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The future of Doctor Who, through the medium of meme Aug 10

I’ve been tagged by Andy with a meme to identify how to “fix” Doctor Who.

The discussion was started by (former?) Who novelist Lawrence Miles. This I learn from Andy’s blog – which is named for a quote from Lawrence, incidentally – and not from Lawrence’s blog, which I don’t read. I stress that because the meme sets out 25 headings to respond to and I’ve read those and Andy’s responses, but not Lawrence’s initial explanations. So apologies if I misconstrue his intentions at any point.

Here’s Lawrence’s introductory blurb:

The following 25-point programme may not be a way of guaranteeing that Doctor Who is great – only a competent scriptwriting team could ensure that, and in the Age of Chibnall, even competence is a precious commodity – but it would at least give the series a chance to escape its current rut of showbiz fan-fic and computer-generated slurry. Tick the ones you agree with, and if you tick all 25, then I’m available for a September wedding.

As this makes clear, the meme presupposes that Doctor Who is broken, so Lawrence and I differ even before we start.

Like Andy, I’ll comment on each of Lawrence’s 25 suggestions and mark my agreement out of 4 so as to reach a percentage measure at the end. Here we go.

1. A companion who isn’t from the early twenty-first century.
It might make a change now and again, but would it make Doctor Who better? The main role of the companion is to be a way in for the viewer. The more we can identify with them, the better, so going out of your way to choose someone less like the viewer just for the sake of it seems a bit perverse. There have been very good companions who aren’t contemporary humans, but there have been many good ones who have. (Kylie Minogue’s character in Voyage of the Damned isn’t an early 21st century human, incidentally, and as a pseudo-companion is my least favourite of all of the new series companions.)

2. A companion who’s played by a proper actress.
Interesting that Lawrence doesn’t appear to question that the companion should be female. There goes thinking outside the box. While I’d question the implied criticism of the actors who’ve played companions so far, it’s also self-evident that actors in the series should be good.

3. We don’t necessarily need a single companion.
We’re back to 1. already – maybe we don’t need a single companion, but are several companions a recipe for success, or just something different to do for the sake of it? It’s been done a few times in the new series already, and it can work, but I’m not sold that it’s a big deal.

4. No more affairs for the Doctor.
Fine by me.

5. A less sexy, less athletic Doctor.
Absolutely. In fact, the uglier the better. I always said Joseph Merrick should have taken over from Tom Baker. (Actually, I agree with Andy – I’d prefer a good-looking Doctor to not realise he’s good looking. It shouldn’t matter whether he’s attractive or not.)

6. No spurious super-powers.
Fair enough. I wasn’t a fan of the Last of the Time Lords Space Jesus.

7. The Doctor shouldn’t know everything.
Well, Lawrence has stumbled across one of my number one Doctor Who bugbears: when the Doctor wanders onto a space station, say, takes a look around at a pile of mysterious alien corpses and declares “It’s the 25th century, this is Platform Six, those Terileptils are dead, and they appear to have been murdered by the Ice Warriors, a race from the planet Mars.” How the Doctor finds out what’s going on and who’s behind it should be the making of the story.

8. The Doctor shouldn’t be perfect.
He isn’t, and I don’t think the series has particularly suggested that he is. But I agree.

9. The Doctor’s presence should never, ever be the solution.
Well, it should, but I know what Lawrence is getting at. It should be the things the Doctor does, not the fact of who he is. Although if there’s something worse than the Doctor’s presence being the solution, it’s the Doctor’s presence making no real difference – see Planet of the Ood.

10. No technobabble.
It was OTT in Journey’s End, but you’ll always have some.

11. Absolutely no “magic wand” technology.
A bit of harmless sonic screwdriving now and again isn’t the end of the world, but I agree that technobabble as a solution (as opposed to local colour) is undesirable.

12. Please, in the name of God, less stories set on modern-day Earth.
Or fewer, even. The series has moved this way after a very (and understandably) Earth-based first series. I’m fairly happy with the balance now.

13. No more alien invasions.
I’m not sure there’s much more that can be done in the way of alien invasions, but if there are good stories still to tell, they shouldn’t not be made for the sake of it, if you can extract my meaning from that sentence.

14. Stop wasting money on “big”.
Big is good. Small is good too. But when you’re a Saturday night primetime series about an alien time traveller who can go anywhere in the universe, being big is perfectly natural.

