Consuming Geeks: Subculture and the Marketing of Doctor Who

Doctor Who cosplayers at the 2010 Chicago TARDIS convention.

Doctor Who cosplayers at the 2010 Chicago TARDIS convention.

This month the most committed Doctor Who fans descended on the Los Angeles Marriott for Gallifrey One, the 24th annual gathering of Whovians in Los Angeles.  On the one hand, these Doctor Who fans share a commonplace geek satisfaction with their sense of distinction from the mainstream.  A Who fan who grew up in Detroit noted that “As kids we loved anything Science Fiction from Star Trek to Space 1999 … we were weirdoes. But that was okay. It was a badge of honour. Really. SF was not as `popular’ then as it seems to be now, and British SF was probably deemed even odder.”  Patton Oswalt’s analysis of contemporary geeks inventories a typical range of geek obsessions confirming that “I was never going to play sports, and girls were an uncrackable code. So, yeah—I had time to collect every Star Wars action figure, learn the Three Laws of Robotics, memorize Roy Batty’s speech from the end of Blade Runner, and classify each monster’s abilities and weaknesses in TSR Hobbies’ Monster Manual.”  Oswalt admits the satisfaction he got from “quietly being tuned in to something dark, complicated, and unknown just beneath the topsoil of popularity.”

On the other hand, though, Oswalt is among the observers who have prophesied the death of that very subculture, lamenting “Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells.  The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s.  Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun.”

The Fifth Doctor's TARDIS at the Doctor Who Experience in London.

The Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS at the Doctor Who Experience in London.

Once utterly invisible outside a circle of the most committed fans, in 2012 Entertainment Weekly heralded Doctor Who as a “global geek obsession”; this week al-Jazeera bought three seasons of Doctor Who; and in 2011 Doctor Who’s sixth season was the most downloaded television season on iTunes.  In some observers’ minds, this long-awaited ascent to mainstream popularity spells the death rites for the Doctor Who geek as a distinctive voice and identity. Contemporary Doctor Who fans risk being not marginal at all, and in this respect they share quite a lot with comic books fans, science fiction geeks, anime fans, or role-playing gamers who all have secured significant footholds in popular culture: San Diego Comic-Con is now among the most influential of all mass media and marketing events; television is littered with a variety of series that openly invoke science fiction and celebrate geeks; anime and manga aesthetics pervade popular culture; and role playing games have become a massive industry whose impression can be seen all over popular culture.  Once embracing something esoteric and disinteresting to the masses, geeks now have effected a complete reversal that witnesses them as the leading edge of style: rather than being disparaged as outcasts, geeks have become an energizing fringe fueling mass culture.

“Geek” is commonly referred to as a “subculture,” but that term is sloppily wielded in popular usage and tends to refer to nearly any distinctive social collective.  In scholarly terms a subculture reflects and expresses social contradictions through oppositional style and social practice.  Subcultures use material style and social practice to express and attempt to resolve the contradictions of mainstream culture: that is, weeping angel t-shirts,  “Bad Wolf” bumper stickers, and sonic screwdrivers are utterly politicized symbols signaling social identity and distance from mainstream social codes.  Doctor Who fans, like most members of self-identified subcultures, are energized by their self-perceived marginalization, if not the belief that they have been denied some unfettered experience by the normative values of “mainstream” society.

Not every geek is eager to relinquish their distinctions from the mainstream.  Blogger Maryann Johanson, for instance, prophesied the underside of Doctor Who’s broader following when she lamented retailer Hot Topic’s embrace of Doctor Who merchandise: “Hot Topic is a U.S. chain store that pops up in malls to serve kids who want to buy a premanufactured notion of cool instead of developing their own personalities. If the vice president and general merchandise manager for Hot Topic is excited about Doctor Who, it can only mean that the Doctor is on the verge of tedious ubiquitousness in America.”

