Is Doctor Who just for kids? It’s something I vehemently denied in my teenage years, when I was an avid viewer. It seemed far too cool to be a kids’ show. But with the venerable time lord about to return to our screens next Monday, and my own kids utterly hooked on the show, it’s worth considering again.
In retrospect it appears that from the very start, the concept of a time traveller and his granddaughter (note: link to young audience) roaming time and space with her two school teachers, was aimed squarely at the family entertainment market. And in fact it’s worth tuning in for thevery first story, as it launches many of the ideas which were to run for the 27 years the series ran on TV. Not to mention why the show has its title, but the main character is not actually called "Doctor Who".
Initially the storylines varied between the historical (semi-educational, the producers hoped) and the sci-fi (monsters!) and eventually the monsters eased the historians out. The Daleks, as featured in thesecond ever story, not only became a household name, but made it intomost dictionaries.
With the monsters (and even without), came excitement, adventure and violence. Life-threatening violence and death, invariably. What passed for family entertainment in the 60s and 70s might not be accepted today, in this politically correct non-violent growing environment our children now enjoy. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.
But while I sat plonked in front of the telly a couple of decades ago taking it all in, and apparently with no ill effects (insert involuntary twitch here), I am hesitant to let my children watch stories like "Genesis Of The Daleks", a 1975 story featuring the gritty reality of trench warfare (without the blood, but certainly plenty of killing), nuclear war, and themes of racial purity and genocide, and Nazi allusions. I’m not about to take aMary Whitehouse stance, but I’m not sure my five year old is ready for that.
Indeed, over the years the scripts were littered with complex concepts, many of which would have gone right over some kids’ heads. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Looking back now, the writing seems just as multi-layered as The Simpsons or The Goodies, but deeper. "Castrovalva" was named after anEscher painting, and had our heroes facing an Escher-like spatial anomaly. "Planet of the Spiders" contained many (apparently non-superficial) references to Buddhism. "Remembrance Of The Daleks" again looked at issues of race. "The Happiness Patrol" was one story I dismissed as trivial pap when I watched it in my teens. I mean, any story featuring a place called The Kandy Kitchen has to be suspect. But reading
reviews of it more recently it dawns on me that it was a lot deeper than it appeared at the time, and obviously flew right over my head.
Even purely as entertainment, some episodes contained enough drama to keep an adult on the edge of their seat. The mysterious deaths of the geologists in the first episode of "Earthshock" kept me riveted when I watched it again recently, and the action of the troopers subsequently engaging their enemy was worthy of any adult sci-fi drama. "The Deadly Assassin" introduced an amazing sci-fi device called The Matrix – a virtual-reality where you can get hurt. It’s now a theme adopted, even down to the name, for one of the biggest movie franchises in years.
So was Doctor Who just for kids? No, not just. Kids may have been the original target audience, but it grew as its audience grew. It was multilayered, with concepts (and skimpy costumes – I reckon women wouldn’t really wear mini-skirts and high heels to explore alien planets) to keep the adults interested, and googly-eyed monsters to keep the kids hooked too. As one reviewer put it, it was entertainment for all ages, and it worked because although it was initially targeted at kids, it never talked down to anybody.
The show, alas, eventually got axed, but remains in our memories. As Julia Sawalha’s character said in the charity spoof "The Curse Of Fatal Death":
"He was never cruel and never cowardly, and it will never be safe to be scared again."
I still love it, and I’m ready to be hooked again.
What’s your favourite Doctor Who memory?