According to the Daily Mirror a Doctor Who “source” has used words like “darker” and “scarier” to describe the next series (Series 12). But are those things good for Doctor Who?
Disclaimer: I’m going to say some things in this blog that sound prescriptive about what Doctor Who “should” be. They’re just my opinions.
So, in my opinion the series thrives best when it’s accessible to all audiences, let’s say from age 6 up. There’s a huge difference between being scary in an unreal, fantasy-adventure way (‘Dalek’, ‘Blink’) and scary in a jarring adult way. Doctor Who doesn’t always get that tone right, but it does it best when it knows what it is and where to draw the line. The handling of cremation in ‘Dark Water’/’Death in Heaven’ was for me too real; unnerving in the wrong way. The same goes for aspects of ‘World Enough and Time’ (“pain pain pain”). It’s the difference between a 12 and a PG rating in the UK. Your mileage may vary, but for me Doctor Who should aim for PG. It should feel like safe, family-friendly horror.
I think we’ve moved past the days of ‘The New Adventures’, when Doctor Who tried to “grow up” by becoming grim and seedy (okay I haven’t read most of them, don’t @ me). The series since 2005 definitely skews a bit older in some aspects than the classic show; towards character, romance and complexity. But that’s okay. Kids can handle those things just fine. What it doesn’t do on the whole is try to be ‘gritty’ or ‘dark’ in that way that you think represents maturity when you’re 15, when you think the 1960s Batman TV show is embarrassing and Zach Snyder is the epitome of being grown up.
If anything the modern series has properly grown up. Grown up enough to not care about being “mature”. It’s embraced its own silliness: the colour, the space fantasy, and the bonkers bits. It’s embraced positivity and hope and done so in an unselfconscious way that isn’t kitsch, or doesn’t care if it is.
A big part of how much kids can take in a show like this is how safe they feel, and a big part of that is about how welcoming the characters are, and how safe THEY feel. It’s okay to put the characters in dire peril, it’s rarely okay to actually kill them. Brilliant though ‘World Enough and Time’ and ‘The Doctor Falls’ are, the horror they put Bill through is right on the edge of being wrong for the show. (If she hadn’t survived I would condemn it outright, but her deus ex machina rescue–though a little bit artless–is beautiful and saves it for me.) It’s one reason why I think that consciously setting out to make the Twelfth Doctor off-putting in his early episodes went slightly too far. You never want the audience questioning, as Clara does in ‘Deep Breath’, whether the Doctor will come back and save them. He or she can be alien, can have different attitudes towards other aliens, can be angry at humanity, but above all else they have to be someone who cares when you’re in danger and who will always save you. Do that, and the rest is all grace notes. Don’t get me wrong I adore Peter Capaldi, I adore the Twelfth Doctor and I largely don’t feel that he was un-Doctorish. But there were moments early on, they were deliberate, and they didn’t quite work. You can see that they knew it, because the writing and the performance took a rapid step back from them, and what we ended up with from that slight misstep is a lovely character arc for the Twelfth Doctor throughout his run, culminating in “Just be kind”. And that’s what the show is about, what it should always be about. It’s what Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is emphatically about: your best friend from outer space.
So when I hear that the show will be darker my response is to hope that darker means central characters who are heroic and likeable, who may face horror and personal struggles, who may stumble, but who always emerge triumphant and always keep me safe; “darker” that isn’t cruel or cowardly but is exciting and scary and fun. Let’s wait and see, because I suspect that’s exactly what we’re going to get.