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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit