Sunday, 27 December 2015

Is Doctor Who still for kids?

"Blah, blah, blah, blah!"

I was discussing Doctor Who (as I often do) with my sister today and she told me she hadn't enjoyed the past two series very much. My sister has always been a fan of the show since it's 2005 revival, albeit a casual "Saturday night telly" kind of fan rather than a scarf-wearing, DVD owning "moaning about it on the internet" kind of fan like myself. My sister remarked that my seven year old niece doesn't watch it much any more as "she doesn't understand it". I was about to launch into my well-rehearsed and spirited defense of the show when my niece actually chipped in to correct my sister.

"I do understand it, it's just boring. All they do is talk, and talk, and talk."

It wasn't the fact that she didn't like it any more that worried me. After all, kids go off stuff all the time. It was the reason she'd gone off it that worried me. "It's boring." Doctor Who should not be making kids bored! Now I'm not claiming that my niece is representative of all children in the UK. But it's hard to deny that the tone of the show has changed over the past few series. Is the show getting too 'talky'? Is Doctor Who in danger of losing what has always been the most important part of it's audience - kids?

Once upon a time, Russell T. Davies' era as head writer (2005-2010) was full of rousing speeches and emotional exchanges, but it was always balanced with a healthy dose of explosions, running, and visual humour. The Doctor's emotional farewell to Rose at the end of series 2 for example came only after a tense, climactic battle between the Daleks and the Cybermen which resulted in them all getting sucked into a big, inter-dimensional hole. The Doctor and The Master had many a character defining back and forth at the end of series 3, but it was all centred around a very visceral victory for The Doctor, as the prayers of the world transformed him from a wizened goblin into a shining, floating saviour. (Hey, I'm not saying it made sense, just that it was visually exciting.)

Compare those climaxes to the end of series 8 or 9. Series 8 finishes mainly with a lengthy conversation in a graveyard. The army of Cybermen don't actually do anything apart from explode in the sky and Missy is dispatched by a Cyberman who we're told is a character who is only significant to viewers familiar with the classic series. Series 9 ended with a long talk about feelings between Clara and The Doctor, followed by The Doctor losing his memory for vague reasons, followed by another talk about feelings between The Doctor and Clara, this time in a diner. It's not exactly the stuff kids dreams are made of is it. Of course, the RTD era was full of long talks about feelings too, but they were always balanced with action, and visual thrills, and I don't think that's still the case.

If you think that this criticism means that I hate current head writer Steven Moffat's era of Doctor Who you couldn't be more wrong. I have absolutely loved the past two series and Peter Capaldi has swiftly entered my list of top five favourite ever Doctors. I've found Series 9 to be particularly enjoyable, with The Doctor's impassioned anti-war speech in The Zygon Inversion and Peter Capaldi's solo performance in Heaven Sent among my favourite moments.

But I'm a 34 year old man and when it comes to Doctor Who my opinion should not be a priority!

Doctor Who is a family show, it always has been. It's not something for nerds like me to watch alone in our bedrooms and then bitch about on our blogs (much like I'm doing now). It's something for families, like my sister and her kids, to watch together. If you target the families then nerds like me will still watch it, but if you target nerds like me you lose the families. If you target families then the kids grow up and watch it with their kids, and the show endures, as it should!

The weird thing is, Steven Moffat knows all this! In one interview to promote the show's 50th Anniversary he remarked
"I love Doctor Who fans, and I am a Doctor Who fan, but the show is not targeted at them. And to be fair most of them say: 'For God's sake don't make it for us.' They want it to be successful. They don't want it to be a niche thing, because then it would die."
Why then would the man who said this fill his episodes with emotionally charged, character driven speeches that are perfect for fans who want actors to reenact them at conventions but not so great for retaining the attention of your average 7-8 year old? Again, I'm not saying that these speeches shouldn't be there, but for god's sake, let's have an explosion and some running straight after it.

I must emphasise that I'm not one of these critics who say that kids can't follow Steven Moffat's labyrinthine plots. As Moffat has rightly said "We're dealing with children who can read long, complicated books while tweeting and playing computer games all at the same time. You've got to be ahead of them." So I'm definitely not saying that the show should dumb down, or that kids only like explosions. I'm just saying that for the past couple of series, Doctor Who has put exposition and emotional character moments above action and it means that the show may be in danger of losing it's younger audience.

An impassioned speech about the horrors of war is great, but it's not going to resonate with a child in the same way as it is with an adult. Is it possible to make it the centrepiece of an entire episode and retain the interest of your younger audiences? I'm not so sure it is. Why can't we have the best of both worlds? Something emotionally resonant for the older fans to immortalise in gif and meme form AND something for the younger fans to reenact in the playground. Russell T. Davies managed it for four series and a bunch of specials. With episodes such as The Eleventh Hour, and Day of the Doctor, Moffat has managed it too, and I'd love to see him keep on doing it.

I've really loved series 8 & 9, but the moment Doctor Who becomes all about people like me is, as Moffat has said, the moment it dies. With the BBC insisting on scheduling the show at later, less appropriate times it's more important than ever that Doctor Who keeps the kids. Doctor Who must endure and it will only do so by attracting the whole family, not just the uncles.

2 comments:

  1. It's an interesting point, which I don't think about often because Doctor Who was something I got into in my teens. It WAS a family thing, but my youngest sibling was around 11, more pre-teen than child. And in any case, in North America, Doctor Who WAS a niche, geeky things, and we were watching 70s Who anyway, not the current stuff (which would have been in the Sylvester McCoy era). And since I don't have children of my own, I don't think of Who in terms of it being family fare, though I appreciate that it's supposed to be.

    I don't know what the kids thought of the Christmas special. There's quite a bit of exploding nonsense and headless robots and all that, but it's also about a romance between older adults.

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    1. I thought the Xmas special got the balance just right. It felt very RTD, in a good way.

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