This weekend the new season of Doctor Who begins, which is a big cause for celebration in our house. My son has really taken a shine to the Doctor, voraciously tearing through the series, barely slowed down by the creepier episodes. We began watching the new series about a year ago, when his interest in Science Fiction really took off and he started asking about seeing and reading more scary stories. The deciding factor was seeing him reading Edgar Allen Poe and R.L. Stine on his own. It led me to decide, if he was going to gravitate towards the frightening, it was my responsibility to make sure what he did see and read didn’t plague him with nightmares. At least that’s what I tell myself, while the truth is I itch to introduce him to the books, movies, and shows I loved as a child, and couldn’t help dragging him down this particular garden path.
What I had forgotten, though, was that when I was a child Doctor Who terrified me. (It seems terrifying children was a real skill set of the BBC in the Seventies and Eighties, you really need no further proof than this Public Service Announcement about water safety). Just the theme music would set me off, and even in light of this I wouldn’t miss an episode. I gravitated towards any story that gave me the strong desire to turn off the TV. When I saw Gremlins in the theater at eight, I remember wanting desperately to leave the theater. But, even though my father would gladly have taken me to the lobby, I wouldn’t have left. I desperately wanted to see what was coming next, even though I knew it couldn’t be good.
I didn’t appreciate it then, but part of the pleasure of these stories was knowing I could close the book, that what compelled (and still compels me) to keep reading or watching is my own sense of curiosity. These early examples reward those who stick around with good’s eventual triumph over the evil tormenting them. I was reminded of this when I watched ‘The Empty Child’ with my son. He nearly gave up on the series then and there.
But as frightened as he was by that creepy boy in the gas mask, he had to know what happened next. He kept saying he didn’t want to talk about it, and in the next breath asked how it turned out. It gnawed at his curiosity. After reassuring him things would turn out right, we watched “The Doctor Dances”, and that’s pretty much where he was sold on the show. Before that point, he was interested, after that point he was obsessed. Eventually, I widened the scope of my own reading and watching to include more terrifying tales, particularly the ones that didn’t end so well. He’s not ready for those, but I know they’re are out there, waiting for him. I don’t know what he’ll think about those stories, whether he’ll come to enjoy them as much as I have. Even still, there’s a part of my that’s dying to find out.
Until then, the other thing that makes me glad he’s watching Doctor Who is how great a character he is for children. He’s smart, funny, unflappable, and unwilling to accept defeat. And he flies through the world without sneering at it. Too many stories across all media for kids have taken sarcasm as their primary speaking style, modeling a default setting of being unimpressed or derisive as the way to process the world. The world doesn’t need more cynics, and my wife and I do everything in our power to show him how much more exciting it is to see the world as a bright place, rather than one to be derided. It can be difficult to push against, luckily there’s a Doctor to help.