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Should Doctor Who Adopt a Darker Tone?

Mark McCullough investigates.

capaldi-series-8-good-man-teaser

Should Doctor Who adopt a darker tone? It’s a question I have seen asked increasingly often by fans, but one whose answer may not be as simple as most would think. My stance on the matter is that the show should maintain the tone which it currently utilises so well. However with the introduction of Peter Capaldi as the lead role, many fans would tend to disagree. I have seen several suggestions that the era of the Twelfth Doctor should be a more gothic one which would suit an older grittier Doctor. With the recently released teaser material, specifically the darker TARDIS interior, it is looking increasing likely that this wish will be granted.

What do we mean when we say we would like the show to become darker?

Put this question to someone who mentions their aspirations for the show and they tend to struggle giving a precise reply. General the answer will come back with exploring more adult themes within the narrative of the show. A popular answer would be that a companion should properly die at some stage. On this point I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing. If you look at the companions we have thus far, each and every one of them have ended up better off for having met the Doctor. Rose has a complete family for the first time in her life, not only that but she also has her own personal human version of the Doctor. Martha is now fully qualified with a husband and is doing what she loves. Donna too has a husband and is a lottery winner; she also has no memory of her time with the Doctor so from her point of view her life is so much better than before.

The Ponds perhaps come out the worst, although their decision of a normal life or life with the Doctor was made for them. What’s more they are able to settle down and adopt a child in the absence of being able to have their own. What I think this shows us is that the companion role has become devoid of a certain risk factor and we as viewers have become complacent that our beloved companion will eventually get their happy ending. In fact companion deaths have become a bit of a joke recently with Rory dying a countless number of times and Clara an infinite amount across the Doctor’s timeline. So perhaps it is time that a companion met a rather more permanent end and restores some danger and suspense to the companion role.

When it comes to the darker concepts there are numerous avenues which could be perused. These include: torture, mutilation, infertility, divorce, suicide, retribution, kidnap, murder, genocide and revenge. Perhaps that reads as just a random list; however the astute readers may have instantly picked it up as a list of concepts from a three episode stretch of the show. The stretch of episodes in question is Asylum of the Daleks to A Town Called Mercy. I hope this illustrates my point that I feel what most fans are calling out for is already present within the show. Perhaps I have been rather selective with my choice of episodes, however if you look across the span of the revived series, more and more dark concepts will spring out at you. This then begs the question, if the show already displays such attributes, why are people calling out for it to adopt an even darker tone?

Why I think the show is fine as it is.

When you analyse the show, you will note that the tone is generally light hearted and friendly. Naturally as an established family show, it needs to have this nature so that it can appeal to young and older fans alike. This is why an altercation to the most prominent tone of the show provides too much of a risk for the writers to attempt. Go too much in one direction and you open the possibility of alienating either set of viewers. This is particularly prominent with the arrival of an older Doctor who may be more difficult for younger fans to engage with. To couple this with a shift to a darker toned show could lead to these viewers becoming disengaged with the show. This is certainly not a desirable situation as the show does not want to lose viewers.

The era of the Eleventh Doctor was arguably one of the most balanced in terms of tone. The character himself was the youngest and most energetic Doctor, yet he was capable moments of cold hearted brutality. The feel of his entire story (particularly in Series Five) has been likened to that of a fairy tale. This is something I feel which actually heightened the moments where the show took a darker turn. This is probably due to the stark contrast they provided in comparison to what we had been accustomed too. Using Dinosaurs on a Spaceship as an example, we go from a fun romp on a spaceship, to genocide and the Doctor exacting the ultimate punishment in retribution. This is how I feel the show is strongest, a perfect blend of both elements. Ideally I would hope that Series Eight would adopt a similar tone.

Conclusion

I will admit, that it is a difficult topic to address as it is very much six of one, half a dozen of the other. There are so many potential arguments for stories with a darker tone; however it always comes back to the same problem, maintaining the balance of the show. I would like to see some of the ideas that have been suggested become a reality, but it cannot be at the cost of what makes the show what it is today. What are your thoughts on the conundrum? I look forward to reading them in the comments section.

Step back in time...

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402 comments
ollyoverton
ollyoverton

So where does that leave the valeyard now?   Maybe they could have made the first episode as that inbetween Matt to Peter with the Valeyard coming through in Peter

LeeBeing
LeeBeing

Yes. It worked well for Tom Baker.

