Tiffany Jenkins: Let’s leave Doctor Who to kids

Making children’s shows with adults in mind is to the detriment of more serious programming, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Tom Baker in his role as the fourth incarnation of Doctor Who. Picture: Getty
Tom Baker in his role as the fourth incarnation of Doctor Who. Picture: Getty

What on earth was all the fuss about? It was as if at 8pm on Saturday that the entire nation could only talk about, tweet about and watch one thing: The Day of the Doctor, the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who.

The special programme, starring John Hurt, Billie Piper, Matt Smith and David Tennant, was broadcast simultaneously in 94 countries and received a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest ever simulcast of a television drama. It was also screened – in 3D to some – in more than 1,500 cinemas worldwide including Britain, the United States, Canada, Latin America, Russia, Germany and Scandinavia. Beat that, Borgen. The Time Lord is way more popular than former statsminister Birgitte Nyborg.

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I have fond memories of various incarnations of Doctor Who and can recall that characters and plot lines made a significant impression on me. My parents like to remind me that I hid behind the sofa when the music started because the electronic theme tune terrified the life out of me – it is of no surprise that it remains one of the most recognisable signature tunes ever made for TV.

At a party, my brother burst into floods of tears, recoiling in fear at the sight of the special guests – Daleks. He wouldn’t go near them and we had to go home early.

Many of us will have shouted “exterminate!” in an electronic-sounding, funny voice. And most will have one Time Lord that we prefer over any other: Peter Davison, in my case, but I expect that is because he was the main man when the programme appealed to me most. I don’t doubt that the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, will wow a new generation.

But Doctor Who used to be – is supposed to be – for children, teenagers and, to a certain extent, their parents. It is a family show, yes, but it is not specifically for adults. And yet, since growing up, I have found that it has become more and more part of adult culture.

Doctor Who seems to follow me as I age and I am not entirely sure that’s a good thing. While respect should be accorded to the writers of the series and credit given to them for reviving and sustaining something quite brilliant, I am not convinced that all this attention and fawning is entirely good for the programme, or that it reflects well on us.

There is no doubt that Doctor Who has made a major contribution to our culture. It has introduced children to science and space in exciting ways, taught them about important concepts such as time, and it has frightened and entertained us all.

The 50th-year anniversary, therefore, deserves special attention. But in this period certain things have changed with the programme and its reception. You will have to forgive me if this sounds a little like many of the PhDs on Doctor Who and what it all means – and there many people, probably more men than women, who possess a doctorate that examines some aspect of the TV series – but it is worth asking: why is it so venerated now and by so many people who are well over 30?

To start with, there has been a kind of colonisation of children’s film and television programmes by adults. Many of them are made for us, not just the kids, and it shows. Films such as Toy Story, Cars and Shrek, and TV series such as Doctor Who are replete with inside jokes and references that we get and which go over the heads of the young. That’s all very well to a point – parents have to get through those long hours somehow – but you have to ask when does this distort the material for the children? I think it already has.

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Programme makers are writing too much for the grown-ups and not enough for the young generations with whom they were once primarily concerned. It is noticeable that recent episodes of Doctor Who have been laden with morals, as if they seek now to reinforce messages that they once had little interest in, and that they are more interested in sexual tension, especially between the Doctor and his female helper, which is a bit of a bore. The debate over the gender of the Doctor, whether he should be a she, which has taken over the comment pages in national newspapers at times, is driven by adults, too.

It is remarkable how this one programme is applauded far and wide, way beyond families and Whovians. A new Doctor and director is now the subject of national speculation, debate and headlines.

But this attention creates problems. First, with what it replaces. When a children’s (all right, family-friendly) television show grabs such a significant amount of attention, more serious programmes – ones that are complex and demanding that are aimed at adults and address adult issues – are neglected. The extensive veneration of the childish and fun is at the expense of the contemplative.

Second, this kind of scrutiny and adult demands place a burden on what is a simple science-fiction show aimed at children. It asks one television series to fulfil all sorts of intellectual needs that grown-up programmes should. The Time Lord should not be beholden to such demands.

In the face of all the attention and plaudits, the recent Doctor Who series have become highly self-aware, verging on a parody. There are far too many in-jokes in a post-modern kind of way.

It sometimes feels as if it is fuelled by nostalgia for childhood pasts. It is speaking in a louder voice to those that have sat through every episode, rather those first-time viewers who need the new series to stand on its own. It’s almost like a contemporary art project: more interested in its own history – which could be at the expense of its future.

Ardent fans will seek to reassure me that the Doctor Who series is strong enough to take and accommodate the interest, to survive the demands placed upon it. But maybe we shouldn’t chance it. Let’s leave it alone for the young and the geeks to ensure that the show goes on without us.