Polysemic rhetorical flexibility and non-traditional audience reception in Doctor Who

This is a paper I co-authored with Dr. CarrieLynn Reinhard of Dominican University. We presented it at the Midwest Popular Culture Association conference that took place from Oct 11-13 in St. Louis, MO. We are currently working on expanding the paper and revising it for publication. As always, we welcome any and all feedback on how to improve the paper.

“I AM THE DOCTOR”: POLYSEMIC RHETORICAL FLEXIBILITY AND NON-TRADITIONAL AUDIENCE RECEPTION IN DOCTOR WHO

Taking a methodological stance that combines political economic industry analysis, rhetorical text criticism and audience/reception analysis, this paper is an examination of the historical trajectory of the long-running BBC series Doctor Who focusing on the interplay between the rhetoric of the text and the nature of its audiences. The examination posits that this interplay results from the one influencing the other as the series strives to maintain rhetorical cohesion – retaining a core rhetorical, narrative and aesthetic identity — and sociocultural relevance – building and maintain a loyal viewership upon which its livelihood depends. This balancing act means that changes in the one will elicit changes in the other, with no perfect middle ground yet reached.

Our examination indicates that the trajectory of Doctor Who appears to have been one of audience expansion to audience retraction to audience expansion, as the demographics of the audiences have crossed generational, gender and cultural lines. The new Doctor Who series represents the latest audience expansion as the series has taken strategic moves to become more mainstream and reach out to new audiences. This can be seen in the demographics and activities of its fans. We believe it will be of scholarly interest to see if the 12th (13th?) Doctor’s introduction creates another audience retraction. Ultimately, this presentation examines the interaction of the polysemic text and the polyvalent audience through the fan activities of remixing and cosplay, which represent both identification and appropriation.

According to such theorists as Celeste Michelle Condit (1999) and John Fiske (1986), texts are polysemic. This means that 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. However, there are limits to the polysemic potential of texts and their decodings: the rhetoric constrains the decoding and the receivers are not free to make meanings at will. Fiske argues that “Central to this theory is the notion that all television texts must, in order to be popular, contain within them unresolved contradictions that the viewer can exploit in order to find within them structural similarities to his or her own social relationships and identity.” (1986, p. 392)

We can see such multiple layers in the classic Doctor Who series, which helped drive the first audience expansion, and these start with the show’s generic positioning (Fig. 1). Doctor Who contains elements of a number of different genres, including science fiction, romance, and adventure. The appeal of the polysemic nature of the show’s various genre conventions was evident in the first research analysis of potential Doctor Who viewers. According to one viewer, the show put him in mind of texts as diverse as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops, and The Old Curiosity Shop, and that he considered the show to be “all good, clean fun and I look forward to meeting the nice Doctor’s planetary friends next Saturday, whether it be in the ninth or the ninety-ninth century A.D.” According to the researchers, this opinion seemed to be indicative of the majority of the viewers sampled, who found the show to be “an enjoyable piece of escapism, not to be taken too seriously, of course, but nonetheless entertaining, and, at times, quite thrilling.”

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Fig. 1: Doctor Who’s first audience expansion was initially driven by the show’s generic positioning.

According to Lincoln Geraghty (2008), the series was originally envisioned as neither “space travel” nor “science fiction,”  but rather it used these fantastic genres to tell educational and historical stories. It wasn’t until later, however, when the science fiction elements were brought to the fore, that the series truly began to cultivate a larger, more devoted audience. Furthermore as the series progressed, the producers began introducing more complex stories and themes, featuring unhappy endings, terrors unresolved, and moral ambiguity. The series produced a tension, a dialectic that resulted in mystery.  This mystery is never fully solved by what is given in the text, and the ultimate mystery ends up being the answer to the title’s question: Doctor Who? This question is simultaneously complex and simple, open for both children and adults to try to answer it, to arrive at the answers by continuing to watch the series and actively engage in it.

