John Fiske: Popularity & Ideology: A Structuralist Reading of Dr Who

John Fiske’s ”Popularity and Ideology: A Structuralist Reading of Dr Who” is the earliest academic study of Doctor Who I’ve been able to find, and is a perfect example of the reductive effects of 70s and 80s media studies.  A slightly revised version can be found in Interpreting Television: Current Research Perspectives (1984) edited by Willard D. Rowland Jr and Bruce Watkins. All quotes and page numbers which follow refer to this version.

Though not as well known as John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s book-length study Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, it was an influence on that book, and draws upon the same academic assumptions (structuralist semiotics, Althusseran Marxism, Screen theory, etc). It remains influential today: Fiske’s unfounded conclusions are regurgitated uncritically as recently as Una McCormack’s essay ”He’s Not the Messiah: Undermining Political and Religious Authority in New Doctor Who” in The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T Davies Era of the New Doctor Who (2011) edited by Simon Bradshaw, Anthony Keen and Graham Sleight, and published by the Science Fiction Foundation: that McCormack is, herself, a Doctor Who novelist, illustrates the symbiosis between Cultural Stidies and the show itself.

Fiske is the author of eight books including the indispensible Television Culture (1987), Understanding Popular Culture (1989) and Reading the Popular (1989), and is generally regarded as a leading proponent of what is rather derogatorily known as the ‘Cultural Populism’ wing of Cultural studies – however, as we’ll see, Fiske’s work actually embodies many of the same post-structuralist and anti-humanistic assumptions of his more deterministic colleagues – it’s just that he allows some degree of agency, although he attributes this to a ‘radically opposed’ audience composed of people like himself.

Fiske’s object of study is the 1979 story The Creature from the Pit.

The first objection to Fiske’s study would be that, although I’m personally rather fond of it for reasons I’ll come to later, if you wanted to select a typical example of Doctor Who to analyse, The Creature from the Pit wouldn’t be it: it contains an even higher than usual degree of parody, at the level of both script and performance, and the monster looks like it belongs on a Llanfairfach miner’s underpants. It generally ranks among the lowest rated stories in popularity polls conducted by Doctor Who Magazine, along with its Season 17 stablemates Nightmare of Eden and The Horns of Nimon. Much of what could be said of Creature from the Pit could not be said of other, more typical stories, and even if you accept Fiske’s argument in this case the differences represented by those other stories would render Fiske’s arguments invalid if you tried to generalise upon them.

Since I’m going to lay bare Fiske’s assumptions I should divulge my own: where Fiske draws upon Saussure and Marxism I draw upon the the cognitive and rhetorical theories I outline in my essay on David Bordwell‘s Making Meaning. If you see a Saussurian term I’m referring to a stated or implicit assumption in Fiske’s work but if you see a term derived from theories of rhetoric (enthymemeinventiodisputioelecutio) or cognitive psychology (schemaheuristicssemantic fields) they represent my own analysis of Fiske: Fiske himself does not use these terms. I’ll also be making a critique of Marxism’s superficial ‘radicalism’ drawn from an Anarchist perspective.

Fiske begins in classical rhetorical fashion by introducing the issues about to be discussed (entrance) and the background circumstances, together with a brief synopsis of the story to be examined (narration); he then proposes the thesis he attempting to prove (proposition): these all form parts of the exordium, or introduction to Fiske’s thesis. This leads to the body of his argument in which he breaks down specific points (division) which he then confirms according to his satisfaction (confirmation), paying a limited amount of attention to address possible opposing arguments (confutation). This leads inevitably to a conclusion in which he presents a review of his arguments and an emotional exhortation to his audience. This is a form of argument largely unchanged since the time of Cicero because it is extremely effective: it’s also the form of argument I am following here – the difference being that I acknowledge that I am doing it. Marxist theorists are often highly critical of those who mask the relations of production but seldom apply their standards to themselves – and Fiske is no exception.

Fiske starts with a brief introduction to Doctor Who, acknowledging that it had been running since 1963. He never acknowledges the series’ past from this point on however, and treats Doctor Who as it was in 1979 as typical of the series as a whole – as if if the elements of the show that year (K9 and Romana, a companion from his home planet) were essential elements of the series, and not transient elements in an ever-evolving show. This is symptomatic of semiotics, the so-called ‘science of signs’ that Fiske uses in his analysis: it treats language systems as closed and synchronic (as Being without Becoming). This is also the only point at which he names the author, David Fisher, the sole human being involved in the show’s production that Fiske acknowledges at all: no director is mentioned, nor performers. Again, this follows from semiotics, which recognises systems but divorces them from the actions or agency of human beings.

