Listen & Series 8: Is Doctor Who Becoming Scary (At Last)?

When did it get you? Was the Cybermen bursting out of hibernation in The Tomb of the Cybermen? Was it the Auton invasion in Spearhead from Space? Or was it the gas-masked child from The Empty Child?

Perhaps it was the stunning trailer for Kill the Moon.

You’ve probably already said it; it probably already left your lips because it felt natural. It felt like the correct phrase to utter because there are hundreds of articles, documentaries and debates that have got the ball rolling with a variation of this truism; that Doctor Who is the show you watch from behind the sofa.

It’s the reason the show occupies such a lofty position in our collective culture – it got us when we were young and in turn, we sort to pass on similar scares, jumps and jolts to the next curious child eager to see just what made this show so special – to join in a fifty year old conversation.

Like the Doctor himself, there have been variations – not every episode is aimed so directly at our fear centres; it’s still a part of its DNA but as the Eleventh Doctor is different to the Twelfth, they are also the same.

So it probably comes as no surprise that, when it comes to a defining scary episode for a new Doctor, a fearsome, imposing Doctor, written by a head writer who delights in playing with our most primal fears, that it would dive straight under our beds, patiently waiting to strike…and it didn’t disappoint.

Which may be part of the problem.

The Teller

In much the same way the one thing that defines a show eventually becomes the stick with which to beat it with when it does exactly that, time and time again (it’s still fresh in my memory, so I’ll just leave ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and ‘half a gangster’ here and walk away) part of this, a new debate featured in the Mirror Online, into just how suitable Doctor Who is for children, is more about discussing our understanding of a television show – and our complicity with its promise – as it is being genuinely frightened by it.

Before getting into the ‘context’ behind the question, The Mirror strikes a very odd tone with its opening paragraph where it practically dares any pedant to find fault with its syntax: “This is a very simple Doctor Who-based question, with very simple rules.  Answer “yes” if you think Doctor Who HAS become unsuitable for children, answer “no” if you think it IS still suitable for children.”

It’s an oddly reductive way to greet what is a very sensitive and passionate debate; it feels like the lay of the land has already been measured before the question has been asked. Why not open with the context first? Why does it feel it necessary to describe basically how questions work as ‘rules’? After all, that question is in the title of the article.

It feels like it’s been written with the assumption that what is important to this debate is its urgency – a choice that, being that it can’t quite muster up the word count to say: ‘Yeah, this is all Listen’s fault. It proper scared us and got us thinking what parents must have thought; so we went on Twitter to have a gander’

The difference is subtle but important; one comes at the issue from an exploratory position, the other seeks approval.  When you start with that tone it doesn’t encourage debate; it makes you want to instantly hit ‘No’

Anyway, let’s delve head long into that context; which here don’t act solely as precedents. Rather, each point serves as ‘issues to consider’ – so really, it should be perspectives rather than the context that we are studying.

Again, it’s a small choice but the difference means a lot if you actually want to debate a subjective issue like this. It’s the same with the synonym ‘unsuitable’ it doesn’t automatically translate to ‘scary’ rather it means ‘improper’ which implies someone else’s value system has made the judgement call for you, rather than the judgment being entirely your own.

dw-s4-midnight-copy-hp3

Small choices, big differences.

And that’s not to mention that the title of the article and the poll at the bottom are asking two different questions with two entirely different sets of perspectives to consider. All of which may explain why the first paragraph is so abrupt with its ‘rules’ – it reads as though it’s been added later to clarify and validate the rest of the article.

The Mirror only pays lip service to the other practical issues (i.e the air time) of whether or not the show is suitable; something that along with other parental concerns such as what age should you introduce Doctor Who to a child and should you vet an episode before letting your children watching it, would have made for a better, separate article.

Anyway, to the actually Doctor Who part of this debate. Following through each point, a narrative presents itself; that Listen was scary, the programme is appearing later and later in the Saturday schedule, but Doctor Who has always been scary and also there are many different types of horror to consider when we qualify something as being ‘unsuitable’

To be fair, The Mirror hits all the right points and the context part of the article does a good job of laying out each and why it is important.

Perhaps the most important of these was Listen itself, a different beast to say Blink or past appearances by the Cybermen or Daleks because of what was implied; giving us, for the first time since Midnight, a monster of our own making, only, unlike Midnight, nobody was hurt; save for the odd bruised ego.

Blink

So are we asking the right question when we say that it was too scary for children? Should we limit this kind of nightmare fuel to the actual creaks and groans of a child’s bedroom and not seek to expose those fears through drama?

