In Gender and the Quest in British Science Fiction Television, Tom Powers examines Doctor Who, Torchwood, Red Dwarf, and Blakes 7. As the book’s title suggests, in addition to genre, one thing Powers sees as the common thread shared by the programs in question is that their heroes’ various journeys of self-discovery have as much to do with their sense of gender identity as they do with defeating threats from the near and far reaches of the universe. What’s more, Powers also argues that each show’s fan base has, over the years and to one extent or another, encouraged BBC production teams to explore sexuality in ways that are both subtle and overt.
Specifically, Powers coins the term Continuum of Nostalgic Continuity to describe the complex relationships among television programs, their producers, and their viewers. Within this continuum, some fans demand that their favorite characters adhere to norms and mythologies established by early or classic iterations of the shows in which they appear, while more progressive fans imagine alternate realities for their heroes via various forms of fan fiction, cosplay, and speculative quasi-academic criticism of the shows they love. Caught in the middle are the shows’ producers who, in Powers’ estimation, walk a fine line between envisioning brave new futures for their respective shows and keeping the old guard happy. Or, in Powers’ words, the book explores the ways in which producers and fans are “continually engaged in an ongoing act of media synergy and conflict that distinctively shapes and stalls their gendered heroic SF mythologies.”
While a working knowledge of social theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau will certainly help readers make their way through Gender and the Quest, Powers is at pains to explain key concepts clearly and succinctly throughout his analysis. Additionally, his own apparent love for the programs in questions (early on he describes himself as an “aca-fan,” i.e., an academic who is also a fan, and therefore not entirely objective about his chosen object of study) does not blind Powers to the fact that many of his readers may not be overly familiar with the more obscure elements of the programs in question, particularly with respect to Blake’s 7 and Red Dwarf. Indeed, Powers comes off as most engaged with his material when he’s guiding readers through key moments of each show’s history, both onscreen and behind the scenes.
All told, Gender and the Quest is a thoughtful examination of the ways in which individuals and systems interact with each other to bring about change that applies not only to television but to society writ large. Ultimately, we are all simultaneously producers and consumers of culture in one way or another, Powers suggests, and in our roles as both, we shape the world we live in — even if we do so at a glacial pace.