Stephen Fry is wrong: Doctor Who is for everyone

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry

I HAVE a lot of time for the wonderful Stephen Fry, be he bantering on QI or being charming and funny on Twitter, so when I heard he was giving the annual TV lecture at BAFTA I was eager to hear what he had to say.

As usual Fry was erudite and interesting and made some good points about the way we watch television and its role now compared to years ago, but then it all went pear-shaped in the Q and A. Watch it by clicking here if you want.

He said: “Infantilism is the problem. It’s just shocking. The only dramas the BBC will shout about are Doctor Who and Merlin.

“They are wonderful programmes, don’t get me wrong, but they are not for adults.

“It’s children’s TV. I’m not saying TV should be pompous and academic, but it should surprise and astonish and say there’s a world outside we know nothing of.”

He went on to say that television in general is over-simplified and obvious, with plots reduced ‘so even an idiot can understand them’ and bemoaned the loss of television as ‘the nation’s fireplace.’

Where to begin? Well, I could ask what were the likes of Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Five Days, Being Human or Wallander if not adult, complex and engaging dramas? Or why Fry didn’t mention the adults who read Harry Potter, which he lucratively narrated?

But as this is a science fiction blog and I am a Doctor Who fan, how about pointing out the irony of someone railing against dumbing down in television by applying a quick and easy label to a complex and multi-layered programme that is far from infantile?

Which then brought out smug idiots like Michael Deacon at the Telegraph who were quick to agree as a way of underlining their own need to assert some kind of intellectual superiority.

“Sadly I don’t suppose I’ll ever get to find out what so many adults see in Doctor Who unless I suffer a serious brain injury,” sneered Michael. You’d need to find your brain first Mikey, then we can talk.

Is Doctor Who children’s TV? In the sense that it appeals to children, then yes, but they are only a part of the extraordinary range of people who watch this enduring show.

To say it is not for adults just doesn’t hold up, especially in the context of an extended and frustrated moan about television dumbing down.

In my experience, Doctor Who was and continues to be classic family television in the tradition of shows like The Two Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise – ironically the shows that Fry says secured television’s benevolent and communal role in our lives, a role he says is now gone forever.

In my house,  my 10-year-old son and I watch Who side-by-side, both thrilling to the Doctor’s adventures. Then when it finishes Izaak spends the week talking about it with his friends and re-enacting his favourite moments or monsters, escapes or cliffhangers.

For me, well, I’m not ashamed to say that for me it is the same, with the added enjoyment of watching my son’s reaction to the show and sharing that joy with him.

I’m one of the generation that watched Who as a youngster, lived through the dark times and then watched with delight as it returned, reminding the inner child in all of us why we used to watch it and then going on to surpass those memories.

But I also enjoy it as an adult at the same time and for different reasons, by marvelling at Matt Smith‘s acting, a clever piece of dialogue, a reference to old Who or – especially where Steven Moffat is concerned – massively intricate and detailed narrative structures across episodes or entire series.

Indeed this season’s major narrative arc around the crack in a wall sums up Who in a nutshell.

On the one hand it is a dramatic tool, carefully seeded and referenced at different times for maximum effect, which has had me tearing my hair out to work out and which will hopefully pay off over the next two weeks.

On the other, it is a simple but unnerving idea that resonates with our own lives and childhood memories of fairytales and bedtime stories that we still relate to now, like a fear of the dark, monsters under the bed or statues that move when we don’t look at them.

In other words, Doctor Who offers something for everyone.

Long may it continue to do so as part of a BBC dramatic output which, while not perfect, strives to do the same.

And long may Who defy being nailed down by what I hope was  a poorly chosen example and not an attempt to garner some headlines.

As you were at such pains to point out Stephen, we deserve better.

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9 thoughts on “Stephen Fry is wrong: Doctor Who is for everyone

  • Apart from the fact that Fry is a Doctor Who fan, his point about the “infantilism” of tv has to do with tv in general…he is wrong to single out Doctor Who. What was once a “childrens show that adults enjoy” has now become part of the trend of aiming everything at a young audience…hence The Doctor is played by much younger actors & it is written with a teen audience in mind, much the same as any number of American shows.

