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Friday, July 23, 2010

Academic Crush of the Week - Doctor Who

Well, it's a sort of academic crush of the week plus the opportunity to post some lovely pictures. I missed this debate when it happened a month ago and have only just caught up with it but apparently at the Annual TV Lecture at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Stephen Fry, broadcaster, presenter, comedian and much more, criticised the BBC programmes Merlin and Doctor Who as being "like a chicken nugget. Every now and again we all like it … But if you are an adult you want something surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong... You want to try those things, because that's what being adult means.... The only drama the BBC will boast about are Merlin and Doctor Who, which are fine, but they're children's programmes. They're not for adults. And they're very good children's programmes, don't get me wrong, they're wonderfully written … but they are not for adults."

I like Stephen Fry very much. I think much of his work is witty, clever, thought-provoking, savoury, sharp, challenging and many of those other words he used above. I particularly admire him for the visibility he has brought to mental health issues and all the work he has done to combat prejudice in that area. But on this particular point, as both a writer and a viewer - oh, and as an adult - I think he is simply wrong.

First of all, a general point that a lot of commenters on this subject seem to have missed. We don't all like the same things in either our reading or our viewing. This doesn't make them right or wrong, it just means that some people don't like science fiction or westerns or thrillers or romance or whatever. The problem comes when people decide that because they don't like a particular genre it must mean that there is something wrong with it or that it is in some way intrinsically inferior. Now that really is wrong and patronising and snobbish and discourteous.

But back to Stephen Fry's comments. Personally I could (almost) live on a diet of chicken nuggets but I don't actually see either Doctor Who or Merlin in those terms. They are surely family shows for a start, neither exclusively for children or for adults but with a crossover appeal in the same sense that the Harry Potter books have crossover appeal. Some people "get" them, some don't. It doesn't mean that they are infantile. Besides, a childlike as opposed to childish perspective is not necessarily inferior to an adult one. Children see life in a very different way and I find that interesting. I'm frequently floored by questions from my nephews and nieces because their approach to the world is so different from my "adult" view. This alternative perspective can be stimulating and challenging. Let's not assume it's simplistic.

Okay there have been times when I have plotted myself into a corner and wished that I was a science fiction writer who could invoke the space time continuum to get me out of the situation I've got myself into. But the reason that I love both Doctor Who and Merlin is that they can be surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong. I care about the characters. They are multi-dimensional and strong. The stories have fundamental truths to tell. The characters have difficult, even heartbreaking, choices to make. On top of that the episodes are fast-moving, they are funny and they are clever. For me that's the heart of good storytelling. The penultimate episode of the most recent series of Doctor Who was one of the best pieces of writing I've ever seen. Of course a balanced diet is important in many ways. But stories such as these are far more than junk food.


margaret blake said...

These shows are not my cup of tea but I believe they are very entertaining to many, many people. I have friends that love them and they are not children.

I agree with everything you say, Nicola, it is as always "horses for courses," and if we all liked the same thing what a boring world it would be.

Kim Colby said...

Hear hear Nicola!

One man's meat is another man's poison... as the saying goes. I normally love to listen to Stephen Fry wax on but in this instance I also disagree with him.

I may not always like other peoples choices but each to their own.

By the way David Tennant was my all time favourite Dr Who..... and all the way back from childhood, the Cybermen still terrify me...lol

Kate Hardy said...

Good post, Nicola. I happen to think that DW is excellent - especially this series, because I like Moff's writing very much. Very tight, multi-layered, and emotional.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you all very much. I was surprised by the comments of some people, especially journalists, who seemed to think that just because they didn't get programmes like Dr Who that meant they were infantile. Then I wondered why I was surprised since we've been getting disparaging comments about romance for years from people simply because they don't like it or read it!