Doctor Who: The Children’s Own Programme that Adults Abhor

Nicholas Parsons once said: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” In the case of Doctor Who that’s often easier said than done. More than any other time since it returned in 2005, Chris Chibnall’s latest iteration of our favourite programme is playing to a younger audience, reinstating the Reithian values of creator Sydney Newman’s original vision. This back to basics approach that favours small-scale character drama over a high-stakes end of the world plotting has left some people cold and others absolutely furious, coming to a head with a bizarre, over the top reaction to The Tsuranga Conundrum, a perfectly enjoyable, if a little humdrum and disposable episode of Doctor Who.

Tom Baker at a signing attended by young fans
Tom Baker at a signing attended by young fans

Amongst all the grumbling about the cutesy creature of the week, men giving birth and Chris Chibnall’s writing overall, there was a tweet (now deleted) by the DWM Time Team’s Gerard Groves which stated:

“If you’re not enjoying Doctor Who you’re watching it wrong. I’m convinced…
It’s meant to be watched in a group with family or friends!
Have FUN with it – don’t watch it in a vacuum. You’re expecting too much: have fun with it, laugh with it, don’t take it too seriously.”

Astonishingly arrogant though this is, there is something in what Groves is proposing. Nice as watching the show with like-minded friends and family is, I have particularly fond memories of watching The Idiot’s Lantern with a large group of my friends in my halls of residence back in 2006, it’s not always possible or, indeed, necessary. Also, there is a multitude of reasons you don’t enjoy something. In a recent Twitter thread, the writer and script editor Andrew Ellard pointed out a number of issues with the episode, namely that there’s a problem with the ordering of events which results in a lack of tension. For Groves to suggest that by disliking something you’ve experienced it in the wrong way is as condescending as Matthew Waterhouse offering acting advice to Richard Todd.

What is pertinent about Groves’ tweet is the idea of “expecting too much.” Is it an episode’s failure to live up to high expectations that results in such vociferous reactions, calling for a showrunner’s head or writing off the next five episodes altogether? Where do these impossible expectations come from?
Reading various tweets, Facebook posts and blogs you get the impression that, between 1963 and 2017, Doctor Who was a never-ending hit factory, churning out masterpiece after masterpiece, a winning streak that has only ever been broken by The Twin Dilemma, Fear Her, and anything written by Chris Chibnall.
But as the old saying goes, the memory cheats.

As an occasional film reviewer, one of my least favourite sentences in criticism is “it’s not perfect”. Nothing is, a classic Doctor Who story like The Caves of Androzani has a rubbish big bat, whilst Genesis of the Daleks is an overlong runaround. They’re also two of Doctor Who‘s grimmest stories, one of them concerning sacrifice, human greed and self-preservation, the other an allegory for Hitler’s obsession with creating a master race. Is this what people would prefer week in, week out? In a television landscape populated by The Handmaids Tale, Westworld, Black Mirror and The Walking Dead, the appeal of Doctor Who is surely the hope, the lightness of tone, the likeable characters. Indeed, for this writer’s money, Team TARDIS is the most likeable companions we’ve had in a long time and it’s their friendship, their togetherness that provides a tonic for our divided times.

The world is a difficult enough place as it is right now without having to repeatedly watch it reflected in our popular entertainment. On a personal level, the first five weeks of Chris Chibnall’s era have also been an emotionally trying time in both my professional and family life. Sundays at 7pm (or thereabouts) have therefore provided 50 minutes of much needed, enjoyable escapism. New TARDIS interior aside, I’ve been broadly positive about the subtle changes Chibnall has made to the 21st century format. It’s certainly the most accessible the show has been in a while, airing on a Sunday evening to solid ratings and positive reactions from more general audiences who’ve maybe drifted away in previous years. If the brief was to retool Doctor Who as broad family entertainment, then Chibnall has certainly delivered.

Fundamentally, this has always been what the Daily Sketch once called “the children’s own programme that adults adore”. Perhaps the problem for some lies in being reminded of that fact. In rankings there’s often a disconnect between those fan favourites like Day of the Doctor, Heaven Sent, The Caves of Androzani et al and the types of stories that are more childish, like The Horns of Nimon, Time and the Rani, Love and Monsters, which often seem to garner the types of response that The Tsuranga Conundrum experienced on Sunday night. Are these stories less worthy because, with their heightened performances, moments of daft comedy and less than threatening threats they’re playing to a younger crowd? Are they really worthy of vitriol?

Lizbeth Myles of the Verity! podcast described Sunday’s episode as a super cosy version of Alien, which is really rather spot on. The opening scenes where Astos and the Doctor investigate what’s happening to the ship were well directed by Jennifer Perrot, building neatly to the inherent comedy in the reveal of the literal gremlin in the system. It may not be stalking the halls and bumping off our guest cast one by one, but the P’ting is still a proper threat to everybody’s welfare and one that is much better realised and less embarrassing than burping bins, big green cocks or Richard Briers in silverface.

The P'ting
The P’ting

The P’ting is also a very kid friendly creation, originated by writer Tim Price in the Doctor Who writer’s room, a ready-made Funko Pop that calls to mind the monstrous transformation of The Incredibles‘  baby Jack-Jack. Which raises another point, we’re living at a time where our popular culture is increasingly infantilised. Grown adults trapped in arrested development, topping up their Funko Pop collections whilst arguing over comic book movies, computer games, and kids television programmes. These vicious arguments around new Doctor Who are just a small part of this wider issue that often appears to be rooted in people of a certain age lashing out when it seems like the thing that they’ve spent so much of their childhood and adult lives adoring appears to be slipping from their grasp and into the hands of a new generation. Further to that, there also appears to be a bizarre notion that with a shorter run of episodes this year, and a potential 18-month gap, that Chris Chibnall shouldn’t be wasting 50 minutes of the show’s precious time dicking around on a hospital ship.

All that being said, the ratings for the past five episodes have been fairly solid, levelling out around the 8 million mark, not necessarily an indicator of quality but certainly of popularity, so the show will be around for a while yet. Is it really worth getting into such a froth over every Sunday night? You should watch your blood pressure, you’ve got work in the morning. What’s the answer?

If you’re truly not enjoying Series 11 then maybe it is indeed time to put away childish things, there’s still a lot of older stuff to enjoy. If there are nagging doubts or high expectations then let me impart some advice. I should point out that I’m not about to tell you how you should watch Doctor Who, only how I have watched it these past five weeks. Settle down on the sofa, grab yourself something nice to drink or eat, turn off your phone and forget about the fact that the weekend’s almost over, then let the latest episode of Doctor Who wash over you. Throw yourself into this big, mad, family show and acknowledge that you’re no longer its primary concern. It’s actually quite liberating. Turn off your critical faculties (save those for the inevitable rewatch/blog post/podcast) and enjoy yourself as a child would, because as a wise man once said: “What’s the point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes?”


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