My teenage son and I have become enthusiastic fans of Doctor Who. We enjoy the imaginative settings and characters, the show’s sense of curiosity, and the unusual perspective allowed by a story with time travel at its center.
For a long time, I’ve appreciated the way that Doctor Who helps young people become comfortable with their differences. While adolescent society in general pushes teenagers to conform, Doctor Who opens up a universe of diversity, to show that differences make life fun. In reality, we push to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. In Doctor Who, we see a married lesbian couple in which one of the women is a lizard.
The point isn’t to make us all into lesbians who become aroused at the sight of scaly skin. The point is to open up all kinds of possibilities for people in ways that have nothing at all to do with gender identity. It’s this celebration of weirdness that excites non-conformists who watch Doctor Who, and brings them to do deliciously goofy things like dress up in costume. When they wear the clothes of their favorite version of The Doctor, they embrace this vision of inspired cosmic eccentricity.
So, this week, my son and I eagerly went to see the Aqmerican premier of season eight of the revitalized Doctor Who. We even went to see it in a movie theater, to give the viewing a sense of occasion.
My son loved it. I left with a sense of dread.
I remember when I was a teenager, and adults put out frightening messages about television and movies that were dangerous for people my age. There was a campaign against Satanic influences in heavy metal music. I thought it was all ridiculous, and most of it was. Heavy metal wasn’t dangerous. It was just very bad music.
I didn’t listen to heavy metal, but it wasn’t the superficial demonic gimmicks of goofy bands like Black Sabbath that turned me off. Those were just silly provocations. What turned me off was that the music wasn’t very interesting. It was simple, repetitive, predictable, without subtlety. It was loud for the sake of being loud, which isn’t worth paying attention to after the first 30 seconds of loudness has passed.
As a parent, I’ve tried to remember my own experience with excessive efforts by adults to control what adolescents see, but at the first Doctor Who episode of the 8th season, I found my limit. The episode, entitled Deep Breath, features robots that mask their mechanical identity with pieces of flesh that they harvest from the bodies of humans they have killed. As the robots try to make a getaway, one of them uses a hot air balloon that has been stitched together from pieces of human skin.
I understand that the Doctor Who writers meant for the robots to be a kind of dark version of The Doctor himself, and for his Tardis time machine, but the balloon made of human skin was a step too far. It wasn’t necessary to make any larger point. It was a shocking element that had no purpose other than being shocking.
Well, it worked. I was shocked. I was disgusted.
More importantly, I was disappointed. A balloon of human skin is frightening, but it isn’t intelligently frightening. It isn’t subtle. It isn’t interesting. It’s just plain abominable. It is, like the pseudo-Satanism of heavy metal rockers, a cheap trick to distract from an underlying lack of substance. It’s an insult to the audience.
I’m not against fear. I’m not even against horror. I’m against the use of disgusting cheap tricks to evoke these feelings simply in order to provoke a physiological excitement. There’s no creativity or eccentricity within that sort of fear.
There are fears that are deep and dark within the human psyche, but transcend the brain stem’s anxieties about pain and death. When we explore these fears, we learn important things about ourselves, and become the better for it. That’s not he kind of fear that Doctor Who season 8 seems to be interested in. So, this is where my son and I will leave Doctor Who.
As a palette cleanser, on this last week of summer before school begins, my kids are watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Journey. This show does what Doctor Who ought to be doing, expanding minds with possibilities rather than shrinking them down with terror of alien predators.
But what next? I’m looking for smart, creative books, audio, or video that pushes the boundaries of our assumptions about reality. I don’t care whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. I want materials for my teenager that can bring the sense of openness that I once thought we could find in Doctor Who – without the ever-present monsters and ghoulish provocations.