Jonathan_Swales
Jonathan_Swales

Series 1 had a perfect balance between seriousness/dark tone and being family friendly. It's not hard to achieve and there's no excuse for Moffat to keep the show as childish as it is.

13thDoctor
13thDoctor

Nice article. I like how you point out that the ore "adult" themes are at times already there. I look forward to Capaldi and I expect and hope that his Doctor will still have that "twinkle" that even stern old William Hartnell knew was necessary.

The G Unitt - It's my initial, I'm not a rap fan
The G Unitt - It's my initial, I'm not a rap fan

I think Matt Smith's era can be summed in one word: Whimsical. And that's not a problem! Far from it, in fact. For those three series, it worked brilliantly and it was perfect for the Eleventh Doctor. I just think it would be nice for a bit of a change. I'm not hoping for something more like Tennant's era, because that wouldn't fit Capaldi. I'm hoping for a tone similar to Series 1. I think Capaldi could be very much like a combination of Christopher Ecclestone and a distinguished gent. Less whimsy, more threat. Kill some folk. Make the children cry (I'm not a sociopath, I promise).


DrWhoGoesThere
DrWhoGoesThere

Well, it worked in the Fourth Doctor's era, and that was the best era of Doctor Who, so it should be able to work now...

dragonsfyre
dragonsfyre

Mary Sue's Vertue: if it's too dark and graphic, they can put up an advisory for parental guidance: as they did with THE WATERS OF MARS which featured some strong body horror and suicide.

Oh yes, the same was also done when Mr Hooper's character died on Sesame Street: parents were advised of the nature of the show, that it would not shy away from the fact that the actor who played Mr. Hooper had died and they would be working that into the storyline.

The Producers of Sesame Street wrote that they understood if parents didn't want the kids watching the episode but they strongly encouraged parents to watch it *with* their kids as the educational component of death being a part of life would be invaluable to children. And parents could explain things in greater depth if the kids had questions.

This was for pre-schoolers!! They did that for Sesame Street, they can do it for Doctor Who. Worst case scenario: if an episode is deemed much too frightening, they can air it later when kids are tucked away in bed.

Polyphase
Polyphase

I would like it to return to the more adult format like in the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era and not so much a darker Doctor but a more adult Doctor with a dry laconic wit :)

dragonsfyre
dragonsfyre

Yes yes yes and yes: the show needs to be scarier! The monsters need to be more terrifying and threats need to be more real: thus ending the running complacency that the companion will never get harmed. If you die, you die. Like Adric.

It's great that emotional drama has been introduced to the show by RTD, demonstrating that there are real consequences to taking a girl away from her parents and then retuning her 12 months later by accident ("I *am* a Doctor!!" "Prove it!! Stitch this! " And Jackie Tyler gives the Doctor a hard smack across the face.)

The ratings for WHO were the highest during Tom Baker's first 4 years when HINCLIFFE and HOLMES ratchetted up the horror and body horror during their Gothic Horror run.

Part of that was due to tom Baker but another part was due to the college crowd and adults tuning in as the show began strutting a more adult quality with sharp, explosive stories that had gun violence (THE SEEDS OF DOOM), a warrior companion "I'll cut your heart out!" and lots of thought-provoking episodes (the Doctor asking himself if he has the right to wipe out the DALEKS in GENESIS OF THE DALEKS).

Yes, bring back the adult nature of the show. Let kids hide behind the sofa. I sure did when I was a kid during Doctor Who.

doctorwhomultiverse
doctorwhomultiverse

Only companion I actually remember dying permenently was Adric... Now your artlicle certianatly does raise some good points again the family aspect of the show came to mind when you gave us that list as a lot of that would be for a higher age rating... This is likely a limit to the way in which companions actually "die" or go, unless they die in Torchwood. I suppose that is the advantage of having spin-offs with a higher age rating as the themes can be a lot darker should they need to be!

The Living Angel is Regenerating
The Living Angel is Regenerating

We need a good balance, whilst I agree that the story's and monsters themselves could possibly be a little scarier, I don't want The Doctor to become too dark himself. Part of why I love the Doctor is his lighthearted side. 

I am hoping that Capaldi starts off fierce but then softens.

Sneezed Regeneration
Sneezed Regeneration

One thing i think the story lacks is some serious focus on time travel. The Doctor's stories are mostly set on other planets, so that's space travel, and when he time travels he usually visits distant futures or... the Victorian age. I know there are other examples to put on the list, he visited Roman Britan, the middle ages, the 1940's, the 1950's and a lot more but on the whole, series-wise, backwards time travel happens quite rarely.

