Skaro, (5.)13, summer 1997
All good things come to an end, and like the first run of Doctor Who, sometimes with only the obliquest of warnings that this is the case. When the editorial team for most of the second series (formally, for its early issues, the fifth volume) of the long-running Doctor Who fanzine Skaro ended their editorial with the words “We look forward to Issue 14”, those of us who read it did not realise that this was Skaro‘s equivalent of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor’s “There are worlds out there…”. There were no BBC1 executives lurking in Bath seeking to stamp out the title, but like a lot of voluntary projects, employment and new commitments took over for Skaro‘s editors and it has not been seen since. The memory survives in occasional eBay listings and retrospectives like this.
Skaro chronicled Doctor Who fandom’s awareness that it was at a crossroads. The period from 1990 to 1996 was dominated by a steady professionalisation of fan creativity through Virgin Publishing’s New Adventures, Missing Adventures and associated titles, as well as the continuing openness of Marvel UK’s Doctor Who Magaazine to new voices under editors who for the first time had participative experience of Doctor Who fandom. Writing Doctor Who for the BBC had been a near-impossible goal for fans in the 1980s, though the emergence of maturing literary voices in active Doctor Who fan circles, together with greater numbers and familiarity with the broadcasting industry might suggest that, had the BBC continued to produce Doctor Who in-house after 1989, Ghost Light‘s Marc Platt would have been the first of many fan writers to bash out a three- or four-parter. The disappearance of Doctor Who from the television firmament was something to which many had difficulty acclimatising themselves, for reasons rooted deep in personal experience. Fandom was more self-aware, with the age profile of the active fan, whatever their method of participation, shifting ever so slightly higher. Without a new series to focus on, fans of the early 1990s were looking around themselves like the survivors of a cultural purge (and being a Doctor Who fan in the late 1980s was for various reasons a torturous experience) and working out what they had in common with other enthusiasts and why they loved Doctor Who so much. Available resources changed too, with access to good photocopiers being largely superseded by the advance of lithography. Skaro‘s colour covers, all by Brian Hudd, managed to catch the mood of changing times as well as demonstrating just what depth could be achieved with a limited colour palette.
Issue 13 was unusual because of its timing: it dealt with a year’s reaction to the 1996 Doctor Who television movie (henceforward ‘the TVM’), not just among fandom, but among a wider public. Viewed after nearly nine years of the Russell T Davies/Steven Moffat series, the articles display a range of levels of prescience and ideas about what the TVM experience did to Doctor Who fan assumptions about the programme and its place in British television culture. Michael Haslett’s article ‘Even better than the real thing’ opens the issue, expressing a level of mock-perplexity at the possessiveness which British ‘normal folk’ suddenly displayed over Doctor Who when faced with a feature-length episode made in North America which looked as if it had money spent on it. Whether or not people really pined for Doctor Who as ‘a rotten old BBC programme filmed in a local sandpit’ is another matter (though arguably this is what they have been lapping up since 2006), Haslett’s argument really hinges on the idea that Doctor Who‘s integrity was found in ‘a moral depth and a classic dramatic range’ shared by Jackanory Playhouse and Dad’s Army but not by The Persuaders! and thereby anticipates a host of articles or book chapters over the next eight years which would argue or assume that Doctor Who could not be recreated or perpetuated by British television in a filmic age. This isn’t Haslett’s conclusion, merely his explanation for what some parts of the audience seemed to find lacking from the TVM, and he concludes that Doctor Who will eventually return, even if not in the form the TVM envisaged. Daniel O’Mahony’s ‘The American Way’ placed the programme in the American SF genre field and suggested Babylon 5 rather than Lois and Clark or The X Files had most to offer a future Doctor Who series. This anticipated both the budget-aware and writer-led nature of the post-2005 BBC series, but also the advantages and disadvantages of the story arc. It could be argued that latterday Doctor Who has never successfully negotiated between the need for arc storylines to offer closure, and Doctor Who‘s ability to deny this by regenerating its lead character and itself. Michael Laycock’s ‘Paradigm Rift’ interprets the story of Doctor Who fandom as one of increased fragmentation as the number of source texts proliferate and diverge, with a McGann-led, American-produced series likely to have divided the existing fanbase further by overlaying a new mainstream populist audience upon it and, if successful, changing what ‘fan’ means in a Doctor Who context.
