How is popular television ‘political’? From the texts of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who to brand/fan politics

Matthew Hills

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Taking the Steven Moffat era (2010–17) of Doctor Who (1963–89, 1996, 2005–present) as my case study, in this article I contrast ‘ontological constructivism’ with ‘moderate intentionalism’, considering how Doctor Who’s politics can be analysed either as textually ‘objective’ or as a matter of post-structuralist and diverse (fan) audience interpretation. Rather than refereeing between these two positions, however, I argue that each in fact misses an aspect of Who’s brand/fan politics, i.e. the neo-liberal discourses and practices of contemporary branding that tend to delimit fan reflexivity/activism. Consequently, I argue for an approach to Doctor Who’s politics, and that of popular TV more generally, that recognizes its multi-levelled meanings ranging from momentary in-text references and political allusions through to story-level allegories, format-level patterns and paratextual brand activities. Such an approach recognizes that a showrunner such as Moffat can attract audience ‘praiseworthiness or blameworthiness’ within popular TV’s ‘legitimation’, and that there can be very contradictory audience interpretations of Moffat’s work as ‘misogynist’ or ‘feminist’, thus pushing polysemy past state politics and into cultural politics. But by ultimately focusing on how brands and fan labour, or ‘brandom’, naturalize neo-liberalism as a form of ‘common-sense’, I argue that we need to go beyond debates around popular TV’s political textuality to address the neo-liberal attitudes of brand management and fan activism. This is not merely to replay old arguments of post-structuralism versus ideology critique, since popular TV’s brand-based neo-liberalization can reflexively contain, and indeed welcome, a diversity of textual-political moments including themes of anti-capitalism, versions of feminist meaning-making and satires of democracy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)167-182
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Popular Television
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2018


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