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Pop-Drama: I Cross The Void Beyond The Mind or A Man Is The Sum Of His Memories, A Time Lord Even More So

Posted in Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on November 20, 2009

Going from the easiest character to get a handle on, we come to the hardest one.

Millennium Elephant’s Daddy Richard has actually sent me his own idea of how to revamp the Doctor, which I’ve carefully not looked at prior to writing this so I can go in with a clear head (though I’m looking forward to reading it as soon as I finish this). However, I’ve talked about the Doctor with so many people that I’m *certain* there are going to be chunks of good ideas from Tilt, or Jennie, or Alex Wilcock, or half a dozen other friends of mine, in the mix here. ETA Specifically, the idea of the Doctor’s past being broken apparently comes from a conversation I had with Tilt a few years ago. Credit where it’s due

Whereas the problem for Tarzan is that the character’s millieu is fine, but the character himself isn’t usable any more without some major restructuring, the Doctor has been restructured to death when the original character was and is a great one.

One major appeal of the Doctor as a character, originally, was his mystery – hence the name, Doctor Who? – but the mystery was slowly eroded over the years. By the time the TV series had finished, we knew the name of his planet, the name of the last three presidents of the planet, the name of his tutor, what order he belonged to, his nickname at school, his favourite type of jazz… the Doctor’s origins are probably as thoroughly documented as those of any fictional character. Just compare Sherlock Holmes, a fairly similar character – we know he has a brother, and that he went to university, and that’s pretty much it.

To his credit, Andrew Cartmel, the last script editor of the show, recognised that this lack of mystery was a problem, and made some steps to rectify the damage that had been done (mostly by his immediate predecessor in the job, Eric Saward). However, this mostly consisted of having the Doctor go round saying “Woo, I am so very mysterious and spooky. What deep, dark secrets am I hiding? Whatever they are, they’re very mysterious ones, for I am a sinister manipulator whose plans have wheels within wheels.”

After the TV series finished, the New Adventures line of books continued along these lines, but eventually *revealed* why he was so mysterious and spooky – it was because he was the reincarnation of the secret most important founder of all Time Lord society and much more special than everyone else… you get the idea already without me having to go into any more details.

One of the few things the Welsh series has done right is getting rid of most of this backstory, by saying it all blew up offscreen between series and barely referencing any of it except in passing. But the backstory’s still *there* – the Doctor is not a mystery any more.

So we make him a mystery even to himself.

In my show, Doctor Who (yes, that *is* his name – check the credits of every pre-1980 episode if you don’t believe me) is a doddery old man, seemingly forgetful and distant, but capable of staggering insight and with utter moral courage. He travels the universe in a ship called the TARDIS, which we never see (but do hear), and which we NEVER see the inside of. He has two companions – a woman to do all the fighting and a man to get tied to the railway tracks.

The Doctor can at times show an almost eidetic memory, but other times he’ll say things like “Daleks? What are they?” At first – for maybe the first dozen stories or so – it’ll seem like he’s going senile, but then one of his companions will mention a story we’ve seen, to be greeted with “Hm? What’s that? Nonsense! Cybermen couldn’t even survive in the Venusian atmosphere!” (or something along those lines) – and we are shown absolute proof that this is the case. That story could never have happened.

Because the Doctor is a Trickster character, and that involves embracing multiplicity and paradox – but sometimes that can go too far. The Doctor has travelled forward, backward and sideways in time enough, meddling all the time, that his own timeline has fractured. He no longer has a consistent history, and the unspoken reason for everything he’s doing is to build himself a past.

The question “Doctor Who?” is one he actually has to ask of himself – he has to build a history around himself, try to create a consistent timeline where none exists. He has to decide if he was ‘loomed’ or born, if the Hartnell Doctor was the first or if the ones Morbius saw when he went “Back! Back into your past!” came before him. If the TV movie counted.

But understand, this is NEVER stated explicitly. NEVER. Millennium complained, quite rightly, about the new Star Trek film and Lawrence Miles’ book Interference, saying:

if that’s what you want to do, then just call it “Doctor Who Unbound” and do it! Don’t lumber yourself, and all the rest of us, with a hundred and sixty thousand words of justification for why you are allowed to do it.

