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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

‘Doctor Who’ thing of the day: Stephen Fry disses ‘Doctor Who,’ Steven Moffat shoots back

This is a month old, but still worth getting to. In mid June, Stephen Fry delivered an address on the state of British television at a BAFTA event; the full text of Fry’s address is here, and it is a fascinating read. In it, he reminisces about the TV of his childhood — “When I was seven, Doctor Who started,” and lists other classic golden age series of British TV — but then he goes on to say:

It’s fun to list all these programmes but is it perhaps pointless? This was then. But this is now. Those programmes meant everything to me because of the age I was perhaps, and because television was inventing itself in front of my very eyes. The twenty-three and twenty-four million plus who tuned into Eric and Ernie’s Christmas shows can never be assembled together to watch a television programme again. Maybe if England makes it to the finals of the World Cup, something close can be achieved but television as the nation’s fireplace, the hearth and the heart of the country, the focus of our communal cultural identity, that television is surely dead. It seems unlikely ever to return. Instead of being the nation’s fireplace, TV is closer to being the nation’s central heating. It’s conveniently on in every room, it’s less discernible, less of a focus, more of an ambient atmosphere.

So, okay. Television has changed. Society has changed. TV will likely never again be the thing that brings a nation together again all at the same time doing the same thing: watching something as it is broadcast on television. (This is true of the United States, too, and probably true of every other postindustrial nation, too.)

But then, after the official address, Fry offered a few other comments (via Digital Spy):

I would say infantilism’s the problem. The number of times I turn on the television and I think, ‘Gosh, children’s television’s gone on, that’s a really good art documentary… Oh my God, it’s nine o’clock in the evening. This is for grown ups?’ It’s just shocking.

The only drama the BBC will boast about are Merlin and Doctor Who, which are fine but they’re children’s programs. They’re not for adults. And they’re very good children’s programs, don’t get me wrong, they’re wonderfully written… but they’re not for adults.

They are like a chicken nugget. Every now and again we all like it. Every now and again. But if you are an adult you want something surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong.

I agree with the last bit: I want entertainment that is surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong. In fact, I often find that in Doctor Who. Not only in Doctor Who, but that a “children’s show” can work on a level that satisfies demanding adult viewers — like me, if not Fry as well — that must be considered something of an amazement.

Here’s a thing, too. If Fry laments the end of touchstone television, TV that is the nation’s fireplace, he should embrace Doctor Who, because that show still works on that level, whether it’s intended for children or not. This past season, Matt Smith’s first, garnered no less than six and a half million viewers and up to almost 11 million viewers per episode. Eleven million is more than 18 percent of the total U.K. population. A comparable rating in the U.S. would require that something like 54 million people be watching. Nothing gets ratings like that in the U.S. The Super Bowl, maybe. Not much else, and certainly not on a regular basis.

Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat’s reaction to Fry’s comments reflect that fact:

(also via Digital Spy):

Doctor Who‘s not for adults? I can count some here! Let’s be fair, Stephen Fry’s one of the biggest Doctor Who fans in the world, he was just trying to sound grown up.

Doctor Who was designed specifically to be a family program. That’s what it’s for. It’s the junction between the children’s programs and the adults’ programs. It’s the one that everybody sits and watches.

It’s a rather brilliant idea. Why don’t they make a television program that everybody wants to watch? We should do that more often. It surprised me that it took me until I was 47 to be working on a show like that.

The comparison with chicken nuggets? This is very, very high-end, very, very high-quality show. It has absolutely no comparison with junk food at all and Stephen knows it. That’s Twitter he’s thinking about! Stephen loves Doctor Who so don’t worry about it.

Maybe Moffat should invite Fry to write an episode of Doctor Who. I bet it would be fantastic.

(If you stumble across a cool Doctor Who thing, feel free to email me with a link.)

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  • Funwithheadlines

    I love Stephen Fry, and I know that Doctor Who is a family show, but thanks to this blog I started watching it for the first time in my life this year. I love it. It reaches me on an adult level. Sorry, Stephen.

  • It’s interesting to me that one uses the term “children’s show” as a diminutive. I’ve found that even as a 41 year old man there are some children’s shows which put a finer point on the lessons that both comedy and drama have to impart than many so-called “adult” shows which tend to be ambiguous and confuse moral confusion for storytelling complexity.

    Take, for instance, The Incredibles. Clearly a show primarily aimed at kids and a comedy at that. For me, however, I got a deeper and more penetrating sense of pathos, hope and (most of all) a clearer mirror upon my own life than I did from any other “adult” shows on TV or in the theater that year. There’s no shame in that; it’s simply a better story than most others. And this is my relationship with Doctor Who: It’s a complex and nuanced that I watch and discuss with my children. Does that make it less somehow?

    Belittle it all you like, Fry; I’ll take Matt Smith’s bed time story to Amelia Pond in “The Big Bang”, David Tennant’s tragic sacrifice of his humanity in “Family of Blood” or Christopher Eccelston’s goodbye to Rose in “Parting of the Ways” before almost anything else TV has offered me in the last ten years or more.

  • Dre in Spain

    I personally do not believe Stephen Fry was being disparaging about Doctor Who, he was merely commentating that something that was aimed for “families” and of course children was the most prestigious BBC drama.
    He wanted, like many of us, something that was dark subversive and not exclusively for children. I am sure he enjoys Doctor Who, and on many levels as well. He is just like many people ,there should be something else that is made for people over the age of 18 years old, that does not pander to their stupidity, or in the case of children, to their worst dreams. He (in my mind) just wants uniquely adult scifi. Not something where we worry about upsetting the kids. He wanted to upset the adults, but in the best way possible. Please excuse me, but I always think the best of stephen Fry. He’s too wonderful.

  • Vanessa

    BTW: Fry was in line to write for Doctor Who under Russell Davies, but I think he couldn’t fit it into his schedule, so there is always hope.

  • pete

    I agree in that I think Fry openly admits to watching and enjoying WHO and that is not the issue here but rather the lack of punch in other adult entertainment.

    I for one would be very interested to see some true adult sci-fi offered by RTD, Moffat, and the whole WHO team. No pandering to kids, or families, and able to run the full gamut of adult oriented content.

  • Scott

    I don’t think Fry’s being belitting, but I think it does tie into the age-old argument of whether Doctor Who should be considered a “kid’s show” (i.e a show primarily for kids but which adults form a peripherary demographic of) or a “family show” (a show aimed at both kids and adults). Fry probably takes the former view, Moffat no doubt the latter. And while I love the show to bits and take the former view myself, I can’t argue that Fry does have a point — it would be nice to see some more decent adult-orientated fare coming out of the BBC.

    I do like Moffat’s little dig at Twitter though, considering what an enthusiastic fan of Twitter Fry is.

  • Lyna

    I’m with Moffat on this one. And what, precisely, is so terrible about it being something that adults AND kids can watch? I admit, I find people putting things down for not being “adult” enough for their tastes to be very tiresome. My mindset is more along the lines of C.S. Lewis, who had this lovely quote to say on the matter:

    “Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

  • I think Dre has it spot on. It should also be noted that the UK press loves to make something out of nothing and pounced on one small section of a much larger speech to stir up controversy.

  • Dre in Spain

    Wow, thanks Jo! You put the argument more succinctly than me, it’s basically the UK press making mischief.
    If we think about the adult sci-fi that has appeared on the BBC recently, my mind immediately goes to Torchwood: Children of Earth. Russell T Davis had promised that Torchwood would be more adult orientated sci-fi, however I felt that inspite of the sex and the swearing, it did not fulfil the potential. Then Children of Earth came along and showed the difficulties of being an adult, of having to make decisions that would be best for the long run, of choices that were not pleasant, but were necessary. That for me was adult sci-fi. The intellectual battle between the best choice and the easiest choice. I enjoy Doctor Who, I switch my brain off and wallow in the fun, but it rarely reaches the point whereby it disgusts me with the realisation that being an adult is sometimes not so good. Torchwood: Children of Earth, hit that adult intellectual level. It was truly a piece of adult orientated sci-fi. I think that the funding within the BBC is such that to get more money, the producers have to play within certain guidelines, so instead of showing something as brilliant as Children of Earth, they instead try to appease the largest common denominator. So something for adults and children ticks the box and gets them double the funding, instead of being brave and showing something that is for adults only. Having said that, how cool would it be to have something written by Stephen Fry and starring Stephen Fry. He’s one of the few people on TV that can show off his vast intellect and still be such a wonderful person. QI is one of my favourite TV shows.

  • I have to agree that Children of Earth is head and shoulders above anything Torchwood before it, and it’s a good talking point to address Fry’s comments.

    There’s nothing wrong with being a family show, as others have said. Doctor Who is a family show. It uses bluster and loud explosions to tentpole the quieter scenes when people ruminate on the current threat and allude to greater character depth. It’s a show on multiple levels, as a family show should be. It has the action and loudness that children love, and the existential questions in the quiet parts that adults can chew on while the episode is airing then blog briefly about later and forget. Doctor Who is brilliantly written, very entertaining, and I love it. But both Moffat and Davies thing foreshadowing should be cast to the size of the Eye of London and Chekhov’s Gun should in fact be a Plasma Cannon.

    The most stand out example of good foreshadowing occurred this season when the Doctor showed up to comfort Amy in a jacket and that could easily have been a production mistake for as much as we knew. And more importantly, there is nothing about that event that could, within the context of that episode, be used to construe how it would later be recalled. It’s really just a slight of hand for people to obsess over later but not really foreshadowing much.

    I think the problem with Fry’s comment is a lack of clear distinction of what ‘Adult’ entertainment is. I’m sure half of people asked about what adult entertainment is would say porn or situations with blood or sex. I don’t think Fry means it that way. I think what Fry wants to see is shows that don’t insert philosophy or existentialism into a careful latticework of action or violence, but a show where the deeper questions ARE the tentpole. A show that directly questions your beliefs instead of dancing around the issue so as not to offend.

    I think Children of Earth is a good show to discuss in this regard because, if you look at it, the action scenes and explosions are almost an afterthought. Sure, each episode of the miniseries ends with a bang (literally in a couple cases) but the recurring theme, the focus on which most conversations across all 5 episodes hing on is Cognitive Dissonance. The question: “How do I reconcile what I’ve done with who I believe myself to be when they contradict?”

    Gwen’s pregnancy draws this into sharp consideration for her when she thinks about her life and what she wants and how they conflict. Rhys even gets this when he reconsiders his acceptance of Torchwood and what his wife does. Jack is the clear focus in the show and he has the greatest problem with it, and, in fact, is one of the few characters who doesn’t resolve the conflict, instead choosing to run away. But even Frobisher and his assistant faces the issue head on.

    Just because Fry asks for more Adult programming doesn’t mean he wants Doctor Who or Merlin to go away, I believe. He just wants more variety. He wants BBC to invest in and celebrate programming for everyone, not just the ‘fun for all ages’ sort of work that Doctor Who is.

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