Fear, loathing and Letraset: Doctor Who fandom in the 1980s

The 1980s was the decade in which Doctor Who came of age, so it followed that the show’s first generation of fans – those children who, back in the 60s, had been captivated by the cathode glow of Cybermen on the moon and Yetis in the Underground – would enter into adulthood at around the same time. And adults, as we know, can sometimes be silly, overly-serious creatures who forget that life is supposed to be fun. But they are also passionate, creative and clever, and all these qualities would come to define Doctor Who fandom during this stormiest of decades.

The early 80s were, without a doubt, a brilliant time to be a Doctor Who fan. The advent of video recorders meant you could now own vintage Doctor Who – not just as a scratchy audio recording, but with pictures. For some, that meant waiting for the slow trickle of official BBC Video releases that began in 1983 with Revenge of the Cybermen; for others, there was the somewhat less legitimate black market in off-air copies – more often than not copies of copies (of copies) in which the picture had become so degraded they were virtually unwatchable. Which didn’t stop us watching them endlessly, of course.

This was the golden era of the fanzine – a thriving cottage industry of photocopied A5 manifestos made with boundless reserves of love and Letraset. Conventions were now a regular fixture of the Who fan’s calendar, too, and if the BBC’s 20th anniversary celebration at Longleat House in Wiltshire turned out to be an organisational calamity – with 56,000 fans turning up instead of the estimated 13,000 – well, didn’t that only serve to demonstrate how loved Doctor Who was?

The fact that fandom had got itself serious and organised – no mere ‘fan club’ for us, we had an appreciation society – wasn’t lost on the man in charge of Doctor Who at the time. John Nathan-Turner (known to every fan as JN-T) courted this section of the audience like no producer before him, even installing superfan Ian Levine as the show’s unofficial ‘continuity adviser’, always on hand to answer knotty questions about Wirrn breeding cycles or the correct number of suckers on a Zygon. This in turn fed through to the show itself, which leaned increasingly on the series’ own mythology (some would argue at the expense of the casual viewer).

“We would have a monthly meeting with JN-T in the Bush pub to exchange information,” recalls Andrew Beech, co-ordinator of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society in the mid-80s. “He would tell us what he could about what was coming up in the show, and we’d tell him what was going on in the world of fandom.”

The producer’s attentiveness was undoubtedly fuelled, in part at least, by how much he enjoyed his own celebrity status among fans and at conventions – particularly in America, where Doctor Who’s heavy rotation on PBS channels had turned it into a sizeable cult concern. This in itself led to a certain amount of transatlantic tension, with some British fans irked at the Americans’ ability to throw big bucks at big stars.

“John did like to court the American fans, and we did feel it was a bit unfair,” recalls David J Howe, who ran the DWAS’s Reference Department in the early 80s. “I remember in 1983, the 20th anniversary, we couldn’t have any Doctors at our annual convention, because they were all in Chicago. We just couldn’t compete.”

In 1985, fandom would prove its mettle in Doctor Who’s darkest hour, helping whip up a tabloid storm that forced BBC boss Michael Grade to back down from plans to axe the show.

“I believe it was only because DWAS chairman David Saunders pressed [BBC Managing Director] Bill Cotton through private correspondence that Bill came out and said, ‘No no, it’s just being rested’,” says David Howe. “When Bill saw the fan outcry – when he realised this wasn’t going to go away – the only thing he could do was not cancel it.” (Whether Doctor in Distress – a low-rent Band Aid-style protest single organised by Ian Levine and fellow fan Paul Mark Tams, was as helpful to the cause is a moot point. But you certainly couldn’t doubt their passion.)

The cancellation crisis would prove to be a watershed moment in more ways than one, slicing the 80s neatly into two starkly contrasting halves. Pre-1985, the programme’s buoyant viewing figures, and the high-profile 20th anniversary celebrations, had made fandom a happy ship, by and large. But as the show itself entered choppy waters, with a drastically reduced episode count and ratings in freefall, John Nathan-Turner discovered that the problem with feeding the fans is, at some point, they are liable to turn round and give you a nasty nip.

Leading the chorus of disapproval was semi-professional news ’zine Doctor Who Bulletin, which launched Operation Who, a campaign to pressure the BBC into sacking the producer. (Sample splash headline, from November 1987: JN-T MUST GO NOW. Just in case you thought screaming entitlement was invented with Twitter.)

“There was a very vociferous, vocal minority of fans who just didn’t like the way the show was being made,” says Andrew Beech. “It was a turbulent time.”

Composer and long-standing DWAS member Mark Ayres recalls being at a convention in 1986 where JN-T was booed as he took to the stage. “It was extremely unpleasant. He was just a bloke trying to do a job. I didn’t like everything he did with the show but I never felt that being a fan of something gives you the right to own it, or to dictate the way it’s made. I don’t think those fans realised what hurt and harm they were causing.”

Sadly, this fissile atmosphere spilled over into the mainstream, with the BBC seemingly only too happy to give disaffected fans a voice on shows like Did You See?, in which Ian Levine railed against Doctor Who having become “a mockery, pantomime version of its former self”. But the fans were as much in the firing line as the programme, says David Howe: “They wanted Doctor Who fans on these shows to laugh and point at them. ‘Do you wear that scarf to work?’ ‘No, I wore it because your researcher told me to!’”