GaryStuartLevin
GaryStuartLevin

After everything that has happened to the Doctor over the last three stories like meeting the War Doctor and saving Gallifrey by hiding it at the last second!!! The New Doctor should be a Darker one to reflect the turmoil he has gone through!!!



Clara Bosswald has never existed.
Clara Bosswald has never existed.

When I read some comments, I feel like I'm not watching the same show. Can we talk about the Daleks ? They were all wiped out during the Time War. Except one, fine. But it died. So, no Dalek left in the universe. Well at least until the end of the series because The Emperor of the Daleks survived too and rebuilt the entire Dalek race. But then Rose wipe them out again. We're safe... until the end of the next season because four Daleks also survived in the void, which we'd never heard of before, and also billions of them in a prison we didn't know about either. Anyway the episode starts with Rose saying "This is the story of how I died" and ends with Rose very much alive with a new version of her dead father and the Daleks being wiped out again. That is until Series 3. This time a single Dalek survives and brings Davros back to life so they can rebuild the Dalek race and be wiped out again by Donna pressing three buttons. Just before dying, the Dalek who was capable of manipulating the timelines predicts that "one of them will die" but the Doctor erases Donna's memory and she stays alive. I bet that Dalek who saw all of time and space couldn't see that coming. How is Moffat's era more fairy-tale than that ? 



dills18
dills18

Think what people really need to understand is that Doctor Who goes through different phrases, you see the changes when the Doctor regenerates, he's a whole new man with a whole new personality the show follows, Doctor Who shouldn't adopt a constant phase or "attitude" - That'd be no fun, you would know what to expect from an episode then, as Moffat states "keep things fresh" and thats completely right,  so I would love a darker tone for Capaldi's Doctor as I think it perfectly fits him.


supermoff needs answers! NOW!
supermoff needs answers! NOW!

I don't know why people consider the whole Moffat era to be fairytale. Only Series 5 was fairytale. Series 6 went down a dark, more industrial and sinister avenue, and it certainly departed from the fairytale elements of the previous series. Then Series 7 went down a slightly lighter, more action-y route, again not fairytale except for "The Snowmen". Each series was distinct and fresh. A perfect mix of sci-fi, drama, comedy and fantasy, something the show had previously failed to accomplish. 



mgm1229
mgm1229

One of the best examples of a dark theme came in Richard Curtis's brilliant Vincent and the Doctor, where he looked depression and suicide squarely in the face. The result is a perfect blend of what I love about Doctor Who, excellent storytelling, characters with depth, an inventive monster, some humor for balance, and a chance to look at something familiar in a different way. I would applaud a darker tone if it were of this high quality. Peter Capaldi certainly has the acting chops for it!

twoheartsonemind
twoheartsonemind

I hate the argument that a show shouldn't take darker tones so that it can stay a "family show." I watched plenty of dark and mature shows, mostly cartoons, as a child. A perfect example: Avatar: The Last Airbender. A show that explored many adult themes and was very dark at points. Older cartoons may be the best examples, such as Hey Arnold!, The Wild Thornberrys, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Teen Titans, X-Men: Evolution and Wolverine and the X-Men. All these shows were "family shows", but explored dark themes. That's why they are some of the greatest kids shows, because they treat the younger viewers with the respect they deserve and recognize that they don't need to sugarcoat everything, but rather should tell an interesting and provocative story.

That being said, all these shows have lighter moments, because anything that is too deathly serious is boring and less fun to watch, for viewers of all ages.

I don't think Doctor Who has to go through any massive changes in the way of becoming darker. I do think that more permanent character deaths would be very helpful story wise, it would certainly build more tension and create real urgency; however, I think that the show has explored a lot of dark themes recently, while balancing it out with a light touch.

For time purposes I'm just going to list some of the darker episodes: The Impossible Astronaut/ Day of the Moon, Amy's Choice, The Hungry Earth/ Cold Blood, The Doctor's Wife, A Good Man Goes To War, The Girl Who Waited, The Angels Take Manhattan, Asylum of the Daleks, The Beast Below, The Crimson Horror, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, A Town Called Mercy, Cold War, Nightmare in Silver, The Rebel Flesh/ The Almost People, The God Complex and the list goes on.

Jaylcookie
Jaylcookie

I agree with others that the fairy tale aspect should be toned down.

theicewarrior13
theicewarrior13

I believe it should take a less fairytale theme and come back to what it was like in the RTD era

doctorwhotvlad
doctorwhotvlad

darker themes... no. Darker tone and the way things are addressed... yes.

