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Thomas Sutcliffe: This is no job for a grown-up

‘In the wilder extremes of Whomania, I’ve felt like the one person whose brain doesn’t respond to an alien hypnosis beam’

Friday, 23 May 2008

 

BBC

Set them free! David Tennant and Catherine Tate in ?Doctor Who?

Something rather remarkable happened this week, though it's possible that it passed unnoticed by those of you without a professional interest in the matter. For the first time in around the past 140 issues, the Radio Times appeared without any mention of Doctor Who on its cover. No illustration of a Sontaran in Sontaran evening dress. No little red flash promising you an opportunity to meet Doctor Who's daughter. No copyline implying that an ornament of the Royal Shakespeare Company has finally achieved career apotheosis with a walk-on part. It was so uncanny I had to check twice, but it was really true. It was a Doctor Who-free zone – which I'd come to assume was as unlikely a thing as a first-class stamp without the Queen's head on it.

It helped, of course, that Doctor Who isn't actually on this weekend – having been bumped out of the schedules by the Eurovision Song Contest – but I'm pretty sure that such details haven't stopped them in the past... and I was naturally tempted to interpret the absence as evidence of a larger cultural shift. Just as Kremlinologists used to detect shake-ups in the Politburo hierarchy by checking out who was sitting where on the May Day reviewing stand, could this vacancy be a sign that the hegemonic power of Doctor Who is, at last, beginning to fade?

That eerie Radio Times cover coincided this week with the news that Russell T Davies is to give up acting as the programme's executive producer, though he will be in charge of four specials that are planned for next year. Davies is to be replaced by the writer Steven Moffat, author of the sitcom Coupling and the recent series Jekyll, which showed that he could give fantastical storylines a nice edge of adult wit. This seemed to me to be a good news/bad news deal. On the one hand, one of Britain's most interesting television writers has at last been liberated from the task of thinking up silly nonsense for a teatime audience and could be welcomed back to the real world. On the other hand, this had only been achieved by the cultural equivalent of a hostage swap. There are writers one would be quite happy to see chained below decks in the Doctor Who galley, so that their energies are entirely consumed in a broadly harmless manner, but Moffat – who can write for grown-ups – is not one of them. He didn't see it this way himself, of course, announcing that it was the "best and toughest job in television".

I'd beg to differ – and it's one of the reasons that I'm so glad that Davies has finally sprung himself from literary incarceration, even if he's only on provisional parole for the moment. Because although it is undoubtedly quite tricky to come up with a really memorable bit of Gothic for the Doctor Who series (Moffat's episode "Blink" comes to mind as an example, as it happens), it's also true that most episodes of Doctor Who are forgivingly predictable in their plot and psychological dynamics. In the wilder extremes of Whomania over the past couple of years I've occasionally felt like the one person on the planet whose brain isn't wired to respond to an alien hypnosis beam – a lucky break obviously not shared by the editor of the Radio Times, BBC commissioning editors and, I might as well confess, my own children. Can't everybody see that it's OK for immature audiences but hardly justifies the black hole gravitational pull it seems to exert over genuinely talented writers? Does nobody else feel like giving Christopher Eccleston a heroic conduct medal for getting out so quickly, before the franchise had a chance to scar him permanently? And am I the only person who yearns to see David Tennant released into a less two-dimensional role? (People like to pretend it's three-dimensional characterisation, but it's actually just like one of those novelty postcards which flicker as you turn them from side to side).

Of course, it's a good thing that children have decent writers writing for them and possibly a good thing, too, that families have something they can all watch together (though I thought we were all supposed to be outside, playing a fat-burning game of park football). But, pace Moffat, the really tough job on British television remains writing decent drama for grown-ups – popular series that don't invent other worlds to escape to, but address the one we actually find ourselves living in. There aren't that many writers who can take on the tricky post-watershed topics of how human beings – not Daleks or Oods or Cybermen – relate to each other. Davies is one, and it's good to have him back on Earth.

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96 Comments

What a dumb article. It is not as though Moffat has never written for children before, he wrote every episode of Press Gang for 5 series. Press Gang was in a tea-time slot and was aimed at kids but tackled adult issues, to say it's harder to write for adults is idiotic. To write for kids, you must have the right balance of light and dark, kiddie and adult. Everyone knows comedy is the most difficult genre to write and as a kids show must have an element of humour in it, that is a very difficult balance to have. You don't need humour in adult shows, but it is essential in ones aimed at kids.
Plus, Doctor Who scares kids at times, how is that not considered adult? A child couldn't scare other children as they don't have the 'life' experience, which is also part of the light/dark balance. Mr Sutcliffe really could not see past his own bigotry to think this one through properly.

