What If Doctor Who is a Children’s Show?

December, 2017. The credits have rolled on the press screening of Twice Upon A Time, and the players take to the stage. We’ve seen everything up to the moment Capaldi’s body explodes in regeneration energy – the rest, including Whittaker’s first words and infamous TARDIS tumble, will be saved until Christmas day – and the audience of assembled journalists, friends, and families are burning with questions. Except it’s already been announced that the only questions allowed this evening will be coming from children, because (to paraphrase, largely because I can’t remember exactly what was said) children are important. I believe that children are our future. Children are what this evening’s all about – something that we really should acknowledge, as a simple matter of decency.

I relayed this story to my other half some time afterwards, and her response was “It sounds like a cop-out”.

It was, really. What better way to avoid all those awkward conversation-stoppers about new Doctors and political correctness than by handing over the question privileges to the kids? It’s not that kids don’t ask awkward questions – far from it – but it’s easier to fudge an ambiguous answer when you’re talking to a child, or say something wistful and faintly patronising that makes the Tumblr feeds. And hurrah, the Twelfth Doctor’s final words are consigned neatly to that enormous bin of platitudes that saturate social media, posted in six different fonts and destined to end up on the tombstone of at least one obsessive fan. But it’s okay, because the kids love it.

And yet there are times the fandom feels like a mass of contradictions: a ghastly, hybrid collection of adults behaving like children, but not thinking like them. There is something ugly about disaffected twenty/ thirty/ forty-somethings determined to bellow, curse, and argue over a television programme in the same way that fourteen-year-old girls do over One Direction (that’s not finger-pointing; our generation had Take That and the only reason it didn’t make the papers was because very few people used the internet). When teenagers start flame wars over inconsequential trivia, you tell yourself that they’ll grow out of it. How do you do the same thing when the person who’s being so obnoxious was around for the Y2K bug?

I’ve written recently about the idea of taking Doctor Who too seriously, and I’m reluctant to retread old ground, but there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. Fandom has always had a toxic quotient, but seldom has it seemed quite so vocal or quite so toxic. Perhaps it is the media’s fault; perhaps not. But you can scarcely move for inflammatory statements and a general sense of unpleasantness, and we’re not just talking about this show. There is not a new release, not a series nor an episode that reaches the networks unsullied by idiots throwing temper tantrums about ruined childhoods or political correctness. There are actors being handed death threats and well-meaning fans told that they will die alone in bed. We tell ourselves that such behaviour is acceptable because it shows a sense of passion, and at least these kids aren’t out blowing things up. And I keep mentioning it because it keeps being a problem. History repeats itself because no one listens; by and large no one listens to me, either, but you do what you can.

George Lucas recently said something that resonated quite deeply. I don’t often find myself agreeing with Lucas – this is the man who insisted that Greedo shot first (he really didn’t, George, we were there and we saw what happened) – but when he appeared at the 2017 Star Wars Celebration, he admitted that he’d always intended for his films to be enjoyed by twelve-year-olds, something apparently forgotten given the furious spitting of feathers that followed The Last Jedi, with many people complaining about trampled legacies and ruined childhoods, ignoring the fact that most twelve-year-olds (at least the ones I spoke to) actually thought it was rather good. Mark Hamill, too, has weighed in on the subject in a quote that I have spent five hours trying to retrieve from the internet with no success (seriously, you find the damned thing), stating that the movies were always aimed at children, or families if you insist. Most of those children have since grown up, and many of them have families of their own. Others do not.

It is important that we make one thing very clear: the stewardship of a new generation is not in and of itself an explainer for certain types of behaviour. In other words, we do not find that people are more inclined to make allowances for the newer films because they have children. That’s the Andrea Leadsom defence, and it is dangerous territory. I have spoken to plenty of small-minded idiots who are raising children and plenty of thoughtful, sensible people who have none; the reverse is equally true. But I wonder if there’s a type of parent who watches with their children and is able to see it through their eyes – whether there are parents who are able to tune into exactly why their children are laughing at Peter Kay in an awkward prosthetic or a group of high maintenance children running through a forest – and whether this makes for a different type of viewing experience. I maintain stoically that you don’t have to be a parent to get to this state of mind, but it probably helps.