The mystery of the Doctor’s identity is reflected in the variableness of the show’s characters, and this includes the Doctor himself. The Doctor’s personality is ever-shifting, and the character is often seemingly made up of contradictions (i.e. Doctor-as-lover, Doctor-as-friend, Doctor-as-father, Doctor-as-victim, Doctor-as-savior, Doctor-as-destroyer). This is evidenced by the way his personality seemingly changes with each regeneration. This variableness also manifests in the form of the Doctor’s companions, all of whom represent a diverse array of ages, genders, and personality types.  Similarly, the numerous villains that the Doctor faces in each serial also offer a number unresolved contradictions that can be exploited by viewers.

The polysemic rhetoric of the series assisted with the initial audience expansion, seen in the plotting of its ratings, as the program’s multi-layered rhetoric could be aimed at a wide array of audiences.  More importantly these audiences often seemed to contradict one another in their identities and positions, as they include children and adults; boys and girls; niche fans and mainstream viewers; and conservatives and liberals.

According to Peter B. Gregg (2004), the show crossed generational lines because the producers strove to ensure that show’s “plot and dramatic tension” was at once “mature enough for the parents, but appealing to the children” (p. 651). Similarly, John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado (1983) assert that the show is popular with both demographics because it “doesn’t patronize or insult the intelligence of children – and therefore is adult enough to appeal to ‘grown-ups’ – but thereby ensures that it maintains high child audience ratings, an audience that regenerates much faster than an adult audience.” (p. 5).

Tulloch (1995) reported on an interview project he conducted with teenagers, both boy and girl, to understand their frames of reference for reading the series. Boys said that they preferred the episodes that focused on history, while girls focused on the soap opera elements in defining what they saw as “real” in the series. Thus, boys and girls differed in how they made sense of the series based on what was relevant to them and their personal lives. Nevertheless, they reflect the diverse audience that is attracted to the show.

In order to foster a mainstream audience, the producers sought an intertextuality that would reference sources known to the largest possible audience; that is, any intertextuality needed be made relevant to the “dominant generic and narrative values of the programme” (Tulloch & Alvarado, 1983, p. 150). One example of this type of intertextuality can be found in fourth part of the “City of Death” serial from 1979: the Doctor (Tom Baker) describes a meeting with William Shakespeare and claims that he (The Doctor) wrote the first draft of Hamlet. This reference to one of the most well-known writers in history is likely to be known by viewers regardless of age, sex, or class, and thus it is designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. These types of intertextual references can be found throughout the series, and they all provide different points of convergence for different viewers.

The series also employs a number of intra-textual elements in order to cultivate and bring pleasure to devoted fans, as a way of rewarding them for their devotion. These types of intra-textual references are designed to build the continuity of the show, and to establish what fans refer to as the Whoniverse. Tulloch and Alvarado discuss this phenomenon at length, writing that, “During the gathering accretions of a long-running series, a devoted audience becomes acutely aware of, and jealous to preserve, the particular signification of these ‘quotation marks'” (1983, pp. 64-65). Thus, the establishment of Doctor Who canon, that included recurring villains such as the Daleks and the Cybermen, and the reveal of the Doctor’s past in the form Gallifrey and the Timelords, helped to establish rules and consistency that allowed loyal fans to form an attachment to the series (Fig. 2).

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Fig. 2: Recurring villains like the Daleks and the Cybermen help to inspire devotion in fans.

Finally, the political ambiguity of both the Doctor and the series allowed for audiences with different, and often opposing ideological positions to see the Doctor as representing their personal views and values. According to Alan McKee (2004), “there is general agreement about the politics of the Doctor: that he is not political in that sense” (p. 207). Indeed, after conducting interviews with 39 Doctor Who fans, McKee concluded that “whether left wing, right wing, centrist, apolitical or one of the other messy political affiliations” viewers “were able to find ways to interpret this text that did not conflict with their own political beliefs” (2004, p. 211). This points to the ambiguity of the character in many ways, beyond a moral streak that sees him wanting to do good. In this way, fans of all stripes (gender, ethnicity, creed, etc) can identify with the character, and thus appropriate the Doctor’s identity into their own no matter who they are.

