Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dumbing Down

By Jay Stringer

You're all fans of Doctor Who, right? No? Well stick around anyway. I'm not going to try and change your mind, but I am using the show to get at something I think is important. The first three paragraphs might bore you a bit though.

Quick history lesson. Doctor Who came back to our screens in 2005. After so long away, it was by no means sure that a modern audience would embrace the show. Show runner Russel T Davies chose to resolve this by making the show very loud and zany, with a tendency towards action and flashing things and a very friendly Doctor. I'm not going to attack those choices. They weren't for me, but along the way Davies slipped in a few healthy dashes of darker, scarier and more intelligent episodes that kept me coming back.

Doctor Who for me was always about the Molotov cocktail of fear and excitement. It was where generations of children got to test-drive horror, death, and aliens. My lasting memory of the show from my childhood is a scene where some vampire-type monsters came up out of the sea and stalked up the beach towards their victim. It scared seven shades of shit out of me, but I loved it.

Current show runner Steven Moffat clearly has similar memories. When he took over last year, he talked of retooling the show into a dark fairytale. His vision meshes almost totally with what I want. Now, I can accept that his vision of the show isn't for everyone tastes, but its a very flexible show. There's been a prevailing style for five years that wasn't to my tastes, and after Moffat's era there will be a new era. There are as many different and valid takes on the Doctor as there are for Batman. If you don't like one version, wait around patiently, another will be along.

There is a worrying movement gathering pace in the media. I've seen it in all of the major British newspapers and now in a few magazines as well. And it's one that makes me spit feathers, I warn you.

This article is the clearest example. It says that the show is too dark. That it's too scary and too challenging for kids. Not just Doctor Who, it evokes something else later on, but lets take things one at a time. The writer says that her favourite episodes are the dark ones. The challenging, character driven ones. But that all a child wants is some farting and some death rays.


I also call "missing the whole damned point."

Okay, look. A farting alien? Hell, I'm 30 and I still find that amusing. But that's just the dressing. What this argument is essentially saying is, "I like the ones wot I am clever enough to get, innit, but the little people? They is dumb, they wants the farting and the pull-my-finger." Okay, not quite like that, because they have sub-editors to do the hard work and at DSD we just have the squirrels in the rafters that laugh at us and throw grammar at our heads.

This is talking down to children in such an unbelievable way, that the only possible outcome is for people to swallow it whole and accept it as truth. Because that's how it seems to work.

Check this quote out;

"So who should he try to please? It was a tough one, especially as TV reviewers are generally not, as you might imagine, eight-year-olds, but rather the group that likes intricate plot lines and emotional character arcs more than flatulent aliens."

Because all that the children can relate to is the flatulent aliens. Yes. They're not engaged by intricate plot, emotions, character arcs or story. No child has ever been gripped by a story and then asked, but what happens next?


Well, you can, sure. But it makes you a crap writer and it makes them a bored child. It's such a shame that we've never had children's entertainment that backs up my argument. We've never had intelligent, gripping, plotted drama that's dressed up with a few beasties and funny noises. We've never had TOY STORY or UP. We never had THE HOBBIT or Roald Dahl. We never had fairy tales, or ghost stories. My argument would be far easier to make if only we had some long running show, some sci-fi/fantasy/drama/comedy/horror show that had been engaging children of all ages since 1963.....

Children like farting. They like flashing noises and silly monsters. We all do. But that's the grammar, that's the little parcels of light and humour along the way. You entertain a child by stimulating their imagination. By letting them in on something that feels like it's maybe a year or two above them, that they shouldn't be seeing. You ask questions of them and challenge them and scare them and excite them, and you wrap it all up in something that ultimately cannot hurt them. And for the moments when they're scared, you're there to offer your shoulder to hide behind, or to talk to them about their fear, to discuss things with them so that they learn how to hold a conversation.

Not all children want or need to be engaged this way, naturally. But I'll make a different generalisation here. When we're all asked why we write I'm sure we can struggle, and think, and each come up with slightly different answers. But when talking to other writers, something that tends to ring true for the majority is that we can all remember something that excited and engaged us as a child. Might not always be books -my major influences are music and comics- but there will be something buried away there that was a little too old for us, a little too adult, dark or thrilling. Something that made our young minds turn over, and that has had our young minds turning over ever since.

I read WATCHMEN between the ages of 6 and 7. Well, not all of it. This was in the days before I got trade paperback collections, and the comics that I got tended to be what adults would get for me based on the covers or based on the characters I liked. They never flicked through the pages to see what was inside (that came a couple years later, when my mum saw me reading Gotham By Gaslight and freaked.) But I was reading possibly the greatest, most challenging and most adult superhero comic of all time. And 24 years later I'm a writer. How about that?

