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Who Are You? If Our Obsessions Define Us, What Does That Say About Fans Of A Certain Time Lord?

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Who Are You? If Our Obsessions Define Us, What Does That Say About Fans Of A Certain Time Lord? Good Things, Argues Paul Whitelaw

IN THE CORNER OF THE ROOM I'M sitting in now is a discreet glass cabinet full of merchandise devoted to my favourite television show, Doctor Who. I won't call it a shrine, as that makes me sound ever so slightly bonkers. But it is undoubtedly a testament to my enduring love for a programme I first encountered at the age of four. I'm 33 now, and it captivates me still. You could say I was a fan.

Of course, I'm happy to tell you this now, since these days it seems that pretty much everyone in the country is a fan of Doctor Who. You may not own a replica sonic screwdriver or an original 1970s Tom Baker action figure, but chances are you'll happily admit to enjoying Russell T Davies' monumentally successful re-launch.

But only a few short years ago if you mentioned your love of Doctor Who, most people would snort derisively and run off with your glasses. In the words of Alan McWhan, co-organiser of the upcoming Glasgow Doctor Who convention Army Of Guests, for years the image of the average Doctor Who nut was: "A kind of scarf-wearing loony sitting in their bedroom alone watching the videos again and again, ad infinitum.

"Obviously, there are fans like that just as much as there are football fans who obsessively read their fanzines, or memorise scores from the FA cup final from 30 years ago. It's just a different scarf."

Which is undoubtedly true. Everyone is a fan of something, whether it be sport, sci-fi, horses or religion. And everyone will support and defend the subject of their affections with the passionate zeal of a protective parent. Our obsessions - by which I mean the nice, harmless ones which won't incur a lengthy prison sentence - may not wholly define us, but they're still an important part of who we are, and we should celebrate them openly without fear of reprisal.

Comedian Toby Hadoke spent years defending Doctor Who, to the point where he ended up writing an award-winning one-man show called Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf, a funny, surprisingly touching confection in which he looks back over his life through the prism of his favourite TV show.

He's reprising it as part of this month's Magners Glasgow International Comedy Festival. "There is still some of that latent anger within me," he admits. "When I think about those times when people would say, 'Eurgh, Doctor Who is rubbish, and the sets wobbled.'

"Even in the BBC's obituary to Jon Pertwee they said, 'the sets may have wobbled ...' And you think, 'Oh leave off!' "

But now that the show is back and more popular than ever with viewers and critics alike, long-time fans like Hadoke find themselves in a curious position whereby they feel vindicated - "we were right!" - yet annoyed that no one took them seriously for so long. "There's a bit in the show where people start coming out of the woodwork saying they've always liked Doctor Who. But no, this is mine! I staunchly defended it when everybody laughed at it, so let me bask in this please, ye bugger."

It is perhaps unsurprising that Sheffield Church Army worker Andrew Wooding, co-organiser of the upcoming seminar Spirituality And Doctor Who, views this quandary in distinctly Biblical terms, likening the plight of the old-school fan to that of Jonah. "He was given a message by God to go and preach to the people of Nineveh," he says. "But he didn't want to. But after a series of misadventures he got to where the Ninevites lived and reluctantly preached this message, and then resented the fact that they all heard the message and accepted God. It's almost like Jonah wanted the Ninevites to stay where they were, and I'm feeling that way about Doctor Who fans now! I was the one who held on to the flame for 16 years, and suddenly all these upstarts have come along, so where does that put me?"

Wooding isn't averse to likening a fanatical interest in something like Doctor Who to harbouring strong religious beliefs.

"It fills a gap," he says. "You have your Bibles, your Doctor Who reference guides. You have your relics, you have your toys. There isn't a day that goes by where I don't go onto eBay and try to buy something new." He has been involved with local fan groups for years, and is both delighted and perplexed by the changing fanbase in recent years. "I've been to a couple of conventions and lots of fan meetings. We used to be middle-aged men with plastic bags full of magazines we wanted to show each other, and suddenly there's this fan group in Sheffield that's entirely made up of teenage girls. It doesn't compute! I didn't expect Doctor Who to be a hero to people who buy the latest pop singles or whatever."