A series based around fixing continuity points and coming up with elaborate justifications for changes is pointless. So we just do it. Have a multi-Doctor team up where one or two of the Doctors are familiar ones, but others are Doctors who never appeared on TV before. Have him remember the events of the Cushing films as if they happened. Shred the concepts of ‘canon’ and ‘continuity’, but do it in such a way it provides a powerful motivator for *character action*. The Doctor’s choices now don’t affect just his future, but his past as well. He not only has to live with the consequences of his actions, he has to *have lived with them*.

But it should all be subtext – this would be very gradually revealed over the course of maybe five years’ worth of stories, and even at the end we wouldn’t know what the Doctor’s new past was, just that he had one.

The format of the show would be like Colin Baker’s first series – forty-five minute episodes, all two-parters. Anything less than 90 minutes is simply not long enough to tell a decent story in, in a genre where you have to set up not only new characters but a whole new world, while the cliffhanger seems to me to be a fairly important part of the show as it was. Given that people nowadays have no attention span and won’t wait four weeks for a single story, that seems like the optimum format. Each story should be complete in itself – while there should be continuity of character, and progress through the series, the series shouldn’t be based on ‘story arcs’ in the modern sense, where you have to watch every episode or you’re lost. It should be possible to treat each two-parter as, to all intents and purposes, a feature film.

The Doctor himself should be written as four parts Sherlock Holmes to one part each Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, and should be played by a very elderly-seeming, patrician gentleman who projects dignity. There should be no more than *one* old monster/adversary per year (Tom Baker only did one Cyberman story and two Dalek ones in seven years in the role – that seems about right to me) and if at all possible each series should contain stories in several distinct genres (broad farce, psychological horror, hard science fiction etc).

But most of all, getting rid of the baggage surrounding the character, and removing his past altogether, allows me to make one very important point – possibly the biggest thing the Welsh series gets wrong:
The Doctor is special because of what he does, not who he is.

Since the mid-80s, almost every take on the character has been infected with Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey crap (and if there’s one thing I wish I could purge from our culture altogether, it’s that horrible, awful idea that a good story must needs be propaganda for the ideas of predestination and rule by aristocracy). If the Doctor is The Other, legendary founder of Time Lord society or even more than that… if he’s the godlike figure the new series makes him, then he’s just special because he was born special, and you weren’t, so tough luck.

If, on the other hand, he’s a wanderer with no past and no future, forming himself one experience at a time, the ultimate self-made man, then he’s someone you can aspire to be. You or I will never bring down the Daleks by applying handwavium and being special gods, but we *could* stand up to tyranny because it’s the right thing to do, and that’s what the Doctor should do. Other than the TARDIS, which is just a macguffin to get the Doctor into place for the story, the Doctor should do nothing that requires any abilities which it’s not possible for a human being in the early twenty-first century to have. He should know more than everyone else, but because he’s *learned* it. He gets out of prison cells using his wits, not a sonic screwdriver. At the moment, anyone watching the Welsh series can’t ask “What would the Doctor do in this situation?” because the answer is “some sort of deus ex machina handwave involving nanites and the sonic screwdriver”. That would change on my show.

More of these in the next few days.

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32 Responses

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  1. Wesley said, on November 20, 2009 at 12:58 am

    The “mystery to himself” idea is similar to what the BBC books series tried in the waning days of the eighth Doctor era–they gave him amnesia. This was, of course, backwards–he was a mystery to himself, but not to the audience, who knew more than he did.

    Personally, though, I’m not bothered by a lack of mystery. I don’t think he needs it. If I were allowed to backseat-drive a Doctor Who series, I’d go back to the original TV series’s portrayal of the Doctor as a scientist and a scholar–someone who travels out of curiosity rather than any kind of driving purpose. He’d be amazed and amused by the universe. Instead of shopping and gushing fanboyishly at historical celebrities, he’d track down weird mysteries and fortean phenomena, enthuse about stargazing and botany, build gadgets and delightedly explain to his companions how some phenomenon they’re observing ties in to a particularly cool law of physics. A geek hero, in short. In an increasingly dumbed-down world, Doctor Who would be about how rewarding it can be to use your brain.

