Adult Situations: Is New Who More Grown-Up Than the Classic Series?

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It’s often stated that one of the areas in which the modern version of Doctor Who succeeds over the classic series is that it is more grown up. But is it really? Could it be that two eras of Doctor Who simply wear their maturity in different ways and approach the issue of what it means to be an adult from completely different angles, informed by the society in which they were shaped?

The aspects of the modern series that people label as more sophisticated are mostly emotional. The classic series rarely dwelt on open displays of emotion – unless, of course, that emotion was fear. In the modern series, an emotional backdrop is essential to the development of the companions, but it was an aspect that you rarely, if ever, saw in the original run. But surely we’re misjudging the writers of the classic series to claim that they wilfully avoided matters of the heart in order to keep the series childlike. Perhaps what was considered to be adult in the sixties and seventies was different to what it is now. To understand this concept, we have to look at the world in which many of these writers grew up.

When The Daleks was first broadcast in 1963, it was only eighteen years since the US Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, destroying it utterly and causing the deaths of up to 80,000 civilians. To put that in perspective, that’s the same length of time since 9/11 to now – or 4 years less than the time since the Paul McGann TV Movie was broadcast. All of the writers on Doctor Who in the early days will have lived through at least one World War and many of them will have seen active service.

To these men (and they were overwhelmingly men), what it meant to be grown up was a completely different thing. The War, the Blitz and the unpleasantness that surrounded their childhood or young manhood fostered an attitude of stoicism. If the British people had gone to pieces during the Blitz, the country would have been in chaos. Wives separated from their husbands, possibly never to see them again may have been tearing their hair out in private, but they were encouraged to get on with their lives under the most challenging of circumstances. To be mature, to be grown up, in this world was to bite down on your emotions and never buckle under. Keep calm and carry on.

So how does this manifest in classic era Doctor Who? Well, it was adult; it explores many adult issues. The Daleks, as mentioned earlier, explores the horrors of nuclear war, still raw from less than two decades before, but it does so with a complete lack of hysteria. It’s cold, unemotional; it looks on the issue from the remoteness of a distant future. It’s unlikely that the BBC would have allowed Terry Nation to inflict the true horrors of a post-nuclear society on Saturday tea-time viewers, so he does so in an abstract fashion.

A decade later, the same writer is less reticent. Genesis of the Daleks explicitly explores the horrors of National Socialism, xenophobia and genocide. Even children at the time, though not appreciating the true horrors of what Genesis was mirroring, will have gathered that the Kaleds were supposed to be like the Nazis. Doctor Who approached the subject with a measure more subtlety than the Tomorrow People in Hitler’s Last Secret or even Star Trek in Patterns of Force, the latter being a series intended for a more adult audience than Doctor Who at the time.

When the modern series tackles an equally thorny topic, for example in The Zygon Invasion, it does so in a very knowing fashion, veering between the modern cliché of they-walk-among-us paranoia and who-are-the-real-bad-guys social apology. Is it more sophisticated? Well, it’s certainly a lot more emotive, but does it teach our children anything? Is it actually sending a confusing mixed message? That’s up to you to decide for yourself.

This is not to say that the classic series is devoid of emotion. When TV in the sixties and seventies dealt with emotive issues it was usually in a way that would not have been wrong for children – not because it was unsuitable, but because it was too close to what they might have seen at home. Kitchen sink drama was just that; the breakdown of marriages, infidelity, betrayal, mothers and fathers shouting at each other. It was a harsh reflection of the truth in a whisky-soaked, nicotine-stained world and a lot of the writers will have encountered it enough times at home to know that they shouldn’t be exposing children to it.

Being an adult in those days was very adult. It was hard, it was tearful and it only really belonged in Play for Today when the kids were in bed, not Doctor Who. Very rarely, it did leak into the series though, the classic example being Professor Watson in The Hand of Fear, phoning his wife in the full knowledge that he may well be about to die. As a child you miss it completely, it’s boring grown-up stuff, but as an adult you realise how heart-rending this scene is. This man knows he’s about to die and he wants to tell his wife he loves her, but he can’t bring himself to devastate her like that, so he talks about trivial things. If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you’re just not human.

Classic Doctor Who tackles a lot of issues from a remote standpoint: racism, colonialism, drug abuse, slavery, mental illness, bereavement and even rape. It does so in a way that says to children ‘these things exist, but don’t cry in a corner and beat your hands against the wall – be brave like the Doctor and we’ll all get through this’. It’s a positive message for adulthood that harks back to the stoicism of Wartime, but lacks its element of denial. The modern series tackles issues, plenty of issues, in every way from soap-operatics to genuine social realism, but it’s wrong to say that the classic series was juvenile because it tackled the issues of its own time in different ways.

“What’s the point of being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes?” said the Fourth Doctor, and he’s right, you can be both. But the moment you affect an air of either in order to look superior to another thing… well, that’s when you start looking really immature.

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