A Dalek does battle at Chicago TARDIS 2011

A Dalek does battle at Chicago TARDIS 2011

Johanson seems to be apprehensive that the unfeigned passion fans have invested in Doctor Who will be undone by the marketplace.  Her wariness of “premanufactured cool” suggests the marketplace will inevitably redefine consequential if not deviant symbolism and reduce it to transparently commodified edginess.  This is precisely what Dick Hebdige cautioned was the universal fate of subcultures.  Hebdige’s classic study of punk style argued that subcultural aesthetics are re-defined by marketers in ways that neutralize anxiety-invoking distinctions.  Those subcultural material forms—goth makeup, Rastafarian garb, hippie tie-dye shirts–become simply an aesthetic expressing no especially substantive social or political statement.  Indeed, Hot Topic reduces fringe symbolism to a hollow style: pre-distressed shirts featuring the likes of Black Sabbath, David Bowie, or Joy Division evoke a historical fringe; pre-shredded jeans labor to conceal their wearer’s bourgeois status; and Batman earbuds invoke all the style and none of the pathos of the Caped Crusader.

Yet Hot Topic is far from the only company to charge into Doctor Who marketing.  The founder of Her Universe—“a place for fangirls to step into the spotlight and be heard, recognized and rewarded”–told the Today show that Who merchandise was selling briskly, admitting that “`I never thought I would see it grow this much. … Girls would come up to me saying they wanted ‘Doctor Who’ shirts and I didn’t know how I could make it work logistically with the BBC in London.”  But she was approached by BBC Worldwide’s own aggressive marketers because, according to their Director, “`She has a pulse on this demographic and on knowing what girls want.’”

Consumption at London Comic Con 2011

Consumption at London Comic Con 2011

The flood of Doctor Who merchandise reaching from toys to t-shirts to aquarium Daleks may indeed confirm that Doctor Who has been reduced to an aesthetic targeted to a particular consumer “demographic.”  Doctor Who looms in this picture as an ambiguous symbol of aesthetic distinction; in contrast, geeks embrace something symbolically esoteric that is outside the mainstream.  For some nervous fans, the passion they feel for Doctor Who or any other geek symbol hazards appearing irrelevant in the face of marketers’ dedication to profit.

However, it may be exactly the opposite:  that is, perhaps the geek has now become valued by marketers precisely because geeks identify those social and stylistic niches into which people invest deep feelings.  This no longer frames the geek as a unique entity, a stereotypically obsessive fan without connections to broader popular cultural discourses or politics.  In an essay in Guerrilla Geek, Rory Purcell-Hewitt argues for something he dubs a “post-geek” that is quite along these lines.  This post-geek is an assertively hybrid identity that does not fix geeks’ position within a particular subcultural niche: “the post-geek is one who has stepped beyond the barriers of the geek subculture, openly embracing philosophies and aesthetics from a multitude of cultures.”  Contemporary geeks do indeed routinely poach on a rich range of popular cultural symbols—simply survey the cross-fertilization of symbols in Doctor Who shirts such as “Doctor Pooh,” “Gallifrey Road,” or “Doctor’s Eleven” that cannibalize other popular cultural geekery.  That symbolic hybridity includes fans’ (and marketers’) conscious references to the show’s historical canon: Doctor Who evokes a half-century of programming and a distinctive retro aesthetic that the BBC’s avalanche of Doctor Who merchandise and DVDs routinely links to the newest episodes and storylines.  This hybridity may be the geek’s elimination of their own uniqueness; that is, geeks and other subcultures are no longer isolated entities but wired hybrids thieving style and meaning from a range of discourses.

Doctor Who’s ascent to mass popularity certainly was fueled by the collapse of once-formidable barriers to Doctor Who access: much of Doctor Who’s run came in the context of a pre-cable TV world, the absence of mass-produced VHS tapes or VHS players, divides between the UK and US programming, and fandom organized around communities communicating through local clubs, modest conventions, and fanzines.  Today, in contrast, a vast range of programming and linked marketing are accessible to nearly anybody with computer and/or cable access; BBC is systematically releasing every shred of Doctor Who programming on DVDs alongside branded books, audiobooks, and magazines; Who fans gather at massive conventions like Chicago TARDIS, Lords of Time (Australia), Regenerations (Swansea), and the official convention in Cardiff; fan communities are exceptionally well-connected online in sites like Gallifrey Base; and an enormous volume of online retailers specialize in commodities that are somehow cast as “geek.”

