Ever since the news broke last month that Jodie Whittaker is to replace Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, genuine, new information has been thin on the ground regarding Doctor Who. It was rumoured last week that actor, turned TV personality, Bradley Walsh could be set to join Whittaker aboard the TARDIS as the show’s new companion, but that’s yet to be confirmed. As a blogger, this is the hardest time of the year to be a Doctor Who fan. Nothing to review, nothing to preview, no news to analyse. That’s why it’s been a while since my last post. Though one thing has irked me in the weeks since the Jodie Whittaker announcement (apart from the sexism and overreaction from fans) – the habit of categorising Doctor Who as a “Kid’s Show”.
I’m going to start with addressing what a lot of you are probably now thinking; it is aimed at children. Of course, a large chunk of each episode, and of course the character of the Doctor is aimed to at a younger audience. We also have additional characters like The Paternoster Gang specifically trying to catch the eye of children. In the show’s early days, even before the first episode had aired in the 1960s, the BBC’s Head of Drama, Sydney Newman was keen for the show to educate and entertain, while avoiding cliched “bug eyed monsters”, despite its sci-fi theme. Although that may at first glance, sound exactly like the sort of brief you would expect for a children’s show, in the fifty four years since, I would be stunned if any regular adult viewers had not learned a lot from watching the show.
The show is not just your average history lesson. Take the episode Thin Ice, for example. The watching children will pick up a good feel for how tough life was in Victorian times. Kitty, Spider and all of their friends were about the age where you might expect children to start watching the show. For the younger viewer, following their stories could have and should have been an education as to how much more challenging life was back then for people their age. It might not have resonated with everyone, but that’s alright. If even just a few kids watching realised how lucky they are to be living in a time where children are generally well looked after, especially in this country, then the episode has been a success, in relation to Newman’s aim of educating.
But in that episode, it’s not just the children that were educated. Season ten as a whole, was very political. This third episode of the season really kick started that trend. We saw the Doctor and Bill encounter a character called Sutcliffe, a lord who was snooty, rude and racist. After warning Bill not to rise to his slurs, the Doctor himself responded to a racist remark towards Bill by punching Sutcliffe. It was something I don’t recall seeing in Doctor Who before, the Doctor resorting to violence to deal with an enemy or just a scumbag, but it was effective. Undoubtedly, it would be superb if any of the younger audience picked up on this, it’s important that we teach children that hate and discrimination won’t be tolerated, but I suspect with the current tension in our society, that this moment was aimed at the older viewer; telling them to get out there and stand up for peace, inclusion and the rights of everyone on this planet. I can’t recall ever seeing a children’s television show tackle racism so directly, or the lead character in any children’s television show ever punch a man square in the face. The show can be a lesson for viewers of all ages.
One of the most extreme examples of a writer pushing the boundaries with what could make a script can be found in Benjamin Cook’s book “The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter”. Cook exchanges emails with Russell T. Davies throughout the Welshman’s final years as show-runner. Davies, along with Gareth Roberts were trying to include as many Agatha Christie references as they could in season four’s Unicorn and the Wasp. In a draft, a line referring to “Ten Little Niggers” was included, but the Doctor was set to interrupt by saying “Niggles aside” just before the obviously offensive word would be spoken on screen. I think wisely, that was cut out of the final draft, but there is no other children’s show that would even contemplate such a line. Even though the line never made it to air, Davies clearly didn’t have children in mind when penning it down. Not that too many children would’ve picked up on the reference anyway – the adult references though (see also Steven Moffat naming season five’s finale “The Big Bang” because narratively it was the episode when River Song was conceived) are another sign that writers are writing for viewers of all ages.
Perhaps the best example of Doctor Who really targeting an adult audience was in season nine’s two parter, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion. I’m not saying that no seven-year-olds are up to date with the current immigration crisis at all, but to centre an entire ninety minutes of Doctor Who around such a serious and critical ongoing situation was not the behaviour of a children’s television show. Think of some of the horrors that we actually saw on screen. A Zygon committed suicide because he didn’t think he’d be accepted into society because he was different. Hostage videos, exceptionally reminiscent to those released by “ISIS” were transmitted by rebel Zygons. These aren’t things you’d see in a kids’ show. These probably aren’t even things you’d see in a young adult show. The Doctor’s sensational war speech probably – probably – won’t be remembered too vividly by younger viewers. It wasn’t the usual swash-buckling and heroic resolution we’re used to seeing from the Doctor. But for viewers who had a grasp on the situation regarding Syria at the time, it really made you sit up and take notice. Doctor Who is sending out a more compassionate and kind response to the crisis than anyone else. The Doctor is displaying more leadership and love than anyone else in a position of power. Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder don’t do that, do they? The Doctor isn’t just a role model for children, he should be a role model for everyone.
The next time you hear someone say: “Who cares about Doctor Who? It’s just a kids’ show”, or “Why do you watch that? It’s not for you”, ask them when was the last time they tuned in for an episode. Usually the answer will be never, or just at Christmas when the show’s tone is understandably lighter. Dismissing Doctor Who as a show solely for children is ignorant and arrogant. It’s a show that’s beneath nobody. Admittedly, it’s not as hard hitting as Thin Ice or The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion every week. There are episodes like Smile and The Lodger that are aimed at children, and rightly so. The show should aim a lot of its episodes at children. But that doesn’t make it a children’s show. Some opt for the term “Family Show” when describing it, but I prefer “A Show for Everyone”. In almost every episode in the show’s fifty four year history, people of all ages will be able to find something for them. There’s simply no other show like it.