When the original series was cancelled in 1989, its fans valiantly kept the franchise alive by buying new Doctor Who books and audio plays, never believing that their beloved show would experience a second coming. "It was almost like we were worshipping something that was dead," sighs Wooding. "And trying to keep it alive through force of will." But when it did re-materialise, some dogged believers were appalled by its thoroughly modern guise. Imagine a devout Christian's reaction to Jesus coming back sporting a battered leather jacket, with a glib Salford tongue and Chris Evans's ex on his arm.

"There are factions in fandom who just loathe the new series and want to hold on to the nostalgia. To me it's all one and the same thing".

Personally, I couldn't have been happier when Doctor Who's return was announced in 2004, although I was understandably concerned that if they botched it up, the show would be even more of a laughing stock than it latterly became. But some fans, such as Hadoke, were sent into agonies of doubt.

"Doctor Who fans do tend to overreact sometimes, and that allows me to be self-mocking in the show. I remember being apoplectic with rage when Billie Piper was cast, and of course she turned out to be one of the best things about the new series. I didn't know what they were going to do to it, but it's basically the same show to me. It's got the same use of imagination, the same liberal standpoints, the same pacifist, intellectual hero, all of the things that make it special."

But today geeks like me can hold their miniature die-cast Daleks high and proudly declare approval for the man from Gallifrey. Andrew Woodward even sees the current series, and in particular David Tennant's indie professor incarnation, as a direct endorsement of the humble nerd. "What I really admire about David Tennant's portrayal is the fact that he's made a deliberate decision to keep his spectacles on at least once every episode, to stick up for the geeky kids, make them the heroes. And in [2006 episode] "School Reunion", it was the fat kid who saved the school. The show is still there for the geeks, but it's also there for everyone else."

Hadoke's love of Doctor Who has taken him on a long, strange trip into the unknown. Last year he recorded a radio version of his stage show for BBC7 and found himself in the bizarre position of casting Colin Baker, the sixth incarnation of the Doctor, as his father. "It was quite possibly the most exciting day of my life. It was great, because I sat in the recording booth watching one of your actual Doctor Whos reading lines that I'd written, in a thing that I was starring in about Doctor Who. It was incredible. I wanted to write a letter to my miserable teenage self saying: 'This is going to happen.' If he got that I think he'd have gone, 'That's alright. That's worth it.' "

The desire to live vicariously through the actions of heroes, whether fictional or real, is an enduring human trait, and while you could argue that it is infantile to stay devoted to something that you adored as a child, I see it as a celebration of innocence, harmless escapism from the humdrum. Being a hardcore fan of something is an entirely healthy way of coping with the tedious trappings of adult life. But then I would say that, sat here in my endless scarf, with my life-sized Plasticine model of Peter Davison sweating idly in the noonday sun.

Resistance, as they say, is futile.

Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 15 March. See www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com. Spirituality And Doctor Who is on 19 April at Wilson Carlile Campus, Sheffield. Army Of Guests is on 25 May at the Quality Hotel, Glasgow

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  • APA 6th ed.: Whitelaw, Paul (2008-03-01). Who Are You? If Our Obsessions Define Us, What Does That Say About Fans Of A Certain Time Lord?. The Scotsman p. 4.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Whitelaw, Paul. "Who Are You? If Our Obsessions Define Us, What Does That Say About Fans Of A Certain Time Lord?." The Scotsman [add city] 2008-03-01, 4. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Whitelaw, Paul. "Who Are You? If Our Obsessions Define Us, What Does That Say About Fans Of A Certain Time Lord?." The Scotsman, edition, sec., 2008-03-01
  • Turabian: Whitelaw, Paul. "Who Are You? If Our Obsessions Define Us, What Does That Say About Fans Of A Certain Time Lord?." The Scotsman, 2008-03-01, section, 4 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Who Are You? If Our Obsessions Define Us, What Does That Say About Fans Of A Certain Time Lord? | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Who_Are_You%3F_If_Our_Obsessions_Define_Us,_What_Does_That_Say_About_Fans_Of_A_Certain_Time_Lord%3F | work=The Scotsman | pages=4 | date=2008-03-01 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 October 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Who Are You? If Our Obsessions Define Us, What Does That Say About Fans Of A Certain Time Lord? | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Who_Are_You%3F_If_Our_Obsessions_Define_Us,_What_Does_That_Say_About_Fans_Of_A_Certain_Time_Lord%3F | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 October 2019}}</ref>