Private Viewing: Is Dr Who really too scary or are we over-protecting kids?

Its an age old complaint. In the 1970s TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse famously described Doctor Who

Its an age old complaint. In the 1970s TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse famously described Doctor Who as Tea time terror for totsbut research has shown that youngsters know that Dr Who is not real and they like to be scared - Credit: BBC/Adrian Rogers

Following the death of Clara in a recent Dr Who, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke has no time for people saying the series is too scary

The Doctor can't always keep his compansions safe as Rose (Billie Piper) discovered at the end of Da

The Doctor can't always keep his compansions safe as Rose (Billie Piper) discovered at the end of David Tennant's first series as the wandering Timelord. - Credit: PA

It’s an age old topic that refuses to go away. Is Doctor Who too scary for kids? Following Clara’s unexpected death in a recent episode, this question has raised its head once again in the tabloid press with TV columnists howling that the series has become too dark and could traumatise young viewers.

As I say it’s an age old complaint. In the 1970s TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse famously came out with her alliterative summing up of Doctor Who as “Tea time terror for tots” after Jon Pertwee’s Doctor found himself with faceless police officers in Terror of the Autons.

Later he became embroiled in devil worship in The Daemons and faced giant spiders in his swan-song episode all of which attracted complaints before Tom Baker’s tenure raised the stakes still further with trench-war-fare in Genesis of the Daleks, Hammer Horror bone-crushing mummies in Pyramids From Mars and Phantom of the Opera style menace in The Talons of Weng Chiang.

These complaints however, were as nothing as Mary Whitehouse’s outrage at a nightmare drowning cliff-hanger in Tom Baker’s back to his roots solo story The Deadly Assassin.


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A Lively Arts documentary about the series, fronted by Melvyn Bragg, discovered that far from being too scary for kids, it was in fact just too scary for parents.

Interviews with children and child psychologists found that children enjoyed being scared and yes, surprise, surprise, they did realise that they were watching a fictional television show.

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Psychologists also pointed out that fairytales, in their original forms, were incredibly gruesome and like Doctor Who often taught a moral tale. It was, they observed, a safe way to introduce young people to some darker, yet incredibly valuable, life lessons.

As you grow up you do have to make difficult choices. You do have to come to terms with the death of loved ones. Dealing with it at a remove from reality, when a favourite character dies on screen is a safe and valuable dry run.

David Tennant’s emotional farewell to Billie Piper’s character Rose on that wind-swept beach was heart-rending as was Amy Pond’s blink and she was gone encounter with a Weeping Angel. These were distressing moments but witnessing them with your family around you is probably the best way to be introduced to feelings of grief and loss.

This is not a new invention either. The Doctor has a worrying habit of killing or stranding his assistants. In the epic 12 part Dalek Masterplan William Hartnell’s first Doctor lost two assistants, Katarina and Sara Kingdom, in one story. Peter Davison’s assistant Adric was killed trying to defuse a cyber-bomb in Earthshock while Peri, Colin Baker’s American assistant, was sacrificed to scientific research and turned into a giant alien slug.

It’s long been known that not everyone gets out alive. The Doctor is fallible, that is what makes the series interesting. For those who say that the Doctor should go back to chasing monsters, don’t forget that was what Mary Whitehouse was complaining about. Also Doctor Who has never been a children’s show. It’s a family show and has always been made by the drama department, not the children’s department. In 1963, Verity Lambert, the first producer, was charged to make an entertaining science fiction show “for the intelligent 12 to 15 year old”. During the 1970s that brief was extended to include the rest of the family.

Chasing monsters has always been and probably will always will be a central part of Doctor Who but for a story to mean anything to an audience they have to relate to it. They have to feel as well as cower behind the sofa. Actions have to have consequences. Friendships and relationships have to be believable. This also has always been part of Doctor Who. The final shot of the Jon Pertwee story The Green Death has the Doctor driving off into the sunset with a tear in his eye, having left assistant Jo Grant to marry Cliff her eco-warrior boyfriend. The series needs a touch of reality to make the absurd aliens and the sense of suspense work.

As Tom Baker found out in his later years, if you send it up Doctor Who doesn’t work.

The series has to work for all the family. The relationships and the darker moments lend depth and meaning. Also children it turns out like being scared. A colleague has ten year old son who watches each week, behind a cushion on the sofa. Whenever she goes to turn it off, he cries “No” and buries his head back into the cushion. Could it be that the parents are more scared than the children?

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