Dr. Karen Hellekson: Doctor Who and Fan Studies Presentation

Dr. Karen Hellekson is a renowned fan studies and Doctor Who scholar. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Kansas, where she also studied science fiction. She’s published several articles, two books, and coedited three books. Most of her work is within the science fiction and fan communities. Doctor Who Poster

Dr. Misty Krueger, a professor of English at UMF, calls Dr. Karen Hellekson “a database of Doctor Who knowledge.”

This riveting presentation, “Affirmational and Transformational Doctor Who Fan Videos,” illustrated a broader view of fandoms, fannish communities, and fan fiction than what many people are familiar. Moreover, as a whole, her career illuminates the modern day applicability and relevance of the English degree.

Fan fiction is broken up into two types of texts: affirmational and transformational.

Affirmational texts

  • Created by men
  • Restate the source material
  • Affirm the creator and/or producer
  • Fan sanctioned by creator

Transformational texts

  • Created by women
  • Twist and manipulate source material
  • Creator and/or producer are not relevant
  • Fans are unsanctioned by creator

Why transform?

It creates community, celebrates the text, critiques the text or culture, provides character studies, and positions text from the preferred fan meaning. Furthermore, transformational texts are a site of critique, often on women, gender, culture, or the text itself. The text is transformed to make a larger point beyond the source material.

Dr. Hellekson’s talk was part of the continuing Lectures in the Arts and Humanities Series at UMF, jointly sponsored by the Honors Program, the Humanities Division, and the department of Sound, Performance, and Visual Inquiry.

A brief and powerful interview with Karen Hellekson:

It’s really interesting that you’ve continued to do scholarship although your career path is not an academic one. I’m wondering if you would comment on what English majors who aren’t interested in teaching might do?

My day job is in publishing, which is a good field for English majors. I copyedit journal articles and books in the scientific, technical, and medical market, which I had to learn all about, as I do not have a technical background. I thought I wanted to be a college professor, so I got a PhD, only to discover that I did not enjoy teaching. However, I had already begun to publish and present in my field, science fiction. (I went to the University of Kansas specifically to study SF literature with Professor James Gunn, who is now retired). My interests then broadened to include fan studies, and I was able to leverage my background in both journal production and scholarship into editing a peer-reviewed academic journal in fan studies, “Transformative Works and Cultures” (http://journal.transformativeworks.org/).

Also, I’m guessing a lot of people are surprised when they find out you’re a professional fan and scholar of Doctor Who, because it sounds like it couldn’t possibly be a real thing, but rather the teenage fantasy of thousands… How would you respond to this? How did you turn your love of Doctor Who and fan fiction into a career?

I’ve loved Doctor Who since 1982! So it’s been a long time! It actually turns out that you can leverage pretty much anything into scholarship, because it’s all out there: all sorts of TV shows and films, all sorts of genres (SF, westerns, fantasy, cop shows…), plus all sorts of engagement with them. When I was at the University of Kansas in the 1990s, science fiction was just mainstreaming as a teachable form of literature; now I see the same thing happening with fan studies and video games.

Fan engagement and scholarly engagement are actually quite similar. In my talk I showed fan-created videos, and I argued that these videos are actually a form of criticism of the show. The videos are fulfilling the same function as an English paper about, say, a Shakespeare play. The critical impulse is identical: you want to make a point about a text. It’s just that the text you’re assessing is Doctor Who instead of a Shakespeare play, and the form that assessment takes is a video made up of clips set to music, instead of a written text. Of course the creative criticism doesn’t have to take the form of a video. It could also be in manipulated images, icon sets, GIFs, avatar blanks, freehand sketches, music, written fiction, or hyperlinked text/images/whatever. It could even be handiworks like knitting projects or homemade sonic screwdrivers, or costumes (cosplay). There are many, many ways to engage. And it’s likely that if you are in fandom, you’ll find a group with like interests.

Fans tend to spend a lot of time learning about their fandom, just like scholars spend a lot of time learning about their fields. It isn’t that much of a stretch to use the critical methodology, close reading skills, and modes of analysis I learned as an English student and apply them to other, non-written texts—texts that I was already paying a lot of attention to. Applying various modes of analysis is pretty easy.

Several other scholars are working on Doctor Who (and Doctor Who fans!) who are far better known than I am, including Matt Hills and Paul Booth. However, as an independent scholar (the term means only that I am not affiliated with or supported by a university), I’m almost unique. There are very few independent scholars out there. It’s kind of an expensive hobby, with travel to various places to give talks, plus memberships in organizations who publish academic journals, which you have to be a member of before they will publish your paper.

I’d love to be able to share the videos you presented on the blog. Is that possible? And, if so, would you link me to where they’re on your blog?


You can link directly to the YouTube ones, but please don’t link directly to the fan-created ones, unless you obtain permission directly from the creators.

During the presentation, she explained that video creators, often times, consider their videos private; therefore, attaining permission to share them is important. She received permission to show the videos in her presentation.

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