Something said prompted me to think about this question. By the time I’d finished I had so many thoughts I thought I’d make them a separate post. Feel free to ignore my senile ramblings.
So is Doctor Who a kids show or a serious, adult show? No doubt there are countless Whovians with strong opinions on the subject, but I haven’t been a serious Doctor Who fan since the mid Eighties. I find it strangely hard to formulate my thoughts on this. Is Doctor Who for kids or adults? Really it’s both.
Clearly it *began* life as an educational children’s show. It was never intended to be anything else. If you look at some early black and white episodes it’s almost patronisingly talking down to the audience at times. On the other hand, it always had teen appeal, and always had family appeal, and that was increasingly part of the target audience. By the time John Pertwee started charging around doing his Quatermass impression and UNIT were blowing things up, I’d say its target audience was clearly older than when the show began. Introduce a few ‘sexy’ female assistants to boost your ratings and you’re clearly needing to at least entertain older viewers.
Then you get the kind of “second generation” effect during the Tom Baker years where children in the audience had grown up but were still watching. At that point I think the show really starts trying to be all things to all people. If you look at some of the later Tom Baker and Peter Davison stuff there are some really complicated, hard SF and horror ideas seeping in that are trying to play to an adult audience, but the show still hasn’t cast off the image or restrictions of being a children’s show. This is the era that really gives rise to the argument that the programme is for adults.
Later still in the Eighties, I’d argue that the programme lost its sense of self. It no longer knew what it was trying to be or who it was aimed at. Was it serious drama for adults, or had it become too much of a light entertainment institution for that? Was it aimed at children or was it too old fashioned and embarrassing for them? Was it aimed at the general audience or were they already lost, turned off by the show’s pantomime image? Was it aimed at fans or were they too few, and impossible to please? Was it just nostalgic fun, or did it have relevance to a modern audience? It was casting about for a role, not to mention an audience, while still dragging all the baggage from its past like a dead weight tied around its ankles. That’s when it lurched into incestuous self parody and fannish introspection, in my humble opinion. (The expanded universe stuff goes further still into the realms of targeting adults who grew up with the show – but that’s not strictly Doctor Who.)
And of course right up until the “end” in the eighties the production values were still those of a children’s show (though the visual FX improved). Having said that, the production values of Blake’s Seven and Star Cops were equally shoddy, and they were explicitly intended to be adult shows. So is part of the ‘Kid’s TV’ vibe merely the typically shoddy production values that go along with BBC SF? Hmmm.
At various times in its past it’s been many things to many people. If I had to stake money on a definition, I’d have to say that being a kids (or older kids and teens) show has always been a big part of its genetic makeup, even in its most adult phases, and even though some fans might prefer otherwise. What the show has increasingly done is tried to straddle being both suitable for children, and interesting for adults. At times the kids aspect has been a lead weight around the neck of the programme when it wanted to be more expensive and more respected. At other times it’s probably been the only thing that let it stay on the air; people will put up with lower production values from kids TV. Sort of a vicious circle, in a way.
The advantage the new version of the show has is that of perspective: the distillation of what worked in the past, and the opportunity to take the time to consciously redefine itself. It can also tap into people’s nostalgia; the audience is now distanced from the self-parody the show became, and remembers fondly what was good about it. IMO the programme makers have wisely recognised that fact. They’ve given up the fight to make it adult TV and recognised that it is most fondly remembered as a family show that kids/teens watch with their parents. They’ve made a teen show with adult and family appeal, but with a clearer sense of self. They’ve also taken on board the lessons of modern TV: Standards have risen, visual storytelling has become pacier and more intense, and even family TV can’t get away with poor production values. Ultimately I don’t believe it’s aimed at the same audience that watches adult US TV. There’s a massive overlap in the SF community, to be sure, but it’s really a different animal.
(Unfortunately, this new identity does still allow a few silly self-indulgences like flying arms and the burping Wheelie Bin…. )