Fiske states his aims immediately after this introduction:

In this paper I intend to explore two closely related concerns: (1) the relationship between the  syntagmatic, onward thrust of the story through time and the paradigmatic, atemporal discourses through which it is realised, and (2) the notion of popularity, which I define as an easy fit between the discourses of the text and the discourses through which its model readers articulate and understand their social experience.

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p.168)

Here we see the second biggest flaw in Fiske’s paper: having already defined popularity as ‘an easy fit between the discourses of the text and the discourses through which its model readers articulate and understand their social experience’ the conclusion that popularity is ‘an easy fit between the discourses of the text and the discourses through which its model readers articulate and understand their social experience’ is a foregone conclusion. Had Fiske defined popularity in terms of audience figures and then related these to ideological processes his analyses might uncover he might be doing something meaningful.

We can already see the first of Fiskes enthymemes at play here: ‘syntagmatic’ and ‘paradigmatic axes belong Saussurian linguistics, the linguistic foundation on which semiotics is based, while the interrelationship of popularity and ideology belongs to the Dominant Ideology Thesis. As we’ll see Fiske also draws upon Stuart Hall‘s encoding/decoding model of television reception and Screen theory. I explore these theories elsewhere on my site but Fiske is writing for a specific audience presumed to accept them so most of their assumptions are left unstated – and therefore unchallenged. My aim here is to challenge such assumptions.

At this point Fiske introduces the first of several diagrams illustrating structuralist abstractions:

The diagrams are an important part of the elocutio, or ornamentation of Fiske’s rhetoric, the style of his discourse. These diagrams give a rhetorical air of scientific gloss to Fiske’s paper – which is ironic given Fiske’s contempt for science:

Dr Who wins his struggles not by superior technology (which in science fiction generally means superior force – technology is both totalitarian and imperialistic) but by reason, fearlessness, humour, and curiosity.

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p.165-166)

‘Technology is both totalitarian and imperialistic’ – really? Irrigation, immunisation, contraception, the wheel, zip-fasteners, novelty ringtones – the lot?

He later quotes John Tullock approvingly:

As Tulloch (1982) has suggested, pure science is finally totalitarian – it allows no alternative, no oppositional view.

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p.173)

This is another enthymeme, specifically an argument from authority, for which Fiske does not feel the need to offer theoretical or evidential support; in any case, his conclusion may come as a surprise to scientists in the field of quantum mechanics, where dozens of competing theories co-exist (the Copenhagen interpretation, the Many-Worlds hypothesis, the Consistent histories hypothesis, the de Broglie-Bohm theory, the Ensemble Interpretation, etc), or evolutionary science where debates persist between theories of punctuated equilibrium and phyletic gradualism, or any other scientific field where scientists are all-too conscious of the epistemological problems posed by the underdetermination of  theory by evidence – but still manage to collaborate across different cultures.  Fiske offers us a crass stereotype of ‘science’ as a monolithic block rather than a field of perpetual dialogue. This is especially rich since Fiske not only writes from a genuinely monological Marxist tradition which subsumes all of human interaction to a single relationship (economics), and all philosophy to a single process (dialectics) and ultimately derives his theory of ideology from Louis Althusser‘s influential essay ”Contadiction and Overdetermination” in For Marx (1969), which proposes a far more deterministic theory of society – overdetermination – than any genuine scientist would offer; but Fiske is playing to his audience here, humanities students and fellow academics assured of the moral superiority of their own discipline.

The basic principle of semiological analysis is that the surface features of a cultural object must be understood as an expression of an underlying pattern or structure – but which surface elements do we focus on? This is a major problem as as it is obvious that textual cues can just as easily be selected on the basis they fit the semantic fields rather than the other way round.

In order for Fiske’s to demonstrate that the popularity of Doctor Who – or popular culture in general – rests upon the way it articulates ideology he actually has to demonstrate two things – one of which he doesn’t even attempt. Firstly he has to demonstrate that the specific story in hand operates in the ideological way he claims he does – and secondly he has to demonstrate that the ideological work of this story is typical of Doctor Who as a whole. Even if – and that’s a big if – ideology operates the way he says it does  in this story he still has to demonstrate it operates similarly in other stories – or that other stories are sufficiently similar to generalise from this instance. If he does not demonstrate this he has not proven his thesis – but since he does not even attempt to do this he has failed from the outset.