Overall, the program’s ability to appear as both serious and popular, as both science fiction and social commentary, helps to explain wide range of audiences that engaged with it. When texts place too much emphasis on hailing the dedicated fan through their rhetoric, the texts begin to lose their polysemic flexibility. The struggle and divide between hailing a mainstream audience and a fan audience appears to have resulted in an audience retraction that led to the cancellation to the original classic Doctor Who series (Fig. 3). In order to be polysemic, a text must balance its rhetoric between being open enough for a mainstream audience and having enough continuity for a fan audience. According to Tulloch and Henry Jenkins (1995), “Doctor Who fans’ sense of a good episode is constructed in terms of quite a precise aesthetic: it should not ‘leave things unexplained’ (in order not to lose the wider audience); and it should adhere to the history and continuity or the series (in order not to lose the fans)” (p. 155).

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Fig. 3: When Doctor Who concentrated on hailing a fan audience, ratings for the show declined steadily, until the program was finally canceled in 1989. When the show was relaunched in 2005, producers focused on hailing a more mainstream audience.

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the series began to unbalance the rhetoric by focusing on continuity and relying on self-references and even self-parodies. According to Nicholas J. Cull (2006), it became important for the series to joke about itself, about its very rhetorical nature and continuity. This intra-textuality occurred at the same time as the publication of novelization spin-offs, fan magazines, and the appearance of Doctor Who Appreciation Society fan clubs. The producers were focused on hailing the fans, who would commit their time and monies to the series, at the expense of the wider audience. Kim Newman, (quoted by Neil Perryman), pointed out that the series declined into “niche cultdom” as the rhetoric began to be “solely aimed at the fans” (2008, p. 23). With the loss of the wider mainstream audience, the series went off the air in 1989. Yet, the producers of the show continued hailing the fan audience through various publications in order to maintain their interest in the series during the time it was off the air.

Then, an attempt was made in 1996 to recreate the series as an internationally mainstreamed version of Doctor Who. The resulting American television movie, which aired on the Fox Network, can be read as a bridge between Old Who and New Who (Fig. 4). With this television movie, producer Philip Segal sought to recreate the balance between mainstream and fan audiences, as well as find a balance between British and American audiences. According to Peter Wright (2011),  the television movie “demonstrates how the producer, director and writer tried to reconcile old and new viewers alike while ‘clawing back’ the Doctor to a point of socio-centrality” (p. 128). Segal, himself a fan, believed that the series’ insular focus on intratextuality meant it could not be popular with a wider audience, and thus he set about producing a text with more of a “utilitarian intertextuality,” with references to texts and genres that mainstream audiences, on both sides of the pond, could identify with (Wright, 2011). In other words, he sought to tell a story that would not alienate the British fanbase while also being one Americans could enjoy without understanding the mythology of the series. Thus, according to Wright, the television movie relies heavily on Christian imagery and conservative politics to hail the mainstream American audience – it did not work. The television movie was more successful in the United Kingdom than the United States, but did not do well enough to create a resurgence of the television series.

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Fig. 4: Paul McGann stars as the Doctor in the American television movie from 1996.

During the time that Doctor Who was off the air, several shifts were happening; these shifts can be seen as creating a polyvalent audience that would be prepared for the Doctor’s return in 2005. According to Condit (1999), polyvalence conceptualizes an audience as not containing uniform individuals; rather, audience members will differ in their expectations, motivations and interpretations of the same text. Audience members may share basic understandings of the text’s denotative meanings, but they have different opinions as to the connotative meanings – as to what is important about each text. This helps to explain why texts that want to reach out to the widest audience want to be as polysemic as possible: the more polysemic it is, the more possible connotative meanings it contains, and thus the more possibility it will be of interest to the variety of people.

