25 April 2012

Dr Who and the Return of Media Studies

Trade paperback, 261 pages
Published 2010
Acquired December 2010

Read March 2012
Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century
by Matt Hills

I am pretty sure that I once saw someone point out that this is the first scholarly monograph that takes as its subject the new Doctor Who (i.e., 2005 and beyond).  As such, it represents an excellent next step beyond texts such as Time And Relative Dissertations In Space, which took the entire 26 years of the old show as their topic, bringing some focus to the enterprise.  Triumph of a Time Lord isn't much more focused than that, however-- there's no central thesis to Matt Hills's book that I can see, aside from 1) media studies can tell us interesting things about Doctor Who, and perhaps more usefully, 2) Doctor Who can actually upset some things that we think about media studies.

I found the first and third sections of the book the most interesting.  The first, "Fans and Producers," talks about Doctor Who's "author."  As a now-almost-50-year phenomenon with no clear George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry figure, Doctor Who has long resisted the idea of an "author," but Hills points out the ways in which Doctor Who is now coded (or was, anyway) as the work of Russell T Davies.  Linked to this is his upsetting of Henry Jenkins's work in the seminal Textual Poachers; Hills argues that fans no longer "poach" from Doctor Who, for the fans now run Doctor Who.  The discourse of the show is the fan one; there is no clear boundary between fan and professional anymore.  Similar themes permeate the last part, "Quality and Mainstream TV," which looks at how Doctor Who is positioned as either a "cult" or "mainstream" television show, ultimately arguing that the distinction is becoming increasingly irrelevant.  Using various media studies texts lets Hills both how useful they can be, but also where their limitations are.

I might have found an overall argument easier to find if Hills's use of transitions was smoother.  He doesn't really do introductions or conclusions; rather, there are periodic paragraphs that say, "I have just argued [X]. I shall now argue [Y]."  I'd rather see something that drew [X] together and explained why it was the perfect lead-in to [Y].  I know what you just argued, because I just read it!

Perhaps the most impressive thing that Hills does in Triumph of a Time Lord is create "Who Studies" as a field.  Hills effortlessly quotes not just from other works in media studies, or even other scholarly works on Doctor Who, but articles in Doctor Magazine, blog posts, fanzines, reviews in the popular press, and so on, pulling them all together into a body of work that he can respond to and quote as need be.  At first I was like "Really? Blogs?" but fan amateurs have thought as hard about Doctor Who, if not harder, than many academic professionals, and ignoring their work would make very little sense.  Why should Hills reinvent work that has been done?  Triumph of a Time Lord is the first substantial contribution to a scholarly discussion about the Russell T Davies Doctor Who; with a starting point like this, it ought not to be the last.

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