You know what? You have no idea how lucky you are this week.
This was nearly something very different. When Phil asked for Series 6 material, I told him I was considering two possibilities: the article you’ve just started reading, or something else. And this was very nearly the something else. This was nearly a tongue-in-cheek sequel to Closing Time, entitled Open All Hours, in which the Twelfth Doctor visits Craig and Sophie some years later when they’re struggling to run a corner shop. Alfie was going to be seven years old, and the Doctor was going to be terribly rude to all three of them before doing something brilliant and vanishing. At the end of the story, Craig and Sophie go on holiday and leave the shop in the hands of Val – the cosmetics assistant that Lynda Baron played back in 2011 – only she turns out to be Missy.
It was terrible. But like a bad curry, it is now out of my system. Fanw@nk – even good f@nwank, if there is such a thing – is something that I really don’t want to put on this page unless I really have absolutely no alternative. Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. And in any case it enabled me to hone in on what’s important to me about Closing Time – and it’s not the madcap zaniness with the Cybermat and the patio door or the scene in the lift or Matt Smith’s brilliant delivery of “You’ve redecorated. I don’t like it”, but rather the way in which the Doctor interacts with children.
For the purposes of this particular deconstruction, the 1963-1989 period is going to be largely ignored. There is undoubtedly a story to tell there: surrogate grandchildren, petulant teenagers and the Fourth Doctor’s curious relationship with Leela all spring to mind, but the fact is that, for better or worse, young children really don’t do very much in Classic Who, so the conversation that needs to be had is likely to be very different. Besides, if we go down that road tonight, we have to deal, on some level or another, with Adric, and I really don’t think I can manage that without a couple of bottles of wine.
But I’ve counted up the number of children who appear in the show post-2005. To be specific, I’ve counted up the episodes in which children play a specific role – and while you couldn’t say there are patterns, there is a trajectory. For example, the Ninth Doctor (with the exception of The Doctor Dances, discounted simply because he spends half the episode being uncharacteristically cheerful) is notoriously grumpy around children. When a toddler switches the TV to Blue Peter during Aliens of London, the Doctor’s response is simply to glare at him. Babies are a little better, although he’s fiercely protective of the infant Rose, largely because of Blinovitch. There are probably untold stories in which Eccleston’s leather jacketed sour-face befriends a small girl named Shelley and buys her a horse, but we will probably never get to hear them, at least until he caves in and signs that Big Finish contract that Nicholas Briggs keeps in the top drawer of his desk.
The Tenth Doctor fares a little better, even if there is something slightly creepy about him befriending a youthful version of Madame de Pompadour – although no one batted an eyelid when it happened in The Time Traveller’s Wife, so perhaps my standards are just a little too straight-laced. He is the most reluctant of fathers when faced with a clone (I’ll leave it to you to guess which episode this refers to), but is keen to spare the Adipose, who “can’t help where they came from” – a direct contrast from the fiery finale of The Runaway Bride. Ambivalent contrast is a recurring theme for the Tenth Doctor, who morphs from benevolent funster to angry god with a single stare (and a voice that drops about half an octave). When we see him supervising rifle practice and nonchalantly endorsing corporal punishment in Human Nature, it is a stark contrast to the Doctor we know, and yet it is not so far removed as to be implausible. It’s an uncomfortable thought – but we wonder, if anything, just how many times John Smith wielded his own cane in the three months he spent at Farringham.
Actually, what’s interesting about the Tenth Doctor is his tendency to treat other people in the same way one might treat a small child: written down, this sounds a little like the patronising “Oh, you humans!” traits that made me tire of him long before that fifteen-minute regeneration, but it’s actually quite endearing to watch. Very early on, for example, he’s seen caressing and embracing the face of a miraculously healed New Earth patient, in the same manner in which Princess Diana challenged public perceptions about AIDS back in the 1980s. It won’t be the last time we see him marvelling in this way over a new form of life, although in Evolution of the Daleks it ends badly, and in Midnight, it’s very nearly his undoing.
Nonetheless (and you’ll have seen this coming), it’s when the Eleventh Doctor shows up that things get hot. It’s partly down to the origin story. He literally bounces into Amelia’s kitchen, briefly adopting the role of toddler to her surprisingly capable childminder, and destroying crockery with the vigorous enthusiasm of a drunk relative at a Greek wedding. The first face that swims into his vision is that of a child, and it’s almost as if something happens in this transition: the visiting alien who apes the first thing it sees, or Bugs Bunny uncovering a hatched baby bird who gazes at him and cries “Mama!”
There’s a school of thought that believes – in all seriousness – that seven-year-old Amelia Pond would have been a better and more interesting companion than the damaged, fickle 20-something the Doctor swept away the night before her wedding. I’m still not sure whether I agree, but it would have made for a very interesting dynamic. The Doctor’s travelled with plenty of troubled young women (and one or two men) – but a girl? It limits what you can do with the character and the danger you can put them in, and there are all sorts of rules about working with children, and let’s face it, it would have been ethically dubious unless you make the companion an ancient deity in the body of a child, which limits the audience’s ability to relate to her… Look, basically it just wouldn’t have worked, but at least it would have been different, and I can’t help feeling that ‘different’ is something we don’t see enough in contemporary Doctor Who.
