Doctor Who: is it for children?

Feature Andrew Blair 4 Dec 2012 - 07:09

Andrew revisits a surprisingly long-lived argument about Doctor Who's intended audience...

Of course Doctor Who is for children. It's their show, intended to entertain and inspire them. We, as adults, are graciously allowed to partake. It’s like a children’s party where everybody gets a goodie bag. You may disagree. It's alright, I've been wrong before too. 

It’s frequently used as a criticism against Doctor Who that it’s a kids' programme (admittedly by morons who think all kids' TV is brightly coloured shapes saying ‘Pobble wobble pwee’ at each other). For the record, in a ‘Who’s had the most on-screen genocides’ competition, Doctor Who is way out in front against most programmes (in your face Blue Peter), and still has time to include walking lard babies, bonus Bonnie Langfords and the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary special ‘Mandrels versus Bandrils' death-match on CBeebies (which is more than a bit silly, because the Bandrils will clearly win). 

There are different kinds of television programmes for everyone, irrespective of age categorisation. True Blood is not The Wire. Spongebob Squarepants is not Biker Grove. Doctor Who can, within the limits of its timeslot, be any of these shows (incidentally, PJ and Duncan’s ‘Ah cannae see man!’ scene is clearly a homage to ‘My vision is impaired’). To go the other way and say that Doctor Who is too smart to be a children’s programme is just as patronising. 

Bringing challenging television to a mass audience - even if the challenge largely consists of 'PAY ATTENTION' - is the opposite of dumbing down. It's a stepping stone, a lure to more complex things. Hook 'em while they're young and they'll demand more of the same as adults, and of adults. This prospect, amongst other things, is what attracted Christopher Eccleston to the role in the first place: it’s for everyone. 

Since 2005 Doctor Who's become more inclusive. This is rare in television, especially when compared with cinema, where blockbusters chase a 12A rating and adults sit down for children’s films praying it’ll be fun for them too. This mass audience is the one that Saturday evening telly has started pursuing – children’s shows that adults can watch without lapsing into a coma. 

Adults without children enjoy Doctor Who, of course, but adults also enjoy the following: Fish Fingers, I'm Sorry I've Got No Head, Lego, trampolines, spaghetti hoops, Calpol, Horrible Histories, Jenga, dressing up, sheds, the N64, Top Gear, bukkake, puns, Dido, Ikea, UKIP, literary fiction, and Carling. 

Grown-ups like loads of stuff. They also like things that are aimed at children, like frisbees. Being 'For adults' is no guarantee of quality or success. This seems as good a time as any to mention The Fades' audience largely consisting of people outside of its intended demographic, and Outcasts started in a prestigious mainstream adult drama slot and ended screaming in an abyss full of Twitter scorn. Just as grown-ups telly can be simple, thick and dull, youngling's TV can be complex, smart and fun (and vice-versa). 

Plus, it's alright; you're allowed to like children’s telly as an adult. Sometimes it's better. Shaun the Sheep is funnier than Monkey Dust and Knightmare is darker than The Weakest Link (though that last one's a closer run thing). The Sarah Jane Adventures is often more grown up than Torchwood. 

The latter, at its best, is capable of breathtakingly good episodes, but overall it has tonal lurches and bouts of lacking self-confidence (This also summarises my teenage years quite accurately). The Sarah Jane Adventures is secure in its own skin, and seems more mature despite its intended audience. 

TSJA doesn't patronise them with things they think they want, or seem to be trying desperately hard to be grown up. Sometimes it is simple and colourful, yes, but then so is Torchwood (I'm looking at you, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang). So are a great many adult-orientated programmes: Not Going Out, every Channel 4 documentary, The Thick of It, Don't Tell the Bride. Sometimes things need to be simple and colourful (I'm looking at you, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang). Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, no matter how much someone might want it to be a commentary on Indo-African anthropology in certain districts of Baltimore. 

In reference to Doctor Who, Steve 'Little Miss' Moffat has stated that it is a children's show adults can enjoy. On Richard Bacon's Radio 5 show he said: 

“Everyone by the end of the opening music is a kid! It is watched by more adults than kids, but there is something at its heart, which belongs to children. All the best stuff is children’s. You look at a risotto on a menu and you see the children’s menu and there’s sausage and chips. All the good stuff belongs to children.” 

