Leave Doctor Who to the kids

The writers shouldn't have to please grumpy twentysomethings like me.

People like me are ruining Doctor Who. As my byline photo amply demonstrates, I'm not exactly its target audience but, since its revival in 2005, I've become a dedicated fan.

My favourite stories are the dark, taut, psychological dramas - Amy's Choice, Human Nature, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink. At the weekend, however, I did something radical. I watched Doctor Who with a child: my eight-year-old nephew.

His vision of the perfect episode is, it turns out, rather different from mine. All he wants is a decent monster, preferably one that farts (the Slitheen) or shoots death rays (the Daleks).

It was a regular concern of the programme's previous showrunner Russell T Davies that he had to write for two audiences: children (and the half-distracted parents they roped in to watch with them) and the hardcore adult fans, many of whom grew up with the show and kept watching even after they'd acquired jobs and mortgages and the right to decide their own bedtimes.

So who should he try to please? It was a tough one, especially as TV reviewers are generally not, as you might imagine, eight-year-olds, but rather the group that likes intricate plot lines and emotional character arcs more than flatulent aliens.

Davies chose a path that has been followed ever since: concentrate on the kid-friendly episodes but throw in a dark storyline every so often to appease the adult fans.

That kept me happy, although I did grump when there was a particularly silly tale, such as the baffling Poison Sky, in which malicious satnavs tried to take over the world and the Doctor miraculously solved it by burning the atmosphere, with no negative effects on the environment at all. (Shh! No one tell Al Gore.) But why shouldn't Doctor Who be silly and splashy and fun? And isn't adult fans' obsession with making everything "dark" a bit,
well . . . selfish?

Hammer time

There's an excellent piece on the online Escapist magazine by Bob Chipman that tackles this question in relation to superhero movies, which are now expected to be meaning-laden explorations of midlife crises (Iron Man), family guilt (Spider-man) or loss (Batman).

There was some surprise from reviewers that Thor, a film about a "space viking with a magic hammer", was aimed at younger audiences. Chipman's theory is that marketing men, mindful of the spending power of adult comic-book fans, have sought to soothe us with these gritty reboots. No, no, they say, liking cars that turn into robots isn't embarrassing, because look! Here are some metaphors.

A similar problem afflicts Doctor Who. It's wonderful of the writers to attempt to keep moaning old twentysomethings happy, but they shouldn't have to - and not at the expense of excited kids who just want some explosions instead of another Shakespearean actor looking doleful.

Over the past few years, there has been no shortage of sci-fi and fantasy for adults: Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica - and HBO has just launched a new series, Game of Thrones. So, come on, grown-ups; let's leave kids' shows to the kids.

You can find Helen on Twitter: @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis