Here is a public service announcement: the following piece contains some strong language, and is also a bit of a rant.
Today, folks, we’re exploring fandom. It’s something I do quite a lot, probably too much, but the mysterious duplicity of it has long interested me. It is a source of both fascination and revulsion; a complicated hotbed of passion and devotion and hatred, a twisted car crash of a thing. Because sometimes fandom gets ugly. In a world of extremes it is the best and the worst of us.
If you’ve been around social media in the past week chances are you’ve run into this story, so I won’t recount it in detail, although the screen grabs are reproduced below. It tells the tale of an unpleasant encounter at SuperCon, which is apparently in Florida, although that was new information. It was posted by someone called valeria2067; I haven’t bothered looking her up. I don’t think it would make a difference in this case. She was approached by an older man at the food court – to be specific, her eleven-year-old daughter was – not long after they’d both met Peter Capaldi. I’ll let valeria take it from here.
As a journalist I have learned to read and report between the lines. You never get the full story; there are words left off the transcript, missing dates, unrecounted deeds. It’s very easy to read a single source and assume you have the full picture, or to read something emotive and feel exactly what you are expected to feel. I have – for reasons I don’t care to unpack – experienced this at close hand these past few months, with half-stories blown out of proportion, vital information left scandalously unreported. The other side is less interesting and therefore ignored, but it is no less worthy. There is is a crack in everything: that’s where the truth gets in.
So I have been turning this story over and over in my head, trying desperately to envisage a scenario in which this conversation may be the clumsily phrased small talk of a socially inept but nonetheless well-intentioned older man. This has nothing to do with apologetics, or gender defence. I just get angry when people jump to conclusions. There is a mob mentality about the world right now: this need for clear heroes and despicable villains. Did you ever see Titanic? Do you remember how Billy Zane played a narcissistic sociopath who was utterly one-dimensional, purely so we could applaud Kate Winslet for cheating on him? That’s kind of the way things are now. It is not enough for Donald Trump to be incompetent, he has to be downright evil as well. (He may be both, of course. Actually he probably is. I’m sure this was going somewhere.)
No, the truth is not the brilliant light of clarity but the murky grey of ambivalence. Perhaps this woman is not reporting the conversation as it happened – there are missing lines of dialogue, crucial game-changing giveaways that didn’t make the transcript. We’ll be here all day if we start down that road, so for the sake of the argument (and because I instinctively want to trust her) let’s assume that what she’s written down is what was said. Perhaps she overreacted. Perhaps the guy was being genuinely friendly, and just phrased his questions with the sort of awkwardness that comes from watching too much TV and conducting the bulk of your conversations over social media, where you get time to change a sentence before anybody gets to see or hear it. Years ago a friend of mine suggested a dystopian novel in which the internet crashes and millions of people find it impossible to engage in real-world dialogue because they’ve forgotten how, leaving a bunch of Luddites to rise up and take control of everything. I’m still waiting for her to write it; if she doesn’t I may pinch the idea myself.
That’s the sort of thing I could almost envisage happening here. Someone who is nice, but who doesn’t know how to talk to kids. Could that be what’s happened, perhaps? A nice man who wasn’t gatekeeping at all, but who was just trying to talk to a younger fan because he was lonely and none of the girls were interested? So I went through this woman’s post and picked it apart and tried to find the weak spots, the moments she built up a defensive wall, perhaps because of past experience, the inconsistencies, the nuances of assumed guilt that may have spawned from reading a situation in the wrong way.
And guess what? I found nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zip.
Because there is no excuse for this man’s behaviour. None. This isn’t a nice guy engaging in an awkward conversation because he doesn’t know how to have a sensible one. This is a gatekeeping dickwad. There is no “other side” to this story, no get-out clause in the face of agenda setting. This is someone who makes the rest of us looks bad – not because he expresses his appreciation for a common interest through reprehensible behaviour, but because through our actions we have helped to create him.
Let’s start with the opening gambit: “Do you even know anything about Doctor Who?” That’s not how you start small talk. That’s a straight-up rhetorical question. That assumes lack of knowledge, based in all likelihood on age, gender and costume choice. He saw a kid meeting the Twelfth Doctor and instantly assessed her worth as a fan. It is value judgement central. It is an inappropriate way to begin a conversation with an adult; for a child it is unforgivable. This is not Alec Guinness diplomatically pleading with a child to watch something other than Star Wars, only for the conversation to be irrevocably warped by thirty years of Chinese whispers. This is just rudeness, plain and unambiguous.
I have no doubt that this man’s choices were marked by his engagement of and experience with younger members of the fanbase. There is a skewed bias towards Nu Who among the discussion groups because it is accessible and contemporary and frankly easier on the eyes than some of the old stuff. There is no point getting grumpy about it. No doubt this grizzled veteran is sick of the Best Doctor polls that routinely run in Facebook groups and online publications, in which Tennant is usually at the top. That’s what happens with polls. They’re filled out by a selective audience. Years ago there were two X-Factor finalists, and the less objectively talented one emerged victorious because he was younger, prettier and Scottish. That’s the way of things. It’s a karaoke competition; we move on.
Having assumed a lack of knowledge, he then fires off a list of questions, the sort of thing you get asked when you apply to join certain groups. When requested to stop, he attempts to justify himself, and fails simply because his cause is rooted in snobbery. How dare you, whispers the subtext behind every question, how dare you bring your daughter up as a fan without doing it the way I would? There is a sense of elitism about it: that certain Doctors are more worth your time, that if you don’t know this or you haven’t seen that then you’re not watching the show properly. The words ‘True Whovian’ are flung about by experienced and fresh and young and old alike, and they mean nothing and should be banned from usage full stop. (I don’t like the word ‘Whovian’ generally, actually, but let’s not go there just now.) Everyone sets the bar in a different place and thus the entire concept is meaningless – her idea of appropriate dedication is different to yours, so how come you get to be right and she doesn’t? It’s patently ludicrous. A fan is a fan regardless of whether they’ve seen only one series or [Googles] all thirty-seven.