Posted by Jimmy | 27.05.08, 13:33 GMT

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Dear (doubting) Thomas,

So nice to see the poison pen alive well in the 21st century!

What you appear to fail to realise is that the very human complexity you exhort also encompasses the wide diversity of genres & themes that comprise "popular culture". Pouring scorn on a medium beloved by millions from an elitist ivory tower may be how you get your jollies, but as someone who's heard the same tiresome diatribe for several decades I'd counsel you to "live and let live" a little and move on. The cultural ghetto (or "galley" as you put it) has been used to verbal comics, science fiction, fantasy and horror since the Lumiere's cranked their first projector ... and yet here they stand undiminished.

Sure Dr Who has its' flaws, and could be much better, but if you want examples of bunk SF (or "adult" drama) I could come up with a few dozen examples at much deeper strata than the good Doctor.

Cheers!

Posted by Mike | 27.05.08, 09:58 GMT

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I CANNOT BEAR ANYTHING TO DO WITH DR WHO?!

Posted by Joan Appleton | 27.05.08, 06:27 GMT

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My Gods what inept opinionated writers the Independent have.

I don't mind him not liking Dr Who as he has every right to, but saying this show is only for kids therefore doesn't disserve the good actors or the deep writers is downright idiocy.

Next he'll be talking about removing literature such as Shakespeare or Dickens from school libraries because clearly children shouldn't be reading such adult material.

Growing up with such great shows as Gargoyles and currently watching modern great shows like Avatar I'd like to tell Mr Sutcliffe that "kids stuff" can and does have quality writers, actors, producers, etc. Shows like Dr Who are doing this entertainment world full of crap reality shows a great service by providing quality viewing.

Posted by James Miller | 27.05.08, 03:20 GMT

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Excuse my frankness, but what a load of absolute bollocks. Writing for, acting in and being associated with Doctor Who should not be seen as degrading - and it isn't. The challenge people like Russel T Davies and Steven Moffat face is writing a good, high quality drama that appeals to children and adults, and to do so pretty darn consistently every week it is on. What a ridiculous, one dimensional arguement you've spun that somehow it is a heinous crime in the writing and acting worlds to even dare to want to be, or be, part of a succesful show like Doctor Who! I'm not saying you have to like Doctor Who, but just because you, as you rather childishly put it, are not 'wired to respond to an alien hypnosis beam' and do not like the show, does not mean you have to spout sheer nonsense at how people who are proud to write for the show are actually lowering their standards. And yes it is challenging, - These people have to capture the heart and minds of millions every week. And they do.

Posted by James Whitbrook, proud watcher of good drama like Doctor Who. | 26.05.08, 22:40 GMT

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I'm amazed that someone should actually say that Moffatt "can write for adults", when any idiot knows that writing for children is harder. Wit must sparkle. Storylines must drive forward. If they don't, then nine year-olds will simply switch off.

Fans of "adult" dramas like Lost & 24 will watch an entire series and admit that they don't know what's going on; fans of House generally agree that it's the same episode every week; people still watch Shameless, even though they know that it hasn't been any good for years. Is this what Russell T. Davies and Moffatt should be doing?

Doctor Who, at its best, is fundamentally about the real world. The series is of variable quality, and has been in decline of late. But stories like Human Nature, Gridlock, The Empty Child and Father's Day are about the human condition, with a broad pallette to drive their messages home. Anyone who thinks that some writers are "too good" for this run the risk of being asphyxiated by their own idiocy.

Posted by Nyder O'Leary | 26.05.08, 19:59 GMT

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Blessed are the legend makers with their rhyme,
of things not found in recorded time.
It is not they who have forgot the night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss,
forswearing souls to gain a Circe kiss
(and false at that, machine-produced the bogus seduction of the twice seduced.).
Such isles they saw afar and ones more fair,
and those that heed them yet, may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

Posted by Kari | 25.05.08, 23:08 GMT

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Hmm, let me see now.
Words to effectively describe the level of success achieved by Thomas Sutcliffe in writing an articulate intelligent balanced and well thought out piece of journalistic brilliance both relevant and pertinent to the subject matter of the article.
Ooh, I know, two words that just fit the bill.
Epic Fail.

Posted by John Smith | 25.05.08, 22:57 GMT

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eddie, I marvel at your ability to say someone's comments are infantile after implying she is going to become a lesbian. I suspect you are indeed a Doctor Who fan.


Posted by Phil The Greek | 25.05.08, 18:23 GMT

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Emily Jones - I'm just ironing your swastika - do u want it up-side-up or upside-down? Video of KD Lang's wating for you. Don't worry - you will understand yr sexuality in the coming years... But please, stop insu;lting people with a different opinion from you - it's infantile.

Posted by eddie | 25.05.08, 14:35 GMT

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96 Comments