This is not a poll, says Tony Fyler.
The Twitterverse has exploded in recent days with the re-ignition of an enmity most of Doctor Who fandom appears to have known nothing about: Sixth Doctor Colin Baker Vs Doctor Who Magazine. Or more specifically, Sixth Doctor Colin Baker Vs fan polls like the ones regularly run in Doctor Who Magazine.
Apparently, this dislike of polling goes back specifically to DWM’s ‘Mighty 200’ poll in 2009, which voted Colin’s introductory story, The Twin Dilemma as the ‘200th best story…of 200.’ As Colin rightly points out, that means it’s regarded as the worst. The worst story, ever.
That’s a pretty harsh judgment, especially when none of the story’s faults are down to you, but you’re left for the next thirty years carrying its can. In my review of it, I make the case that the biggest thing that scuppered Colin Baker’s time as the Doctor was the decision to tack The Twin Dilemma onto the end of Peter Davison’s strongest season, and then leave us all going ‘Is that what he’s going to be like now?’ for an entire season break. That, and the relative lack of sophistication in fandom at the time, with its inability to cope with a Doctor who changed his clothes let alone his personality, did more damage to Colin’s time in the Tardis than practically anything else. Certainly more damage than a dodgy regeneration story ever could have done – most regeneration stories are a bit dodgy, to be fair, they’re tied down with too much baggage of proving the newness of the Doctor to be great, and (without falling into the trap of naming names), I personally would much rather watch The Twin Dilemma thirty years on than some other regeneration stories before or since.
But this isn’t about The Twin Dilemma per se. It’s about the fan culture of ravenous dissection and dissent, and the obsessive – seriously, it might be a borderline personality disorder – need to categorise, to rank, to list everything we like, and then everything we like a little bit less, all the way down to what frequently becomes an undignified swamp of insult and argument at what we declare to be ‘the bottom end’ of our appreciation index. It’s about this need we have as fans to take ourselves and our opinions more seriously than they warrant.*
So what are polls actually for? What’s the point of them?
First and foremost, they allow us to scratch that fundamental fan-itch of having our views validated by mass. They allow us to feel ‘part’, if not of the show itself, then of the appreciation those who make it get. They’re essentially a way of running up to the people we admire and giving them a kiss without all the tedious restraining order business that would otherwise entail. Best Doctor – Mwah! Best story – Smooches, you’re the best, and I voted for you! Know me, remember me, validate my appreciation with a few kind words. I’ll never wash this copy of DWM again…
But there’s a downside too – an often-unintentional, but occasionally-vitriolic side, that turns kisses to punches – ‘Steven Damned Moffat – last place, take that!’ ‘Twin Dilemma? I was embarrassed all month in school, thirty years ago. Not forgetting that in a hurry – Bam! 200 for you.’
There’s a story that when the Duke of Wellington was elected Prime Minister, cheering throngs lined his path to Downing Street. The Duke rode to the door on horseback, and never once deigned to look at any of the cheering, adoring masses. His reasoning was prescient – ‘Once you give them the idea that their approval matters to you, you leave yourself open to the day the cheers turn to booing.’
We are that mob, and fan polls are the way we these days get that sense of our own importance validated. Well, fan polls and the internet, which is increasingly filled with bile and hatred from people who could in no sense do anything half as good themselves as that which they decry.**
If that’s what fan polls are for – to validate the self-importance of fans who vote for the best and by default or with intention) the worst of a season, an era, or a whole fifty years and more – let’s turn the question around and ask:
What harm do they do?
Well, apart from giving fans a massively inflated sense of how important their opinions are, which as Wellington could have told us is never a great idea, while elevating the work of some professionals, they inherently denigrate the work of those who end up on the bottom of the pile, and they do so not with the ignorable opinion of reviewers, each of which are basically the opinion and experience of one person, trying to persuade others of their view, but with the infallibility of numbers – precisely THIS number of thousands of people think you suck, and they think it strongly enough that they’ve bothered to take time out of their lives to go through the process of filling in forms and finding stamps and sending them in. People have taken time out of their workday to collate the numbers, simply to present you with the numerical evidence of how unloved you are. There’s something about that infallible weight of numbers that puts polling data beyond the actor’s mantra of ‘Don’t read the reviews, darling.’ The numbers are a mathematical kidney-punch to all your combined efforts. Does it hurt? Well, Colin Baker hasn’t spoken meaningfully to DWM for the last six years, so you be the judge.
So what am I saying? Fans should never poll each other? Good luck with that, polling speaks to that fundamental fan-urge to discuss, dissect, to elevate and trash. It’s an itch that must and will be scratched, for fear we go out of our minds with individual squealing need to discuss the thing we love and sometimes, apparently, hate.
Should polls be limited to just ‘best’ this, and that, and the other thing? That might work to some extent, but as Colin Baker himself has pointed out, if the thing somebody thinks is ‘best’ isn’t the thing you think is ‘best,’ the urge just slides one rung down the ladder to ‘second best,’ and ‘third best’ until you reach the thing you actually wanted to discuss – for better or worse – in the first place. There’s also the possibility that in fact, you just increase the problem of hurting professionals if you do that – if only one’s the ‘best’ and no more are mentioned, it carries an air of ‘the rest was chopped liver, but this was excellent!’ with it that might lead to an increase in hurt feelings, rather than the intended decrease.
Perhaps really the issue is the degree to which a poll can be seen as ‘officially, the voice of fandom.’ We could run polls here on WarpedFactor and, sweet and numerous as you are, o geekbrothers and nerdsisters, the programme-makers a) probably wouldn’t hear about it, and b) would be under no obligation to give the tiniest toss if they did.
But DWM has a standing. It’s the evolution of the magazine that carried isolated fans into groups and clubs, the magazine that kept the fire burning during the wilderness years, that wouldn’t let the programme be forgotten or die out, and for that, it’s earned the standing it has. It’s earned the unique access to stars and programme-makers it has, and if that access is now its main bargaining chip in a world where all news leaks online before the dictates of a monthly deadline can deliver it meaningfully, it’s still a big chip to have in your pocket – it connects programme-makers with fans in a way that none of the rest of us here in the world of the web can do. And that means when it runs a poll, its results are meaningful. If the DWM poll says a story was chopped liver, you can be pretty sure that a lot of people who are really into the show really think it’s chopped liver (Sorry, Colin!).
So perhaps that’s the answer – perhaps DWM should pull its polls, relinquishing the right it’s earned to collate and communicate the voice of fandom to the programme-makers in that way. There’s a sense in which it already struggles to maintain that ‘voice of fandom’ position (as the voice of fandom online becomes more and more insane and Dalek-like), so you have to ask what, ultimately, the magazine gains from holding on to its polls that it couldn’t achieve some other way. So while fan-polling will never die, perhaps it’s time that ‘official, voice of fandom’ polling was – ahem – ‘rested’ or ‘put on hiatus’ for a little while, to let the magazine figure out how it wants to capitalize on its unique position in a less inflammatory way.
* Yes, I get the irony – guy on the internet spends 1500 words extolling his opinion that fans take their own opinions too seriously.
** Really, I promise I get it.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk