Monday, June 30, 2008

The Squee Factor

Rose is back - but the rest of the news is bad for the Doctor and friends

Squee - verb, noun. To express fannish delight, especially by squealing; also refers to the expression itself and the feeling that engenders it.

Saturday's penultimate Series Four episode of Doctor Who, which will air several weeks from now on SciFi in the United States, is a rather squeeful one, in that it reunites a number of characters, brings in characters previously seen only in the spinoff shows, and brings back a major villain not seen on the show since the late 1980s. There's another fannish term being applied here, because the episode pushes all of fandom's buttons with its continuity references, beloved characters and mysteries solved, even as it sets up a major, major cliffhanger, and several only-slightly-less-major ones. The term sounds rather rude to me, so I refuse to use it.

Nevertheless, it's true that fans have gone into meltdown about the episode over the past several days, and no, I'm not going to tell you what the fuss is about. The Doctor Who Forum had its highest-ever influx of visitors the day it aired, which overloaded the Forum's servers; much the same thing also happened on at least two other fan sites. The episode is pulling a 5 out of 5 rating from about 75% of fans, which places it at #5 in fan appreciation out of the 54 episodes since 2005.

What's really interesting, though, is that all this fan squee is part of a huge reaction to the episode from the general public in the UK. It was the most-watched show of the day, and had an audience appreciation index (AI) rating of 91, the highest in the history of the series, and "one of the highest figures ever achieved for a mainstream television programme." Newspaper columnists all over the UK are speculating wildly about how the cliffhanger is to be resolved, and marveling that such a scene could exist without the information leaking in advance. Dedicated followers of set reports and YouTube spectator videos of location filming were aware of the scene that leads up to the cliffhanger, but the cliffhanger itself was on a closed set, and fan speculation about it apparently didn't reach the press until the episode aired. Even press preview copies of the episode were missing the show's last five minutes.

I've read reports of children needing reassurance, of wives taken to their beds to cry over what seems to be happening (probably an exaggeration), of co-workers accosting known fans demanding news or clarification. It is, I suppose, the biggest example of national interest in a television cliffhanger since "Who shot J.R," much bigger than the parody cliffhanger "Who shot Mr. Burns?"

For every ten squee-ers in fandom, however, there's at least one sourpuss who disapproves of the episode, the writer and the way the show is going, and confidently predicts that any minute now, the general public will catch on to how dreadful it all is, and the show will lose its viewers and be canceled again. These are fans of the show, mind you, but usually they're the ones who only like a few episodes from the modern era, and prefer the glory days of 19--, when xxx was the Doctor. One has to feel kind of sorry for these counterfactual spoilsports, who rush to label most episodes as "dreadful tosh," with bad acting and "no plot," and claim that this nonexistent plot is resolved by deux ex machina or a "reset button." Occasionally they have a point, but generally it's wildly overstated.

There are also, of course, perfectly reasonable people who dislike any given episode, and can clearly and logically explain their viewpoint. I should also mention, because I seem to have been unclear in originally posting this, that there are lots and lots of longtime fans who love the show's revival, and appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the series across every era. The truly vitriolic grumps are a loud but tiny minority.

Sad to say, however, people at both ends of the squee scale tend to believe, and to state publicly, that anyone who holds the opposing view lacks critical faculties, and is probably rude to boot. People who love the episode tell the haters they don't deserve to watch the show. The haters reply that they've been watching the show for umpty-ump years, have joined the fan clubs and bought the merchandise, and know how good Doctor Who can be, if only that dreadful RTD would go away. Russell T Davies, who is preparing to turn the show over to fan favorite Steven Moffat, is the man who brought the show back after 16 years and made it more popular than ever. He's also the man who wrote the episode that all Britain is talking about this week. But there's no denying that some elements of his writing rub certain fans the wrong way. (There may be modern converts to the show who have an anti-RTD attitude, but I haven't noticed as much criticism from that quarter.)

Some of you folks have been involved in other fandoms, I'm guessing, for House and Star Trek and Buffy and who knows what else. I've gotta ask: is this level of fan frenzy and critical dichotomy a general thing, or specific to Doctor Who?


P.S. Yes, I still have a cold! *cough cough!*


Anonymous said...

A bit unfair, makes it sound like all us old-school fanboys dislike the new series! I'd say 99.999999% of old-school fans absolutely adore the new series, and I suspect there are just as many grumpy sourpusses who came to the show in 2005 as there are among us old-timers.

For the record, I love Doctor Who. All of it.


barrettmanor said...

Whatever the show, you'll find the grouches. I think it's a sign that the show is well-liked that you find a group (or six, or eight) of people who aren't happy with the direction.

Now that you mention it, House is a pretty good example. It's one of the highest-rated drams on TV, so they must be doing something right. Yet. Yet.


People gripe about the current story arc. (Insert your favorite character here) doesn't get enough screen time. (Insert your least favorite character here) doesn't. House takes too many pills. He doesn't take enough pills. Would he and Cuddy finally do the deed, already? No, he and Cameron. Or Wilson. Last season went to hell in a handbasket. No, it's this season. If you listen to all those complainers, no one watches the show any longer due to (insert your own reason here). Ugh.

As I said, it's a good sign that a show can bring out all these feelings.

Karen Funk Blocher said...

Hi, Anthony, and welcome! I see I was a bit unclear. I don't at all mean to imply that any more than a tiny percentage of longtime fans can be categorized as grumps. I've only been watching steadily since 1989 (got hooked by the last ten minutes of Logopolis on my PBS station), but I absolutely love the fact that there are people who have been watching the show since childhood, and are now watching with their children or grandchildren. I've done a quick edit to my post to make this point more clear. Thanks for drawing my attention to the unwanted implication!