Believe it or not, Doctor Who was originally designed exclusively for children: it was an educational show that was meant to teach kids history by way of a time traveling alien. That in itself is a truly brilliant concept, but the show quickly morphed far beyond that into a sweeping, epic tale about that alien his friends and enemies, his trials and adventures, his meddling and madcap sense of humor. The villains eventually received quite a bit more screen time, and every Whovian who has seen interviews or talked to a fan who watched “back in the day” has undoubtedly heard the classic story about hiding behind the sofa every time the Daleks appeared on screen.
The good old horror hook: you’re terrified, but you can’t look away. That is one of the deepest traditions Doctor Who has, a contract with its initial target audience, and it stems from a belief that campfire tales confirm every time kids love to be scared.
But they also love a hero who they can trust, who helps them to believe in themselves. In the beginning, the first Doctor traveled with his granddaughter and came across as a parental guiding figure. Then there were teenaged Adric and Ace in the 80s, but aside from that children were not often found in the classic show. New Who seems to be on a mission to remedy that oversight, and the current series has spent a lot of time integrating children into the show’s narrative tapestry.
There was Jamie, the boy “tearing apart this world looking for his mummy,” Chloe, who was possessed by the Isolus child because she was so lonely, Elton, who met the Doctor as a boy when tragedy befell his family. Then there were stories about children who became stronger through their encounters with the Doctor: Tim from “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood,” a bright boy who dumbed down in school so as not to attract attention from his older, meaner peers. The Doctor encouraged him not to hide his cleverness, and it led to Tim being instrumental in the fight against the Family of Blood and being a hero in World War I. In “School Reunion,” Kenny, who appears to be your standard, schlubby uncool kid is responsible for saving the Doctor, Rose, Mickey, and Sarah Jane by being the only person bright enough to pull a fire alarm. By the end, he’s being lauded by his classmates for helping to blow up the school.
“The Idiot’s Lantern” presents one of the best examples of the Doctor inspiring young people. Tommy finally learns to stand up to his tyrant of a father and, more importantly, is the one to try and piece things back together with him despite how unforgivably he treated their family. His stand when his World War II veteran pop attempts to silence him is an inspirational show of courage and coming into one’s own:
“You don’t get it, do you? You fought against fascism, remember? People telling you how to live. Who you could be friends with. Who you could fall in love with. Who could live and who had to die. Don’t you get it? You were fighting so that little twerps like me could do what we want, say what we want!”
There’s the TARDIS itself; that gateway to alien worlds and alien times that you can access so long as you can unlock those bluest-blue wooden doors. And for those of you who don’t know Classic Who, it may come as a surprise that at certain points in the show’s history the TARDIS key looked nothing like a key at all. You can find proper replicas of it at conventions and online, and many lifelong fans go on at length about how much they dislike the alteration of the key from something otherworldly-looking to an average Yale key that could be sitting at the bottom of your bag right now.
In fact, the current keys are plain but perfect, and former showrunner Russell T. Davies changed them back with a specific purpose: every child should have a key to the TARDIS.
The Eleventh Doctor seems predisposed to understand kids. In “The Beast Below,” Amy points out that he claims he won’t interfere in the events of other times and places, but she thinks he needs to add the stipulation “unless there’s children crying.” Her prediction comes true; the Doctor simply can’t leave a weeping girl alone, particularly when no one else is offering to help. And isn’t that just what our heroes should do?
Last year’s Christmas special allowed the Doctor to play that part more actively than ever. The retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol let him be Kazran’s Ghosts of the Past, Present, and Future, steering the man’s life toward a more compassionate end. Though it nearly backfired on him, the Doctor’s message came through when it counted because children listen in a way that adults never can.
The latest episode, “Night Terrors,” solidified the Doctor’s newfound rapport with kids. (A point that our Who recapper Teresa Jusino elaborates on in the above linked review.) When George begs for someone to save him from the monsters, all of time and space filters that message through until the Doctor receives it. The Doctor, the man who can save you from planet-wide devastation or the terror in your bedroom. And that’s all part of the family fun, according to showrunner Steven Moffat: “It’s very scary for kids. And sometimes they don’t understand it and have to talk to their parents. But that’s good! That’s quite good if you’ve got a whole interacting family, mom and dad explaining the plot, sometimes the kids explain the plot to mom and dad. The kids hiding behind the parents.”
Moffat has his own reasons for keeping the Doctor in younger company, and perhaps that is the reason that rings the most true of all “You probably know the review: it’s the children’s program that adults adore. That’s what I think it is. He’s a children’s hero.”
It seems possible, even likely, that the reason for Eleven’s connection to children is wrapped up in the fact that the first person he encountered was a seven-year-old Amy Pond. He was trying on a new face for the first time, she had just moved from Scotland to England and was all alone in a way, they grew up together. Little Amy is embedded in the Doctor’s psyche, so much so that the computer interface conjures her up to help the Doctor carry on after he’s been poisoned in “Let’s Kill Hitler.”
It’s his imprinting on Amy as a child when time runs backwards in “The Big Bang” that allows Amy to bring him back from an erased existence. When he goes and speaks to her as she sleeps, it not hard to understand why he would chose that point in time to impart those essential clues: children believe in magic, in the impossible. Young Amy needs the Doctor, would never give up on him because he is her hero.
In fact, Amy is perhaps a more interesting character as a child than she is as an adult. Those aspects of her that the Doctor connects to most are the ones he recognizes as part of the child he knew: her curiosity, her lack of fear, her stubbornness, their first meal of ice cream, fish fingers and custard. All these things make up the real reason the audience becomes invested in Amy. It’s fun to watch her and Rory grow together as a married couple, but her relationship to the Doctor is dependent upon that first meeting where yogurt was finally called out for being exactly what it is: “stuff with bits in.”
The Doctor finds a mirror-reflection of that relationship in Amy’s daughter, River Song (or Melody Pond, if you prefer). It’s all backwards. His lack of presence in her life as a child is what allows her to grow up into a programmed assassin. The Doctor helps you through life lessons, growing pains, the wonders of the universe. Without that guiding hand, there’s no telling what you might pick up in its stead.
And so the Doctor continues to be an empowering figure for children, and they continue to tune in every week no matter how terrifying the monsters. Because hiding behind the couch from Daleks is fun more so when you know that the Doctor can always be trusted to stop them.