Despite Fiske’s claim that he is unmasking deeper levels of the text there’s an almost autistic literalism in his interpretation: at no point does he consider the parodic aspects of the story, of the dialogue or the performances. Structuarlism sees texts as systems rather than as communication between human beings.

I’ll deel with the trivial matters first: Fiske repeatedly refers to the Doctor as ‘Dr. Who’ (a perhaps understandable error given that the end title does so to), to the Time Lords as ‘Timelords’, and to the ‘Creature’ Erato as ‘Irato’. These basic errors don’t necessarily undermine his argument though they do point to an unwillingness to check facts.

More significant are Fiske’s erroneous assumptions about the significance of the Doctor’s title:

The fact that his basic science is medicine – the most human and least objective of the sciences – is also significant, not least because it allows us to call him Doctor rather than Professor

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p175)

This is an interesting use of the word ‘fact’ since this statement is simply on a factual level: the Doctor has many times claimed he is not a Doctor of medicine. Fiske’s identification of the title ‘Doctor’ exclusively with the medical profession and ‘Professor’ with the other sciences is nonsense – and inexplicable: Fiske’s an academic and a glance around the staff room should have swiftly disabused him of this notion. He’s a Professor himself, for Christ’s sake!

The reference to the title ‘Professor’ is almost amusing in retrospect, of course, especially here:

Think how much colder the connotations would be if he were called ”The Professor” instead of ”The Doctor”

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p175)

Like, uh, when Ace joined the show? Fiske was writing in 1984 so would not know that Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred were soon to prove this prediction about connotation wrong: Ace continually, and affectionately, refers to the Doctor as the ‘Professor’, and this pairing is generally regarded as the warmest Doctor-companion partnership of the ’80s. Moreover, there are dozens of Professors who are popular public figures by virtue of making science accessible to the public, including Professor Albert Einstein (the archetypal eccentric scientist), Prof. Carl Sagan, Prof. Robert Winston (a Professor of medicine), Prof. Stephen Hawking and Prof. Brian Cox, and popular fictional characters such as Professor ‘Matt’ Matic from Fireball XL5,  Professor Heggerty from Space Patrol, Professor ‘Mac’ McClaine from Joe 90, Prof Yaffle from Bagpus, Professor Victor Bergman from Space: 1999, Professor X from The X-Men, Prof. Mohinder Suresh from Heroes and about half the characters in the Harry Potter series (Prof. Albus Dumledore, Prof. Minerva McGonnagall, etc). The negative connotations Fiske attributes to Professors is not one shared by those outside his narrow ‘profession’. Nor are the connotations of ‘Doctor’ universally positive: what about Doctors Hawley Harvey CrippenJoseph Mengele and Harold Shipman, or, from fiction, Dr Fu Manchu and Dr No? Also, as I mentioned in Parlare the Carny and Gaslight and Gastromancy, ‘Doctor’ and ‘Professor’ are both titles affected by popular entertainers such as ‘Professor’ Stanley Unwin; Professor is also a title popularly conferred upon Punch and Judy showmen such as the legendary ‘Professor’ Percy Press Sr. (see my essay on Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker). Fiske’s attribution of opposing connotations to the titles Doctor and Professor are entirely without foundation.

Fiske claims the interior of the Tardis is ‘pure science’, which I suppose is an arguable case if you ignore it’s function as a magical gateway, but that it’s exterior is ‘idiosyncratically individualistic’ (p.177). Fiske then instantly contradicts himself – impressive given the paragraph is only two sentences long – by describing that same ‘idiosyncratically individualistic’ police box exterior as ‘a metonym of social law and order’ (p.177). Fiske draws contradictory inferences dependent upon the needs of his argument.

The Discourse of Morality

Fiske also makes wild religious inferences about the Doctor:

‘The significance of the Doctor lies partly in his structured relationship to gods and man. He is an anomalous creature in that he is neither God (or Timelord) nor man but occupies a mediating category between the two. He has nonhuman origin and many nonhuman abilities, yet a human form an many human characteristics. In other words, he occupies the same space between humans and God as does Christ.

