The question debated on the Guardian blog today is: Is Doctor Who now too scary for children?
Me drawing The Silence & Dr Who stuff for kids at school in Wiltshire last week
A few interesting points and arguments are made, including:
Pete May (Thinks Who is too scary):
"In the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras, there was a clearer realisation that the monsters were men in rubber suits."
"Sometimes you just yearn for aliens invading a home counties quarry, and a simple good versus evil plot"
Michael Hann (No, it's not):
"Doctor Who's great gift has been to introduce generations of kids to dread, with the safety net of knowing, first, that the Doctor and his assistants will prevail, one way or another; and second, that the fear will pass in less than an hour."
"today's monsters are creepier than the Daleks, but so what? The Hammer version of Dracula was terrifying once, but now it's about as unsettling as Anne of Green Gables."
I fall squarely in the Yes but No but camp. That is to say I think Doctor Who is very scary so far this series, but I think that is A Good Thing, and I think the kids can take it.
A few fears were raised in my mind by various blogs, postings, tweets and articles, not least Si Spencer pointing out in a thread on my Facebook page that episode 2 Day Of The Moon opened with two lead characters in a kids TV show being shot at point blank range by a man from the CIA with a gun, then being dragged off in body bags - at 6pm on a Saturday. I have to confess that I had not stopped to think just how upsetting that could be if you're a seven year old. Or possibly even worse if you're the parent of a seven year old.
But my fears have been allayed after two days teaching my Comic Art Masterclasses in Oxfordshire and Swindon. I brought up Saturday's Doctor Who with the kids who, on Tuesday, were year 5 (age 9-10) and on Monday ranged from age 7 to 14. To my delight, two thirds of every class had watched the show and all had enjoyed it. They all had me draw a Silence on the flipchart (I'd brought a picture on my iPod in preparation) and were au fait with the storyline and its ins and outs. One 9 year old joked that, when I flipped the flipchart page over, we'd all forget what I'd drawn.
You can just about make out my drawing of the Silence from this photo in yesterday's Oxford Mail.
But as for the potentially disturbing stuff, it either went right over their heads or didn't bother them. The heroes getting shot at the beginning was the least of their problems because, very simply, they all came back to life before the opening credits. The very definition of a "safe scare", it wouldn't have mattered how extreme it got, as long as the scare is resolved clearly and quickly, the kids don't seem to cast their mind back to it again.
As for the "grown up" stuff that might be hard for parents to explain, ie River & the Doctor snogging, and Amy being pregnant or not, these either made the kids go "uurgh", as all talk of such romantic things do to almost all kids till they reach puberty (at which stage they either grow up fast and drop Doctor Who like a stone or turn into a geek who'll find Doctor Who more interesting than snogging for a bit longer, sometimes too long) or they just didn't care.
And the proper mysterious bits in Day Of The Moon? Frances Barber looking through a hole in a door and saying "no, she's just dreaming"? And the girl at the end who's dying but it's alright then she regenerates? Those were just plain brilliant, exciting the kids' minds and keeping them exchanging ideas and talking about the show until next week. Next week which has pirates in, which there's a danger of them finding a bit juvenile.
So my tiny bit of anecdotal evidence suggests Doctor Who is not too scary for kids, it's just the sort of scary they like. And lest we forget, the show's been worse in the past.
The Deadly Assassin starring Tom Baker was pounced on by Mary Whitehouse's Viewers & Listeners Association, criticising the cliffhanger where the Doctor has his head held underwater by the bad guy.
Whitehouse wrote: “The programme contains some of the sickest and most horrific material ever seen on children’s television, but no-one has to take my word that such material is likely to disturb. For young children, even a week may be too long to wait for reassurance that the characters with whom they identify are safe. Doctor Who has turned into tea-time brutality for tots. My personal reaction to the sight of the Doctor being viciously throttled underwater is unimportant. What’s important is the effect of such material – especially in a modern setting – upon the very young children still likely to be watching. Strangulation – by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter – is the latest gimmick, sufficiently close-up so that they get the point. And, just for a little variety, show the children how to make a Molotov cocktail." (Thanks to DrWhoInterviews)
And questions were asked in the House of Lords when Terror of The Autons has plastic items like flowers, chairs and telephone cords turning into killers, and in particular a policeman turning out to be an evil Auton in disguise.
I think the Pertwee and Baker generation, who did not at the time realise "the monsters were men in rubber suits" by the way (I find the Daemons, the Sea Devils and that first Sontaran pretty damn convincing 40 years on) survived unscathed. Indeed I rather pity the subsequent generation, who had to make do with the Davison, Baker 2 and McCoy era which, frankly, wouldn't scare a highly string 5 year old (though they might bore them a bit).