Time lord, jack-of-all-trades and extra-terrestrial – Doctor Who is an undeniable piece of British pop culture. The show’s main character, the Doctor, offers a heroism and never-ending arc that have been winning viewers over since 1963.

Hannah Gunderman, Cultural Geographer and Research Data Management Consultant at Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, studies the show. Her research asks a core question – how does fandom impact the lens with which we look at the world? We caught up with Hannah to learn more about her work and how it applies to the current global shutdown.

Carnegie Mellon University, Hunt Library

If you’re not a Whovian (fan club member), here’s what you need to know. In Doctor Who, the Doctor explores the universe in a time traveling space ship – TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). An expat from planet Gallifrey, the Doctor takes on countless villains and saves those in need. Thirteen different actors have graced the role and the transition from one to another was written into the show from the get-go.

At the end of each Doctor’s tale, a grave injury is sustained and the Doctor is regenerated with a new body. This crafty plot device brings us to today’s Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. After six decades the character is finally a woman. 

The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and TARDIS just behind her.

Hannah studies science fiction films and TV shows and documents her research in LabArchives. Unsurprisingly, most of the platform’s users work in a lab but, as she put it, “A lab can simply be a collaborative space.” And data? “It’s just as important in the humanities as it is in STEM.”

In Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens Davidowitz analyses what people search on Google and argues that almost anything can be data. Hannah is of the same mind, “Data can even be a box of old photographs.” What we eat, wear, watch, read, drive, buy, say and do – every action is a human experience data point.

Our chosen fandoms, Hannah hypothesizes, influence us in many ways. For the past year, she’s been investigating if and how Doctor Who’s messages impact fans’ view of the geopolitical landscape – specifically Brexit and Donald Trump. She has used social media posts, videos, images, statistics and manuscripts as data with which to dig into this topic.

Hannah built a program to scan Facebook for public posts that included references to Doctor Who, Donald Trump and/or any of the major Brexit players like Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Name a more interesting dinner party, we’ll wait.

The program returned 1000 posts. After cleaning the data, Hannah was left with 500 posts that met the criteria. From there she characterized the tone of each post and began to see a trend: Doctor Who viewers used the show as a way in which to frame and cope with their experiences.

In many of the posts fans talked about how they wished they could use TARDIS to travel back in time to alter the outcome of the Brexit vote or 2016 election. There was humour in many of the posts but also a consistent ‘I wish I could change what I’m feeling’ sentiment. None of the posts returned were positive. All wanted to change the environment to avoid anxiety

One post example.

Many posts compared Theresa May, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to villains from Doctor Who. In some ways, Hannah postulates, fans use Doctor Who’s quips and storylines to navigate the day to day in a way that decreases the emotional tax of reality. Who wouldn’t want to change our Time and Relative Dimension in Space to avoid the corona virus all together anyways?

“Each of the 500 posts is just a data point, a piece of evidence that supports a broader commentary… when we’re a fan of something that fandom can actually change how we see our daily landscape.” It’s a powerful concept to think about as America alone spent 85% more time streaming video in March 2020 than in March 2019. As the world stays home, people are turning to shows, books, movies, musicals, podcasts and art for solace.

Hannah’s research begs the question, what else can be data and what can we learn from that data?  The global angst produced by COVID-19 has forced our eyes wide open to just how valuable humanities and the arts are in the context of our experience. Understanding how they impact us and how they can be leveraged for good is an important endeavour that Hannah’s work addresses every day. “I love helping people in the humanities realize that they have data to share too, and that that data is just as valuable as their colleague’s robotics or chemistry data,” she said.

Check out Hannah’s data management blog and give her published work a read, too!