If children make up a significant chunk of the audience, it seems curious that Nu Who took so long to properly acknowledge them. That it eventually did is entirely down to Steven Moffat – “The jokes in Doctor Who are for the adults,” he said in 2014, “and the scares are for the kids” – and once Matt Smith’s Doctor skips into the TARDIS, half Willy Wonka, half Cambridge graduate student, children don’t just become part of the cast, they become part of the narrative. The Eleventh Hour is about the scars left by a single encounter with an imaginary friend, while its immediate follow-up sees the Doctor and his new companion investigate mysterious goings on in an interplanetary starship solely because ‘there’s children crying’ – a metaphor that encompasses, in a rather heavy-handed manner, both a very large creature and a very small one, although one that is perhaps no less ancient.
And thus it continues. The threat of loss makes good people do bad things (Cold Blood) and separation anxiety causes a child to thrash out in literal blind panic (Vincent and the Doctor). But it’s Series 6 (see, you knew we’d get to it eventually) that takes the individual narratives and weaves them into an arc. Amy endures a Schrodinger’s pregnancy (oddly, not for the first time) and her child becomes the focus of the entire series, in one form or another – whether as a dissolving baby, a helpless girl wandering an abandoned building in a spacesuit, or a newly-regenerated 40-something harlot confused about her destiny. In between, the Doctor helps two frightened children bond with their estranged fathers, deals with a dozen childhood fears while evading a minotaur, and organises a video conference between a five-year-old boy and his father’s plastic duplicate. These things do not always work, but they makes Series 6 – whatever its flaws – among the most thematically consistent of anything that’s come since 2005.
Things reach a zenith in Closing Time, a story which is actively about both the beginning of life and its inevitable conclusion, as the Doctor waxes lyrical to an audience of one about his old eyes in one of the most touching, frequently quoted scenes in the canon (deservedly so; Smith does a good loud, but perhaps an even better quiet). There are Cybermen, and there is a bit where the Doctor tries his hand at toy sales, but ultimately the episode is about accepting responsibilities; amidst the jokes about peasants and bras, Craig learns to cope, and the Doctor learns to accept the hand he’s been dealt. Come the episode’s denouement, he dons a Stetson and marches off to his death – observed, as cowboys usually are, by a group of silent children playing in the street.
The narrative settles down a little come the Eleventh’s third act. Amy’s apparent infertility drives a wedge into a marriage that was hardly rock solid to begin with, and it is perhaps for this reason that children take a back seat, with adult relationships (Kate / Brigadier, Rory / Brian) forming the parental themes that underpin the arc (and there is one, whatever Moffat tells you). The Doctor consciously repeats his earlier patterns of behaviour when stalking Clara, before taking on the role of reluctant guide to two of the most irritating children we’ve ever had in the TARDIS, in an episode that doesn’t bear a serious mention – if we’re talking about letting kids be kids, the aliens do it better. (Strax, by the time of The Crimson Horror, has to all intents and purposes become a child himself, both butler and ward to Vastra and Jenny’s exasperated parent figures.)
Elsewhere, there are the specials, which frequently feature children in pivotal roles: both the conscious memory tampering of A Christmas Carol and its antithesis, the curiously existential The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe. By 2013, Smith’s Doctor has aged to senility and is calling every man, woman, and child ‘Barnable’ while shouting at the Daleks to get off his lawn. It’s a tedious, ignoble end, but it culminates in some wonderful acting and that scene where Smith drops his bow tie, so we’ll let it go (and you didn’t say that, you sang it).
And the Twelfth? Well, he’s a miserable old bugger generally, which makes him brilliant with children. His contempt knows no bounds and adheres to no sociological groupings. He is Ronald Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, proclaiming that “you are all equally worthless”. If it’s an attitude that’s softened a little come the end of The Lie Of The Land, or even Series 10 in general, it’s certainly prevalent throughout Capaldi’s earlier stories, whether it’s his callous indifference towards the soldiers who accompany him into the Dalek, or his enquiry about the commander of the Drum, because “I need to know who to ignore”. For a while back there the Twelfth Doctor was really very rude, and that made him more interesting.
It also means that when he’s surrounded (or at least accompanied) by children, he becomes comparatively affable. You expect this grumpier, short-haired incarnation to be rude and unpleasant, which makes it all the more surprising when he isn’t. He takes Maebh under his wing and takes Courtney to the moon. There is less of the childlike, hey-we’re-all-in-this-together camaraderie you saw under his predecessor, but what’s left is a sense of gruff, but willing tutorship, a grandfather taking his charges on outings and trying to be affectionate even though he doesn’t quite know how.
And it might be because it reminds me of my own grandfather – who I knew for 30 years without ever really knowing him at all – but I always find it fun to watch, and perhaps one regret we might have about Capaldi’s run is that there hasn’t been nearly enough of it. “I was a dad once,” the Tenth Doctor tells Rose halfway through Fear Her. And that sort of dialogue – irritating as it might be to some fans – is in its own way quietly important. Because sometimes, just occasionally, we’re giving a tantalising glimpse of what that might have been like.