    Doctor Who lacks the British “feel” of old & like Britain as a nation, it has been Americanised…flashy, music to the fore, quick but empty dialogue, emphasis on physical appearance. It certainly lacks the charm & innate Britishness that it once had.

  • My partner had her literary education at La Sorbonne (so she’s great at French classics, rubbish at English ones mind) and has the broadest taste in films you can imagine… and she’s latched onto the current series of Doctor Who in a way that she fails to with most TV drama. She’s also surprised that it’s on at a time aimed more at children than adults.

    The curious thing is that most of the TV and film work of Stephen Fry isn’t exactly what you would call highbrow – I mean, simple comedies, light-hearted panel shows… little of it stretches the mind. Only his books prove difficult, and that’s largely because of his inability to use common words where obscure ones will fit.

    • Good points, well made Dave.

    • Genevieve B.


      It is a kids show that adults watch the same way that Harry Potter is a kids book series that adults read. The acting is pretty terrible and has been for years. Pretending the show is high art just because you enjoy watching is silly.

      Lately DW has had more adult themes but so does everything else that kids watch. To me the point is that the line is now blurred and to everyone’s detriment. Kids shows are more sexy and violent to attract adult viewers while adults shows are dumbed down with spoon fed good vs. evil, “moral of the story” endings and attention deficit editing that play well to children. Ultimately it is all about lowest common denominator and selling more rubbish.

      No, Doctor Who isn’t the worst offender by a long shot. Merlin is a whole lot dumber. Both are formulaic and easily predictable. Yes, Dr. Who does well internationally. How is popularity a symptom of intelligence of storyline? Perhaps some of you will recall the worldwide appeal of Baywatch?

      • Thanks for the comment Genevieve.

        Yes, Chris Ecclestone, David Tennant and Matt Smith are such bad actors aren’t they? Just like Sir Derek Jacobi, Iain Glen, Simon Callow and Tony Curren. Or Michael Gambon. Or Simon Pegg.

        If kids shows are more sexy and violent now, how was it Doctor Who’s companion was a half-naked girl in a loin cloth in the 1970s?

        And I never said the show is high art, just fun, complex, interesting and engaging on more than one level. To me, that explains its popularity across the generations, which I guess is one reason why it is still around 50 years after it started.

  • Paul


    Excellent piece here, didn’t know Fry had said that and yes, much better targets and examples of how poor television has become, X-Factor, Britain’s got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing, all examples of poor lazy television, driven by a need to generate revenue from a lowest common denominator audience.

    Who and some of the other drama’s mentioned do not fit that bill…and who particuarly, as you do we sit as a family myself, wife, two kids 8 & 12 and are engaged by the show at many levels.

    This series particualry is as good as TV drama gets, Moffats writing and control of the show is excellent and Matt Smith and Karen Gillans casting is inspired, Smith in my eyes has already made the role more than his own and may well be on the way to one of the best Dr’s.

    that aside the quality of the writing and its delivery makes this one of the best shows on TV and what Moffat has created in his first series is outstanding drama, cleverly written and wonderfully acted and full of Drama, adventure and emotion.

    so yes pity Fry chose Dr Who to highlight a point, as the tone of his comments are correct, just picked a terrible example to highlight his point.

  • I hadn’t heard what Stephen Fry had said & whilst I agree with him about lowest common denominator TV it’s a cry shame he chose Dr Who to make that point when there are so many other Greta examples of childrens TV dressed up as adult entertainment. By which I mean of course XFactor et al. just because it’s not aimed at children per se doesn’t mean it’s not kids TV. In every respect it is nothing more than that.
    Now as a Dr Who fan of old of course Im going to defend it & I wonder if Stephen really just chose the wrong target but people listen to him & as such its incredibly disappointing. I imagine he is taking some flak for it & Id be interested to hear whether he makes any qualifying statements.
    Lets not forgot how puerile QI can be,as good as it is. Just because a show uses rude words does not an adult TV show make.

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