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p180)

Not a Timelord (or even Time Lord)? Maybe Fiske has had a visit from Lady Peinforte. And why Christ and not, say, Prometheus, or – given the subtext of several other stories – Buddha? Why not Theseus or Samson since both would fulfill the role of mediation between Gods and Man and both are referenced explicitly in the opening sequence? Because Fiske set out with a conclusion he is now attempting to prove, and that conclusion links Christianity to capitalism through the enthymeme of the Dominant Ideology Thesis, not because he is exploring possible meanings to see where they will lead him.

It gets better:

The fact that both are part of a trinity may be stretching the parallelism too far, but again, it may not.

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p180)

You couldn’t make this up! Apart from anything else the Trinity is a Christian doctrine which teaches that the the Godhead comprises of three persons, FatherSon and Holy Spirit, in one divine Being, not three individual entities which just happen to hang out together. Advancing an extreme case and then partially retracting it in order to seem more reasonable, as Fiske does here, is also a typical rhetorical strategy.

Fiske’s pop-theology continues:

Romana (echoes of Pax Romana?) is always dressed in white flowing robes with connotations of angels or vestal virgins…

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p180)

No, she bloody isn’t: she wears the same white dress throughout this story – presumably because she’s a little busy to change – but in her two previous stories she had dressed variously as a parody of the Doctor, complete with pink coat, pink scarf, pink trousers and pink boots (Destiny of the Daleks), and as a schoolgirl (City of Death). In later stories she will dress in hunting pinks (Horns of Nimon), an Edwardian boys swimsuit with straw boater (The Leisure Hive), a gypsy dress (Full Circle) and a mandarin-red silk tunic with long sleeves and ‘coolie’ trousers (Warriors’ Gate): I’ll return to Romana’s dress codes in a few moments but we should simply note here that we once more see one particular story treated as if it were typical of the series as a whole: even if Fiske was right in his interpretation of this particular story then he is wrong about others where the conditions which pertain in Creature from the Pit do not apply.

The Discourse of Individualism

Fiske seems pretty confused about the status of ‘eccentricity’ in Althusseran theory in any case. The whole thrust of Screen theory is that the centred Self is an illusion, part of the Ideological State Aparatus. I examine in my essay on Noël Carroll’s Mystifying Movies. However its vital for Fiske’s argument that science is reconciled with capitalist individualism through the Doctor’s eccentricity.Fiske counterposes the Doctor’s eccentricity with Romana’s ‘conformity’ and presents their relationship as a triad with K9 operating as the third figure:  ”Dr. Who and Romana are both Timelords in human form, but the Doctor is more ‘human’ than Romana’ (p.175) as evidenced by his ‘schoolboyishness’ (he is untidy, and seen reading a children’s book as the story opens) and ‘hints of teenage rebelliousness’ (he will not plug in the tranceiver so that he can reive orders from Gallifrey).

Fiske’s illustrates this triadic relationship with a diagram similar to that I’ve drawn here (the markings in red are my own addition) – but what exactly does this diagram illustrate? What, for instance, are the units of Individuality/Authority or Machine/Humanness?

Fiske’s model is a right angle triangle which suggests that the Doctor and Romana have the same degree of humanness – contrary to what Fiske has already claimed – and that Romana and K9 share the same lack of authority relative to the Doctor. This latter equivalence would seem unlikely as K9 addresses Romana as ‘Mistress’ just as he addresses the Doctor as ‘Master’: even if we accept she lacks the Doctor’s full authority she is clearly has more than K9. A more accurate representation of Fiske’s arguments would look like this:

Like Fiske’s analysis itself, this triangle is obtuse (sorry, couldn’t resist!) .

And does Romana really lack  objection one might make is that even if the Doctor’s ‘human’ characteristics are defined in opposition to his companions’ ‘lack’ of them that this serial is hardly typical of the series as a whole: Romana is an alien but the Doctor is more commonly accompanied by human companions. Even if we accept Fiske’s interpretation of this story then logic dictates that most other Doctor Who stories structure the character differently, counterpointing the Doctor’s alien nature against the humans’ humanness.

But of course identifying Romana as the unhuman contrast to the Doctor’s humanness breaks down as soon as we examine at it.  Romana II is no less witty than the Doctor as evidenced by this banter from the previous story, nor is her dress sense any less eccentric – at one point even dresseing exactly like the Doctor (Destiny of the Daleks). So Romana is neither a typical Doctor Who Companion, nor does she fit Fiske’s characterisation of her as a cold, inhuman embodiment of science.

