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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