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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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.