The Sisterhood of Karn is a London-based group for gay fans of Doctor Who. Daniel Milford-Cottam writes about its twenty year history and enduring allure.
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Twenty years ago, ads were placed in London’s gay press inviting fans of Doctor Who to gather in the King’s Arms in London. This was the beginning of the Sisterhood of Karn, possibly the first organised regular gathering of gay Doctor Who fans ever. Last week, I went along to the place where it all began in January 1994, nearly twenty one years ago.
Before the days of widely available Internet access, how did one even kick off such a group? In January 1994, Ian, the founder, noticed that many of the fans of Doctor Who were gay, and had the idea to place ads in Boyz, Pink Paper, and Capital Gay inviting these fans to a meet in the King’s Arms. Fifteen fans joined him that first time. I spoke to a charming chap called Chris who recalled sitting at a table with a model TARDIS at that first meeting. By August, there were thirty attendees, including one lesbian. Although the membership is predominantly male, this certainly isn’t set in Letters of Sacred Fire. Twenty years later, the usual number is still around the 25-30 mark, with many of the new faces drawn by word of mouth or brought by existing regulars.
Originally called Strictly no Anoraks, the group swiftly changed its name to The Sisterhood of Karn, which name endures to this day. The original Sisterhood were a group of telepathic red-clad women guarding the Sacred Flame (the source of the Elixir of Life) in ‘The Brain of Morbius’, a classic Tom Baker story. Ever since then, the Sisterhood have gathered on a monthly basis. The group moved on from the King’s Arms to gather in Central Station King’s Cross, and then at the theatre bar in the West Central, but eventually found its way back to where it all began.
Although by nature a niche organisation among niche organisations, The Sisterhood remains probably the best known group of its type. It has been featured on Amy Lamé’s radio show and written up at length in The Independent. Whilst essentially a drop-in group nowadays, the Sisterhood effectively set the benchmark for gay Doctor Who groups. To all intents and purposes, it was the first of its type – there had been similar groups for gay fans of sci-fi such as the Galaxians, but none specifically for Doctor Who. An equivalent group for Blake’s 7 fans was apparently mooted, but doesn’t seem to have caught on.
Without the Sisterhood, virtual gay groups like Yahoo’s GayWhovians e-mail list (now defunct, but around 1999, it was my first introduction to fandom) and social media communities like Facebook’s ‘The Gay DOCTOR WHO GUYS’ and ‘The Doctor Who Gay Fans’ probably would’ve still happened, but probably would have lacked a model on which to base themselves. The GayWhovians group was certainly very aware of the Sisterhood, taking advantage of that newfangled Internet/email thingy to offer a virtual community equivalent that brought together gay fans from the world beyond London. Despite the passionate hatred many fans have developed for the term ‘Whovian’ (that’s another story), I was proud to be a GayWhovian and many of my fellow GayWhovians remain friends. Knowing that somewhere, gay fans of our beloved programme were regularly meeting in a pub, and had a name for their gathering, somehow made our digital community feel a little more special. Just as they were the Sisterhood, we were the GayWhovians. We occasionally met up in London, though never regularly, and my suggestion of wearing pink-dyed celery (a reference both to Oscar Wilde’s green carnation and the Fifth Doctor’s unique choice of buttonhole) didn’t catch on…
The Sisterhood might not be quite the same group it was in the beginning, when it was creating fan videos on a budget of zero (‘Resurrection of the Cybermen’, anyone?) and marching in London Pride (something for next year?). When I was collecting information for this article, there were whisperings of “has he heard of the trip to Chislehurst Caves where we tried — and failed — to find the shooting location of ‘The Mutants’?” and “Does he know about the Charades night? Or the Quiz night?” There was a hushed murmur of a historical quarrel, a very long time ago now, called The Great Schism. So, pretty much fandom as usual, from the sounds of it.
If celebrity guests are a measure of success, the Sisterhood has hosted Doctor Who actors including that legendary A-lister (by fan standards) Louise Jameson (Leela, 1977-78) and Peter Miles (‘Genesis of the Daleks’, ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’, and ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’). Not to mention the fabulous Nigel Fairs, stalwart of the Big Finish Doctor Who audios and currently appearing in Ed Sinclair’s audio sci-fi series Flashback. Authors and scriptwriters including Joe Lidster (Torchwood, Big Finish) and the late Craig Hinton (Virgin & BBC Books) have been seen at the meets. More recently, the Sisterhood were visited by the real life Trey Korte (inspiration for a popular recurring character in the BBC Doctor Who books). But most months it is simply an excuse for likeminded people to get together, have a drink, and remarkably enough, sometimes talk Doctor Who.
In the year or so that I’ve been going, the Sisterhood is a friendly, fantastic group with great members and a palpable sense of community. If you’re ever in the King’s Arms on the evening of the third Thursday of the month, why not slip up those stairs and peek in? You generally won’t see long scarves (unless it’s winter) and almost certainly nobody will be dressed up as Cybermen or Weeping Angels (although one of the most stylish regulars channels a fierce Martha Jones). Heck, you probably won’t see so much as a TARDIS T-shirt. But you might spot a copy of Doctor Who Magazine on a table. Somewhere in the buzz of conversation maybe you’ll overhear the word “Doctor”. And you’ll have found the Sisterhood. They might not hold the secret to eternal youth, but they will welcome you into their group.