Basically, should our scares be reassuring as well?

And here’s what wasn’t included in the context: would it have been as bone-chilling if it had been The Eleventh Doctor? Would parents have been so ready to articulate their concerns in 140 characters if the Doctor leading them on this quest had been more of an obvious hero? If, to paraphrase Steven Moffat when discussing the last monster to raise these kinds of issues, The Silence, all of the monsters in the world can be fought off by a man with a quiff and a bow tie?

And I say ‘obvious hero’ because he’s still a hero, he still seeks out the danger and still, come the end of the episode, has a greater understanding of his fear – he hasn’t conquered it because even our heroes have fears, and isn’t that the most reassuring thing you can say to a scared child? That even the bravest of us can still be afraid.

So what do you think? Was Listen a step too far? Is Doctor Who still suitable for children? Do we need to reframe a debate on what is too scary and unsuitable for a child?

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  1. Howard Railton says:

    No problem, surely it’s not on at a time when too young children would be up to watch anyway.

  2. Ranger says:

    My children are 5 and 6 – Doctor Who is their treat where they are allowed to stay up to watch. This is because I don’t think DW is too scary for children – if, and this is important, the parents are there as a reassuring presence and, if they get frightened, to provide context and support.

    I did vet Listen before letting my daughters watch it on Sunday (something they were most aggrieved about!). I warned them at the beginning that there might be scenes that were frightening, but that Mummy and Daddy were there and they could turn it off whenever they wanted.

    They were a little tense during the scene with the “thing” under the blanket (but then so was I!), but what really affected them was the thought of the Doctor as a crying child – they cried to. After it had finished we had a long conversation as some of the concepts were a little difficult for them to grasp and we had to simplify it for them, but I think they got the gist of it, but never at any point did they say it was too scary.

    However, next week’s episode may be another matter. The coming next trailer at the end of the Caretaker produced squeals of horror and running from the room – you see they (and I) have a complete phobia about spiders (which I am ashamed to say I think they have picked up from watching my pathetic reactions when confronted with a spider). So again I will be vetting the episode. Or more probably, my husband will be vetting it for both them and me. So I suppose that shows that fear is subjective and not limited to children – perhaps the question should be is Doctor Who too scary for adults’ perceptions?

  3. calliarcale says:

    My seven-year old can passionately tell you it’s still suitable. 😉 I question the airtime, which implies that the suits at the top may have forgotten the most important audience, but growing up in Minnesota, it mostly only ran late in the evening anyway. My parents would tape it for us to watch the next day, and sometimes, if we were really good, they’d even let us stay up until 11 to watch it. (It ran at 9, in “omnibus” form, so stories usually lasted almost two hours. Later, KTCA started running it in more sensible timeslots . . . for a while.) One night, I even pretended to fall out of bed and hit my head so my parents would feel sad about that and let me watch Doctor Who with them as compensation. 😀

    But kids can handle horror. One of my favorite movies as a young child was Disney’s surprisingly effective foray into the horror genre, “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, with a script written by Ray Bradbury, very loosely based on his novel of the same name. It’s got scares aimed directly at children’s biggest fears — losing your parents is a big one. And there’s a scene where the house is invaded by a staggering number of tarantulas, with the freakiest moment being when the protagonist (a young boy) is hiding in bed, seemingly an oasis amidst the spiders, when he notices the sheets beginning to move. He flings back the cover to reveal the bed is in fact full of tarantulas.

    Very creepy. And I’ve always been terrified of spiders, though maybe this movie is why; anyway, the movie itself never scarred me, and in fact once we had it on VHS I watched it repeatedly. And “Listen” culminates with a fantastic message about fear, and also the likelihood that this monster never actually existed (though I love the ambiguity).

  4. Colin says:

    Two points. First, with fewer people watching “live” television, the question of what time the program comes on is becoming increasingly moot. Just follow any conversation to do with ratings and “overnight figures” to see that. It may come on at 8:30 on a Saturday night, but that doesn’t mean people won’t be watching it at 2 on a Sunday afternoon.

    Second, the fact this question is being asked at all is music to Moff’s ears. Indeed, it’s probably the commendation he’s been looking for since he penned “The Empty Child.” If he wants to hark back to the Hinchcliffe era, what better way than to stir up memories of Mary Whitehouse! 🙂 Don’t forget, as well as being one of the most controversial eras (in terms of pushing the “scare” envelope), it is also commonly regarded as the classic series’ golden era, not only for the quality of stories, but for broad appeal and viewing figures.

    Just my tuppence worth. 🙂

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