The 1990s and 2000s saw two key shifts in the general population that could be key factors in the polyvance of the audience for a return of Doctor Who. First, women begin to really enter the scifi/fantasy audience through anime/manga and 1990s grrrl power fandoms. Anime/manga began to be radically disseminated throughout global pop culture in the 1990s. Such animation and comics typically featured more empowered women and girl protagonists than their Western counterparts, helping to give women and girls an entry into a fandom that has traditionally been identified as masculine (Fig. 5). Concurrently, the rise of grrrl power texts, such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, also provided women and girls with figures to identify with and model (Fig. 6). And, as Brent Allison (2009) indicated, there was overlap between these two fandoms: “Far from being isolated, anime subculture in the United States is interconnected with other fandoms, or groups of fans of particular stories, genres, or mediums, in ways that its cultural practices overlap with these other fandoms” (p. 119). Therefore, the stereotype of fandom subcultures as being dominated by white males is challenged during this time period as more women and minorities become involved.

anime fandom
Fig. 5: Anime and manga may have helped introduce more women into science fiction and fantasy fandoms.
Grrl power fandoms
Fig. 6: Grrl power texts such as Buffy and Xena may also have helped to prime female audiences for the return of Doctor Who.

Second, and related to the first factor, was the rise of the Internet during this time period. The Internet permits and promotes the distribution of fandom materials, both canon and fanon, creating a global audience for a text that can be consumed by the fans almost simultaneously with the intended cultural audience. For example, anime fans, working together around the world, would share fansubs of texts so that non-Japanese fans could enjoy the text at almost the same pace as Japanese fans. In discussing the reverse globalization of America by Japanese anime/manga, Andrew C. McKevitt (2010) referred to the power of the Internet in this “transpacific anime exchange” to connect “local communities to global cultural trends” (p. 920). The Internet’s impact has been felt across fandoms. As Fabienne Darling-Wolf (2004) put it: “Because of the internet’s potential to eliminate the barriers of time and space, fans who are otherwise isolated from each other can engage in virtual communities, allowing them to negotiate as a group their relationship with their favorite celebrities or characters” (p.509). Due to these two factors, a truly global polyvalent audience, with an array of expectations, motivations, and interpretations, was in place for the return of the Doctor.

In 2005, Doctor Who is relaunched by self-professed fans to reach a mainstream audience in the United Kingdom and abroad with even more polysemic rhetoric. The same polysemic nature identified with the classic series is in place – multiple genres, ambiguous stories, varied characters – but certain features appear to have been increased or added on. Leora Hadas (2013) considered the classic series to have been a cult text, while the new series has actively been repositioning itself for mainstream consumption. More genres were added to the layers, including romance, Westerns, and cyberpunk.  More characters were added, as the companions’ families became ancillary supporting characters to be learned from or harmed in the stories. Intertextuality returned and reinterpreted for contemporary audiences. According to Alec Charles (2008), the new series “brandishes its various pastiches of games shows, soaps, news, political broadcasts, musical montages, and reality TV” that aligns it with other post-modern series (p. 453). The new series appeared to have learned from the mistakes made with the television movie as it reestablished the balance between hailing mainstream and fan audiences. At the same time, Paul Booth (2009) argues that the series continues to hail fans by referencing its own history, through Easter Eggs or fan service.

Such moves can be seen as addressing the mainstream audience to remove the stigma of “niche cultdom” that apparently doomed the classic series, and these additions to the rhetoric also allow for addressing audiences that cross both gendered and cultural lines. The romantic and sexual overtones and connotations are more pronounced, including in the presentation of the Doctor himself, which allows the series to hail more women, and added themes of American-ism in numerous stories are meant to hail non-British citizens (Fig. 7).

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Fig. 7: The increased emphasis placed on romantic elements and the sexualization of the Doctor himself may have led to an increase in female viewers.

