Matt Hills: Part 2
Exclusive Interview with Dr. Matt Hills
Doctor Matt Hills has been a fan of Doctor Who for over thirty years. He is the author of 'Fan Cultures' (2002), The Pleasures of Horror (2005) and How To Do Things with Cultural Theory (2005). Dr. Matt Hills is currently Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. His latest work 'Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty First Century' will be out later this year (2009).
Licensed properties from TV and movies are vital to the toy industry today yet this is a very recent cultural phenomenon. What does this say about the way we 'consume' our media?
I think this indicates that as 'brands' have become more crucial to industry thinking and practice, so too have they increasingly become a tool for consumers' performances of identity. Rather than just having a DVD or Blu-ray on the shelf at home, consumers can choose to indicate their tastes to others by consuming a range, almost a suit or repertoire, of similarly branded goods. TV show brands can thus be stretched across a very wide range of products, sometimes with a short shelf life, sometimes with ongoing cultural resonance.
In terms of what this says about our media consumption, it suggests that more audiences are now more fan-like more of the time, identifying specific shows and brands that are felt to articulate self-identity to others. TV and other media brands have become more like football team colours, that 'supporters' are happy to wear and display as a badge of tribal belonging/identity. Media consumption is less and less just about watching the show, spilling outside the moment of text-audience encounter and into everyday life and ongoing cultural identities. Fans have been doing this for years, but then they were ahead of the curve.
Are toys now serving a new function?
Going back several decades, I'd suggest that toys more commonly had meaning in and of themselves, or in relation to specific genres of toy (doll/game). Toys were their own brands, if you like. Today, toys are far more frequently derived from other intellectual properties, being tied into film releases or franchises, or spun off themselves into other media content. Dan Fleming's academic study of toys, Power Play, is very good on this.
As a result, the meanings of toys are given less by their own physical properties, and more by the narrative worlds which frame them. If I buy a Dalek toy, then its meanings are framed by what variant it is, from what episode, and so on. Play can still creatively shift these meanings, to be sure, but the toy's currency and desirability are likely to be framed by it being the latest, newest model of Dalek. As such, toys become like football strips that change each year, or like fashion cycles, meaning that mainstream consumers are invited and incited to keep on buying and updating their brand displays. Series three Daleks? So behind the times, keep up. Toys are less about sustained play value, and more about timely integration into the overarching, framing media narrative. They are sold with built-in obsolescence, ready to be sold off cheap in bargain buckets a year or so after release when they're linked to the last series.
Though this view may be somewhat cynical, I'd say that it is rooted in the hyper-commercial, market-driven realities of toy manufacture. Some toys are, of course, marketed differently to the collector or longer-term fan, but where the mass-market is concerned, I would continue to argue that toys are increasingly like seasonal fashions, where what defines the 'in thing' is its current status as derived from what's on TV now, or what's in the cinema.
What is the relation between mass-market merchandising and the individual collector?
Mass-market merchandising constrains and enables the individual collector, I'd say. In other words, it can be a source of constraint and frustration where desired products are not manufactured, or lack key detail or quality, but it can also enable and spur on the collector through practices of artificial scarcity in figure packing, or through the releases of variants. Individual collectors can also navigate personal, idiosyncratic routes through mass-market merchandising, collecting some ranges and not others, or some subsets and not others. We cannot assume absolute completism on the part of any given collector, though some may aim for this. More typical, though, I'd suggest, are personal emphases and combinations to collections, so that even though it is mass-market pop culture that is being acquired, this takes on a strongly personal, individual and powerfully felt significance.
Fifth & Sixth Doctor Cricket Outfit Variations - Thanks Cameron
How can we understand the 'desire to collect'? At what point might collecting become obsessional?
Well, in media and cultural studies, the approach has usually been to seek to understand consumers and fans without dubbing them 'obsessive'. Having said that, presumably collecting could become problematically obsessive if it over-ruled all other cultural experiences and activities, crowding out the rest of a collector's life. But this would be incredibly rare, if not non-existent. Collectors are invested in their collections, dedicated to them, but this doesn't mean they are dangerously obsessive. Collecting is a creative act, a way of controlling and organising one's cultural world. And it is often intensely social; collectors tend to form communities so that they can show (off) their acquired knowledge, so the idea of 'the individual collector' really implies a social collective validating and verifying the collecting activity.
As such, the desire to collect can be understood positively as a way of arranging one's everyday life; a way of discovering and attributing value (both monetary and emotional); a way of belonging to a community; a way of building up specialist knowledge (what fan studies calls 'fan cultural capital'); and a way of achieving special and extraordinary status by amassing a rare or extensive collection valued by the collecting community. Collecting is about emotion (the passion of acquisition and preservation), and cognition (the learning of prices, rarities, variants, histories). What might look like obsession to outsiders is, rather, an intensely personal and culturally valuable activity that's often linked to fandom.
What might it really mean to want to own a 5 inch action figure of Doctor Who?
Good question! I think the answer depends partly on who wants to do the owning. As such, there can't be one response, but nor can there be a near infinite set of answers, as large as the number of different toy owners, because cultural patterns in meaning will emerge. The action figure might express a fan's attachment to the brand, or a collector's investment in a rare mis-packaged figure, or another's fan's interest in the actor represented.