    He’d fight evil, too, of course–even actively seek out evils to fight–in the same way, and for the same reasons, that amateur detectives in classic mystery novels solve murders. He’d be serious about the job, but not always about the way he did it–moral righteousness combined with hobbyist enthusiasm.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on November 20, 2009 at 6:38 pm

      Oh, the character of the Doctor would be quite like your description (although I would never use the word ‘geek’ about the character, because the word has a lot of connotations that essentially now seem to boil down to ‘passive consumer of science-fiction-like media product’. There’s nothing in your description other than that that I’d disagree with, but it’s possible to do both…

    • Alex S said, on November 23, 2009 at 11:33 am

      They did go past amnesia at times and into something very like this idea of the fractured timeline. The last Eighth Doctor book, The Gallifrey Chronicles by the excellent Lance Parkin, managed to incorporate the Doctor’s status as a fictional character, established that the Comic Relief Curse Of Fatal Death and the website’s Richard E Grant animations were both just as canonical as Eccleston, and referenced details from all sorts of other out-of-continuity offshoots with transparent glee. Basically, the same logic as Grant Morrison’s Hypertime – if it’s cool, then it’s part of the story, because getting hung up on the continuity details is no fun.
      (I think the audio Zagreus implied something fairly similar, but that was such a mess that it doesn’t make such a compelling case)

      • Andrew Hickey said, on November 23, 2009 at 11:57 am

        I don’t know if you read my hyperpost series of posts, but I touched on some of that stuff there, in what some would say was excruciatingly tedious detail. It’s a similar thing to what I’m thinking of doing, but instead of saying “Everything’s true”, it’s “Nothing is true, everything is permissible”. The two are often functionally the same, but have different feels to them…

        • pillock said, on November 23, 2009 at 12:23 pm

          They sure do! grumble grumble hypertime grumble…

  2. pillock said, on November 20, 2009 at 2:13 am

    I both like this, and have one for this.

    The Doctor — sorry, Doctor Who — as someone trying to construct his own past is pretty rich stuff, metaphorically speaking, so I think you hit the target with “drama”. Even more to my liking, you’re damn right we don’t need to get bogged down with Daleks and Cybermen every single story; imagine my shock when I discovered the Tennant series had so many goddamn Daleks in it, Daleks everywhere. I like the Daleks, but I don’t need to see them all the time. Proper use of major villains in serial storytelling is important stuff, for writers and artists of all kinds using them is like hitting the button marked “turbo”…I’m reminded of the All-New, All-Different X-Men, a bimonthly title that took off like crazy in the Cockrum years with the reintroduction of Magneto…and then again took off like crazy with him again, a couple of years later, when Byrne was on board. Because Magneto isn’t just any old spice: he isn’t pepper, he’s saffron.

    This gets lost, sometimes.

    Likewise the Daleks, obviously, and the Master and the Cybermen too. You have to be able to forget about them for a while, once in a while.

    Anyway, obviously I can find nothing to argue with, here. I thought the Eccleston Doctor did a good job of clearing the decks with minimal fuss, and introducing some dramatic tension at the same time, all without spoiling the broth (although even Eccleston had a “yoomans, ain’t they wonderful, nobody dies today” moment or two — but oh well), but obviously you couldn’t go back to that particular well, which seems pretty advanced on its way to getting poisoned now anyway.

    Such hopes I had!

    So going right back to Cushing where necessary, not in terms of continuity but of mood, strikes me as a nice, ambitious, focussed strategy. You’ve described a perfectly watchable show that wouldn’t make me mad at all. Very pleasant.

    (Also, I really hate the Looms, you know?)

    • Wesley said, on November 20, 2009 at 11:58 am

      I still think the best use of the Daleks was in the New Adventures books, in which we heard about them but (for legal reasons) never saw them. As long as they stayed offstage, they were scary again.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on November 20, 2009 at 6:46 pm

      Exactly. And even *in* the major-villain stories, you keep them to the background as much as possible. The two best post-1963 Dalek stories are Genesis and Remembrance of the Daleks. In Genesis, the Daleks have 15 minutes screen time in a two-hour story. In Remembrance they have more than that, but they’re still definitely in the background – the real story is about the various mysteries and plotting factions surrounding them.

      I thought the Eccleston series was halfway to being good Doctor Who, but it turned out that all the bits I thought were good were the bits they threw away when Tennant came on board…

  3. pillock said, on November 20, 2009 at 2:14 am

    So, just let me finish up my Tarzan, and I’ll get right on it…

    • pillock said, on November 21, 2009 at 6:35 am

      Doggone it, I actually can’t do that one…it’s my friend Ed’s big idea, not mine!

      Sigh, back to the drawing board…

  4. Holly said, on November 20, 2009 at 7:54 am

    He has two companions – a woman to do all the fighting and a man to get tied to the railway tracks.

    This is why I love you.

  5. Millennium's Daddy Richard said, on November 20, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Well, pleased to say that (mostly) we are coming at the problem in the same crucial way: the essence of the series is what the Doctor does, and NOT the magical superpowers that he has from being a Time Know-all from Planet Gobshyte :)

    As an aside:

    “Have him remember the events of the Cushing films as if they happened.”

    This has already happened in “Genesis of the Daleks” (unless the Doctor is fibbing to Davros when he says why the Invasion of Earth failed ;) )

    • Andrew Hickey said, on November 20, 2009 at 10:16 am

      You got that, then? Was wondering who’d pick up on that one ;)

  6. Zom said, on November 20, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Yep. Sounds good. I would want to see the Tardis, though.

    I always want to like Doctor Who more than I do – unfortunately the elements I want to see are gestured towards, or have shown up once or twice, but simply aren’t there enough

    1. Middle age/to old age doctor. Yes, for sooooo many reasons ranging from political to dramatic. Absent minded/trickster/senile Doctor=big yes.

    2. Mystery. It’s called Dr *Who*, for christsake, and it’s about time travel, a device which has huge epistemological implications, and pretty much runs certain sorts of certainties into the ground

    3. MYSTERY TWICE! It’s features a lead character who can run the gamut of infinity.

    4. Technology that looks like magic in a Lovecraftian mold. In fact ancient eldritch forces fullstop. To me the Daleks should fit this bill, as should the Cybermen.

    5. Strangeness/otherness. I mean, look, what is that business about the Cybermen being killed by gold? Strange and fascinating blend of cyborg/robot and vampire/werewolf/supernatural. Love it. Very disconcerting if handled right. Lots there to play with if you have the eyes to see it.

    6. Tied to my points about infinity and epistemology above, by (very occasional) turns a sense of awe at the sheer gobsmacking unbelievableness of the Doctor’s stomping ground, but *not* to translate this into epicness. I’m talking about the feeling one gets when one looks up at the sky on a clear night vs the feeling one gets when watching Lord of the Rings. Overhype? Nnnyeah maybe, but I think it’s worth shooting for.

  7. pillock said, on November 20, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Okay, well I want to read Zom’s now.

  8. Zom said, on November 20, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Should add that a man attempting to construct his past from the well of infinity strikes me as astoundingly profound and beautiful, not to mention existentially awesome/terrifying. You could bump into soooo many dramatic, philosophical, mystical, psychological, and – and this is a word I’m loathe to use but it just seems so right in this context – spiritual questions/vistas along the way.

    Andrew, I’ve been thinking about heroic hyping the X-Men pretty much all year, but have been put off by the horrible facts of Morrison’s experience on the book. In conversation with Amy yesterday it occurred to me that, fuck it, we should go further and write something that fits our vision for the title. Mine our thinking to its core so that whatever we find doesn’t look sue-able and get that bad boy out there into the world – I can guarantee it won’t smell like any other superhero comic (as long as we can get the right artist!). I think you should do the same with this. You have the passion, the skill and the vision. Write a better Dr Who, call it something else, and sell it.

    Should we form a pact?

  9. Gavin Burrows said, on November 20, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    You’re really taking the Doctor so far back to his roots it’s before he even erupted above ground. This ‘amnesiac Doctor’ comes from early planning meetings, doesn’t he?

    (By which I mean you’re sourcing your Doctor from that root. You’re talking about much else, but that’s really undoing the knots they subsequently got him in.)

    It also occurs to me that an amnesiac Doctor would be a better identification figure for a young audience. He wouldn’t recognise, say, returning Ice Warriors any more than they would.

  10. Zom said, on November 20, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    At the moment, anyone watching the Welsh series can’t ask “What would the Doctor do in this situation?” because the answer is “some sort of deus ex machina handwave involving nanites and the sonic screwdriver”. That would change on my show.

    That’s how it seems to me too. Not good.

  11. malartart said, on November 20, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Yeah you’ve really got me thinking.

    Ive always liked the idea of Dr Who but not the execution as it were.