Subultures are not resisting any clearly defined mainstream, because normative social and stylistic codes are simply too dynamic and reside in ideology more than practice.  Many geeks, though, hold onto the caricature of a normative mainstream to rationalize zealously guarding their unique identities, castigating newcomers as poseurs and warily patrolling the boundaries of the authentic canon.  Perhaps the flood of Doctor Who DIY-er goods are the vanguard of material authenticity, or seeing the original Doctor Who late at night on a fuzzy black-and-white TV grants some fans some experiential privileges.  But there was of course never a moment of “authenticity” untouched by the media, since Who fandom is based on a mass media product.  Contemporary consumer culture is perhaps no longer populated by distinct collectives crafting individual styles in isolation; rather, we live in a world of heterogeneous styles in which appearances of resistance, deviance, and rebellion are simply a fashion.  Geeks may be the preeminent creative spirits in such a moment, distinctive for their capacity to find the symbolically rich niches in mass culture like superheroes, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who.

Piers D. Britton and Simon J. Barker

2003 Reading Between Designs: Design and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who.  University of Texas Press, Austin.
Dick Hebdige

1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style.  Methuen, New York.

Matt Hills

2010 Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century.  I.B. Tauris, London.

David Layton
2012 Humanism of Doctor Who: A Critical Study in Science Fiction and Philosophy.  McFarland
Jefferson, North Carolina.

David Muggleton

2000 Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style.  Berg, New York.

Steve Redhead, Derek Wynne, Justin O’Connor (eds.)

1998 The Clubcultures Reader:  Readings in Popular Cultural StudiesBlackwell, New York.
John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins (eds)
1995 Science Fiction Audiences : Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Their Fans.  Routledge, New York.

Peter Wright

2011 Expatriate! Expatriate!: Doctor Who: The Movie and Commercial Exploitation of a Multiple Text.  In British Science Fiction Film and Television: Critical Essays, eds. Tobias Hochscherf, James Leggott, and Donald E. Palumbo, pp. 128-142. McFarland and Company, Jefferson, North Carolina.

Posted on March 1, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on KatKampbell and commented:
    After reading ‘Culture and consumption’ by Grant McCracken i had a good insight into how the two elements work together as a one-way system in the contemporary age. The book however lacks up to date case studies and only the start of a vast topic. This article is a great exmple of a current movement in popular culture and it is very intriguing to see how citizens within subcultures are being exploited by popular culture.

  2. The imagination and passion of the creators of shows such as these that in the end fuel events such as comicons wow!

  3. Brilliant writing, and one of my favourite subjects. Congratulations, all!

  4. I love the Dalek dress.

  5. Reblogged this on New American Gospel! and commented:
    This rules. Bravo. — J.W.

  6. Reblogged this on no such thing as normal and commented:

  7. For many years i worked with Virginia Wetherell, who played Dyoni, in the 1963 series of Dr Who called The Daleks. By the time I met her she was dealing in antiques in London. We still keep in contact from time to time. Here´s one of the episodes she appeared in:

  8. Wonderful work. I find this all particularly interesting since I only recently discovered Doctor Who on Netflix, and I also have fallen into the category of ‘Geek’ for most of my life.
    For all the teasing and ridicule liking something’geeky’ used to evoke, it was a special group that not everyone was aware of. It’s an interesting paradox because as the acceptance increases and the marginalization decreases, the identity created also fades.
    Great read, thank you!

  9. Nice article, although Dr Who marketing has existed and been pretty aggressive since the 60s (at least in the UK). Over here it is a cultural juggernaut and even the pre-2005 stuff is common knowledge, put simply it was a commodity from the moment that someone realised you could make and and sell Dalek toys.

    • That may well be my American perspective coming through, since until quite recently classic Who goods were rarely available here in the US. It is interesting that BBC was shrewd enough to market Who assertively from the outset, such marketing is now commonplace but was forward thinking in the early Who days..

  10. Though “Doctor Who” is expanding, it still is a sub-culture in the US.

    I’ve been a fan since the late 70s catching reruns on my local PBS station. First watching Tom Baker, later discovering Jon Pertwee, and fizzing out with Colin Baker. I love the new series and how it has introduced a great character to whole new audiences.

