Doctor Who and ‘Darkness’
Guest contributor George Morris takes a look at what it means to be a ‘dark’ show.
‘General consensus’ can be a dangerous phrase. For example if I were to say that general consensus of ‘dark’ episodes of Doctor Who seemed to be more positive, there would seem to be enough argument (especially on the internet) to suggest otherwise. However, for a show that’s stuck with a common mentality of ‘hide behind your sofa’ monsters, what’s enough to constitute ‘darkness’?
Doctor Who is a family show of course, so it can never cross the line to ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘American Horror Story’ darkness because the territory requires more risqué material… yet it seems that we as fans tend to work ourselves up into frenzy whenever Moffat promises meaner plots, or a more ‘alien’ Doctor. Personally I’m guilty of this frame of mind myself; Series 8’s ‘Dark Water’ remains one of my recent favourites, particularly for its handling of death as a subject matter and its ability to run with it as far as the story needed. It was praised almost unanimously for its exciting and bleak venture into the topic of death, yet despite the existence of ‘Love & Monsters’ the episode garnered the largest amount of viewer complaints of any Nu-Who episode since 2005.
I can’t be the only one that sees this as in fact a good thing, the ‘Don’t cremate me’ sequence was a masterful reveal which had me turning my head slowly to my father, mouth wide-open, only to see him doing the exact same thing. In fact this seems to be the most recent argument for the idea that Doctor Who and darkness go hand in hand. Yes it’s a primetime show about a time-travelling alien in a blue box, but name an intense and even sometimes disturbing subject and I can bet you there’s an episode that’s tackled such a thing.
Richard Curtis’ ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ for example elegantly tackles the subject of depression in a way that rewards after repeat viewings thanks to articulate writing and a touching performance of a broken man (Vincent Van Gogh) by Tony Curran. This dark and often taboo subject (especially for tea-time on a Saturday) was handled in such a way that even including a hidden monster such as The Krafayis didn’t damage the emotional maturity of its themes. Bottle episodes such as Russell T Davies’ ‘Midnight’ have proven that atmosphere alone can terrify you without the use of gore or language mostly associated with a more horror-centric storyline; the same can be said for every one of the show’s ‘scary’ episodes from ‘Blink’ to ‘Night Terrors’.
2009’s ‘Waters of Mars’ is one of the few episodes to include suicide as a key plot device, with all the emotional outcomes of its happening in full force as Tennant’s Tenth Doctor recoils into the guilt of his actions leading to his final journey. Think about that for a moment, the show thousands of children have posters/action figures/lunchboxes etc. of and grow up with regularly includes these themes. I mean come on; The Daleks were initially conceived as representations of Nazi soldiers during a time where the Second World War was still fresh in the minds of many. Doctor Who has the emotional maturity to tackle these weighty subjects whilst maintaining its core ideology of being family entertainment – except with perhaps a warning or two from the BBC beforehand…
However, ‘dark’ doesn’t necessarily mean mature themes and motifs; perhaps the word should be taken more at face value instead of over-analysing?
In that case then, let’s take a look at the other potential directions a ‘darker’ series could take us. The first thing that comes to mind is the subject of fear. Monsters and aliens are a key part of the Doctor Who mantra and this has maintained a high standard throughout the entire run of the show but for the sake of time I’ll keep this Nu-Who centric.
For many viewers that started the show with its 2005 revival Steven Moffat’s ‘The Empty Child’ two-parter would have most likely been their first association with fear to do with the show. ‘Are you my mummy?’ and the gas mask child (in particular the transformation sequence of Dr Constantine for me) have most likely forever been engrained in the minds of many. Of course fear is subjective, so many of you wouldn’t have been awake night after night keeping their parents up saying that the gas mask boy will find them… ahem… but the fact is there’s likely to have been a particular moment within the show’s history that sprung to mind when talking about scares.
‘Blink’ in particular collected such a positive response in creating suspense out of day-to-day actions that it has become a recurring device in episodes by Moffat such as ‘Deep Breath’ and ‘Listen’ to various levels of success. The show has also proven it can create large-scale monsters, even down to the Tenth Doctor encountering ‘The Beast’ in Series 2’s ‘The Satan Pit’ an episode that already included the first appearance of rabid Ood, yet another creature that has me clutching my sofa as I let my spaghetti hoops drip down myself. Though it’s never outwardly said, this is another risk the show took in 2006 where it pretty much depicted a serious idea of the Devil itself at 7pm on a Saturday.
Many praised Series 8’s darker episodes ushered in by Capaldi’s Doctor, who up until Deep Breath’s airing had been hyped as a ‘grumpier, meaner’ incarnation of the character compared to what people had seen before. Whilst this is true to some respect, episodes such as ‘Robot of Sherwood’ and ‘The Caretaker’ packed in many light-hearted laughs, and episodes have never been completely without humour. It’s an advantage to the show is that’s it’s never able to become too down on itself due to the target audience. Season 7’s ‘blockbuster-of-the-week’ mentality, whilst still popular, was hindered slightly by the shortcomings of the task it was undertaking. Smaller episodes such as ‘Midnight’ and ‘Listen’ work well with a darker tone due to the restraints of the story, for every ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ there should be a ‘Father’s Day’ to provide variety in a show where the possibilities are endless. It’s finding the balance that’s been important, Series 7 proved that more than anything else allowing the writers to rectify it starting with Capaldi’s tenure.
I’ve seen people online accuse the show of becoming darker to fit in with the crowd of ‘edgier’ television shows ruling the schedules and the ratings at the moment. But we need to remember that Doctor Who has been edgy since 1963 when it first came onto our screens. It has pushed the boundaries not only in subject matter (with the Daleks as previously stated) but in storytelling too. A tone shouldn’t dictate what story is being told, the story should decide the tone and if we’re entertained then that’s all that matters. ‘Darkness’ isn’t something to strive for, Doctor Who can handle ideas as well as any other show that’s currently being made and the general consensus (darn I’ve used that phrase again) was that Series 8 was in improvement in quality so if it can keep it up then we’re in for a pleasant surprise this Autumn…
Unless of course by ‘darker’ Moffat simply meant scarier monsters and I’ve looked into the whole thing too much… Hmm…