In the Daily Mail, meanwhile, Andrew Beech – the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s own co-ordinator – was anything but appreciative of Sylvester McCoy’s debut story, Time and the Rani, stating in a lengthy op-ed: “Whether trough the short-sighted ineptitude of the planners or the excesses of the production team, Doctor Who, as a popular television show, is slowly but surely being killed.”

“The Mail approached me saying, ‘We want an article about why Doctor Who isn’t as good as it used to be,” Andrew tells DWM. “I realised I was putting myself in the firing line, but I thought if I did it, I could at least try to make it constructive criticism.

“John was absolutely furious. We had a good relationship and he felt like he’d been stabbed in the back. I was persona non grata for a few months after that. But then we went for a drink and I said, ‘I’m sorry, but the alternative would have been for them to approach someone like DWB. It was damage limitation, believe it or not.’ And that did clear the air.”

Away from the frontline, fans poured their energies into writing and recording their own stories on audio (Audio Visuals) or video (Wartime, starring John Levene as UNIT’s Sergeant Benton), and making their own documentaries, like the Myth Makers video interview series. Others parlayed their passion into paid, professional work – like artist Alister Pearson, who provided the covers for scores of Target books and BBC videos, or DWAS co-founder Stephen Payne, who launched the magazine publishing company Visual Imagination and acquired the rights to Starbust from Marvel Comics.

A handful of fans even crossed the Rubicon to work on the TV show itself: people like Susan Moore and Stephen Mansfield, who provided visual effects and props for several Sylvester McCoy stories, and musician Mark Ayres.

As a child, Mark had fallen in love with composer Dudley Simpson’s Doctor Who scores, and throughout the 80s had provided the music for various fan films and documentaries, while also working as a sound engineer for TV-am. So when John Nathan-Turner began hiring freelancers to score Doctor Who, he dropped him a line. “And John, bless him, wrote back and said ‘come to see me’.”

A successful audition piece led to Mark being commissioned to provide the music for 1988’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. “I was terrified,” he admits. “You talk yourself into these things and then you think: right, now I’ve got to prove myself. So that’s what I did.”

It must have been thrilling for a lifelong Doctor Who fan to see his name in the end credits? “It was very exciting,” says Mark. “But an even bigger thrill was seeing your name in the Radio Times.

“I knew lots of people in fandom who were interested in careers in television, and if anyone got a gig, we were very proud and supportive of one another,” he adds. “But there were a couple of other people who were very jealous, and took a while to come round. It was tricky. There comes a point where you have to step over the line and start behaving less like a fan and more like a professional. But I never stopped being a fan.”

At the end of the decade, John Nathan-Turner, with help from a hungry young script editor called Andrew Cartmel, answered his critics in the best way possible – by making unassailably brilliant Doctor Who stories like Remembrance of the Daleks, Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric. By the time Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred walked off into the sunset at the end of Survival in December 1989, even the show’s most vociferous dissenters had to concede it had been a terrific season. 

What most of them didn’t know then was that it would also be the last for a very long time. But anyone who thought the fans would let a small detail like Doctor Who not being on TV any more put them off, clearly didn’t know Doctor Who fans. As a new decade dawned, the faithful who had weathered all the 1980s’ tumultuous storms were preparing to go to ever more creative and energetic lengths to keep the flame alive…

Toys aren't us

It was during the 1980s that people first started using the dreaded C word – cult – to describe Doctor Who. And there’s perhaps no better illustration of this shift in perception (one that stubbornly prevailed until the show’s popular revival in 2005) than the range of merchandise available during the decade.

While the 1960s and 1970s had been dominated by mass-market toys, games, books and sweets – from Dr Who’s Anti-Dalek Fluid Neutraliser Gun to Sky Ray ice lollies – the 1980s saw a shift towards more high-end, limited edition merchandise aimed at the “serious collector”. These included everything from Fine Art castings’ range of pewter figures to bafflingly byzantine role playing games and a working TARDIS telephone that would have set you back a pocket-money straining £99.

The same was true of books: compare, for example, Terrance Dicks’s breezy Doctor Who Monster Book from 1975 with David Banks’ labyrinthine Cybermen tome from 13 years later – to say nothing of 1983’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, the first academic study of the series, complete with ponderous meditations on Barthesian semiotics and Bertolt Brecht’s theories of estrangement.

“I think it was a slow process,” says David Howe, author of merchandise guide Howe’s Transcendental Toybox. “Some fans had creative aspirations to do something a bit more professional than fanzines, and if somebody came along with a good idea, the BBC were receptive. 

“If you can’t make volume sales – if you can’t get your product into Woolworths – then the bigger companies aren’t interested. The only sales you can do are limited edition, high cost, specialist sales, and those by definition have to be targeted at the fans.

“The BBC wasn’t being very proactive in going out to people and saying, “Do you want to make Doctor Who stuff?” And the only companies that were really coming to them were companies run by fans.”

This article was originally published in Doctor Who Magazine: The World of Doctor Who (Panini Magazines, 2018)
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