Mind you, he is a liar. And don't get me started on his risotto agenda. 

This answer concedes that it has more adult viewers, but many of them will have started watching the show as children (a minority of them are upset that the show has changed since then, but fortunately they hardly ever go on about it). It gets into your head when you’re young and stays there. There’s a verse in the Bible about accepting the kingdom of Heaven like a child, and it’s certainly true that Doctor Who taps into that sense of childlike wonder that the more popular religions can inspire, resulting in worship that persists into their adult life. 

Doctor Who started off as a children's show. At points it was aimed more at teenagers, but it remained a children's show throughout with the baggage and benefits that this entails. Firstly, this means it can occasionally get treated like it isn't a big deal. Even within the BBC the edict 'Make it more kiddie-friendly' seems to be a patronising assumption that children will put up with growing budget constraints and enforced rompiness (the worst kind of rompiness). Secondly, scaring people consistently on a PG certificate takes creativity, but that often results in improved writing to get around these limitations. 

The Jon Pertwee story Inferno is a good example: it's got big green dog monsters in it, true, but the children’s show aspect necessitates these turn you into other dog monsters rather than tear you apart. Adults see Evil Sergeant Benton dressed as Soylent Green crossed with Dougal from The Magic Roundabout. Children see a man with the same face as Nice Sergeant Benton being turned into a monster. And then the world ends. Cue cliffhanger, with its throbbing psychologist's nightmare of a Slit-Scan sequence, and the scariest theme music known to humanity. Beats Saw V doesn't it? 

Doctor Who as a children’s show allows it to not only survive, but thrive. Try filming the book ranges of the nineties and early noughties for a 9pm 15-certificate slot and I don’t know if we’d be writing on this site about series seven (or thirty-three, if you are that way inclined), not because they aren’t good, but because that subgenre automatically limits its appeal, and in turn its budget. Besides, if the Master can be comfortable about watching The Clangers, then you can be comfortable with watching Doctor Who.

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Lets face it, done well, you can get away with a lot under the premise of a children's show. Look at Grange Hill - violence, glue sniffing, smack, perms, a bit like 'Trainspotting' in uniform. Oh, and did you really mention 'bukkake' in this article????

Did you just slip bukkake into a discussion about Doctor Who? You rude dog, you. Well played, sir.

Bukkake on your Jenga is no fun at all.

I think Who is best seen as mainly a family show, with loads of stuff for kids and often some subtext and moral examinations for the grown-ups.

All three comments mention the same thing. I guess that's the answer to what adults are really interested in then.

It's a family show rather than a kid's show (and there is a difference). I find it interesting that the article has referenced both eras of Doctor Who, but they are quite different. The old DW certainly has silliness and lightness to it, just as new DW has some very dark and frightening moments. But there is something in the older series that gives it a more serious undertone. It is in the drama and pacing, perhaps, that new DW can comes across as more CBBC than BBC. One thing that I think stands out far too much in the new series is that the actors playing the Doctor tend to ham it up, even Christopher Ecclestone, and I believe this has more to do with the script and direction, because Ecclestone is a serious, brooding heavyweight with no need of hamming. Jon Pertwee was always no-nonsense, Troughton very complex, Peter Davidson had a serious and slightly tragic vein to his Doctor, and Tom Baker is genuinely eccentric and possibly a real alien. David Tenant on the other hand slips into mawkish overacting, and again I should stress that I think this is more to do with the nature of the script and direction than Tenant himself. Smith is better, but with so much of the focus on the companions and their banter, and magic wand at the end of each episode, some of the "meat" is lost, and it ends up less satisfying for adults (and, indeed, children).

I feel much more aware that I'm watching a show mainly aimed at children since Moffat took over. I feel that the RTD era was a little darker and felt more aimed at teeangers older (a bit like Buffy The Vampire Slayer) Waters of mars for example did not seem aimed at children (apart from that bloody robot)

Saying that he did give us farting aliens and Dobby doctor so......

*teenagers and older

For the record I enjoy the RTD era and Moffat era equally.

Brilliantly argued (read: I agree 100%) and also a hilarious read ("...things aimed at children, like frisbees").
Loved it, thanks for that.

I don't think the RTD and SM eras are actually all that different, and I certainly wouldn't say that SM's show feels more aimed at children. Some of RTD stuff is more like a cartoon, with particular reference to Stolen Earth and Journey's End.

While nobody involved in making the programme would deny that they make it for children,it was concieved as a drama programme and Sydney Newman was determined that it was part of the drama department.I'm always very uneasy about Doctor Who being defined as a childrens programme because it will always attract criticism when the production is as effective as it's supposed to be and it scares it's audience.I'd also argue that lots of people involved with making the programme haven't recieved the recognition they deserved from their industry because of that definition.

I think, with all due respect Cygnus, you're talking out of your arse.
Look at the RTD era, killer christmas trees, toilet humour in belching bins and farting aliens (which you to be fair acknowledged , non-stop pop culture references for the benefit of the teens. I was embarrassed to watch the RTD era as it didn't feel all inclusive, it felt exclusively aimed at kids and teenagers.
I will make an exception for series 1, until Bad Wolf hit RTDs reboot felt like the old show with several mis-steps (such as Aliens in London)... but Bad Wolf with the pop-culture pandering really set the tone for the rest of his tenure.

Moffat puts children into the show with little Amelia and what not, but he doesn't talk down to them like RTD did. I think if he leaves an audience out it's not the adults, it is absolutely not the parents whom he has in mind the whole time sat down with their kids.

As the father of a 6yo boy, I can definitely say Dr Who isn't for kids (of his age). In the last series there was one episode I could happily let him watch knowing he wouldn't have nightmares (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship). It's a family show, but it's definitely aimed at an older family audience than my family.

All very good points. I can't put my finger on exactly why I feel Moffats era is more for kids it's just something about the overall vibe.

Speak for yourself

I agree with you 100%, TARDInSexy. I felt as though RTD was talking down to children for most of his tenure. He seemed to forget that many children are quite intelligent and are capable of figuring stuff out without the dumbed-down or juvenile explanations. In fact, this was one of my major complaints when RTD was showrunner!

Cygnus...everyone is entitled to their opinion for sure, but in this case, you couldn't be more wrong. Perhaps you should rewatch all the eps.

That is not to say that I didn't enjoy parts of RTD's Who; I just think Moffat's Who gives children a little bit more credit.

Doctor Who is for everyone. I've loved it since I was a nipper in the latter years of Tom Baker's tenure and still love it now. I drifted away a bit during my teens when McCoy was the Doctor but teen apathy towards anything from my childhood, not to mention DW's dwindling budgets and the after effects of poor writing in Baker II's final stories (and the subsequent early McCoy adventures written for Baker II before his sacking) were probably more to blame (I started to enjoy it again as the writing improved throughout the McCoy years but was very disappointed when it became apparent it would not be back for the foreseeable future in the early 90s).

If it were specifically for children then it would air on CBBC but the BBC gives it the prime family slot of the entire week.

Only the most unimaginative of detractors use the "it's for children" slur - and often then its just to get a rise out of people.

Is Doctor Who for children? Sure.
It's also for tweens, teens, college kids, mums, dads, OAP's, and more or less any other demographic you care to mention...
I think the show's all-inclusivenes, it's broad appeal, s is one of its biggest strengths.

Very true. RTD tended to hand explanations to the viewer on a plate as soon as humanly possible but we have still have stuff from the first season of Moffat that remain not fully explained (such as who exactly are the Silence, why did the TARDIS explode etc). Some of that will come in time, and some will be left to the viewers' imagination (and DW theory forums) to piece it together themselves.

It's actually lazier writing to explain everything. It takes more skill to take stuff out while leaving it intelligible.

I have tired to get into it. I just can't. Not because I feel it's just for kids, as it's clearly not - it's aimed at the 'family' for Saturday night viewing - but because I just think everyone in it is rubbish. It's over the top acting just annoys me, and don't get me started on how bad the DGI/effects are, everything about it just looks cheap.

I'm sure it's a great show, but for those reasons... I'm out.

I have tried to get into it. I just can't. Not because I feel it's just
for kids, as it's clearly not - it's aimed at the 'family' for Saturday
night viewing - but because I just think everyone in it is rubbish. It's
over the top acting just annoys me, and don't get me started on how bad
the CGI/effects are, everything about it just looks cheap.

I'm sure it's a great show, but for those reasons... I'm out.

Always felt Who was family viewing.

This article lost more credit than it probably deserved to lose in my (admittedly biased Geordie) eyes when I read the misspelling of BYker.

Doctor Who has never been a children's show, it was conceived as a show that could bridge the gap between the sport and the prime time Saturday night viewing, for *families*. Anybody who doubts that just go and watch Midnight or Turn Left, even the worst most "childish" stories have some pretty gruesome ideas, cannibal grannies in Paradise Towers, people being ritually slaughtered in Horns of Nimon.

Its aimed at a family audience. End of debate.

You pull together a handful of shows from the Tom Baker / Peter Davidson era, you've got some pretty sound science fiction. What they're trying to do now, I've no idea at all.

Interesting you say that since the best episode of the Moffat era so far was written by an SFF author

Is it for children?

Yes, clearly. And also for adults.

FFS, is there nothing better to write about than this?

I was thinking of doing so. I don't know what came over me.

Recently its been targetted more at teenages appealing with 'sex' symbols such as a kissogram, a horny murderous wife and a female character who openly jokes about wanting to have sex with Rory.

So, what is the purpose of your post here, then? I certainly don't care whether you're in or out.

Oh ok, and there was me thinking I was speaking for all mankind on every point. Thanks for your detailed and reasoned response. You could at least have given me a down arrow as well.

You said "for adults" and I wanted to say not everybody. That's all.

When u put your damn family show on a feckin 5 pm then that's how people thinkits a kids show, Screw u Moffat

I do have to agree with you, though I don't want to. I love Matt's doctor, but the 'magic wand' endings to so many episodes have disappointed not only me, but my kids as well. My 8 year old often finishes watching with the words, "Ohhhh" (in tone of disappointment) "that was just DUMB. I thought he was going to...(insert more creative ending here)." Please BBC, notch it up a level, to the same calibre as Sean the Sheep (which is brilliant by the way).

I think both Moffat and RTD have flaws with their portions with Doctor Who. Both could be dark, both could be campy. There are very campy moments, But that's just part of its charm. It would lose so much if it didn't have the crazy story-lines, out of the world overall, and especially, this is important, if it had any damn sense at all. Regardless, I love the show, but I don't like the "kiddies" show tag. Perhaps you in Britain have different standards, but here, it means a strained and usually campy animated show, like X-men or Batman. However, what I saw from Doctor Who didn't feel like that. There are moments where I want to slap my forehead, and hide away, but those are made up for eventually. There's something in there for anyone, and everyone can enjoy and understand it.

Why are you here then?

I never saw over-acting, so I don't know what you're talking about. Unless, unless, you're talking about David Tennant in his first season, there I can say he did overact sometimes. But in his third and fourth season, I'd say he was almost a legend. The effects are fine! Did you see the Unicorn and the Wasp? Perhaps it wasn't what you were expecting to find in Doctor Who. You need to understand the characters and their personality, and their stories before you can see any realism in their acting. Either 10 or Donna I'm taking it.

Have you seen it? It is still great science fiction.

Most Doctor Who episodes are 12's, Not PG's. Some are but as a kid I remember being yelled at because my Mum said it was a 12. I'm referring to the Eccleston series btw.

Agree with you. I want Moffat to make it more adult like it was in Ecclestons and some of the late classic episodes. It was intended for children originally though but then it was changed to a family show when they realised Mum's and Dad's were watching it as well.

"Dr. Who is a children's show." "Dr. Who is for everyone."

What a waste of time your confused prattle is.

it's never been a consistent PG certificate. It's gone from U to 15 but it's more consistant between 12 and PG. Not just PG

Doctor Who should never have a fixed audience. It should be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. Whether it's a child or an adult. If you fix on one audience, in this case children, then the majority (which is adults) of the audience will lose interest. Are you that stupid that you think Doctor Who got where it was just by entertaining kids? No! Everyone loves Doctor Who. It's for adults and kids like Star Wars or Indiana Jones.

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