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Science Fiction Audiences: watching Doctor Who and Star Trek

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Science Fiction Audiences: watching Doctor Who and Star Trek

JOHN TULLOCH & HENRY JENKINS, 1995

London, Routledge

pp. 294, 12.99 (paper)

Analysis of the audience has long been seen as the final frontier of television studies. This text promises to begin the task of mapping that frontier by examining the fans of two most enduring examples of an equally enduring genre: the television science fiction series Doctor Who and Star Trek. The jacket promises to reveal 'why ... Star Trek and Doctor Who are so popular' and consider these series as the 'expression of peculiarly "American" and "British" national cultures'. Unfortunately the text left this communications historian with more questions than answers.

Tulloch and Jenkins adopt a rigid division of labour. Each chapter is as self contained as a journal article and there is little sense of a cohesive whole. Tulloch, co-author of 1983 study Doctor Who: the unfolding text, takes the Doctor Who chapters, focusing on the responses of Australian high-school students. Jenkins, for his part, studies groups of Star Trek fans including his own MIT students. The fans emerge from this analysis not as the fat, unmarried thirty-somethings of the press stereotype but sufficiently diverse to defy easy race, class, or gender classification. One thing they share is that they take their chosen series incredibly personally and have struggled to force the respective production giants (the BBC and Paramount television) to accept their input into the series. The most poignant chapter in the book deals with gay and lesbian Star Trek fans and their battle to persuade Paramount allow a 'queer' character on board that utopia of the future, the Starship Enterprise. In contrast, the Doctor Who fans who lobbied the BBC to sack series producer John Nathan-Turner on the grounds that he was conspiring to destroy the show, seem rather silly. The struggle of an audience to participate in the production process is nothing new--as the experience of authors of similarly involving texts from Conan Doyle onwards can attest--but in the age of the Internet fan pressure is likely to play an increasingly significant part in television production. Hence Tulloch & Jenkins may well have caught a highly significant moment in the historical development of the television medium.

For the non-social scientist the twin subjects of the book are obscured as often as they are illuminated by the painstaking methodology and digressions into the sociology of pleasure. But one may still be tantalized by flashes of insight from authors and fans alike, and glimpses along paths not taken in text. The connection between the respective series and national identities is particularly interesting, but never sufficiently developed. The link between Doctor Who and Britishness is sketched as Australian viewers hint that the show is some sort of antidote to a high-tech 'shoot 'em up' American approach, and that the Doctor represents 'fair play' and a sort of whiggish post-colonial developmentalism.

One of the major failings of the book is its separation from the British television culture that produced the original series or the original British audience of the program who established its success and durability. It would be interesting to know what needs Tulloch believes Doctor Who originally met for its first audience, and whether the show's cancellation implied that those needs were now being met elsewhere. Doctor Who expired at the very moment that Paramount unveiled Star Trek: The Next Generation. Presumably Doctor Who could not hold its own in the world of Industrial Light and Magic.

While British culture is underplayed, Jenkins does rather more to engage the changes in American cultural assumptions. In the beginning we have a Kennedy-era scenario stuffed with all the 'can-do' spirit of a Robert McNamara press conference. An Imperial project was implicit. The program was originally to be called 'Wagon Train to the Stars', before a canny producer switched to the snappier 'Star Trek' (appropriating a term from the Boer colonisation of the African interior). Of course with a black character on the bridge the show was always built on a paradox, conquering in the name of diversity. By the late 1980s, Star Trek: The Next Generation firmly espoused a post-Vietnam, post-Cold War, alien-friendly outlook. As Jenkins notes, the 1987 edition of the Star Trek writers manual warns:

We are not in buying stories which cast our people and our vessel in the role of 'galactic policemen' ... Nor is our mission that of spreading 20th Century Euro/American cultural values throughout the galaxy ... We are not in the business of toppling cultures that we do not approve of.

As the authors themselves concede, there is room for a detailed study of this transformation. A lively cultural history of American television production and viewing could be written around the Star Trek phenomenon. It would be valuable to look at the behind the scenes debates behind the voyage from TV fiction's first inter-racial kiss in the 1960s, to the ambiguously liberal 1990s when, same sex relationships may be shown, but only after it has been explained that one of the participants is actually a male alien who has assumed a female body. This book is emphatically not that or any other kind of history. Instead it has merely succeeded in opening the door to a subject which, like the Doctor's police box, is bigger on the inside than it seems from outside. The result is, nonetheless, as Spock would say: 'fascinating'.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Cull, Nicholas J. (Vol. 17, Issue 3 (August 1997)). Science Fiction Audiences: watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television .
  • MLA 7th ed.: Cull, Nicholas J.. "Science Fiction Audiences: watching Doctor Who and Star Trek." Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television [add city] Vol. 17, Issue 3 (August 1997). Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Cull, Nicholas J.. "Science Fiction Audiences: watching Doctor Who and Star Trek." Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, edition, sec., Vol. 17, Issue 3 (August 1997)
  • Turabian: Cull, Nicholas J.. "Science Fiction Audiences: watching Doctor Who and Star Trek." Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, Vol. 17, Issue 3 (August 1997), section, edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Science Fiction Audiences: watching Doctor Who and Star Trek | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Science_Fiction_Audiences:_watching_Doctor_Who_and_Star_Trek | work=Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television | pages= | date=Vol. 17, Issue 3 (August 1997) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=4 August 2020 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Science Fiction Audiences: watching Doctor Who and Star Trek | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Science_Fiction_Audiences:_watching_Doctor_Who_and_Star_Trek | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=4 August 2020}}</ref>