The debate as to whether or not Doctor Who is actually a children’s show, of course, is one that rages on and on. Certainly the Webber/ Wilson March document is ambiguous, speaking only of “the five o’clock Saturday audience”. Said document also goes on to explain that the characters of Ian and Barbara have been created to “command the interest of girls”, while the character of the Doctor was imagined specifically to catch the men who would be about to switch over when Grandstand was finished. Webber and Wilson spend some time fleshing out a four-person unit that will command the attention of as large an audience component as possible without producing something that looks like “an old people’s home” – and, by implication, something that children would want to watch but that adults wouldn’t object to.

So far so good. “Family, not children” is the staple argument directed at the trolls in the TV forums who dismiss Doctor Who as being all about the kids – although it is a weak argument at the best of times, and it is perhaps the voice in our own heads that we wish to silence the most. The inconvenient truth about Doctor Who, in all its incarnations, is that its success is measured by the way that children respond to it. In An Adventure In Space And Time, it is children who rush in from the streets to settle down in front of the television as the opening theme music begins, as mothers announce “that thing you wanted to watch, it’s on!” It is children who are heard doing frenzied Dalek impressions on the bus that Verity Lambert catches to Television Centre. And it is a group of children who spot William Hartnell in what may or may not be Bute Park, where he leads them on a madcap chase.

All trolling aside, when it comes to ripping apart the Doctor and his companions, it is the fans themselves who are the fiercest critics. It is the fans who spit fire and spout rain on Facebook and Twitter. It is the fans who bombard the YouTube channels with asinine comments and angry, incoherent ‘reaction’ videos (surely the most pointless exercise in the history of the vlog, next to unboxing). And it was a group of humourless fans who took to the stiff chairs of the Open Air studio in 1986 to complain about Trial of a Time Lord, much to the chagrin of the Bakers – that’s Pip and Jane, rather than Tom and Colin, although undoubtedly the opening episode of The Twin Dilemma led to regular grumblings over at the Union. I was going to say that it’s not exactly Chris Chibnall’s finest hour, but then he wrote 42, which is even more excruciating. “Very cliched,” he says of the recent episodes. “Very routine, running up and down corridors, and silly monsters,” as if this was not something that Doctor Who had been doing for the last 23 years. Stable door, meet horse. Oh, you know each other?

The Sarah Jane Adventures does not receive this vitriol. There is, so far as I am aware, no group in which insults are hurled back and forth over the relative merits of Maria vs Rani, or whether the series jumped the shark when Luke left. Or perhaps there are plenty of gatherings like this and I’m simply looking in the wrong places, or not looking at all. The point is that the Doctor Who faithful have a tendency, by and large, to cut SJA a little slack because of its intended audience. There is an acknowledgement that this is ultimately a show for children, and that we must relax our standards a little. It is a generosity that does not extend to Torchwood, which is ripped apart with the ferocity of a wake of vultures who haven’t eaten for a month.

In itself, this is potentially dangerous. The moment we become complacent about Doctor Who is the moment standards no longer matter, and there needs to be at least some adherence to standards – I suspect that if the BBC felt they could really get away with churning out any old rubbish that people would watch purely out of habit, they probably would (because nothing else explains the enduring popularity of EastEnders). But do we have to be so grown-up about all this? Do we really have to treat the show like it’s serious drama that matters, and then whine when it dumbs down, changes things, tries to hook a new audience? Is it really worth throwing all our Dalek toys out of the pram over something like that? Do we genuinely think that such opinions are informed, sensible – actually worth anything?

Look, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain about Doctor Who being kid-friendly or insufficiently dark while you’re assembling a bloody River Song costume. Cosplay is a fancy name for dressing up and there is nothing you can do to convince me that this is not a children’s activity masquerading as an adult one. That doesn’t make it wrong, or pointless. I’m always impressed with the depth of imagination and work that goes into assembling these outfits, whether it’s staying up all night sewing patches on a Sixth Doctor frock coat, or doing a pantone search to find the exact shade of red in Matt Smith’s bow tie.

But it’s a kids thing. It’s a kids thing in the same way that Disney movies are for kids – teenagers, if we’re stretching. That’s not to say that adults can’t enjoy them, or that they’re not replete with gags aimed at bored parents, But stop pretending that Frozen is a fun, joyous experience for the whole family. Most adults I know are sick of it. I wrote some time ago about the tendency of many older people – some of whom, I’m ashamed to say, are approaching my age – who still think that having Harry Potter themed birthday parties is a neat idea. I’m all for a bit of fun, but I wonder if there’s a Peter Pan thing going on. And Peter Pan, I’m sorry to have to tell you, was actually a bit of a d**khead.