Fiske’s reductive interpretation of Romana’s clothing is worth contrasting with the more detailed and comprehensive analysis presented in Piers Britton and Simon Barker’s Reading Between Designs (2003), in particular their interview with costume designer Judith Hudson:

”Hudson recalled that Ward wanted to play Romana ”like a kind of cheeky teenage boy” (p157)

Because of the close correspondence between the two characters, Romana is unique among the Doctor’s companions in that she sartorially outstaged him in his own terms. Before the end of Ward’s first year in the role of Romana, the Doctor’s image, a forceful sign of his conspicuous individualism, was in danger of being eclipsed by the characterfulness of his companion’s clothing. Romana’s outfits made her just as assertve, amusing, and fascinating as the hero himself. Moreover, when it came to commanding the viewer’s attention, Romana had a distinct advantage: Not only did her clothes change from episode to episode, but they were more finely honed in conception than the Doctor’s ever-scruffier clothing. While in narrative terms theirs was a partnership of equals, in visual terms the Doctor’s image, though certainly outlandish, was not as imposing as Romana’s.

– Piers D Britton and Simon J Barker, Reading Batween Designs (p162)

Fiske’s semantic triangle of the relationship between the villains is equally as schematic. Where the Doctor has ‘authority’ Adastra has ‘power’:

[H]er effectiveness relies on force rather than respect for her as an individual, and she therefore lacks the Doctor’s touches of individualism, which are necessary to define his authority  as a dominance achieved by individual worth exercised within a socially granted power role.”

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p.176)

This ‘therefore’ does a hell of a lot of work carrying us from Adastra’s reliance on force to a lack of individualism as if this were not a complete non sequitur. Adastra’s behavious is entirely selfish, driven by greed: those are classically individualistic character traits not collectivist. However, as we’ll see, Fiske needs to characterise her as opposed to individualism for his ideological transformation to work.

What these two triads are building towards is a Greimas square – the anvil upon which any text can seemingly be flattened. (I touch upon these briefly in my essay on Making Meaning). A Greimas square is an ultra-formalised (or formulaic) schema for organising semantic fields. Its main function is to strip a text of all that might be considered interesting or entertaining.

Fiske claims that this figure demonstrates that those on the left – the Doctor, Romana and K9, Organon and Irato (sic) – represent free traders while those on the right – Adastra, Karela, the Wolfweeds (!) and the Bandits represent are monopolists. The positioning of any of these figures is deeply questionable.

Fiske is also fond of antinomies arranged as so that he can slip between banal referential oppositions to implicit or – more frequently – symptomatic ones by the process of analogy. Fiske finds no less than 16 pairs of binary oppositions in The Creature from the Pit:

The values on the left (those of the heroes) are clearly those of the Christian capitalist democracies, whereas those on the right are, by implication, those of communism (or at least the dominant Western view of it). So the deep structure, of which all the events, existents, and discourses of the narrative transformation, is

Heroes : Villains : : Capitalism : Communism

(Heroes are to Villains as Capitalism is to Communism)

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p.184)

‘Heroes are to Villains as Capitalism is to Communism’ is as naked example of a proportional series as it is possible to imagine: a is to b as c is to d. It rests on an analogy between the semantic fields that Fiske has imposed on textual cues specifically chosen to demonstrate his thesis.

There’s a great deal of clumsy sleight of hand going on here and it’s worth examining the contents of Fiske’s sleeve. ‘Clearly’ is a naked rhetorical flourish which serves to characterise Fiske’s claims as self evident, sparing him the effort of arguing his case: it masks an enthymeme. There’s no ‘implication’ in the text that the values in Fiske’s right hand column are those of communism, there’s simply an inference on Fiske’s part: this failure to distinguish between implication and inference is a form of apophenia endemic to media studies.