    A great memory from last Halloween was a group of kids arriving at the house to trick-or-treat and me identifying his 11h Doctor costume. He asked me how I know who he was–apparently being the first person to identify him–and then I showed him my phone with a T.A.R.D.I.S. cover. He freaked-out with happiness, and ran to his mom to point out my case.

  11. Great insight. As a child of the 1970s Who- TSR- etc myself (let’s not forget Blake’s Seven) I can identify with all of this. I think the reality is that geek-ism has been mainstreamed; and part of that transformation has come from the computer/internet revoluton itself, which has, in effect, introduced ‘geek thinking’ (such as the boolean logic by which computers actually work, and which can’t be entirely hidden by the OS) to the wider populace. Along, of course, with the capabilities that computers have which, in many ways, are pure geek. It’s generational.

    What I remain intrigued by is the advent of social media and the nature of the ‘web 2’ environment that’s followed – returning to that seventies sci-fi, it’s clear that only one author actually predicted any of this. Arthur C. Clarke, who totally nailed the social impact of free world communication, via computer, in the early 1970s.

  12. I’ve watched Doctor Who since Jon Pertwee was the doctor. I love it

  13. And the fact it was not full of gizmos meant the storyline became more important.

  14. I want that Dalek dress !! 😉

  15. This is also a part of an awesome, post-modern world of geekery. I like the cross-pollination of our culture’s franchises and stories, and seeing what it creates next.

  16. Interesting, but it left me feeling nostalgic for the old days of watching the black & white episodes at midnight and feeling as though the Doctor was my own secret. I miss the cheesy costumes and endless shots of actors running down the same corridors . . . the new episodes are technically better with a bigger budget, but they lack the heart of the old ones.

  17. jameswatts1999

    Interesting! I am quite a big fan of Doctor Who.

  18. Reblogged this on Commandrine’s Weblog.

  19. A well written commentary. I have been watching Dr. Who since the days of Tom Baker and have loved the quirkiness of the show and the thought that I was watching something that treated me as an intelligent being; I was never being written down to, but in some very real ways challenged to be a bit better.

    The biggest danger, as I see it, to Dr. Who does not come from the Daleks, but from its own growing popularity. The show is reaching more people than ever before and is becoming mainstream. What happens when the “next thing” comes along in about three minutes? Will the advertisers decide they no longer want to support the show as the audience decreases to 2007/2008 levels (assuming it was smaller then than now)? Will the Doctor be reduced to sitcom intelligence level in the interest of retaining or re-gaining audience? Or, will he remain The One, The Only, The Doctor? Will his companion be decided on by focus groups eating fast food?

    My hope is that Dr. Who remains true to himself and his two hearts. That his companions continue to inspire him and that his restrained rage has a target worthy of Dr. Who. That he not give in to the petty pessimism that seems to invade society, but that his eternal optimism continues to show us that well prepared intelligence can meet the future successfully.

    That long after the t-shirt shops stop selling TARDIS t-shirts, he will continue to be The Doctor.

    I rarely offer my opinion on anything on the Internet. But, I feel as though I owe something to the show for the hours of intelligent entertainment it has provided.


  20. I remember cutting myself opening a can of beans while in a hurry to watch Star Trek. I soaked through a towel by the time the episode was over. I was in my 20’s. The brain has needs and satisfaction comes for some in motorbikes or music and for others in strange universes where the imagination reigns. I believe universes are to be shared and if some people choose to market them, good luck!

  21. Well analyzed! I’ve always been a sci-fi addict, and I grew up on the obscure Doctor Who BOOKS that were based on the BBC series, borrowed from a second-hand books circulating library. The books were pretty darn good- I’d burn through three or four books in a weekend. The first I finally saw of the TV series was the old BBC version almost 15 years later, which demoralized me so much I never made it to the third episode.

    Nobody had even heard of Doctor Who until a few years ago when all my friends were suddenly huge fans and it was cool to be a who-vian! As a die-hard fan, I scorn at the newbies who have only watched the slicker, newer series. Like you said, these new fans aren’t part of a cult, they are part of a fashion fad.

  22. In the UK, Doctor Who has always been mainstream. Several times in the last fifty years it has attracted large audiences and there have always been toys, books and some of the first VHS and DVDs made by the BBC were Doctor Who. It has always been a bit geeky but it commands a prime time slot on one of our biggest television channels.

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