Much has been written, by academics and the popular press alike, about the increased emphasis on romance and sex in the new series. David Tennant, who played the 10th Doctor, was routinely discussed by fans and the popular press for being the “Sexy Doctor.” His performance of the Doctor, along with his romantic relationships with his companions, from Rose Tyler to Astrid Peth and others provided the rhetorical text and subtext upon which to based these interpretations. With his return in 2005, The Doctor has been described by Dee Amy-Chinn (2008) as embracing his “feminine side,” by Hadas (2013) as embodying “geek chic masculinity,” and by Charles (2008) as representing a contemporary morality. According to Rebecca Williams (2011), a focus on the actor’s embodiment of the Doctor provides for a point of identification for female audiences, who enjoy the character’s sexuality or geekiness.

Meanwhile, numerous stories were created with overt and covert meanings for the American audience, who watched via DVDs, the BBC cable network subsidiary BBC America, or illegal online file-sharing (Fig. 8). Numerous stories were set in America, from “Dalek” in 2005 to “The Angels Take Manhattan” in 2012. Along with such overt attempts to hail an American audience through intertextual references that Americans would understand, there were also subtle references to American politics and culture, such as the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom during the Bush-Blair era of the Iraq War. There was also an increase of intertextual references to American media, such as the possible interpretation of the Jagrafess in “The Long Game” as an ambiguous reference to Fox News (DiPaolo, 2010).

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Fig. 8: The current iteration of Doctor Who has made several attempts to hail an American audience, particularly in”The Long Game” which used the Jagrafess on Fox News.

The intersection of the polysemous text and the polyvalent audience can be seen in the engagement of the text by the various audiences. Each audience has different motivations for engaging with the series, and these different motivations can lead to the same interpretation of the main text, and yet different interpretations of any perceived subtext within the series. Different motivations means that the polyvalent audience can be seen based upon their different interpretations. For example, Hadas, in writing about fans, said that the inclusion of romantic elements into the series led to a bifurcation in the audience: the anoraks (devoted fans who did not focus on these new additions) and the shippers (those whose focus on the romantic element is their primary ties to the series). As another example, Marc Edward DiPaolo (2010) asserts that the series’ longevity means the audience will be divided based on their love of different eras, different tones, and different Doctors.

The different interpretations of subtext can be seen in the activities of the audience; and, in particular, in the various types of fans, both online and at conventions. For example, in fan fiction and fan art, we can see different interpretations of the rhetoric in how they will write stories containing slash or shipping of different characters (Fig. 9). For example, at conventions, we see cross-gendered and cross-cultural cosplaying as fans will 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 could be seen as having a little bit of something for everyone.

Doctor Who Fan art
Fig. 9: Fans reinterpret the rhetoric of Doctor Who through activities such as fan art.

And while such differences may define subsets of the fandom and the audience in general, Booth (2013) argues that everyone’s affection for the series is the connection that overrides any dissidence. As long as the series’ rhetoric continues to have this polysemic flexibilty, then it can expect to hail and be greeted by a polyvalent audience that would help ensure it does not again fall into the perilous position of “niche cultdom.”

However, it may be that Doctor Who is trying to be too many things to too many people, and will at some point no longer be able to satisfy all of the polyvalent audience at once. According to DiPaolo, there is some dissidence, in the form of fans of the original series who feel “the revival differs too radically from the original to be seen as a true and faithful continuation of its storylines” (2010, p. 971). Additionally, DiPaolo says that there are others turned off by the “overtly political, often anti-American sentiments” in the stories (2010, p. 964). Also, the very nature of the audience as polyvalent can cause some strains, as the fandom fractures along boundaries between those considered to be real versus fake fans.

For example, while more women have been brought into the fandom, this has caused a strain along this “real/fake” boundary. As Williams (2011) describes it, those fan girls who focus on the actors’ performing the Doctor, such as David Tennant, are seen by fan boys as bringing in unwelcome shipping, irrational squeeing, and unjustified excitement. Indeed, fan girls are positioned as fake by these fan boys; their focus on the actor is not considered to be an appropriate interpretation of the series (Fig. 10). According to Williams: “The advent of the Internet and the relaunch of ‘new Who’ in 2005 has led to wider fragmentation of the audience and the formation of often disparate groups who read the show through different ‘filters’ such as the long-standing history of the show, the auteur figure of Russell T. Davies, or various characters or actors.” (2011, p. 177)

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Fig. 10: Many female fans of Doctor Who are often accused of being “fake fan girls” because they are perceived to be focusing on the wrong aspects of the show.