SteviePenny
SteviePenny

I just want a massive change from the Matt Smith era. His Doctor was incredible, but the fairy tale theme has gotten old & the consequences haven't really been felt as they either haven't been acknowledged or the actual exploration into them has been really poor. For instance, I loved the idea of the Doctor going into seclusion in The Snowmen, but he changed back to whimsical rather too quickly. I would've liked a hardened Doctor, afraid of developing a close relationship with a companion in fear of getting hurt etc. as I feel the consequences of Amy's & Rory's departure weren't really felt long-term. The entire tone has to change now, because in all honesty, I was really getting fed up of Matt Smith as the Doctor is Series 7. It sounds awful, but it's true, & what's most important is it wasn't his fault. It was the writing & the theme. Apart from the obvious A Town Called Mercy (why didn't he have more episodes like THAT!?) his character was just grating with his childishness & the light-hearted feel. It didn't feel believable & the whole tone just felt boring. The Matt Smith era started out strongly as it felt new & fresh, but it ended up forgetting itself & thus, fell apart. In other words, we need an entire tonal shift again to reinvent it.

Exalos
Exalos

The article is pretty much true, however as Moffat said, the kids like to get scared sometimes. I guess the kids nowdays are more tolerant with darker stuff, because of what they watch on tv or play with in games. Now i don't say the Doctor should turn full on dark, but i'd like to see the doctor take himself a tad bit more seriously. Basically the exact opposite of Matt would be just fine. While 11 was overall childish but sometimes he shown how serious he can be, 12 should be an overall serious character with a childish side similarly to Sean Connery in Indiana Jones. And yes, Clara should not come out of her adventure all happy and lucky. I personally really like her so i hope she won't die, but she should leave the doctor with experiences and conclusion(s) equally bad an good at least.

The_Eternal_Dalek
The_Eternal_Dalek

I'd be fine with it being darker, just as long as it is actually darker and isn't just turned into a rather horrid modern horror movie (where it is all about "jump scares" and stabbing people for dramatic effect, not that the latter would happen these days, for all the innuendo they allow these days if you dare try and kill someone with their eyes open pre-watershed Ofcom are going to hunt you down and make you pay...)

PEEJP
PEEJP

Harry Potter, the Hunger Games etc; all books aimed at the younger audiences which manage to pull off the exploration of very dark themes. If they can pull it off, Doctor Who can too

Notsosmartguy Dreams of Paradise
Notsosmartguy Dreams of Paradise

@Sephora36 I just love how all the butthurt rtd fans always attack comments like this. I honestly think his era while enjoyable is highly overrated by a certain portion of the fandom that view it as this perfect untouchable piece of dw lore.

Ollie Walton Harrod
Ollie Walton Harrod

That's not exactly fairy tale.

I'll just say now, I disagree with the term fairy tale being used for the Moffat era. I'd say it's more lighthearted, possibly. 1 persons just said fairy tale and now everyone's copying that phrase.

But in no way is the RTD era fairy tale, in the ways you stated. The Daleks seeming dead, but returning isn't fairy tale, that's just the way of Doctor Who, it always has been. And it's understandable that the Doctor would be specifically making a point that the Daleks were all dead during series 1, as he thought they had all been killed in the Time War (in Series 2, the Cult of Skaro are a separate group, and so wouldn't have been part of the Time War, presumably. And he accepts that the Daleks are not all dead in Series 3).

Rose narrating how she died, when she didn't die, did annoy me at the time. But I'm okay with that now, because really it's a metaphorical sense of the word. And she was on the list of the dead (as stated in 'Utopia').

Also, not having heard of the Void, or the Genesis Ark, is in no way a bad thing, and I don't know why you're even stating that. The writers are allowed to be original, otherwise nothing good would ever get written.

Rose also, was left with a parallel version of her father, but she was, more importantly, left without the one she loved (whether you like the story or not is irrelevant).

I think Donna did quite a lot more than just press three buttons. Again Donna dying, metaphorical (The Doctor-Donna does die).

SteviePenny
SteviePenny

I don't think you understood those stories. I'd advise you to go back & watch them again.

Mikeyboss182
Mikeyboss182

@supermoff I do agree with you hear Series 5 is the only season of Doctor Who to be told like a fairy-tale, all three of Matt Smith's seasons were very different from each other in tone and the way they were structured. 