Did I understand everything? Hell no. I don't understand it all now. Each time I re-read it I pick up on something new. The truly adult themes went flying over my head. They didn't upset me because I didn't know to look for them. Just as now, in Doctor Who, the darkest or raunchiest themes would go flying over my head because I wouldn't know to be looking for them. But man, was I hooked.

The whole article -the whole growing movement- is a value judgement.

It's drawing lines in the sand, saying that this is allowed to be intelligent and dramatic, but that isn't. She says that adults have had plenty of shows to be entertained with, like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, so we should leave Doctor Who to the kids. I've never gotten this 'drawing a line in the sand' thing. These things that I like are allowed to be clever, other things aren't.

The article even ends with the line,

"So, come on, grown-ups; let's leave kids' shows to the kids."

How can a line be so loaded and yet so hollow at the same time? Firstly, if Doctor Who was merely a "kids show" it would be on around 4pm on a weekday or on a Saturday morning. No, it's in the prime-time family slot on a Saturday evening. It sits between a game-show and the national lottery. It's family drama. It's meant for the whole family to sit and enjoy, and discuss and engage. Secondly, who is to say that a "kids show" can't be challenging, exciting and full of plot?

Here's my thing, here's what I think is the deep dark secret at the heart of all this; It's not about dumbing it down for the children, it's about dumbing it down for the adults.

Children will engage. Children will marvel. Children will fantasise and whoop and gasp and jump and then make up their own adventures. But the adults? Pfft. They don't want to be challenged. They don't want to engage. They want to sit brainless in front of a screen for 60 minutes, between a mindless game-show and their one in a billion chance at winning the lottery.

Explosions, one-liners and funny aliens they can handle. But plot? Questions? Time-Travel? Shit, next thing we'll be asking them to explain things to their children. What this movement is hiding is not that the children can't find something to engage with in plot, character and emotion. It's that parents can be damned lazy about explaining these things to them. Perhaps because they, themselves, don't get the plot.

See, adults, it's not nice being generalised, is it?

I'm reminded of a friend's incredulity when I got angry over Transformers 2. "What were you expecting from a film about giant robots?" He asked, "Plot and character?" I answered that at least one of those was my minimum expectation of any story.

The laziness of these value judgements is exposed later in the article, when the gears shift to comic books.

"superhero movies, which are now expected to be meaning-laden explorations of midlife crises (Iron Man), family guilt (Spider-man) or loss (Batman). There was some surprise from reviewers that Thor, a film about a "space viking with a magic hammer", was aimed at younger audiences. Chipman's theory is that marketing men, mindful of the spending power of adult comic-book fans, have sought to soothe us with these gritty reboots."

Okay. Lets forget for a moment that Thor and his Magic Hammer date back a couple thousand years through myth and religion. Aside from that, I think the article makes a fine point. I think it is ridiculous that these modern film makers pretend that Batman's story is about loss. Clearly, they travelled back in time to 1939 and needlessly added in the bit about Bruce Wayne's parents getting killed in front of him. They did it just to sell a few T shirts in the modern day and allow filmmakers to subvert a jolly kids character with some dark issues.

These same people no doubt went back in time and forced in the bit about Tony Stark being an alcoholic arms dealer who struggles to come to terms with responsibility and the demon in the bottle. And that thing about Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man because he was guilty over the death of his uncle? They just put that there so that the marketing men could sell T Shirts to adults. How dare they subvert something thats meant to be silly and empty and for kids.

Bull. Shit.

If people want to continue to trot out ill-informed opinions over comic books, then the least I would expect is for them to read one first. Why is it that people still use the term "comic book" as a description for cheap or tacky writing? These people haven't read one. It's value judgements again.

"No, no, they say, liking cars that turn into robots isn't embarrassing, because look! Here are some metaphors"

Aha. That would be a call back. See, why would anybody want to read, watch or engage with a story written with this kind of approach in mind? Shouldn't we expect from all stories that there was, you know, something going on? When did it become okay to start looking down on things? When did it become okay to dumb down? When did people in glass houses start throwing stones?

Never, ever, write down to an audience. It just cheapens your story. Write the best story you can, and challenge the audience to raise their game. Along the way you might inspire a few minds, young and old. You might create some future writers, you might rekindle excitement in a few jaded adults. You might get to scare the crap out of a few people.

But what you will get is a damned good story.

The rest will take care of itself.


Stringer Belle said...

[I]t's about dumbing it down for the adults.

That's it exactly. Adults - well, certain adults, and I think you know the ones I mean - want their Saturday night Eastenders equivalent. But it's more socially acceptable to say "but it's supposed to be a kid's show".