Fiskes binary oppositions are entirely arbitrary: he opposes the individual with a composite semantic field comprised of the Ruler or the State in order to conflate an absolute Monarch – Adastra – with a collectivist system. Adastra certainly holds a monopoly over metal but this is scarcely a State Monopoly; she’s an individualist, motivated entirely by (typically capitalist) self-interest: Fiske might as well characterise Rupert Murdoch as a communist. Likewise, the bandits, who Fiske conveniently forgets at this point, are acquisitive to the point that their EastEnd Jewish dialect (‘My lovely boys!’) verges on the offensive (I should note here that David Fisher was co-writer, with Doctor Who Season 16 script editor, and The Horns of Nimon author, Anthony Read, of Kristallnacht: Unleashing the Holocaust (1989): there’s no more anti-Semitism here than than in the comic Jewish stereotypes you’d find in the work of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks). To confuse this parodic capitalist behaviour with ‘implications’ of communism requires a degree of defensiveness verging on paranoia. Fiske also brackets individuality/eccentricity under Discourse of Individualism when individuality, individualism and individuation, are distinct – if overlapping Discourses of the Individual: a typical anti-humanist move. Oppositions Fiske previously thought significant such as vegetation/human have now disappeared. And the stuff about Christianity, Christ and the Devil are simply plucked out of thin air: it’s Adastra who controls the population through fear of an underground ‘Devil’ we learn is benign. In the Discourse of Politics Fiske associates capitalism with the centrifugal quality of progress and communism with the centripetal quality of stagnation while in the Discourse of Economics he counterposes capitalism’s centripetal force of balance with communism’s centrifugal force of imbalance.

‘Heroes are to Villains as Capitalism is to Communism’ is the foregone conclusion of a symptomatic interpretation that Fiske has brought to the story, not divined from it: meaning is underdetermined by the text and the heuristic processes he employs are designed to manufacture the very ideological messages he  claims to be uncovering. Fiske is like Organon, finding patterns among a small number of stars, oblivious to the Galaxy of potential meanings others may see.

Fiske allows that viewers may have some room to negotiate the dominant reading of the text but:

The text does not encourage us to correlate despotism with free market economics via the concept of slavery of the one who may be exploited in the trading deal [It doesn’t? The story is about a Creature imprisoned in a Pit, and whose voice is literally stolen, precisely so that he will produce metal for an autocrat who has much more in common with a capitalist robber baron than with a communist State!]; neither does it allow us to percieve that the Doctor’s liberal democracy requires dominant and subordinate classes just as clearly as does Adastra’s totalitarianism. These readings are critically opposed, ones that would be produced by readers who dislike the text, that is who put themselves outside the realm of its popularity.

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p.184)

You’ll notice the elitism implicit (I use that term correctly here) in Fiske’s conclusion: the popular audience are mindless drones manipulated by the ‘ideological closure’ of a repressive text that Fiske and his peers are able to resist:

The reading I am giving in this paper, one that derives from an academic discourse, is also radically opposed, in that it refuses to accept the ideological closure of the text; such radically opposed readers bring to bear on it discourses from their extratextual experience, or they find relationships among the textual discourses that the text itself does not invite. They look for contradictions between the text and the world, or at least evidence of the arbitrariness of that relationship that the realism [!] of the text seeks to hide. They see the text as a social construct that is the product of a particular social consciousness in a particular historical epoch whose laws and dominant values they may well not accept…

But these ”readings against the grain” require conscious effort that can only be motivated from outside the text, or by the perceptions of contradictions between text and world. They deny the easy fit between the textual and social discourses of the reader, and refuse to allow the smooth harmony of the text to disguise the contradictory nature of material reality. They are produced by readers who insist on bringing extratextual discourse to bear in a way that opposes the inscribed preferences of the text. They therefore define themselves in opposition to the ‘model readers’. 

– John Fiske, ”Popularity and Ideology” (p.184-5)

Quite – Fiske’s couldn’t be more explicit: his ‘radically opposed readers’ define themselves in opposition to the ”model readers”. Radically opposed readers are ‘active’ (they ‘deny’, they ‘refuse’, they ‘insist’, they ‘bring to bear’) while model readers are ‘passive’ (they ‘accept’, they ‘allow’); radically opposed readers are ‘conscious’ while model readers are not; they ‘produce’ meaning rather than consume it. To put it in simple, binary terms Fiske can understand, the radically opposed reader is represented by the primary terms in the antinomies active/passive, deny/accept, conscious/unconscious, production/consumption.

