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SYFY WIRE Doctor Who

Beloved Doctor Who quiz game takes the TARDIS from pub to Zoom, everybody wins

By Lena Barkin
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Doctor Who has always asked some big questions. Now fans across the world have the opportunity to provide some answers. A popular and beloved quiz show in the U.K. has regenerated online due to the coronavirus pandemic and provided an opportunity for more fans than ever to test their mettle.

The Quiz of Rassilon began in 2010, when Mike Williams and Ioan Morris, lifelong friends from the Welsh town of Brecon, saw a gap in the programming for a local bar in Cardiff. Williams, an event programmer, saw an opportunity to celebrate the popular sci-fi series. Eventually, people involved with the show, which has had production based in Cardiff since 2005, would occasionally pop up and participate. Then one of them ran a round. The unofficial quiz soon became a nexus for fans and creators, representative of the close relationship the two have always had in fandom. When Williams started actually working on the show, he felt a conflict of interest and stopped running the quiz. But two years ago in London, it was brought back to life with a new perspective on engaging with Doctor Who’s broadening and diverse fanbase. When lockdown hit, the quiz moved to Zoom, and the result has been impressive.

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The quiz, with a title that takes its inspiration from the most notorious Time Lord of in-universe Who lore, has made a name for itself as a difficult but fun quiz — a treat for the most devoted of fans. Full disclosure: I am one of those fans. I have been playing since April, and my team has won exactly once. Each online round is hosted by a different presenter, usually a guest invited by Williams and Morris, and their topics can be anything within the world of Doctor Who. Presenters get incredibly niche, since there are so many things to explore in the universe of the long-running television show. Questions range from knowing what song hit No. 1 in the U.K. charts at the time a serial aired to remembering the color of a background sign in a promotional shot.

“We learned really quickly that if you’re a Doctor Who fan and you’re going to go to a Doctor Who quiz then you can’t be too easy,” Williams says. “We always try to throw in a couple that people will get because there’s an immense feeling of satisfaction. It’s a really fine balance making sure nobody ever gets full marks and also making it really difficult for the absolute peak Doctor Who fans and the fans who just want to have a laugh.” 

“We probably wouldn’t do very well,” Morris admits, while Williams says he’s learned a lot just from hosting the quiz, things he never would have known naturally. Yet despite the difficulty, they want the quiz to be inviting and open for anyone to join. “If you just watch the stories, then generally the answers are really easy,” he says. “Well, sometimes.” 

It seems as though their plan has worked. The quiz has grown exponentially since moving online. In-person, the average size would be 45 to 50 people in a cozy little pub, with the largest groups ranging from 130 to 180 players. Online, the largest quiz to date had 267 people on 65 teams, with 600 unique visitors to the quiz overall.

Using Zoom to host the show has allowed for a wide variety of creativity in presenting questions and framing the rounds. There’s a freedom within the quiz to really get into what each host enjoys and the flexibility to do their own thing. While the majority of hosts go with a classic pub round format, to preserve the original charm of the quiz, Zoom offers more opportunities for creativity and intimacy. “[It] lets us get into people’s homes,” Williams says. “People are more comfortable, and we get to see more of their personalities.”

Hosts have made PowerPoint presentations, performed live music from their apartments, produced videos and skits, and appeared as show-specific drag queens. “The lengths that our contributors go to is astounding,” Morris says.

It’s hard not to get into the spirit of the quiz when everyone is so evidently passionate about the show. Both the lore and fans' appreciation run deep. One round based on answering the question "Who killed this character?" was framed as an episode of the game show Whodunnit?, which had been hosted by former Doctor Jon Pertwee. The quiz version from Peter Nolan included accurate graphics, music, scripts, costuming, and an excellent Pertwee impersonation. Large production values (for Zoom) go into the rounds, made independently in the host’s spare time.

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Some things from the original quiz weren’t so easy to translate, however. When the quiz was in person, there was a lot more rowdiness. “We would get shouted at and heckled,” Williams says, “everyone would be really cheeky and people pushed back on answers.” That’s not possible on Zoom, as all the participants are muted when they’re not in their breakout rooms. Alternatives have appeared, though. “If you look back at the comments in the quiz, they’re hysterical,” he says. Disagreements or challenges to an answer are common, but mostly the in-game chat is populated with memes, groan-worthy puns, and celebration.

More importantly, going virtual has made the quiz accessible to people who might otherwise have never had the chance to participate. In the last quiz, more than half of the hosts were American. Recently, groups such as Black TARDIS and The Queer Archive podcast have been able to highlight and start conversations about representation in the show. “Sometimes you don’t get it until it’s spelled out, and then you realize the full scope of it. There’s a penny drop moment,” Williams explains.

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While both Morris and Williams agree there’s a lot more to be done and it’s a continual effort, it’s important to open the conversation. “I think you’d really have to try harder than not to ignore these voices,” Morris says. “Especially since we’re in lockdown, especially because this stuff has come up in society. If you’re ignoring that, you’d have to be doing it intentionally.”

The quiz's regularity and its repeat participants make it a space of familiarity and a site for broader fandom activity. Because of Zoom’s malleability, contestants have been treated to questions presented by former showrunner Russell T. Davies and star Pearl Mackie. It’s easier to get them to record questions for video because they’re already at home. Certain participants become notorious within their quiz, known for their unfathomably hard rounds (Toby Hadoke, looking at you) or creative use of digital technology (Gavin Rymill’s deepfakes are not to be messed with). The quiz often joins forces with other prominent fandom events, too — the organizer of #lockdownwho hosted rounds on the live-tweeted episodes that trended on Twitter. 

The quiz has recently moved from being a bi-weekly occurrence to once a month, but it’s not planning on going anywhere. “Because of the connections and atmosphere we’ve created, it’s like a clubhouse. A space for people to combat their anxiety for being alone all the time,” Morris says. Much like when the quiz was in a pub, the online space has people closing out the night, the last to leave the room. As Morris explains, “People will stay in their breakout rooms after the quiz, just talking for hours, literally until we shut them down.” Now, with the isolation of the pandemic, that time together seems so much more valuable.