The Ballad of the Second Chance Saloon – neurodivergence, fandom and virtual events

Image Credit: Ian Bayley

Image Description: Georgia and friends at the traditional WhoSoc table for the Quiz of Rassilon

By Georgia Harper

When I think of The Sebright Arms, home of the Quiz of Rassilon, I think of its toilets. After my first time at the quiz, which involved some embarrassing screams and ultimately leaving at the first break, I think my friends saw the potential of the ladies’ bathroom as a hiding place before I did. I think of the names and messages scrawled on the back of the door, including more than a few Doctor Who references, read and re-read in the first attempt at distraction. I think of the fact that, despite its small size, nobody seemed to mind me hanging around by the sinks with my noise-cancelling headphones on; eyes sunk into my phone. I think of its conveniently short distance from my Quiz of Rassilon team’s usual table, and the relief of putting several thick doors between me and the chaos. It was from this vantage point that I heard the events described by Matthew Kilburn in the previous issue – and indeed most answers since, just in case.

I’m autistic. For these purposes, that means I process sensory information differently; every sound that comes in is equally important, nothing is filtered. If the startle reflex was a sport, I’d be training for the Olympics. Eventually, in the worst case scenario, my brain will short-circuit and go into meltdown; this looks surprisingly like a child throwing a tantrum, but isn’t, and it often takes a while to feel normal again. I struggle to hold a conversation in the office if there’s another conversation nearby, so it’s fair to say I’m not particularly compatible with a pub quiz. That said, being autistic also means intense interests, and one of them is Doctor Who, so I kept trying anyway. I enjoyed seeing my friends from Oxford and beyond, meeting people I’d only seen online as well as watching and discussing our favourite TV programme. If I had to skip it when I was in a bad patch or had other plans I couldn’t jeopardise by overloading myself, hide in the ladies’ bathroom a lot, and make a fool of myself on a semi-regular basis, then that was a trade-off I had to choose. 

Uncertainty is another Achilles heel of mine, and the pandemic has been devastating on the whole. While I’m lucky enough to have a family willing and able to take me in, and a job I can do entirely from my parents’ dining room, I don’t know when I’ll manage independently again. This is especially true of a return to London, and I still haven’t seen my own friends in person since March 2020. However, one huge silver lining amongst it all has been the normalisation of video calls and virtual events – not just at work, but also in the fandom spaces that have always kept me going through tough times.

Shortly after lockdown began, the Quiz of Rassilon re-launched on Zoom, got picked up by the Radio Times website, and transformed from a few dozen people into over 50 teams from across the UK, and the world. Despite technical hitches (by now, the tension as you wait to find out whether you’ve been assigned to the right Breakout Room is part of the thrill!), it was a roaring success, and has continued to be as the weeks and months rolled on. The fact that the first few results tables were dominated by a team called Mersey Who further highlights the potential of events that are not limited by geography and travel costs. Indeed, the timings shift considerably from quiz to quiz to accommodate hosts from all over the world. They’ve been able to get big names to host rounds – July’s quiz even featured a question from Pearl Mackie herself – and breaks are often filled with exclusive content or mass watch-alongs. As protests swept across the world, the usual donations for running costs turned into fundraising for organisations supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and transgender communities.

On a personal level, though, I was surprised by how much I was able to actually enjoy it, rather than just hoping to get through it without too much drama. We organise team revision viewings as usual (albeit over Skype and BBC Together), get a break that isn’t spent racing across London, while the fun and games can only be as loud as my laptop. The chat function, as well as leaving the soundscape clear for hosts, means I can also follow along and make my own contributions (usually “BENNI”). Meanwhile, those temperamental breakout rooms mean not only do I still get to talk to my friends, I can fully listen to them. I can stay until the end and engage the whole time, without having to build in recovery. I have to wonder if this is what it’s normally like for most of you, if this is what I’ve been missing out on the whole time, and I’m very happy to have finally found it.

Of course, Quiz of Rassilon hasn’t been the only success of virtual Doctor Who fandom this year. Doctor Who Lockdown, led by Emily Cook, coaxed me back to Twitter with uplifting watch-alongs and bonus content from the Davies and Moffat eras. Often, the fun didn’t stop when the credits rolled; the hashtag #HellOfABird trended for a full day after the Heaven Sent event, in part due to confused non-fans posting incredible pictures of literal birds. Other Twitter users soon followed with their own organised watch-alongs, showcasing Who from across the years. There was no pressure to ‘attend’ all of them, or to be there at the right time, or to always tweet; but if I needed distraction and virtual company, it was never far away. Not to mention the successes of Oxford Doctor Who Society’s very own virtual events; I attended and enjoyed William Shaw’s Q&A session on his new Black Archive on The Rings of Akhaten and, for reasons similar to those outlined above, the termly Geek Quiz. I haven’t made it to an official WhoSoc event since early 2017, having graduated the previous summer, so it’s brilliant to suddenly be able to drop in on a whim after work!

As restrictions lift, amenities reopen, and some people begin to resume activities away from home, it’s worth remembering that others won’t be ‘back to normal’ for a very long time. Indeed, for many disabled and neurodivergent fans, ‘normal’ wasn’t working to begin with. The gradual decline of virtual socialising in more recent weeks is scary and isolating for those of us left behind. Improving accessibility for disabled people created benefits for everyone else too – but that seems to have increasingly been forgotten.

As it stands, I’m just hoping I’ll make it back to my own flat. Maybe one day, I’ll even find myself behind my favourite pub toilet doors again. Or maybe, in years to come, I’ll still be content with taking part from behind a laptop and, as a result, taking part fully. Virtual fandom in lockdown has shown me that I don’t always have to hide.

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