With hindsight, there are lots of missing elements in the appreciation of the 1996/7 context. The internet was already growing in influence as a medium for the exchange of enthusiasms and the build-up to McGann’s casting had already been exhaustively followed on newsgroups and early news sites. From the point of view of most literary-minded British fans, perhaps this was marginal stuff, the chattering of a few thousand science and technology professionals and students; or perhaps we didn’t know, yet, how to write about it. I had been a contributor to Skaro since 1993, and though I was also a reader of the Doctor Who newsgroups, I didn’t quite know how to assess their importance, even though they had been used by Philip Segal to promote his Doctor Who venture, and by other Doctor Who professionals, such as Christopher H. Bidmead, Johnny Byrne and Jean-Marc Lofficier, to engage with fans and occasionally promote new initiatives. So with ‘Independence Day’ in Skaro 13, I concentrated on what I knew, the student Doctor Who society at my university. The TVM was a liberation, even though in the short term it was only a part-liberation from thinking about Doctor Who within the confines of the traumas of the 1980s.
Other articles are already playing out tensions to come. Tim Munro’s ‘Beardless in San Francisco’ takes Eric Roberts’s Master as his starting point and while comparisions with Anthony Ainley were inevitable these are overshadowed by his embrace of a ‘grandiose’, broader conceptualisation for Doctor Who. Tat Wood’s ‘In Bed with William Hartnell’ is mainly about what the discovery and publication of John Cura’s telesnaps of many of the missing Hartnell and Troughton stories mean for fandom’s hitherto audio-led conceptualisation of the missing stories, but towards the end refers to “our programme” being taken from “us by Segal and Worldwide” – but this, like the content of the article (which invokes a narrower fan experience than many readers of Skaro will have shared) raises unanswered questions about who ‘we’ are.
Skaro was remarkable among the major British Doctor Who fan publications of the period for being co-edited by a woman, Vanessa (Ness) Bishop. The female minority in active Doctor Who fandom in the 1990s seem to have taken it upon themselves to offer a broader perspective on the obsessive and very male world of fandom and lighten the tone, as Ness did with her poems in Skaro and her quasi-manifesto in an issue of the glossy David Howe-Mark Stammers-Stephen James Walker fanzine The Frame, ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’. Here, ‘Retirement Blues’ covers ground that Dead Ringers Doctors-at-Christmas sketch will do in 2005, but does it better; but the observational ‘Fans Have Bags’ manages to cover a lot of the convention-going experience on one innocuous hook. Facing down one almost entirely male howl of outrage and despair at a particular oscular connection in the TVM is Liz Halliday and her article ‘French Kissing in the USA’, noting in her conclusion that ‘Very few long running series survive without the sex theme’ and either Doctor Who embraces this reality or is revived in the style of mid-1990s childrens’ series which Halliday can’t sit through. “Doctor Who has to be aimed at an older market to survive more than a season as the kids’ latest craze,” she writes; will a 7pm slot do, I want to ask from seventeen years later.
The successful fanzine is the product of particular personalities and a particular moment. The 1990s incarnation of Skaro had really hit its stride with the ‘Remembrance’ issue (3, 1990), which was dominated by individual recollections of particular moments, particularly from childhood. These were largely the memories of those who had been children when watching mid-to-late 70s Doctor Who and who had reached university in the late 1980s or early 1990s. As Doctor Who‘s audience had reduced in the 1980s, so the pool of new fan writers fell, and those who did emerge often moved straight into contributing to professional outlets. Skaro also benefited from the growth of cultural studies, and the type of criticism it published is now almost invisible between the instant reactions of the internet and the multi-author volumes published by academic presses. The nest for all these factors to flourish, though, was provided by editors Julian Chislett, who provided the link with the old Skaro of the early 1980s, Brian Hudd whose artwork immediately lifted the magazine’s presentation into the first rank, and Vanessa Bishop who gave an embittered post-cancellation fandom licence to enjoy itself again.
I still have a great affection for Skaro, though; it was the first Doctor Who fanzine which I contributed to regularly other than Oxford’s The Tides of Time, and it’s a sign of the strength of its reputation that when the very different Panic Moon launched in 2010, it was hailed by one admirer as the Skaro of the present day. Almost everything printed within its covers still comes across as articulate and the passion of its writers is both comprehensible and involving. Its tone influenced late-1990s Doctor Who Magazine in particular, and Vanessa Bishop brings her freethinking wit to that publication’s reviews to this day.
- Skaro issue 13. Edited and published by Vanessa Bishop, Brian Hudd and Julian Chislett. Bath, summer 1997.