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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At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

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 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left