Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who series 9.
The writers of Doctor Who Series 9 knew the series was being broadcast in a later timeslot, one that would allow them to go further than usual in terms of horror. An important aspect of the show is its ability to terrify children, acting as a PG-rated horror and giving rise to the notion of watching from behind the sofa. While Series 9 definitely succeeded in terms of disturbing ideas, it’s also been the most bloody series since the Eighties. But then, if you prick us, do we not bleed? Well, sometimes. It depends on the budget and the timeslot.
Recently we’ve seen axes dragged along floors, faces melting into sand, a Zygon losing its human form and killing itself, and Clara dying in repeated slow motion. There’ve been bodies with a modest yet surprising amount of blood on them, and Jenna Coleman said ‘arse’. To be fair, she said it in a sentence with other words in, not just in isolation to be provocative, but Doctor Who is such that it’s still surprising.
The show has been confident in using this timeslot to its advantage, showing its hero bloodied and burned, and ramping up the existential horrors. It’s been tremendously unsettling at points, and at its best has made death feel significant, rather than just presenting us with forgettable redshirts (contrast O’Donnell’s death in Before the Flood with Chopra’s in Sleep No More).
Yet we’ve not heard many complaints about this all being too much for a younger audience. And this while the viewing figures have gone down to an extent that it can’t merely be explained by the Rugby World Cup. The Christmas overnight ratings demonstrated that it’s not just Doctor Who whose viewing figures are down, and a rating’s decline is to be expected for a ten year old show. However, for a family programme to have a long term future it’s possible that a later timeslot leads to a significant portion of the audience being shut out. Unfortunately, due to the way it’s filmed, Strictly Come Dancing is very hard to shift from its broadcast time (and is more popular than Who in terms of ratings) so Doctor Who getting a fixed time around 7pm is unlikely. If Doctor Who were put on earlier, though, would it be able to maintain this level of horror that proved so effective?
Of course, Doctor Who‘s halcyon days managed it: the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era from 1975 to 1977 famously – within our little corner of reality – incurred the wrath of Mary Whitehouse for being too scary and violent. Holmes commented that the show was geared to “the intelligent fourteen year old” and not aimed at younger children, yet this remains one of the most adulated eras of the show and got generally high ratings. The Robots of Death Part Three earned 13.1 million viewers in a 6.23pm timeslot. A key thing worth noting, though, is that Hinchcliffe’s approach did ultimately result in the BBC yielding to pressure, moving the producer onto a more adult drama with the BBC asking for a less violent, more comedic tone from his successor, Graham ‘Mentioning his name will get me nearer my wordcount’ Williams.
Doctor Who had been promised a similar timeslot to Series 9’s in the run up to Season 22, broadcast in 1985, only for it to ultimately broadcast in an early evening slot around 5.20pm. The show was cancelled after this series’ broadcast for various reasons, including concerns over the levels of violence. However, the Hinchcliffe era wasn’t popular just because Condo did a small gut-burst, just as Season 22 isn’t unpopular because Lytton got his hands crushed; and really, isn’t the realisation of that scene something of a let down after hearing so much about it? Essentially some people in padded gloves squeeze his hands, but never give you the impression of great power or crushing bones, and then there’s some blood on them afterwards. The realisation isn’t as horrible as the idea.
Doctor Who is now much better at disguising its budget, even with more money than it used to have, and yet the most chilling moment in the whole of Series 9 was – for me – the dragging of the axe along the floor towards an apparently unsuspecting victim. You can imagine this in the Hinchcliffe era, but it’s within the show’s budget at any time: all you need are two people, a corridor, and an axe. You’ve probably got access to 75% of those right now. We know that such a death won’t – can’t – happen, but due to Cass’ deafness we’re presented with a situation where it isn’t immediately obvious how she’ll escape, and it’s literally dragged out for as long as possible, pushing the violence of axe-based death to the forefront of our minds. Obviously we don’t see anyone being hit, their flesh pummelled and pierced, but the idea is there. It’s here where Doctor Who’s horror operates: consider the poacher in Pyramids Of Mars, crushed by robotic mummies. Clearly he hasn’t been, his face is fine, his bones and skin unbroken, but the idea is planted in the viewers’ minds.
This is important. It might not be realistic, but it’s always worth remembering: Doctor Who is more interested in ideas than reality. So when Rigsy has a flashback to an apparent corpse with blood pooling by the head, it’s a scene that would still pack a punch with a still, staring body free of bloodstains broadcast at 6pm. Likewise, there’s a possible version of Heaven Sent where the Doctor isn’t bloodied and bruised, but the story still works just as well.
It’s ultimately window dressing which might be acceptable in the show’s current timeslot, but I wonder how much this has been considered for those watching on catch-up services. As those of us who have defended the ratings keep saying: the way people watch TV is changing, so it’s worth considering the audience who miss the first broadcast, the younger viewers. Some of them will love a bit of blood (I can’t be the only person who loved Resurrection Of The Daleks when I was 8 purely because it was horrible); others won’t, but it won’t ever be the reason they watch.
Looking back at Pyramids Of Mars, the most memorable death is Laurence Scarman’s and this has nothing to do with the means of dispatch. The actual death isn’t even shown, but it does so much in the story: it’s incredibly sad, demonstrates the villain’s power and inhumanity plus the Doctor’s alien qualities while simultaneously raising the stakes. It’s a death that poses questions other than ‘How gruesome can we make this?’ and Series 9 manages a fair few of those itself.