Amy is uniting the Earth Kingdom!
Amy is uniting the Earth Kingdom!

They did, but it was implied to be through old age, which in theory, every companion will inevitably die of, if not something else. However, their deaths were the first new series companion deaths to be insinuated on-screen (Rose's melodramatic "death" from being separated from the Doctor and Donna's metaphorical death of personality and character development notwithstanding).


Notsosmartguy Dreams of Paradise
Notsosmartguy Dreams of Paradise

@Exalos I couldn't agree more I'd like to see 12 be a bit less reliable than 11 with Clara having to rely more on herself on adventures rather than fully trusting the Doctor. I have a feeling Clara won't die since she's done that like twice already.

Ollie Walton Harrod
Ollie Walton Harrod

'The Hunger Games' hasn't really got dark themes. I've only seen the first btw. It's depressing that so many people are living in poverty, and the love story is messed up. But overall I think it's weird, more than dark (all of the bits with people not living in poverty are so weird, in my opinion).

And of course, there are children killing each other. But still l don't think that's done in a very dark way. I've also not read the books, so I'm guessing that the books are certainly darker.

Ollie Walton Harrod
Ollie Walton Harrod

Don't try and start an argument like that. Write an article if you really care.

PEEJP
PEEJP

@Ollie Walton Harrod Sorry Ollie, I disagree. The old world somehow ended through a massive war/ disaster, and the new regime of control in old America is now a facist government who control through fear of murder, torture and poverty. They are very dark themes! 

Ollie Walton Harrod
Ollie Walton Harrod

I'm not sure what exactly classes as 'fairy tale' in terms of Doctor Who. I'd say it's become more childish/lighthearted because there are so many things that aren't really explained, and very few people are actually seen to die any more.

But what exactly is Fairy Tale?

The Outer Space K9
The Outer Space K9

If talking to baby Stormaghedon isn't a great scene, I don't know what is...

Sneezed Regeneration
Sneezed Regeneration

@Amy is Hannibal Ehm... that's debatable.  And besides I was just proving how the show isn't exactly so adult-oriented at times. Quite the opposite in fact.

Ollie Walton Harrod
Ollie Walton Harrod

Fair enough I guess. I just find, with the film, that, because they decided to make it a 12, the tone of the film isn't very dark.

If you think more about it then yes there are dark ideas, but I don't think it's very well represented

Thesilence_1994
Thesilence_1994

I really disagree that it was just one person who said series 5 was like a fairy tale and that it somehow 'caught on'

1) Amy waited 12 years for her doctor to return. Note how that correlates with the fairy tale trope of waiting for Prince Charming to come to the rescue?

2) Rory waited 2000 years outside of the Pandorica to keep Amy safe. Ever heard of the trope 'True Love conquers all'? The way it was narrated in 'The Big Bang' was almost like it came out of something like 'snow white' or 'Cinderella' - Rory the hero, protected his 'princess'

If you wanted to, you could go on and on about how series 5 was very much like a fairy tail ; how Amy realised that travelling with the doctor and Rory was better than the life she had at home. How Amy had to choose between her two 'prince charmings' in her life etc etc.

The doctor even said that Amy (or at least her name) sounded like a fairy tale (that's a fact)

Also, I admit, the way I put it here makes it sound a little corny, but I think it's hard to argue about the use of fairy tale tropes in series 5 at least. Also note, whether you enjoyed the fairy tale trope is another question entirely

lukashcartoon
lukashcartoon

Here is the way Season 5 was a fairy tale: it was about a little girl who ran away with a madman in a box. She had many adventures with him that had fairy tale aspects. 1) meeting powerful leaders and helping them out (Churchill and Liz 10) 2) she prayed for help with a problem and the Doctor showed up. 3) She found her true love in a dream. 4) Her true love died and came back and protected her for a thousand years. 5) she had a scary ad enter wile traveling alone in the woods( wreck of the Byzantium) 6) she met met up with a great artist and the mutually influenced each other.

There are more parts- if you go to other seasons, but by and large she had true fairy tale elements.

PEEJP
PEEJP

@Ollie Walton Harrod I guess I am offering the books as evidence more than the films- but even the films suggest that there is a very dark world behind what happens on screen. Anyway there is a lot you can do with dark material within a 12 certificate. 

Ollie Walton Harrod
Ollie Walton Harrod

Fair enough for most of that.

Though a couple of those, I disagree with, and I'm sure you could find Fairy Tale like elements similar in other series.

But I see your point overall.