Fiske is, of course, recycling the elitist assumptions about the role of the Marxist intellectual you find in the megalomaniac writings of the High Priest of Structural Marxism, Louis Althusser:

”*Naturally this term ‘intellectuals’ denotes a very specific type of militant intellectual, a type unprecedented in many respects. These are real initiates, armed with the most authentic scientific and theoretical culture forewarned of the crushing reality and manifold mechanisms of all forms of the ruling ideology and constantly on the watch for them, and able in their theoretical practice to borrow — against the stream of all ‘accepted truths’ the fertile paths opened up by Marx but bolted and barred by all the reigning prejudices. An undertaking of this nature and this rigour is unthinkable without an unshakeable and lucid confidence in the working class and direct participation in its struggles.”

– Louis Althusser, For Marx (p.24)

This isn’t about liberation, its about legitimating the authority of the ‘intellectual’ over masses; of displacing the lived experiences of the working class with the authority of those versed in Theory.

This valoration of the elits is not one shared by all Marxists, of course, including Althusser’s most eloquent critic, Marxist historian E. P. Thompson:

What is so obvious is that this new elitism stands as direct successor in the old lineage: Benthamism, Coleridgean ‘clerisy’, Fabianism, and Leavisism of the more arrogant variety. Once again, the intellectuals–a chosen band of these have been given a task of enlightening people. There is no mark more distinctive of Western Marxisms, nor more revealing as to their profoundly anti-democratic premises. Whether Frankfurt School or Althusser, they are marked by their very heavy emphasis upon the ineluctable weight of ideological modes of domination which destroys every space for the initiative or creativity of the mass of the people – a domination which only the enlightened minority of intellectuals can struggle free.

– E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory

The Anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, predicted the authoritarian tendences of such ‘socialist savants’ as far back as the Hague Congress in 1872 and every Communist State since has proven him correct:

”It will be the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and contemptuous of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real and pretended scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a, minority ruling in the name of knowledge and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe betide the mass of ignorant ones!”

– Mikhail Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State (Chapter III)

I have more to say on the self-appointed role of the Marxist intellectual in my essay Louis Althusser: Last Gasp Stalinism.

Marxism makes great claims to ‘radicalism’ but as can be seen from Fiske’s ambivalence over representations of the State and his assumptions about the moral and intellectual superiority of the elite he addresses Marxism maintains a social division of labour identical to that of capitalism.

To summarise:

  • Fiske starts from his conclusion – that popularity rests on an easy fit between the discourses of the text and the discourses through which its model readers articulate and understand their social experience – and then works his way backwards to find evidence to support this conclusion.
  • He employs enthymemes invoking unproven (if not already already debunked) theories as if they are axiomatic, including Saussurian linguistics, the Dominant Ideology Thesis,  Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model, and Screen theory.
  • He treats the story as if it springs forth from the structure of capitalism entirely unmediated by agents – hence does not even acknowledge the existence of actors (in both senses of the word), producers, directors, costume designers, etc. because to do so would raise awkward questions of motivation: why are these people so determined to transmit Christian capitalist ideology, and how did they get so damn good at it?
  • He treats a single story synchronically, abstracting it from  the diachronic history of a series which had, by that time, been running for 17 years, and which would continue, and transform itself, during the 5 years between the initial publication and Fiske’s (slight) revision for republication in 1984.
  • He choses a story which he thinks best supports his theory without giving any justification that it is typical, when, as we’ve seen, it is anything but: it features an atypical companion from the Doctor’s own own race, an even higher degree of parody than usual, etc. Even if his theory was correct about this story it would still be impossible to generalise about the series as a whole.
  • He misrepresents Romana’s character and dress code entirely, since to acknowledge her own eccentricity would undermine the structural role Fiske has assigned her as the Doctor’s ‘humanising’ agent.
  • Fiske’s Discourse of Economics characterises the villains as communist when all textual evidence identifies them with monopoly capitalism.
  • His ‘Discourse of Individualism’ conflates three distinct – occasionally overlapping, but often conflicting – ‘Discourses of the Individual’: of Individualism, Individuality and Individuation.
  • His Discourse of Morality is entirely spurious, depending on a ‘Christian’ subtext Fiske has read into the text on the flimsiest of textual ‘evidence’.
  • He illustrates his article with pseudo-scientific diagrams which no not even accurately illustrate the claims he has made (e.g. his triangle illustrating hero relationships represents the triad as a right angle) let alone demonstrate the isomorphism of hero and villain relationships upon which his paper depends.
  • He employs a proportional series (a is to b as c is to d) to draw conclusions by analogy despite internal contradictions: capitalism is progressive (in Bakhtinian terms, a centrifugal property) yet balanced (centripetal) while communism is stagnant (centripetal) yet unbalanced (centrifugal).
  • He explains away any evidence which seems to contradict his theory rather than reassessing the analysis itself: the Huntsman doesn’t switch sides – since structuralism denies this is possible – he has always been a good guy but just hadn’t realised it; the Doctor’s ‘female’ characteristics represent a theft from women rather than a challenge to gender stereotypes.
  • He assumes a privileged position of Marxist Theorists over a presumed audience of docile preferred readers he constructs from the text, thereby replicating the capitalist social division of labour at the level of theory under the cover of a supposed ‘radicalism’..

