The Doctor Who Column: Child's Play?
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Are our hero's adventures really just kids' stuff?
If you've ever seen the classic 1973 Christmas Special of The Goodies (called The Goodies And The Beanstalk), then you'll probably remember that bit at the end when the down and out trio come across an abandoned lamp in the street. As soon as they rub the lamp – bingo! A puff of smoke and then John Cleese in a turban. Cleese then bellows “KIDS' SHOW!” after the Goodies tell him to clear off.
I suppose that some people regarded The Goodies as the crazy younger brother of the more adult Monty Python's Flying Circus – on the surface, with its speeded-up action sequences, giant kittens, Dougals and Zebedees, I suppose you could say it's a show that's targeted towards younger ones. But then how do you explain the satirical swipes at the Royals, advertising commercialism, talent shows or apartheid?
Which neatly brings me on to Doctor Who. I was wondering this the other day when someone tactfully asked how I felt about turning 38 in less than two months – before I bellowed the sort of profanities that Gordon Ramsay uses when presented with a plate of RAAAAAAAAWWWWWW!!!! scallops. Another common question asked by some is “Why are you still writing about a show for kids?” This is normally accompanied by a sneer and a barely concealed laugh, as if someone's just nipped up behind me and stuck a sign on my back saying “I SMELL”. So should I still be writing about Doctor Who as a man in my late 30s?
Well, maybe they've got a point. After all, there's still plenty of people in certain media quarters who regard Doctor Who as a glorified children's programme. Who can forget the fuss over QI boffin Stephen Fry's whinge over the fact that Doctor Who and Merlin were singled out as great drama, even though he thought that they were children's programmes? Dammit, John. Some snooty journo at The Telegraph agreed with Fry, who claimed that he would never see what adults would see in Doctor Who unless he suffered a brain injury. Wizened old do-gooder Mary Whitehouse whined about the fact that Doctor Who was supposedly catering for an adult audience rather than quaking kids. See what I mean? Even in bookshops and libraries, the latest Doctor Who adaptation would be located in the children's section.
In fairness to the sneerers, Doctor Who was originally devised mainly as a programme for kids. The original Doctor, William Hartnell, thought of the show as a children's programme which would by turns educate and entertain the little 'uns every Saturday teatime. So one month, kids would clutch their cushions whenever evil pepper-pots trundled onto the screen, while another month, they'd get their own history tutorial, whether it was on Aztec culture, the travels of Marco Polo, or the Crusades. Maybe that tag has stuck since then. But a good counterpoint to that argument is what happened a couple of years down the line.
After original producer Verity Lambert left, new producer John Wiles made his mark with a small selection of stories that took Who into a new, more adult direction. A good example of this is the Season Three biggie, The Daleks' Master Plan . On the face of it, it's a good, old-fashioned action adventure story with practically every location and genre under the sun. What does stand out is the darker tone, especially when two companions bite the dust in suitably grim fashion. Katarina ejects herself into space, while Sara Kingdom slowly ages and then rots away to dust after suffering the ill effects of the infernal Time Destructor. Hmmm, not especially cheery viewing for the kiddies, and contemporary reports found that Sara's demise was a bit too much for the younger ones.
The darker tone carries on in the next story, The Massacre Of St Bartholomew's Eve , in which the conclusion depicts wholesale murder and violence – admittedly in still picture form only – but it was stories like these that made Hartnell uneasy. After John Wiles exited stage left, his successor Innes Lloyd, continued to push the series into more adult territory. The Celestial Toymaker took traditional childhood motifs and characters and put a more sadistic spin on them by turning them into murder weapons. Cyril the Schoolboy was a notably nasty piece of work, far removed from Billy Bunter. By the end of the third season, more in vogue companions joined the TARDIS – Ben and Polly were happening kids from the Swinging Sixties, who were a far cry from the more innocent companions of say, Dodo or Vicki.
That's just one example of an era in which Doctor Who isn't an exclusive children's programme. There are countless other eras in the show's history which are geared to older audiences: Season Seven, in which gritty realism is the order of the day, as the Third Doctor and Liz do battle with eerie waxwork dummies, Silurians and goofy looking dog men. There are more adult themes explored in this season – racism, xenophobia – there's even a grim 1984 scenario to be found in the season's closer, Inferno , in which the parallel world population of Earth seems to comprise jackbooted thugs and trigger happy Brigade Leaders.
