This post co-curated by Dr. CarrieLynn D. Reinhard
Science fiction has traditionally targeted a male audience, and given its fantastical conventions, it is often assumed to be a genre primarily aimed at children. These assumptions apply to the long-running British science fiction series Doctor Who. We believe the series represents a polysemous rhetoric (via John Fiske) that permits and promotes a polyvalent audience (via Celeste Condit), with identifications and appropriations outside of traditional viewing positions.
Texts are considered polysemous when they are capable of bearing multiple meanings due to their rhetoric containing layers of ideological encoding and varying intertextual relationships; these multiple meanings permit and promote numerous, sometimes contradictory, decodings by receivers. Similarly, polyvalence conceptualizes an audience as not containing uniform individuals; rather, audience members differ in their expectations, motivations and interpretations of the same text. Multiple layers exist in Doctor Who, and these begin with the show’s generic positioning, which includes science fiction, romance, adventure, history, and education. The polysemic nature can also be seen in the way the program hails various audiences, including children and adults, men and women, liberals and conservatives, and fans and casual viewers. Historically, Doctor Who becomes an interaction between the polysemous text and the polyvalent audience, which is highlighted in the expansions and retractions of the series' audiences and market share.
The series’ longevity means the audience will be divided based on their love of different eras, tones, and Doctors. The fan activity of cosplaying provides an example of what happens when a polysemous text interacts with a polyvalent audience. We see cross-gendered and cross-cultural cosplaying as fans demonstrate their identification with the characters through their portrayal of them. These fan activities also demonstrate how the series’ attempt for audience expansion has been successful, up until now: by providing an array of entry points – through different genres, stories, and characters – the series can be seen as having a little bit of something for everyone. By understanding how different people are identifying with and appropriating the idea of “I AM the Doctor,” we can better understand how to make texts that formally dispel with traditional and hegemonic representations.