To the best of my knowledge, as I sit here and write this in March 2009, I am celebrating my first decade of internet use. Some time in 1999 – and Google cannot help me here – I joined the group alt.drwho.creative. From there, I graduated to rec.arts.drwho, and spent an inordinate amount of time arguing the merits of various BBC Books featuring The Doctor.
I know that this makes me a dinosaur. I still own underwear that’s been around longer than I’ve been online, but in internet terms I’m a Cro-Magnon wondering where all the mammoths went. There will be people reading this who’ve never had to use a dial-up account to try to convince someone on the other side of the world that they’re wrong about canon. People who find the whole idea of newsgroups as quaint and olde worlde as I find the idea of using the phone book as anything other than a doorstop.
To try and give those people an idea of what it was like back then, I’ve drunk a bottle of wine and am going to type until I fall asleep. With CAPS LOCK on RANDOM and teh spell-CHECK disabeld.
But what’s important to remember is that I’m not the start of it: even before I got involved, there was an online Doctor Who fandom – right from the internet’s earliest days, even. There is a prehistory to fandom that predates my arrival in it, my birth even – which is a common element that unites the majority of fans today: no matter how long you’ve been a fan, there’s stuff that went on before, a time when they did things differently.
In the eighties, when I started watching Doctor Who, fandom was carried out in the field – meetings in pubs or playgrounds, travelling the length and breadth of the country to attend conventions, talking to other fans face to face. And part of the main motivation for doing that was to excavate your own personal prehistory.
“I used to go to conventions in the 1970s and early 1980s. Most conventions were run in London by the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS), so it was usually an overnight coach trip or train ride,” says Peter Anghelides when I ask him – via the internet, of course. “This was in the days before DVDs, and when a blank video tape cost ten pounds. As well as talking with fellow fans, you could watch old episodes of Doctor Who — perhaps seeing something you hadn’t seen since its original transmission.”
Fans banded together, forming organisations like DWAS in part so that they could gather information about the show that wasn’t available from official sources. Justin Richards, a member of DWAS in its earliest days, explains:
“The DWAS Reference Department had synopsis sheets for every story - just a 2-page photocopied pamphlet with some black-blob photos and the Radio Times blurb and cast listings. You can’t begin to understand how exciting that was. We didn’t have video, so we swapped audio recordings – cassettes … there wasn’t any email, so everything was by GPO letter and parcel.”
But while all that was going on, there was something growing that would change everything: something called ARPANET.
Much comment has been made about the US military’s involvement in developing the fledgling internet – probably because the synergy with the battlefield the web then became is somewhat pleasing – but most of the actual development was done in the country’s universities. In 1969, the University of California and the Stanford Research Institute established the first ARPANET connection – that is, the first network to use the same basic set up as the modern internet. Ten years later, two students at Duke University developed a system called Usenet that let them post electronic messages to a neighbouring university over ARPANET: by 1984, 940 host were connected to Usenet … and what was one of the first things they started talking about?
“I was first on the internet in 84. I had access to a college computer lab,” Jonathan Dennis tells me. “It wasn’t even called the internet then. I think at the time it was still being called Arpanet. Average people in their homes were not using this. On my first day, I discovered a Doctor Who group. The big topic of discussion was the hiatus.”
And the internet was born.
To begin with, those early Usenet conversations were pretty primitive: although someone of my generation would recognise the basic principles of posting a message that accumulated replies in threads, things went slowly and it was usual practice to post one day and look for your replies the next. Conversations on the net.drwho group were slow, and because members were limited to those who could get their hands on the equipment, the group was made up of fans all scrabbling to dig up what information there was about Doctor Who to be found.
But, all the same, it served a purpose:
“The initial attraction,” says Jonathan, “was simply finding people who knew what I was talking about. In the USA, Doctor Who is a cult show. Even today, the chances are the person you are talking to has no idea what Doctor Who is. The opportunity to have a face to face talk about it isn’t there.”
That was something that I could sympathise with.
In 1984, it was perfectly fine for me to run around the playground pretending to be the Doctor whilst other kids pretended to be Daleks. I was eight; there was nothing odd about that. After the hiatus, though, things were different: okay, so Doctor Who was still on the telly, but in the minds of the British public it was past its best. The BBC had dealt its iconic status a double death blow by announcing that it was so out of touch it needed to be taken off the air – and then by bringing it back as essentially the same old, same old. By the time Mel Bush bounced her perky way onto the TARDIS, Doctor Who wasn’t a family show any more: it was strictly for the kids, and I stopped mentioning it as something I liked. By the time I was ten, my next-door neighbour could have been Ian Levine and I still wouldn’t have had anybody else to talk to about Doctor Who.
But as Doctor Who slowly slid into cancellation an extended rest whilst the concept was rethought, its fandom was also undergoing a sea-change. As blank videos got cheaper, as Target moved closer to publishing a novelisation of each story, as the BBC helpfully started releasing stories onto video – suddenly it was easier for each fan to investigate their own Who prehistory, and the fans whose status had been earned by virtue of dodgy videotapes – or even dodgier memories – of some of the older stories found that their unique knowledge was becoming commonplace. Even worse, their carefully crafted fan consensus was being eroded by the new fan buzzwords: the memory cheats.
One by one, the big name fans started to fall: Ian Levine – who is either excontinuity advisor to the Who production office and co-writer of Attack of the Cybermen, or a big fat liar depending on who you talk to – found his pronouncements on continuity to be slightly undermined by being proved wrong by some young upstart with a copy of The Sea Devils under his arm; Jean-Marc Lofficier’s programme guides got downgraded from definitive to flawed as the readers started being able to check the facts for themselves; Tomb of the Cybermen turned up alive and well, and found itself regraded from “classic” to “but why did he open the tomb in the first place?”
Suddenly it was no longer enough to just be able to remember what happened in episode three of The Seeds of Death. That kind of trick could be pulled by any dumb kid with a video recorder. To make things worse, there were only so many facts that could be known: the Seventh Doctor and Ace had disappeared muttering a few banal comments about tea, and now we knew that there would only ever be 159 stories to remember things about. All that fandom had on the horizon was endless arguments about whether there were actually only 156 because technically Trial of a Timelord was one story.
As the basic facts grew more commonplace, so the focus went deeper still: this was the age of pedantry and the birth of the still ongoing debate about what the early Hartnell stories should properly be called – but it was also the age of proper, historical research and the unearthing of truly interesting facts about the show’s early years by historians such as Howe, Stammers, Walker and Pixley. And increasingly the place you would go to discuss all of these was online.
In 1987, net.drwho found itself party to the Great Renaming, where a new structure was enforced on Usenet: it became rec.arts.drwho, the then most visible place to go and discuss Doctor Who. As more and more people started to get access to the internet, RADW’s membership grew. Some of the names that started to appear there were already well known in fandom – names like Gary Russell or Craig Hinton, who had both been reviewers for Doctor Who Magazine – but others wouldn’t mean anything to anyone for a good few years. Let’s make it clear: although it’s fairly well known in fandom now that if you visit the Who forums you might find yourself chatting with the someone who wrote your favourite story, that wasn’t the appeal of RADW back then.
When asked, nearly everyone I talked to for this article said that it was the convenience of online discussion that attracted them. There was already a strong fan network growing in the real world, but the internet let them talk to the people they usually only saw at a convention any time they wanted – or just join a growing throng of strangers all discussing the same thing. But that was only part of the appeal, the more acceptable and easily admitted motivation behind the action.
There’s a selfishness, an egotism, to posting on the internet – the same as there is with any kind of writing: the only thing anyone writes solely for the pleasure of someone else is a cheque. All online groups have far more members than they do people posting, and it takes a certain kind of mind to step from reading all the discussions and the flaming and the nonsense and think you’ve got something to add. Mostly, you start with a polite, quiet hello and maybe a question for those wiser heads on the group – but all the same, you’re looking for responses: you’re looking for the members to open their arms and accept you, because you make sense. You say things that are worth saying.
And the gratification can be instant:
“Convenience was one thing,” says Peter Anghelides. “But immediacy was even more appealing. Previously to have a “real-time” discussion with fans, you’d need to be at a convention or the like. Otherwise, there would be exchanges in fanzines that would do over (literally) months what an online thread can do in minutes.”
“I loved the frenetic debating that online fandom offered,” Ian Mond adds. “You’d post something and within seconds there’d be a response. Best of all you’d sit and watch as other people tore each other to shreds over such issues like whether Remembrance of the Daleks was good or a pile of poo and whether Lawrence Miles had destroyed Doctor Who continuity. It seemed all so cutting edge and exciting and vibrant.”
That was why I went online. I’d started writing for DWAS fairly late on, little bits of fiction and opinionated articles about this and that. You’d wait all month for the latest publication to arrive to see if you were in it, and then you’d wait another month hoping that somebody would write a response, an article, a letter, anything. More often than not, they didn’t. When you went online, that whole process took seconds – and when you were completely ignored, you could just chip in with something else and see where that got you.
That’s what gets conversations going on the internet – and what gives any group its natural lifespan. We pretend we get involved in the discussion to learn, to expand, to share … but more often, we assume it will be the people we discuss with who’ll learn something. Three words you rarely see online: “I was wrong”. Positions get entrenched, and arguments are rarely resolved past the “My God I Just Can’t Talk About This Any More!” level. Tempers fray at earlier and earlier stages, leaving the newbies wondering what they said and why no-one wants to talk about UNIT dating any more.
RADW might have been the most visible of Who discussion groups, but at times it wasn’t the nicest place to be – especially for the uninitiated. Kelly Hale’s first online experience wasn’t exactly uncommon:
“I outed myself as a noobie with a question about why more women didn’t write for the New Adventures or Eighth Doctor Adventure book series. I didn’t even know what “flamed” meant, but my first experience with online Who fandom involved me being flamed. I almost didn’t return ever.”
Of course, that’s your normal every day internet: from 1991 onwards, Doctor Who fandom had another issues.
When Virgin started publishing the New Adventures, they developed a pool of fan writers. Peter Darvill-Evans explained years afterwards that first-time authors were cheap and that first-time fan authors were particularly useful because they already knew Who inside out: more than that, though, “They can - and did - talk to each other, co-operate on story lines, and so on”. Some of those fans were already talking to each other on RADW, and some of those that weren’t soon found themselves attracted by the sheer mass of their peers already online.
As they began to chat, the NA authors made friends and enemies. The dialogue was opened up, and could lead straight into the fictional world: is the Ian Mond I’ve been quoting so happily actually a real person, or the computer geek with the interesting skull cap from Kate Orman’s Blue Box?
“Actually, I was disappointed by that,” Ian mock sulks. “I thought there’d be more recognition online. But other than the odd review, no-one seemed to care. I wanted people to stop me in the street and say, ‘hey are you the Mondy who appeared in Blue Box?’”
As the authors used their acknowledgements to thank or berate RADW and peppered their text with fan-name checks, so they advertised online fandom and the glittering prize: if normal online discussion has to contend with people saying anything for a bit of recognition, online fandom has the added problem that more than recognition you might find yourself woven into the very fabric of the universe you love so much if you can just make that author notice you.
On top of this, Who fandom had to contend with the lasting legacy of the NAs: they opened up one of the great schisms in fandom that still hasn’t been repaired. As the books started to bed themselves in, RADW greeted their arrival with a question that had never been asked before but would never go away: