The Quickreads initiative was one of those feelgood things New Labour was great at. Taking off from Wold Book Day, an earlier New Labour creation in which kids were given coupons to take a pound off the price of any book alongside the launch of books conveniently priced at just that, Quickreads was ostensibly focused on adult illiteracy and low literacy. The idea that was that major writers would write short, accessible books that would sell for cheap to adults who might not ordinarily read.
Doctor Who’s inclusion in this is thus a bit odd. The basic shape of the Quickreads format, after all, has ample precedent in Doctor Who: 128 pages, accessible, we’re basically just talking about Target novelizations here. But those are not exactly what you’d call aimed at adults. That the next two Quickreads releases hired Terrance Dicks at least seems to speak volumes about where they’re going, but at the start of the series you instead have a textbook case of Doctor Who striking an odd tone as it attempts to compromise among several audiences and goals.
It makes sense that the Quickreads books, for Doctor Who, would settle efficiently into being children’s literature with an adult audience a la the Harry Potter books or Philip Pullman’s work. The problem is that it makes sense in a large part because that’s what Doctor Who has already done. Not only in its previous book series – this is, after all, exactly what the New Series Adventures have been doing with their bizarre decision to up the price and lower the grade level of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. And more to the point, it’s what the new series itself has been doing.
This is something we talked about with both Aliens of London/World War III and Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel – that every Davies season does a similar story as its first two-parter, and perhaps more to the point every Davies season’s first two-parter is harshly criticized by a large chunk of fandom. There is an extent to which this can simply be described as missing the point: these two-part stories are the entries in the seasons most overtly geared towards children. They exist to be big romps full of action set pieces aimed, roughly speaking, at ten year olds. They’re the price we pay for Father’s Day and The Girl in the Fireplace – stories that are equally unapologetically targeted at the sort of mature adult audience who obsessively watches a children’s show and writes a blog about it.
What constitutes children’s television? We’ve talked about a lot of children’s television over the years in this blog, some of it very good. The best ones we’ve talked about have typically sparkled because they push things just a little too far, presenting a world just a bit darker and more menacing than it feels like children’s television should. Children of the Stones is probably the iconic example out of things we’ve talked about, although Knights of God or, for that matter, Dark Season would do just fine. And to an extent that’s what we get in the Davies era, which is clearly trying to be properly disturbing with things like the Cyberman whose emotional inhibitor has been turned off or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” But these are fleeting moments in stories that would probably enjoy a sharper reputation among fans if they were unsettling and disturbing more often.
For the most part the two-parters are just high octane thrillers with cool monsters as opposed to scary ones. And they highlight a more fundamental aspect of children’s media, which is that it tends to feature unambiguous good guys and bad guys. Tellingly, this doesn’t always mean that it features unambiguous morality. Rather, it means that who the good guys are and who the bad guys are is unambiguously clear within the narrative. Even if the bad guys make a terribly compelling case for what they’re doing and try to tempt the good guys, at the end of the day there’s a distinct categorization of good guys and bad guys that is set up at the beginning and holds throughout the entire story.
Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel traded on this heavily. For instance, there was no real chance Pete could be a bad guy, a fact that fundamentally affects all of the build-up in the first episode. The overacting of John Lumic comes from Roger Lloyd Pack realizing his character was an unambiguous villain and just playing it straightforwardly that way (where a more interesting characterization would have been to resist that and trust that the narrative of “dying genius creates emotionless robot people” would have established villainy without him having to gnaw on the scenery quite so much). Nobody anywhere in Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel is anything other than what they first appear in terms of being good guys and bad guys.
This is not, to be clear, a problem. Even the extremes of children’s television like Children of the Stones and Knights of God have a pretty unambiguous set of good guys and bad guys with little to no transit between them short of mind control. The streamlined structure it engenders is one of the benefits of children’s literature, allowing it to play unabashedly with the beats of adventure fiction. It’s one of the things that helps children’s literature feel mythic – the sense that there are fundamental forces of good and evil working within the narrative.
The first thing we should note is that Doctor Who actually doesn’t always do that. The Girl in the Fireplace and Father’s Day both have monsters, but they don’t have villains as such. Doctor Who’s status as a children’s program is in that regard at least slightly contested, inasmuch as it decidedly runs episodes that are not structured like children’s entertainment at all. Yes, the first two-parter of every Davies season is reliably a “the Doctor fights some cool monsters” story with clear-cut heroes and villains. But that’s just one tone the series hits. It’s fashionable to describe Doctor Who as a children’s program that’s beloved by adults, but it’s actually a bit weirder than that – it’s a program that flits back and forth between being children’s fiction that adults can enjoy and being adult fiction that’s not entirely inappropriate for children. The adult fans are the more dangerous audience since they’re capable of being loud on the Internet, and so the series has to, rhetorically and politically, position itself as a kids show with some beloved if somewhat sad adult fans, but the truth is that it functions by flitting back and forth across the line, since in practice adults consume children’s media just as often as children consume adult media.
All of this complicates the job that I Am a Dalek has to perform by further breaking down the line between its supposed audiences. Thankfully we have Gareth Roberts, essentially the one active Doctor Who writer in this era who’s self-evidently suited to the task of writing a grown up book for kids and a kids book appealing to adults at the same time. He manages this by setting up a straightforward children’s fiction plot, but wrapping it in relatively adult themes. So on the one hand we have one of the most straightforward good versus evil plots imaginable – a Dalek that’s begun converting a human into a Dalek. The shape of this plot essentially requires that we eventually get a stirring speech from the Doctor about the nature of humanity. And sure enough, we get that formulaic bit.
Except this is a Gareth Roberts book, and he belongs firmly to the Russell T Davies/Paul Cornell school of thought whereby the little details of humanity are what matters. And thus Kate Yates (“cruel parents and the Dalek factor,” the Doctor muses) is saved not by some moving speech about humanity’s accomplishments, nor about the sanctity of individual life, but by The X-Factor, Kylie Minogue, and Boots advantage cards. As Roberts puts it, “on the Dalek side there was power, glory, calm. Cities made of steel and oceans of ooze, stretching away to infinity,” while on the human side there’s “scratched CDs out of their cases and missed appointments and embarrassment. Apologies and blown chances. Being ill. Christmas. Half-hearted sex. Wogan and his nonsense.”
This list is interesting, because it’s pointedly adult. Bad sex and Boots advantage cards are not the day-to-day detritus of a ten year old. It’s the complaints and miseries of a grown-up existence, not material from a child’s life. And it’s the point in the book where you realize exactly how carefully Roberts has balanced his supposed task here. Because while the book is structured like a kid’s book, its actual content is aimed at adults. This is, of course, in many ways the point of the Quickreads initiative, and it does it well. But equally, it provides an interestingly edgy rabbit hole. This is a story where it’s not hard to imagine a child being taken in, especially as Kate’s Dalek possession is at times rendered quite chillingly. And it’s one that will reward a later life rereading.
We talk a lot about the things Doctor Who can do as a result of its premise, but not often enough about the things it can do as a result of its tone. A children’s book full of grownup complaints and heartbreaks, where the essence of humanity isn’t space exploration but “apologies and blown chances.” This isn’t something that can be done outside the context of a series that has a longstanding reputation for moving back and forth across both camps. It’s something that requires a series with a reputation for being both challenging and childish – one that’s regularly grown-up in its content while still adhering to a fable-like structure. There’s not a lot else, on television or elsewhere, that is actively well-suited to making stories like that.
Which is the important thing to understand about Doctor Who. It’s really not a children’s program. It’s historically been described more as a family program, though even this conjures fairly inaccurate images of the old Hartnell model where every demographic thought to be watching the show had a representative on the show, or even of the “one for the dads” attitude that led to some rather… striking shots of Katy Manning or Nicola Bryant over the years. But over the years the idea that every episode needs to be carefully tailored to all demographics has eroded. These days the show is more likely to wander around a general area of content where its most adult episodes aren’t kid unfriendly and its most children’s television episodes have at least some interesting and mature content, but to do some episodes (Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, New Earth) that are aimed more at the kids and some (School Reunion, Girl in the Fireplace, Love and Monsters) that are aimed more at adults.
This reflects another truth about it – the show is by and large has moved to where it’s a family show not by trying to appeal to everybody in every episode, but by trying to regularly have moments that appeal to you across your life. Doctor Who is, in other words, acting like a program that’s been around for forty-three years at this point, and more to the point like one that intends to be around for another forty-three. Its goal is much more like the Harry Potter books, which these days cause some problems for children’s librarians because the age at which Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the perfect book is not the age at which Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is, and visa versa. Those books grew up with their audience. Doctor Who, at this point, is trying the far more ambitious act of continually growing up with all of its audience.
Part of how that’s managed is the spin-off material, so you’ve got silly toys and the like for kids and Doctor Who Magazine or podcast-based commentary tracks for adults such that everyone can have the series delivered to them on their terms, so to speak. But even within the spin-off material you have oddities like I am a Dalek highlighting the way in which the series works across these groups so that it’s not “for kids” or “for fans” or for anybody, really, so much as it’s for everybody.