Screen Test

Kiddy TV and dark humour: just what the doctor ordered

It is possible to spend years hearing grown men and women enthuse about a cult science-fiction show called Doctor Who - and not one will think to mention that it's a children's programme.

Such is the fervour of adult Whovians - fans of the long-running series (1963 to present) about the adventures of an eccentric time-travelling humanoid alien known as the Doctor - that many seem to internalise or downplay this little detail.

So, when the first-time non-fans - a demographic that includes most people who did not grow up with British television - sit down and watch an episode, as some will given the hype over the new female Doctor, they may be bemused.

All the tropes of kiddy television are there, including a broad, exaggerated acting style, low-budget or questionable special effects and an action-packed but emotionally simplistic storyline.

The buzz ahead of this new batch of episodes has to do with the fact that, after 12 male actors playing the Doctor, the new one is crime drama Broadchurch (2013 to 2017) star Jodie Whittaker.

The first episode features the Doctor's crash to earth in Sheffield, England, and she realises that she has been regenerated this time into a woman's body.

Shortly thereafter, a much less friendly alien pops up and starts killing people, which is the kind of problem the Doctor travels through space and time to help humans with, using her intelligence, resourcefulness and pluck.

Jodie Whittaker (left) is the first female iteration of Doctor Who.
Jodie Whittaker is the first female iteration of Doctor Who. PHOTO: BBC

  • WATCH IT / DOCTOR WHO 11

  • BBC First (StarHub TV Channel 522) and BBC Player; new episodes available on Monday mornings

    3 stars


    CAMPING

    Mondays on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) at 10am and 11pm and on HBO Go and HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602)

    3 stars

That idealism is part of the show's enduring appeal and perfect for a young audience.

Whittaker's casting sparked a nasty backlash and accusations that her casting was politically correct, feminist nonsense. But the two episodes provided for review show there is zero reason a fictional universe-saving entity shouldn't be female.

The stories are firmly anchored in the character's offbeat sense of humour, although the comedy doesn't always land and Whittaker's breathless zeal can grate sometimes.

The supporting players - including a rookie police officer and a vlogger - are never fully fleshed out, but well-acted enough and relatable.

For grown-up Doctor Who fans, the show has the nostalgia factor going for it. For Britons, this has become something of a cultural touchstone.

In today's pop culture, there's a certain cachet in loving something that telegraphs itself as quirky, age-inappropriate or niche. For adult viewers with no Doctor Who baggage, though, the appeal may be limited.

Camping is a new comedy from the creators of Girls (2012 to 2017), Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner.

In that series, they demonstrated their keen eye for the love-hate undercurrents in modern relationships, especially among women and young urbanites.

Here, their canvas is smaller, but no less fertile: a camping trip in the middle of nowhere. What better petri dish for long-held, unspoken resentments between family and friends?

Even better if the trip has been planned by an insufferable, passive-aggressive control freak like Kathryn (Jennifer Garner). She cows her meek husband Walt (David Tennant) and too-nice sister Carleen (Ione Skye) into doing her bidding, but is starting to get on everyone's last nerve.

Things unravel further when one of their party shows up with a new girlfriend - the free-spirited Jandice (Juliette Lewis) - who starts poking the hornet's nest.

The show rubs these and other archetypes together in the hope they will spark - and they do.

Yet, in the four episodes previewed, it hasn't quite come together yet. Some characters are underdeveloped or just forgettable, while with Kathryn, the writers are trying to do too much.

On the one hand, they play up her monstrousness for all its worth and get some great exchanges and one-liners. "Do you want me to have a dysfunctional pelvic floor for the whole of your birthday weekend?", she huffs when Walt tries to make love to her.

On the other, they want the audience to feel for her. She has legitimate health issues, including chronic pain and the after-effects of a hysterectomy - something co-creator Dunham struggled with as well.

Kathryn complains about it so much that she sounds like a hypochondriac, but one slowly sees that it is real.

Before that point, though, she comes across as a bit of a pantomime villain.

With research suggesting that women who report pain to doctors are far more likely to be ignored or disbelieved, one hopes the show corrects this quickly and makes her less of a cartoon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2018, with the headline 'Kiddy TV and dark humour: just what the doctor ordered'. Print Edition | Subscribe