And I’m wondering whether there is a point at which we lose our critique privileges when it comes to Doctor Who. Whether there comes a point at which we have to accept that perhaps – just perhaps – it is not for us. Or perhaps it is, but perhaps we are no longer the target audience. We are the people who grew up with the show and there are nods therein that are by turns sweet and reverential and often sacrilegious and which, just occasionally, have us jumping out of our chairs in excitement (and let’s be honest: a 500-word rundown on Alpha Centauri makes for convenient copy when you have a shortage).

Simultaneously, contemporary fandom lacks the ability to shut up and accept that certain elements are designed for particular parts of the audience. We decry all the endless conversations about Bill’s sexuality – the nadir of which occurred in the otherwise superb Eaters of Light – and there is an awful lot of virtue signalling going on, but it’s very easy to become impatient about this sort of thing when it’s something you know already. If there is a patronising monologue about choosing who lives and dies and how it would make you a monster, then that’s for the kids. When Chloe Webber is alone and sad and then singing with her mother, that was for the kids. Huw Edwards’ monologue about hope and love is painful; so too is the Doctor’s American accent in The Zygon Inversion. Do we tolerate the second because it has more worth? Why do we really put Fear Her at the bottom of the polls? Is it the writing? Honestly, is it the writing? Or is it because there’s not enough in there for people who’ve already cut their drinking teeth? Do we hate Jar Jar Binks because he’s an appalling stereotype, or because kids are amused by the silly voice and the slapstick in a way that we grew out of years ago? Seriously, when did everybody get so virtuous?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should abandon Doctor Who the moment we become legally old enough to vote, one of those childish things you put away. I certainly haven’t. Nor would I want to advocate any sort of censorship. On some levels it’s fun to have a good rant about The Doctor Falls and how rubbish it was. There is a catharsis in complaining about bad writing – whatever the loyalists contest (the BBC do not and probably never will read those Facebook group posts) it harms no one, so long as you do not make it personal.

But I’m wondering if there needs to be a filter in place – a self-imposed filter, for which we take personal responsibility. Here’s the paradox: we expect Doctor Who to be all things to all people, while knowing that it never can be. Given that children are (forgive me for this) the lowest common denominator, wouldn’t it be better if we just took it on the chin and got on with enjoying the stuff we liked and keeping respectfully quiet about the stuff we didn’t? Journalists, I’m talking to you now. Perhaps we’ve taken this far enough. Perhaps this isn’t just copy-wrangling; perhaps we’re creating the problem, rather than simply reporting it.

There is an expectation that Doctor Who is supposed to grow up with us: that if it does not mean the same to us as adults then it has failed. Note that this is not the same as the show meaning the same to us on precisely the same levels. This is an indicator of quality, not style. Your average eight-year-old will watch World War Three and laugh at the fart jokes. It is left to older children (and not necessarily much older, come to that) and adults to pick up on the political satire and digs at Blair. It works right across the spectrum. I can watch the Peladon stories knowing something of the context in which they were originally broadcast; my father was there.

Yes, Doctor Who continues to speak to us, and there are stories that work for me on different levels as I watch my children grow up. But is something like Closing Time really aimed at me? And how far should I be judging it if it isn’t? Has Doctor Who dumbed down, or do I simply get my kicks elsewhere? There is a sequence in Adrian Mole (True Confessions, if you’re interested) that illustrates this perfectly, when the the sixteen-year-old Adrian nips up to his bedroom on Christmas Day to read the new Beano album. “Perhaps I am too worldly and literate nowadays,” he writes, “but I was quite disappointed at its childish level of humour”. The best thing about Mole is that he is funny when he is self-aware and funnier still when he is not, and is thus a perfect reflection of most of the people I meet online who think they’re cleverer than they actually are.

Some of you will have skipped to the end (some of you won’t even have done that): this paragraph is largely for you. No one wants to shut you down. All I’m suggesting is that perhaps we need to self-censor, at least a little; to recognise that there is a baseline of appeal to Doctor Who and that in order for it to work for children it is inevitable that, on many levels, we will outgrow it. But there’s more: it is this act of outgrowing it that in and of itself allows us to return to the state of childlike wonder from which the adventures of the Doctor are best enjoyed; in recognising that it is not really for us, we are able to embrace it for what it is, instead of admonishing it for what it is not.

And perhaps that’s the secret to actually growing up – you have to do it, and then actively undo it. Growing old, and then young again. Now if only we could see that happen in Doctor Who.