Such fractured fandom and the policing of a fandom’s boundaries are some indication of the problem of addressing such a large polyvalent audience. Other problems can be seen with feminist critiques of Steven Moffat, the current showrunner, through Tumblr blogs like “STFU Moffat” and “Steven Moffat is a Douchebag.” Additionally, the online discourse on choosing the next Doctor to replace Matt Smith contained numerous fan struggles over defining the “real fan” as well as how the Doctor’s portrayal should address the cross-cultural nature of the audience. Numerous online fans, bloggers, and journalists discussed the need for the Doctor to better represent the series’ audience by having the next regeneration be something other than a straight white upper-class male. The casting of Peter Capaldi maintains the tradition of the Doctor’s portrayal, but in doing so also raises the concern about the “fake geek girl” by “real fans.”

    Fig. 11: Current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat has been the subject of much feminist criticism.
Fig. 11: Current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat has been the subject of much feminist criticism.

As Wright (2004) pointed about, the television movie focused on regenerating the Doctor into a much younger, more romantically and sexually appealing figure. Such a portrayal has been consistent in the new series in comparison to the old series. However, the casting of Capaldi signals a return to an older portrayal, one more aligned with the “father figure” of the old series. There have been discussions and arguments amongst online fan communities that the casting will result in the disappearance of the fan girls who were only motivated into being audience by the younger portrayal of the Doctor. This argument speaks of the “fake geek girl” claim, and it remains to be seen if the series will lose audience with Capaldi in control of the TARDIS.

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Fig. 12: It remains to be seen whether or not the casting of Peter Capaldi as the 13th regeneration of the Doctor will result in another audience retraction or expansion.

However, it should be noted that we argued that the first major audience retraction was due to how the series was catering to fans through intra-textuality, self-references, and self-parodies. It could be, then, that the bringing in of Capaldi is a way to maintain the mainstream and not just cater to the desires of fans. Catering to the fans would have meant hiring someone more representative of the cross-gendered and cross-cultural nature of the audience. Maintaining a portrayal that has been consistent would be an indication of insisting on a continuity that has thus far been balanced enough to draw in the mainstream audience alongside the fan audience.

In conclusion, we want to address the issue of why this analysis of the series’ rhetorical history and trajectory of audience reception matters. First, the longevity of this popular cultural text appears due to the texts’ ability to be polysemic and thus open to the various demographics that constitute what has now become a truly global polyvalent audience. This analysis indicates how a series that can adapt its rhetoric over time to hail a polyvalent audience is perhaps a model for how to build and maintain a market presence. If the series had stayed within the real of “niche cultdom,” then its popular, economic, and political impacts might have been relegated to ages past.

The resurgence of the series, and how it can become the touchstone for these discourses, is owed to its ability to navigate the construction of a polysemic text to hail a polyvalent audience. In attempting to maintain this market presence, it likewise helped us acknowledge that there are more perspectives, more positions, more audience than just the traditional hegemonic white male audience that might be interested in such a text. Given the fan activities in relation to the series and the discourse in relation to the casting of Cipaldi, the series has become the means by which to give voice to marginalized groups who are crossing gendered and cultural borders – despite the BBC’s insistence of staying with the traditional and the hegemonic.

The more we can understand how a polyvalent audience is formed by a polysemic text and then interacts with it, then the better we can understand the true nature of audience and reception. By understanding how different people are identifying with and appropriating the idea of “I AM the Doctor,” then we can better understand how to make texts that formally dispel with the tradition and the hegemonic.

WORKS CITED

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