Sometimes newer fans make mistakes, but that’s not an excuse for beating them over the head. Listen: uber-fandom is not a fucking badge of honour. There is nothing noble, nothing venerable, about knowing more than everyone else. It makes you a handy person to have on a pub quiz team, but that’s it. Gareth – yes, we’re still in touch – has forgotten more about Doctor Who than I’m ever likely to know, but do you think I spend hours emailing him purely because he knows things? He has seen and read just about everything pre-‘Robot of Sherwood’ (which is where he lost all interest) but he doesn’t brag about it. He answers questions when I ask him for help – usually with something I’m writing – but he has never set himself up as a source of all knowledge, and has never lorded it over me, because if he did I wouldn’t be talking to him.
Let’s move down the chain. I know more than many of the people I talk to online, largely because of the kind of groups in which I’ve made a home for myself. That in itself is nothing to be proud of. I use my knowledge to help people when they need it. Usually they’re polite. When they dig their heels in or are unpleasant, that’s when I get scornful. But I remember what it was like to know nothing. I remember hanging out with a bunch of Who fans in Cambridge and asking them about stories I’d never seen. There was no arrogance in their answers, no sense of superiority. They just told me what I needed to know. They were nice. Did you ever think there’s a place for that? Maybe we’re just not very nice these days, simply because there’s no time. We use our love of the show as a defence. Who cares how you treat other people, as long as Doctor Who is left untarnished?
Do I think Davison was better than Eccleston? Undoubtedly. Do I care that other people don’t? Not in the least. If someone thinks Tennant’s final episode was moving, then that’s fine. If they proclaim him as “the greatest Doctor ever” without having seen Pertwee, or Troughton, or Baker, I’ll probably say “That’s fair enough, I’m glad you like him, but have you considered watching…?”. But I’ll do so politely and in an appropriate context. I wouldn’t say it to an eleven-year-old. Or if I did, I certainly wouldn’t start a conversation with it, particularly when it was someone I didn’t know. I don’t even do it with my own children. Daniel is nine and has seen all the new stories and a few of the old. Tennant is his favourite. I don’t care. I have known wise twelve-year-olds who have memorised entire sequences from ‘The Dominators’; I have known octogenarians who got into the show in 2005. Age is irrelevant.
There is one thing we haven’t discussed, and that’s the possibility of learning difficulties. Thomas started secondary school the other week; his transition days in July proceeded mostly without incident although there was one run-in with a senior member of staff who assumed (incorrectly) that he and another boy with similar issues were being rude, merely because they phrased something rather differently to the way you would expect from someone who was neurotypical (or allistic, or whatever I’m allowed to say now). Basically he forgot about the autism; I’m keeping an eye on things. Is there a possibility this man had Asperger’s? The way the story is recounted – particularly in terms of his body language – it’s doubtful. Do we let him off the hook if he does? Yes, we probably do. But I don’t think it’s a factor. I’ve spent over a decade dealing with autism on a daily basis, and I’m not picking up any of the signs; there are no alarm bells ringing.
I don’t get angry too much these days. My list of pet peeves is a litany of small things. “I loathe burnt toast,” says McCoy, before reminiscing about bus stations. I get angry with tailgaters. Nuisance calls and scammers targeting old people are another target. There’s not much else. People on the internet make me sad, but that’s the way people are when they can say what they like without consequences. You shake your head and hug your family, and think no more on it.
But for one reason or another, this has made my blood boil. This is not the way the world should be. As fans, we need to do better. As men, we need to do better. As so-called adults, we need to do better. I don’t believe (and have never believed) that the message of Doctor Who is kindness, but it’s a lesson we could nonetheless do with learning. I saw it this morning: a new user started a thread in a group asking about numbering, and the response from the rest of the group was to troll him with GIFs and sarcastic comments. Not one of them, it seemed, stopped to consider that perhaps he was simply confused. There are others who start conversations saying how much they love Clara. They are trolled and ridiculed. And these same people, those doing the scoffing and jeering, are the ones ranting about conversations like the one Valeria experienced at SuperCon. Even I’m doing it – taking the moral high ground when I know that my behaviour online is often less than exemplary. Perhaps we should be cleaning our own house, ere we cast a broom round the kitchens of others.
Still. To the guy who did this? I know you’ve probably read all manner of unpleasantness in the last few days, and have languished in obscurity, desperate to come out and clear your name (as you consider it) but daring not to because of the abuse you’ll undoubtedly receive. I have a funny feeling the bulk of your critics will be women, because the rebuttals and defences I’ve encountered have been from men. But I do not want to turn this into a gender-based argument, because this is as much about the culture of fandom as it is about anything else. I could envisage an identical situation where you would have approached a small boy and treated him in the same manner; I suspect that your conscious decision was to practice age-based gatekeeping, but that you saw this girl as an easy target.
Gender isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it is a factor. So as a man myself, I say this. Shame on you. Shame on you for assuming your loyalty gives you a stake, an ownership, or any say at all in how other fans engage with your pet obsession. Shame on you for thinking you can dictate terms of fandom. Shame on you, and shame on us all, men and women and fans and non-fans alike, for breeding the sort of culture where we allow this to happen.