In fact, Doctor Who was never made by the children's department of the BBC. It was made by the Beeb's drama department, with the same directors, writers and script editors working for other big name dramas of the time.
Going off at a tangent here, the sheer amount of grown-up themes explored in Doctor Who could take forever to list, so I'll just rattle off as many as I can – we have racism (notably in Ambassadors Of Death, but Frontier In Space and Remembrance Of The Daleks are good examples, too), the ecology and pollution (The Green Death), the horrors of warfare (Genesis Of The Daleks, The Curse Of Fenric), religion (Kinda, Planet Of The Spiders – a Buddhist parable, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit), financial misery (The Sun Makers), capitalism (Colony In Space, The Creature From The Pit), drugs (Nightmare Of Eden), vivisection (Full Circle, New Earth), media manipulation (The Long Game), blah blah blah. Like I said, there's probably many more topics up for debate, but altogether that's one sophisticated kids' show.
Another factor is how near the knuckle Doctor Who can sometimes get in terms of violence. Half of the time, it's purely cartoony stuff, with laser guns, over-prolonged yelling and face pulling. And then there are the grisly days, on which you might find a bulgy-eyed killer doll putting kids off taking teddy bears to bed. Or a nightmare world in which The Doctor is shot at, nearly run down by a train, threatened with a huge hypodermic needle and then nearly drowned. And let's not forget the day on which a lecherous old git eats a blind old bat, a rat and leers after Perpugilliam like some dirty old man. Season 22, in particular, contains more of its fair share of brutal deaths, unpleasant characters as well as some good old fashioned maiming and torture. And one of the show's most revered eras, the mid-1970s, served up more agonised death and edge-of-the-seat violence than they would in your average episode of Bob The Builder.
Kids' show? Nah, not really. In fact, Doctor Who was never made by the children's department of the BBC. It was made by the Beeb's drama department, with the same directors, writers and script editors working for other big name dramas of the time (eg: Robert Banks Stewart came up with the perennial Bergerac and that “Dang-Dang-Daaaaang” guitar twang – well, maybe not the great theme tune, but you know what I mean; Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis created Doomwatch, while Terry Nation originated the bleak mid-1970s drama called Survivors, in which a small clutch of people did their best to come to terms with a deadly plague that had wiped out most of the population). Neither was Doctor Who shown in the familiar 4pm slot or the Saturday morning occupancy, nestling alongside the likes of John Craven, Andy Crane or Gordon The Gopher. It was always intended as family viewing – best remembered for its iconic Saturday evening slot, sandwiched between Basil Brush and either Bruce Forsyth or Larry Grayson guiding hapless folk through The Generation Game. It's a programme that holds appeal for both young and old – the kids like it because they like being scared; the teenagers like it because they can't get enough of the action or Leela in her leotard – ditto the dads, who conveniently can't be bothered to change channels after the football results. The great thing about the show is that there's something for everyone – action, humour, romance (more in the later shows), tragedy, horror. The list goes on.
Maybe it's a nostalgia thing for the older fans too. There's more of an emphasis these days in discovering retro telly from the days of your youth. The DVD age has allowed thirty and forty-somethings to sample past greats, from the mysterious Children Of The Stones (a creepy ITV kids' drama starring Gareth 'Blake' Thomas investigating mysterious goings on at some quasi-Stonehenge locale dominated by Iain 'Garron' Cuthbertson) to the complete works of Scooby Doo Where Are You to the select few who enjoyed The Tomorrow People. And because Doctor Who figures highly on people's childhood memories, it's a good way to revisit the days when they were petrified of Mummies, psycho ventriloquist dolls and horrific Magma Creatures. And let's face it, it's a fun diversion from the everyday trials of frantically trying to find ways of making ends meet in a country still gripped in the vice of recession.
So there you go. If you want to say that Doctor Who is a kids' show, that's fine. I can think of worse programmes for kids to learn from – The Only Way Is Essex, Made In Chelsea, etc... with the emphasis on tack, superficial materialism and fake tan. They should teach about that sort of thing in schools. At least at the heart of Doctor Who, there's always the simple moral of Good Always Wins Over Evil. And if a kid who's been bullied, picked on or beaten up can take some crumb of comfort from that, then that's a good thing. As for me, well, all I can do is round off this weekly bit of nonsense with a quote from the great man himself: “There's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes!”
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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