also very, very difficult for a woman in drag to get big laughs. Vive la difference, say I. Far too politically correct, these young Who fans.

Which brings us on to the subject of, well, not sex but sexiness. There’s lots of discussion, mostly by women, of how the modern show has sexy doctors. Interestingly, one female fan praises NuWho for adding romance to the show while another complains about it. There’s no doubt that Tennant attracted legions of girls and women to the show, as has Smith and (retrospectively) Eccleston as well. And I have no doubt that female Who fans will similarly swoon over Peter Capaldi (whose casting is mentioned here, marking the film as bang up to date but of course swiftly dating it come October). But let us not forget the wise words of Paul Merton who once pointed out that all you have to do to be considered ‘sexy’ is be on television and have a pulse.

Certainly there’s no denying that the show has large numbers of female fans now who were noticeably absent during the original run. A number of people recall the first ever Who convention in 1977 (from which there are several fascinating photos shown) as being almost entirely male, as were most of the subsequent Who cons. The only women in evidence, apparently, were girlfriends who had been dragged along, a condemnation subsequently downgraded still further by another interviewee who says it was in fact fans’ long-suffering mothers who provided the only oestrogen in the otherwise all-male environment. (This was not endemic to SF fandom in general, incidentally. Multimedia cons of the sort I attended and organised were generally about 60/40 in the M/F split. Most of the big names in Star Trek fandom have tended to be female (Bjo Trumble, to name one obvious example). And frankly if a single bloke couldn’t pull at the almost all-female conventions for shows like Quantum Leap or Beauty and the Beast then he might as well become a monk.)

One of the writers here, can’t recall who, opines at length (albeit eruditely and with some justification) that the 21st century Doctors are ‘sexy’ but not ‘sexual’, strengthening his argument by reminding us that McGann’s Doctor actually was sexual, enjoying a lingering snog with his female associate whereas his successors have largely gone no further than a peck on the cheek. And this brings me to my main point: the elephant in the room, the lacuna, the empty space at the heart of this (nevertheless highly commendable) documentary. And I realise that much of this review has described what this film is not, rather than what it is, for which I apologise. But then, what it is is a succession of well-shot and well-edited talking heads of actors, writers and fans discussing Doctor Who. There – that’s not much of a review is it?

So what is missing? Well, it seems very curious to me that among all this talk of sexy men, of cross-dressing, of old school Doctor Who fandom, there is no mention at all anywhere of sexuality. And that’s actually really rather relevant to the topic under discussion. One of the reasons why those early Who cons in the 1970s and 1980s were so massively male-dominated was that, for some reason, the show – or rather its fandom – attracted a disproportionate number of gay men. I mean, seriously. Sci-fi fandom has always been a very tolerant environment – infinite diversity in infinite combination, as the Trekkies put it – and other fandoms had their share of folk of different sexualities. But it was a standing joke for many years that the loneliest sci-fi fan in the world was a straight man at a Doctor Who convention.

Russell T Davies and Mark Gatiss are two of the most obvious names when thinking of gay Who fans who went on to be involved in the show’s successful  return but there are many others. Now please don’t get me wrong; I am not for one moment suggesting that Who has been recreated by some sort of ‘gay mafia’. But the fact remains that many of the leading figures of Who fandom in the 1980s and 1990s who have worked on the show subsequently have been gay men. And I think this is significant if only because NuWho has made tremendous strides in making homosexuality more acceptable and dispelling prejudice. Remember that scene where Captain Jack said goodbye to Rose and the Doctor? He gave Rose a kiss and, by God, you could hear a significant proportion of the viewing audience simultaneously shouting, as a joke, now kiss the Doctor. And he did!

That was a breakthrough moment in British TV. In a tea-time family show, a flamboyant, openly bi character (played by a flamboyant, openly gay actor) kissing another man. And the reason it was such a breakthrough was because, despite the millions who saw it, no-one made a fuss. Not too many years ago, that would have been front page news on the tabloids. The ‘80s and ‘90s were full of stories about gay characters on TV, not opprobrium but salacious nevertheless. There was that lesbian on Brookside, and for SF fans there was Ivanova in Babylon 5 who was hailed as being some sort of breakthrough gay character when she was actually just a rapacious dyke in a military uniform, feeding straight men’s fantasies.

But now we have Madame Vastra and Jenny, an openly gay married couple – “Good evening. I am a lizard woman from the dawn of time and this is my wife.” - and nothing is made of it. And that’s wonderful. That shows how far we’ve come. And it’s an example for the next generation. I certainly know that when TF becomes aware of variant sexualities, I can hold up Captain Jack and Madame Vastra as examples when I explain things to him.

There are plenty of other gay gags in RTD-era Who (“The Master, eh? Has he still got a beard?” “No. Well, a wife.”) and in terms of fandom there was a memorable comedy sketch on BBC2 in 1999, written by Mark Gatiss, in which Gatiss and David Walliams played Who fans who kidnap Peter Davison, ending with a shot of Davison’s eyes going wide in horror as Gatiss asks, “Would it be okay to… kiss Peter Davison?”

Now I’m not here to write a thesis on representations of homosexuality in Doctor Who, or to speculate on why the asexual Doctor should have held this fascination for homosexual men. And I fully realise that Cameron and Elisar could only fit so much into their documentary. But it just seems to be this massively relevant aspect of Who, NuWho and Who fandom which the film keeps approaching – male/female ratios, sex appeal of leading men, cross-dressing fans – and never quite reaches. (And there is a thesis to be written here. Why would a show largely created by gay men create such an appeal for women: is the Doctor really a sex object or just a gay best friend? And while we’re at it, why has it gone so massively downhill since control passed into the hands of a ‘breeder’?)

But I guess if you know about that side of things, you don’t need to be told it in a documentary, and folk who don’t know probably don’t care and won't spot the gap. So to return to the subject in hand, let’s briefly consider the technical aspects of Who's Changing which are very good. Camera-work and sound recording are excellent; the latter in particular can be a real problem in an open convention environment but there are no problems here. The film looks and sounds thoroughly professional yet has a fan-made aesthetic at the same time, somehow. The editing is smart and snappy too, skirting around the lack of any actual BBC stills or footage (apart from two or three very, very brief clips right at the start). Archive home video of previous events is incorporated into the main film, some of it no doubt supplied by my old mate Kevin Jon Davies whose name can be spotted in the credits. Behind-the-scenes and convention photos of Tennant, RTD and others give them an on-screen presence without troubling copyright lawyers.

The film is available to stream via Distrify for just £3.49 – link below – or if you prefer physical media you can buy the DVD (which includes extended interviews) for a kibblesworth under 13 quid from the website or selected high street geek stores. Full details at The film willenta haven* its theatrical premiere at Sci-Fi London on 3rd May 2014 (*one for the Dr Dan Streetmentioner fans there) and is also scheduled to screen at various festivals and conventions on both sides of the Atlantic. The whole thing was crowdfunded via Indiegogo in 2013.

The world of Doctor Who fandom has, over the years, often been incredibly insular and self-obsessed and it’s good to be able to view the passionate fans through the dispassionate lens of Cameron McEwan and see what that world is like now. Lots of people having fun, clearly, many of them wearing cute outfits. But I can’t say it appeals to me. Too much yacking, too many young people, not enough drinking, not enough complaining.

It were all electromagnetic fields around here when I were a lad…

MJS rating: B+

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