Last night I spoke to somebody who wanted to know what I thought of The Doctor's Wife. "Pants," was this person's opinion. "But at least it had her from Coronation Street in it. And it's such a shame, because the pirates episode last week was so good."

I stayed remarkably calm while explaining that it was written by contemporary fantasy's greatest living writer and that actually, everybody else I had spoken to was pretty much in the 'best episode ever' camp.

Different audiences, see. The trouble is that in catering to a certain demographic - the demographic who have made the show the success it has been since the reboot - RTD has set an expectation, for a certain amount of viewing figures for example. I'd argue that the viewers the show has now, while fewer, are more engaged (just take a look at Twitter on a Saturday evening) but whether that's within the remit of a public service broadcaster we're all fucking paying for remains to be seen.

Geez. Stick it on a Tuesday night, and make another series of Merlin if you want, BBC. Just don't hurt the quality of storytelling we've had these past few episodes.

Incidentally, guys, I've let Mr Stringer know that he has royally fucked the tags in this post so hopefully it'll be easier to read soon. It's a good'un.

Richy said...

Well said that man!

I don't remember any specific scary moments from Doctor Who growing up, but I do have a few hazy recollections that still feel a bit disturbing. My most vivid memory, though, is of bawling my eyes out when Adric died, and although not scary that talks to exactly the same thing - letting kids experience feelings they might not otherwise feel, from which they can grow.

Admittedly I can also remember crying at the last episode of It Ain't Half Hot Mum, when they all went home, so maybe that isn't the greatest example after all.

Scott D. Parker said...

Friggin A! That's what I'm saying. Bravo for this essay. I get a lot of grief over the stuff I like, but I can always point to something--good plot points, good writing, something--that brings it up a notch. Kids get much more than we think of. My son is constantly surprising me with what he knows when I think he doesn't. Kids are sponges. I didn't know why Star Wars worked the way it did back when I saw it in 1977, but I got it. And, as I aged, I learned more. Nuances are there for those that can see them. It's one of the reasons why I think Pixar actually makes adult films disguised as animated kids movies.

Dana King said...

Kids can't handle multiple story lines and characters? The richest woman in the world (I think) might take issue with that.

Chad Eagleton said...

But throughout the course of Doctor Who hasn't there always been someone in a newspaper somewhere complaining about how the current Doctor and current storyline has gotten "too scary" for kids?

Except for a few isolated episodes I haven't particularly cared for Moffat's time as showrunner on Doctor Who(strange since I thought he wrote some of the best episodes under Davies and both Coupling and Jekyll were brilliant). Which I'm fine with. Like you said, if you know anything about Doctor Who, just wait and they'll be something to you liking.

But, what I do fear is a catering to American audiences since it seems to have exploded here. I watch Doctor Who on BBC America-- it is about the only thing worth watching unless you really really like Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and want to watch 20 hours of it straight nearly every day. This season, on the American broadcasts, they've stuck an Amy Pond intro before the credits that's absolutely terrible--it makes it feel like you're watching The Amy Pond Show. Ugh..I don't want a Doctor Who that caters to "American tastes"; if I did, I'd watch the awful 1995 Fox TV movie with Eric Roberts as The Master.

Bill Cameron said...

The first novel I read by personal choice was what today we would call a YA novel. It was dark, subtle, complicated and dealt with serious issues of isolation, loss, and the impact on violence in our lives—issues which affect both children and adults. The writing was spare and intelligent. From time to time, I re-read the book, and now nearly forty years later, I still find it rich and powerful—and dark.

That's what this kid could appreciate then. The success of everything from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games proves that kids today have the capacity to not only appreciate but engage and grow from their exposure to dark art. Hell, most of us live with some degree of darkness in our everyday lives. Erich Fromm didn't speak of the banality of evil as some kind of ephemeral thought experiment.

Too many so-called "adults" need to a good throat-punching. That would occupy their attention while the rest of us, young and old alike, get down with some serious, funny, dark, intelligent, challenging, harrowing, giggle-inducing, thought-provoking entertainment.

(Side note: while I loved "The Doctor's Wife," and rate rate it top five easily, "Blink" remains my favorite of recent run of Doctor Who.)

Dave White said...

Here here, Jay. And Bill, I'm agreeing with your ranking so far.

Stringer Belle said...

Bill/Dave - me too ;)

Thomas Pluck said...

Well put.
My favorite movies as a kid were:
Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Alien, Poltergeist, The Thing and Blade Runner.
They scared the living shit out of me and I loved them for it. The Ewoks came by and ruined everything.