15. Less CGI monsters.
Sometimes CGI is the best solution. Sometimes it isn’t. The CGI Slitheen in Aliens of London are actually nastier looking than the foam suit versions.

16. Stop making straight-to-video horror movies with all the horror taken out.
I don’t really get the point that’s being made here, even with Andy’s summary. Stealing Borrowing from other genres and formats is fine by me.

17. We need writers who can write, not just directors who can direct.
As this is palpably true (see my comment on the companion actors above), I’ll have to agree, but I reject the implication that we don’t have that at the moment. I’m not going to list the plethora of good writers (and their CVs) who’ve worked on the new series so far, but I will note in passing that it has just won its third Hugo Award in a row (for Blink).

18. I should obviously be hired as a writer.
I disagree. In the nicest possible way.

19. Make sure you hire the right “cult” comic-book author.
I don’t read comics, but I agree as far as the “get someone good” bit goes.

20. We need one – just one – proper historical story.
No, we don’t. It might be nice – it might not be. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is miles better than Black Orchid. The Caves of Androzani beats The Highlanders hands down. Yes, The Romans and The Aztecs are great, but that’s because they’re great, not because they’re historicals. The deciding factor should be whether it’s a good story, not whether it satisfies a fannish whim.

21. Historical stories that are actually about the era in question.
See above. Pyramids of Mars isn’t about the era in question and it was still very successful. I sympathise with Andy’s point about the amount of spent telling us how great certain historical figures were though.

22. Monsters that fit the story.
By definition they shouldn’t not fit. Lawrence probably outlines how he decides this in his post.

23. Enough of the Daleks.
Yeah, there’s nothing worse than bringing back a hugely popular monster, is there? Particularly one that takes the credit for the series’ original success in the sixties. I’m not a massive Dalek fan, but I understand the sense in bringing them back, and they have been well realised in the new series. The specials next year might be a good opportunity to “rest” them.

24. Say no to story arcs.
No, I’ll say no to saying no to story arcs. Story arcs reward the returning viewer (and give an extra excitement to fans). Story arcs drive a series forwards and give it a shape. What we dismissively refer to as “arcs” in fandom are just “stories” in other dramas: characters developing, plot threads running through a season. As long as they aren’t detracting from the standalone episodes, story arcs are worth having.

25. Less Confidential, more Totally.
I’d have both, but it makes little difference to the series itself (and as if removing a primetime behind-the-scenes show on BBC Three would actually make the main series more successful).

I make that 48% agreement with Lawrence’s prescription, and most of that comes from agreeing with the proposals that Doctor Who should be well-written, well-acted and feature monsters that fit the stories they’re in. Groundbreaking stuff.

Even the new series, with a more character-driven emphasis than much classic Who, depends on good stories. You don’t achieve that with a JNT-style shopping list approach (as proven by a new series story whose blushes I’ll spare). “There should be one historical” is not a solution. But then I’m not convinced there’s a massive problem.

Category: Doctor Who  | Tags: ,

4 Responses

  1. 1

    Hmm… you like well-written, well-acted stuff. Best avoid Bonekickers then…

  2. I think I broadly agree with your analysis. The only thing I would say regarding the “invasion” stories is that they all seem so inconsequential, with the obvious exception of Turn Left (which wasn’t an invasion story as much as it was a story about invasion stories). If you are going to have aliens invade central London (and central London could do with a break), then it ought to lead to some kind of government policy. I’m amazed that the UK hasn’t become some sort of police state after the Slitheen, the Sycorax, the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Racnoss, Harold Saxon and a bloody great big Titanic reproduction nearly landing on Buck House. Just look at what’s happened in the UK after a couple of suicide bombings.

    Is it me or were all the “invasions” in the 70s hushed up? It strikes me that the Doctor Who Earth should by now be on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown. That in itself would be interesting to explore. But in the future, no more writing off major invasions of space aliens by blaming Ken Livingstone.

  3. 3
    matt michael 

    I got 40% match. Most of the points are self-evidently right or else absolutely bonkers. But I do think the Doctor tends to be too all-knowing.

    However, so long as that damned planet or its tiresome inhabitants never get resurrected I’ll be happy enough.

  4. I’ve just got round to digging this up and reading your responses. Mostly it’s fair enough, but I do feel I should just point out that the point you attribute to me (about historicals telling us how great Agatha/William/Charles/etc are for so much of the time) isn’t really my point, it’s something Lawrence wrote about. Can’t remember if it was in the post that made these prescriptions, or the review of Wasp/Unicorn.

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