The Tardis waits for no-one

I’m just as bad as anyone else at despairing at television and crying: “Why don’t they make exciting event television like they used to?”

In fact my nightly rants at the inanities of modern television and abhorrence of X-Factor and Strictly this, that or the other, prompted my loving children to buy me a Mr Grumpy mug last Father’s Day.

One of the few drama series I still get any real joy from is Doctor Who. Since it’s return in 2005, it has not only grown up but it seems to have more thought given to its story-telling than many other series.

Television has become increasingly formulaic rarely straying from the pub, police station or the hospital – but thankfully, Doctor Who, firstly under Russell T Davies and now under Steven Moffat, is courageously seeking out new ways to tell intriguingly strange narratives.

So, it came as something of a shock to find a columnist in one of our more serious-minded broadsheet newspapers saying that he felt Doctor Who was becoming too clever by half and was in danger of alienating its audience.

He felt that Doctor Who was a children’s series and that by the age of 14, it’s fascination would have palled and the nation’s youngsters would be more concerned with voting for Strictly Come Dancing or Britain’s Got Talent.

He claimed that last Saturday’s opening episode for 2011 was basically far too complicated for your average television viewer and thought that the 1969 moon landings would have little fascination for a modern audience and the majority of children would have no idea who President Nixon was.

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Leaving aside the fact that Doctor Who has always been a family drama rather than a children’s programme, it seems to me that the writer of this TV review has rather a poor regard for modern television viewers.

Surely we should be encouraging adventurous television which is backed up with good writing, proper production values? Surely we should be applauding television which goes beyond the cheap and cheerful talent show?

The TV columnist goes on to state that if Doctor Who wants to keep its viewers it should concentrate on telling simple, self-contained 45 minute stories which would allow viewers to tune in one week, miss a couple of episodes, and tune in again without getting left behind.

I suspect this approach would be of more help to him and his reviewing habits. One of the joys of the series since its return has been the series of over-arching themes which have bound the individual stories together.

It treats its audience as a collection of intelligent individuals rather than a rabble looking for mindless distraction. In the first series with Christopher Eccleston, Russell T Davies brought in the series-long mystery of what did the phrase Bad Wolf mean? Then for the re-introduction of The Master with David Tennant’s Doctor they brought in the mysterious sound of drums, which kept cropping up at odd moments.

This series-long ‘hook’ was developed still further by Steven Moffat when he declared last year that “Silence Will Fall”. It was a theme that dominated the whole of the last season.

These long-running intrigues not only reward long term viewers but they provide writers and actors with a vastly more complex and engaging landscape with which to work.

It is as if they have multiple individual story strands weaving around a central narrative – in much the same way that any decent novel does.

I suspect the problem that some people are having with Doctor Who is that they have become accustomed to dip-in television. Instead of being a fixed item on your entertainment calendar, in the same way that theatre or cinema is, television has been relegated to the status of moving wall-paper.

Because the aspirations of so many programmes are so modest, people feel no real need to sit down and pay attention to what is playing out in front of them.

One episode of EastEnders, Emmerdale, Holby City or Casualty is pretty much the same as any other. The names may change but the situations remain the same week in, week out.

In the past colleagues have lamented that a combination of work and holidays have meant that they have missed a month’s worth of EastEnders but upon their return to Albert Square, the same old situations have still not been resolved. Plot lines are still being spun around in a figure of eight, getting the maximum number of cliff-hangers out of a single storyline until it shuffles off half-forgotten, to be replaced with some other crisis.

I believe that Doctor Who should be applauded for stretching us as viewers. I think we should be encouraged to sit down and concentrate. Television should be more rewarding. It should stimulate discussion.

If the kids don’t know about the moon landings or President Nixon, then tell them afterwards. What a great way to learn history! Tie it into something they are following on television.

Television still does one-off dramas and short series well. This is what Steven Moffat and the Doctor Who team are tapping into. Dramas are often regarded as purely for adults. Doctor Who proves that this serious-minded approach to story-telling works for family programmes as well.

The healthy ratings for the series thus far back up this argument. It proves that you don’t have to pander to the lowest common denominator. That if you treat an audience with respect then it will stay with you.

Yes, much of the opening episode last Saturday was confusing. But, it was meant to be confusing. It was also intriguing. It made you wonder, it hooked you. It made you want to discover more.

This is a storyline which is destined to run for most of this year. The first half of the series runs for seven weeks. There will be a break for the summer and the final six episodes will be screened during the run-up to Christmas.

These are epic, substantial stories which are as much about relationships as they are about aliens from outer space.

There are mysterious nasties lurking in tunnels who make you forget about them as soon as your back is turned but also we have the on-going mystery of ‘who is River Song and what is her relationship with The Doctor?’

This is so much more than the old Saturday morning cinema-style-stories of the previous series. Doctor Who has grown up, so has it’s audience and it’s a pity that some our cultural commentators appear to have been left behind.