An alternative reading.

I’ve examined Fiske’s interpretation so now I’d like to give one of my own. Unlike Fiske I am not claiming this is a definitive – or even preferred – interpretation, or that I am engaging in a heroic act of resistance against the Dominant Ideology. I am just going to talk about what I read into the text by employing my own portfolio of interpretive strategies.


  • Althusser, Louis (1965) ”Contadiction and Overdetermination” in Althusser, L (1969) For Marx
  • Bakunin, Mikhail (1872) ”On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx” in Dolgoff, Sam (1971, 1980)
  • Bradshaw, Simon, Anthony Keen and Graham Sleight (eds.) (2011) The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T Davies Era of the New Doctor Who
  • Britton, Piers D. and Simon J. Barker (2003) Reading Batween Designs: Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning.
  • Clarke, Bryan () Percy Press Sr. at The Punch and Judy Fellowship
  • Dolgoff, Sam (1971, 1980) Bakunin on Anarchy
  • Fiske, Jonn (1984) ”Popularity and Ideology: A Structuralist Reading of Dr Who” in Rowland, Willard D Jr and Watkins, Bruce (eds) (1984)
  • Fiske, John (1987) Television Culture
  • Fiske, John (1989) Understanding Popular Culture 
  • Fiske, John (1989) Reading the Popular
  •  Hoban, Russell (1980) Riddley Walker: Expanded Edition
  • McCormack, Una (2010) The King’s Dragon
  • McCormack, Una (2011) The Way Through the Woods
  • McCormack, Una (2011) ”He’s Not the Messiah: Undermining Political and Religious Authority in New Doctor Who” (2011) in Bradshaw, S., Anthony Keen and Graham Sleight (eds) (2011)
  • Read, Anthony and David Fisher (1989) Kristallnacht: Unleashing the Holocaust
  • Rowland, Willard D. Jr. and Watkins, Bruce (eds) (1984) Interpreting Television: Current Research Perspectives
  • Thompson, Edward Palmer (1978) The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays
  1. Nicholas Cox says:

    Would it be possible for me to quote this in my own work?

    • Sure, help yourself. I’m still tinkering with it though as I haven’t actually got around to my own ”alternative reading’ despite promising it a while back..

      Funny, really: I wasn’t really a fan of Creature from the Pit until a few years ago but the more I watch it the more I enjoy it.

      • Nicholas Cox says:

        My dissertation is a defence of the Pertwee era and how it influenced the new series. Fiske doesn’t cover that period, but as you point out he makes bold and inaccurate assumptions about the series as a whole from one story. Your piece says things I wouldn’t have thought of and I couldn’t possibly reword it and plagiarise it as my own even if I wanted to. I would also like to refer to your Parlare piece as I think a major misreading by non-British critics is that Pertwee’s Doctor was an upper-class gentleman; in my opinion he was a music-hall magician.

        I’m not a great fan of Creature, but there are no Who stories I can say I dislike, though the soundtrack and acting in Delta can make me cringe and Nimon is the only one I’ve ever laughed AT rather than WITH so my suspended disbelief was broken.

        I’m just wondering how I can refer to you in my piece – a fan? an academic fan?

      • Just ‘fan’. I’ve read a lot of academic text books on the media, literature, etc. but as you’ll probably gather I don’t buy into a lot of ‘Theory’ – at least where it relies on outdated ideas about psychology, sociology or linguistics.

        I think you are spot on about the Doctor being essentially a stage magician – which is why the general public tend to refer to the Doctor’s companion as an ‘assistant’ even though he’s only really had three formal assistants (Liz, Jo and Romana).

  2. Nicholas Cox says:

    I have now finished the first draft and am just honing it with editing and references, In my head I hear McCoy saying “I can hear the sound of empires toppling”

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