When times are tough, we – much like hermit crabs – like to return to what we know, to what makes us feel secure. It’s innate. It’s self-preservation. And we do it with everything, from the food we eat, to the content we consume, to the toys we play with. Right now, times are about as hard as they’ve been for a while. And they’re only going to get harder.
The last time we were experiencing this kind of turmoil was the 1970s and 80s. This was my childhood. There were three TV channels and no internet. I had an Atari 2600 and you could smell the dust burning on the transistors each time you flicked the ‘on’ switch. My parents were busy people so I spent a lot of time on my own. I didn’t mind. Quite liked it, in fact, and still do. I would watch some telly, play some LEGO and talk to the dog. No rolling news. Happy. Sometimes I would watch TV with my dad – co-viewing, they call it today. He passed away a few days after my 11th birthday, and one of the most foundational and special memories I have is of us watching Doctor Who together. The nostalgia of it explains my mild obsession with the travelling Galifraian today.
Nostalgia is so personal, but so shared all at once. And that is part of what makes it so very special; it is a powerful intoxicant. It presents our memories to us through the most rose-tinted of spectacles. And like the passage of time itself, nostalgia incessantly marches forward, taking every generation with it. Whether it be Pokémon driving the first wave of digital nostalgia or one of the 18.9 billion views the hashtag #nostalgia has on TikTok. It is, by definition, something that we can play to, use, ideate from and make great products people love because of. It is a platform that, if used wisely, can deliver the most incredible value to the people we make our wares for.
LEGO and Playmobil have both doubled down on the notion of nostalgia of late – LEGO by nurturing its AFOLs (Adult Fans Of LEGO), of which I am proudly one, and Playmobil by judiciously curating the most iconic of licences – A-Team, Back to the Future and Ghostbusters – to create a nostalgic bridge for parents and kids to cross from either side and meet in the middle.
But along with this there is a word that scares the living daylights out of me; I hear it far too often. That word is ‘reboot’. When the R word is applied to a children’s franchise it goes one of two ways (and more often than not, that way is south). A reboot is a risk. It is initiated with the best intentions, but nearly always as a roll of the dice to hit some nefarious financial target imposed by stakeholders that should know better. But, carried out successfully in a way that rebuilds, redevelops and re-presents your proposition, then it’s not so much about rebooting as making sure you are maintaining relevance.
It’s on that note that I return to memories of Doctor Who. About the time that Tom Baker regenerated into Peter Davison, Dekker, the toy company, released a simple play tent in the shape of The Tardis. It had an inflatable light on top (I think) and – very, very weirdly – it had a sense of spaciousness to it once you were ensconced inside. There was a console to drive the thing and, despite being restricted by the actual laws of physics, our imaginations expanded – literally bigger on the inside than on the outside. Of course, I didn’t have one, but my friend Paul down the road did. He also had a locked cupboard with every single Kenner Star Wars figurine in it. Paul would sometimes open this cupboard of delights from a galaxy far, far away and allow me a little peep. No touching, mind you. Just a look. But I am oversharing, of course. The point is that we played with that pretend Tardis in ways that 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds just wouldn’t now.
It was a different time. It was simpler and yes, I am finding myself nostalgic for those years and looking to the things that make me feel safe. And I am immeasurably keen that I share these things with my own children, just as my dad did.
And so, as we flash-forward from the 1970s and 1980s to the rather concerning 2020s, there is something quintessentially timely about the casting of Ncuti Gatwa as the Fourteenth Doctor. I find myself positively excited by it. He’s fresh, relevant, energetic and connects with an entirely new audience, as well as drawing the attention and interest of perhaps the most well established fandom in British sci-fi.
This timelessness, this relevance of the Doctor to each new generation, is beholden to the fact that in each new incarnation, this most incredible of characters connects with this entirely new audience. And this time they’ve channelled the power of the cosmos to give us a Doctor that speaks across time and space.
The newly incarnated BBC Kids and Family has made it its mission to create the nostalgia of the future, and whilst Doctor Who isn’t a Kids and Family production, it is a show for kids and families… to watch together. And, given the freshness and relevance of Ncuti, I wonder if children might just start playing in their own tent Tardis, and indeed create a sense of nostalgia and special memories of co-viewing as a family that they will share in 20 years time. At least, I hope so.
Gary Pope is the CEO and Co-Founder of family-focussed strategy and creative agency, KI (Kids Industries), as well as Children’s Ambassador for Products of Change.