I’ve been thinking, over the past year or so, about the ways in which my professional interest in Victorian modes of publishing and my fangirl obsession with Doctor Who communicate with one another.
I’m not a cultural studies scholar (except in the most amateur of senses), nor will I ever be. But I can’t help—no doubt because I’m over educated in that highly specialised way that makes you unfit for most jobs—wondering how such things fit together. After all, I work on serial publications, and you can’t get more serial than television, can you?
So I’ve just sent off for consideration an article on Doctor Who and Australian national identity (following, of course, in the footsteps of the great Alan McKee), and I have sitting on my desktop half an article on Doctor Who and Victorian spectacular theatre. Let’s face it: neo-Victorianism is so hot right now, and there’s no reason why I can’t dip my toes in that water.
Then this happened: people started fluttering on Twitter about the rumours that a Doctor Who film was in the works. And I fluttered with everyone else, because I remember the last Doctor Who film, and the memories aren’t among my fondest.
But I wasn’t just fluttering because I feared that Doctor Who would be ruined: I’m old enough now and secure enough in my fangirlishness to never worry about that again. Doctor Who is one of those texts that’s down in the very bone and blood of me. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t watch Doctor Who, and only two other texts, two other men, occupy that same space in me: England’s three great national heroes, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Doctor Who.
So, no: the film will spoil nothing for me, should it ever even exist.
What made me flutter was that, suddenly, everything sounded so familiar. And I thought, “I’ve seen this pattern somewhere before.”
I’ve seen it 150 years ago, in Victorian patterns of publishing.
It seems to me that television networks don’t know what to do with the sudden, radical shift that’s happened in television-watching patterns since the advent of DVDs. Because DVDs aren’t just a slightly different version of videotapes. The market saturation is far greater with DVDs than it ever was with videos—particularly with television shows. Admittedly, Doctor Who (like Star Trek and certain other programs) was always available on video, but there was never the expectation with television shows that they’d be available on video: those that were available were the exception, not the rule.
But now DVD boxsets are the rule, and that’s where the analogy with Victorian publishing patterns comes in.
Because we now experience these televisual texts two distinct ways.
At the first stage of consumption, they’re serial texts, as they always have been. Like so many Victorian novels (but not all), the greater narrative is delivered up to us in digestible chunks, on the publisher’s schedule. We watch it, we discuss it, and we wait for the release of the next chunk, on the same day next week.
Not much difference there (at the level of analogy) between the televisation of a serial text and the serialised publication of a novel in a periodical.
At the second stage of consumption, there’s the DVD boxset. And, certainly, this text is still serial: simply selling an entire season in one package doesn’t change its serial nature. And this is also true of nineteenth-century novels, especially in the years before the 1890s, when novels were, by default, three-volume affairs. Once Mudie’s and the other circulating libraries lost their control over the publishing industry and we started moving into two-volume and one-volume editions and then into cheap paperbacks, the essentially serial nature of the original text was, to some extent, elided by the fact that the story was contained within a single codex.
But serial or not, the text is consumed differently in a DVD boxset than it is on television, because we’re no longer trapped by the publisher’s release schedule: we can consume an entire disk, an entire season, an entire novel in one sitting, if we so choose.
So where does a putative Doctor Who film fit into this analogy? Why are people fluttering about it, when this pattern of publishing is so venerable?
There’s a precedent for films based on television programs in Victorian patterns of publishing, as well. But it’s not a three-volume novel. It’s the dramatic adaptations of novels that proliferated on the nineteenth-century stage.
When I was looking at dramatic adaptations of Eliza Winstanley’s serials on the suburban (East End) stage (which you can read about here if you’re curious), I isolated two telling features.
Firstly, these plays heavily advertised their similarity to the original serials, both in their advertising posters (featuring scenes from the periodical publication of the story and prominent use of the author’s name) and in their on-stage re-creation (largely through tableaux) of key illustrations from the texts. But secondly, they show little real interest in actually being faithful adaptations—which is hardly surprising, given that they were often on stage before the serial had actually ended. Key plot points, key characters, key themes: these are far less important to the dramatists than the superficial sense of similarity.
In this sense, the adaptations simultaneously parade and deny their nature as adaptations, much in the same way as the Daily Mail article I linked to above uses an enormous picture of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan even while it declares the likelihood of an American script-writer and an entirely different actor as the Doctor.
This is why I’m no longer fluttering about the vague possibility of a Doctor Who film, even if the sentence “TV’s Doctor Who is to be turned into a Hollywood blockbuster” makes my skin crawl.
It’s true that there’s a key point I’m skimming over here. The analogy stumbles slightly when you consider the relative cultural capital of films (high, even for Hollywood blockbusters) versus television (low, even for premium cable shows). The underlying assumption in much of the coverage of the putative Doctor Who film is that a film version elevates a lowly television program, which is not something critics would ever have said of an East End theatrical production, not matter how many punters it drew in.
But I’m still not fluttering.
Because you know what? There’s nothing new in this. This is a venerable pattern of publishing. And severely truncated and manipulated versions of Charles Dickens, or Mary Elizabeth Braddon, or even Eliza Winstanley didn’t destroy the texts from which they were derived.
And let’s face it: no one thinks of the theatrical versions of his texts when they think of Charles Dickens, do they?