“I AM the Doctor”: Polysemic rhetoric and non-traditional audiences in Doctor Who

Curator's Note

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.




What I have found interesting from working on this project is the ways in which the producers have handled constructing the text in order to control their audience. During the run of classic Who, there was a lot done to try to create a polysemic text that could have different rhetorical elements to entice different types of people -- even polar opposites! -- to construct an audience. However, as the show developed a loyal fan base, the show became too insular; too heavily reliant on intratexuality and self-references. Scholars have indicated how this seems to have lead to the series going off the air, as the audience retracted in size to be essentially just the fan base. The new Who has reestablished itself by being polysemic, and having many different rhetorical elements to attract a wide ranging audience. And yet, at the same time, because it has been shepherded by Who fans who became producers, the show has been able to bring in the intratextuality and self-referentiality. The new Who has been successfully balancing mainstream and fan audiences. The question we have now is how long they will be able to keep this up -- especially given the strains made evident around the hiring of Capaldi as the next Doctor. After 50 years, the series can be a lesson for other television producers as to how to develop a polysemic text to reach a polyvalent audience. But (SPOILER) with the new regeneration about to occur, how long will the producers be able to keep appealing to so many different types of peoples without alienating one group in favor of another?

I very much appreciate the ideas and claims here, and I agree that texts/series/fandoms like Doctor Who are rich in terms of narraitve, representation, and consumption. I do wonder, however, whether or not the series will push the boundaries and inclusions more, particularly further along raced, gendered, and other "queered" lines. The Doctor largely still represents a narrowish subject position even with his foibles, regenerations, and identity-play. And as with other fandoms (e.g. Firefly, Star Trek, Harry Potter, various anime), it is interesting to see the fraught relationship among who gets to be main characters, who gets to cosplay as those characters, and who gets to affect the narratives that get told.

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