But wanting to own such an action figure, despite variations in meaning, is surely at one level about wanting to close the symbolic gap between 'ordinary' cultural life and 'extra-ordinary' media fiction. Fragments of the beloved narrative world can be brought 'down to earth' and integrated into the fan's cultural space and identity. The materiality of toys makes them especially useful in this respect they quite literally materialise the immaterial and the intangible, meaning that, in a sense, one can hold and touch the magical 'Whoniverse'. Prop replicas can achieve the same 'materialisation' of unreal, fantastical objects, making the unreal real in a specific, embodied way. And even when toys aren't actually 'played with', their very presence plays creatively and culturally with the line between fiction and reality.
An anthropologist from the 23rd century discovers a large collection of unopened Doctor Who toys how might she understand this?
Another excellent question. I'd assume that our anthropologist would be familiar with the concept of collecting MOC figures perhaps she's a specialist in ludic anthropology. I think that unearthing such a collection would bring home the historical importance of consumer culture. Such a collection could be interpreted as a testament to how mass-produced, mass-marketed artefacts were converted into highly personally significant, and communally important objects. The use value of a commodity , i.e. what we're supposed to use it for as a consumer, can be overwritten by its emotional value and conserved, mint sign-value for a collector. Jean Baudrillard's book The System of Objects has an excellent section on collecting that views it partly in this sort of light.
Excavating such a collection might also tell our anthropologist about the historical importance of media culture, given that the pristine toys largely had value to their collector due to their connection with Doctor Who. But first and foremost they'd tell her that the uses of objects cannot always be culturally predicted or assumed, even (or perhaps especially) mass-producted, mass-marketed objects.
There's a lot of fans who like to create their own unlicensed Doctor Who toys and figures, and others who like to make photographs and videos of their toys do you have any observations about these fan subcultures?
One thing I'd say about this subculture, or sub-subculture, is that it richly deserves more academic attention and study. Much has been written about fan fiction, and there's started to be more on costuming and pilgrimage (visiting locations linked to filming), but the fan craft of modding and creating one-offs as well as generating photographs/videos of toys, has not been studied enough. There's definitely scope for a PhD in the area, in my professional opinion.
"The fan craft of modding and creating one-offs as well as generating photographs/videos of toys, has not been studied enough"
Unlicensed toys and figures demonstrate high levels of skill and artistry, but also draw on levels of fan cultural capital, i.e. more general fan knowledge, in terms of what is made. Levels of attention to detail are also sometimes far ahead of mass-market products, again articulating and expressing the fan identity of the maker.
Creating mediated narratives out of toys is a way of shifting 'toys' and 'playing' away from any connotations of 'childishness' and firmly repositioning them as part of a communicative act or artwork. This also assumes an audience for user-generated content, again linking collectors to a framing community of appreciation and value. It's a shame that these types of fan activities and emergent genres of fan productivity haven't, to date, had the scholarly focus they deserve.
You've just completed TRIUMPH OF A TIME LORD: REGENERATING DOCTOR WHO IN THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY (2009), a scholarly study of the BBC Wales' series which will be out this autumn. Can you give any advance glimpse of what we might expect?
The book takes a particular theoretical approach, which is to make use of the work of post-structuralist Michel Foucault. That means that I end up studying all the different discourses, or constructions of meaning, that circulate in and around the BBC Wales' series. I focus on what it means for the series to be authored and branded TV, examining the role played by Russell T. Davies, and I think about how fan discourses have impacted on the series, with fandom being both embraced and attacked by producers who are themselves fans (which takes us back to the series' in-between belonging). I then move on to consider the series' generic debts, analysing how it combines soap drama and action-adventure with time travel, as well as focusing on horror-genre representations of monstrosity. One of the particularly interesting things about 'new Who' has been its recurrent interest in undercutting obvious monstrosity and avoiding stock images of 'evil', so I analyse discourses of the monster in one chapter. The book finishes with a part examining the re-contextualisation of Doctor Who as BAFTA-winning 'quality TV' and 'mainstream TV' retaining a cult following. I argue that cult has become a dirty word for producers tasked with achieving mainstream success, whereas fans have been happier to embrace a combination of newfound mainstream popularity and cult TV lineage. I also move away from media studies' usual focus on representations to consider the importance of Murray Gold's music as a production strategy for 'regenrifying' the show, pushing it sonically away from being too obviously SF.
One theme that recurs across the book is the importance of branding and textual consistency. Unlike the 'classic series', I suggest that achieving this brand consistency has been crucial to the show's triumph. Indeed, Russell T. Davies' fandom has manifested itself more through an implicit critique of the original show's uneven-ness rather than through attempts to sort out old continuity problems (UNIT dating or the half-human eighth Doctor). Unlike the semiotic thickness of classic Who, I argue that the BBC Wales' incarnation has been marked by semiotic slimness produced via Tone Meetings and tone words.
Another key theme is the fact that fandom is both targeted but also disavowed, producing a series of ambivalent relationships between fan-producers and fan-consumers. This tension arguably peaks where fans are accused of being 'ming mongs', and where online spoiler-hounds reveal narrative information ahead of PR Press Releases, acting as pre-textual poachers who tactically oppose the production team's information control before the text is even completed, let alone broadcast. Twenty-first century Doctor Who may be recognisably the same show loved by fans for many, many years, but it is also a very different creature: a product of contemporary media practices and discourses.
Return to Matt Hills: Part 1
Matt Hill's Triumph of a Time Lord is available to preorder now from amazon.
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For more on the inspiration & creative processes behind Doctor Who Action Figures read the Designworks Interview Thanks Ed
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