    ‘my’ dr is peter davison who i remember with affection and even remember colin bakers as being ‘odd and interesting’

    As an adult going back and re watching Jon Pertwee sticks out as my ‘favourite’ dr probably because (I love jon pertwee ( big w.gummidge fan) ) and the character is more grounded -literally- therefore more relatable. Tom Baker, even though fantastic, reminds me of an icon so iconic it detracts from the original source (ie-sherlock holmes is known as wearing a deerstalker even though he didn’t in the original stories- i hope you catch my draft) when dr who returned I loved the eccleston version (although I could ve done without the farting aliens) but could never get into the tennant version. Reading your blog im beginning to realise why…

    keep up the good work

    mal art

  12. Gavin Robinson said, on November 20, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I usually try not to talk about Doctor Who on the internet (I’m scared of continuity nerds, I like to refer to the main character as “Doctor Who”, and I’ve been involved in online Star Wars fandom enough to know that online fandom is not a good way to live your life), but this seems like a safe place to come out. So, I like Doctor Who, and I like your version even more. I especially like the way you raise awkward questions about identity, memory and truth but refuse to give easy answers to them. The amnesiac thing has so much potential for other genres too eg historical fiction. Imagine Richard III, Oliver Cromwell or Douglas Haig trying to work out who they were and what they’d done just by reading what other people had written about them.

    I’m not sure if stories would need to be 2 episodes. Blakes 7 packed an awful lot into a single 50 minute episode even though it had more main characters than Doctor Who and often had 2 concurrent plots. Although there were a few story arcs, most episodes were standalone stories. The Professionals was even faster paced – like a film compressed into half the time – but in that case they didn’t have much world building to do. In contrast, a lot of the old-school Who that I’ve rewatched over the last year or so seems very slow with lots of unnecessary padding. If you’re going for mystery and uncertainty then less might be more.

    Also can the male companion be wearing nothing but a thong, a bow tie and lots of body oil? Well, it’s for the mums…

    • Holly said, on November 20, 2009 at 7:07 pm

      Also can the male companion be wearing nothing but a thong, a bow tie and lots of body oil?

      I like you too!

      (Though now that I say that Andrew will tell me the male companion’s going to be someone who looks more like Oliver Cromwell than that one rugby player I like…)

    • Kieran said, on November 20, 2009 at 10:57 pm

      The slow pace of the old series worked really well for horror and mystery I think, since they’d happily throw in a near-wordless ten minute sequence of “strange goings on in a factory” or what have you, with fairly subtle music. Neither of which modern telly folks seem willing to put in, and if that awful five-day Torchwood thing is any indication, they’ll just stretch out the same idea over whatever period you give them, mandatory two-parters would just make the editors sloppy.

      I really love the set-up you’ve described here, really suggests that time is a wilderness, and makes the doctor mythic yet human, but I’m suprised that despite some fairly specific complaints* you mention neither sets nor music. Or does “Tangerine Dream and high-budget theatre” go without saying?

      *I must confess I found your complaint about the Doctor’s age last time you wrote about the issue rather short sighted, a “but he’s not *my* green lantern!” sort of a deal, especially since for all his awful mugging Tenant does have a Kyle MacLachlan style natural trustworthyness which seems essential to the character. But the tone you’ve settled on here really does call for an older actor.

  13. sean witzke said, on November 20, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Steve Coogan in 24 Hr Party People with robots. Rutger Hauer as the Master. Give me my money now.

  14. Wesley said, on November 21, 2009 at 12:53 am

    A couple of additional comments: I recalled later that a couple of BBC Books (The Year of Intelligent Tigers and The Slow Empire–I recalled the titles because I’d written reviews of them once) had tried to do the building-an-identity thing, in a very different way, when the eighth Doctor had amnesia.

    Also, the actor I’d hire to play the Doctor–if I could, somehow, convince anybody to take the job–would be Tom Waits. (I’m thinking mostly of his performances as cheerfully odd characters in Mystery Men and Wristcutters.)

  15. Harvey Jerkwater said, on November 21, 2009 at 1:10 am

    As a non-fan who knows little about the character and cares less, I gotta say, I like this, and would give it a shot. (I gave the current series a shot because Freema Agyeman is mind-meltingly hot. After a few episodes, I gave up. It’s just not good.) You’ve created a cool basic concept with a hell of a lot of room to move. Lots of nifty ideas ready to roll, plus the potential for Big Fun Genre Action and a minimum of “continuity overhead.” Sweet.

    Also, I fully support the “Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey Can Bite My Crank” school of thought. Hear, hear.

  16. Marc Burkhardt said, on November 21, 2009 at 5:20 am

    That’s what I always liked about the Davison Doctor – and later, Troughton when I finally saw some of his episodes: the fact that the guy often seemed utterly over his head and was able to persevere because of brilliant – if desperate – improvisation. No fancy sonic screwdrivers there …

    I like your idea of taking the Doctor back to his roots, as many say above. Hugh Laurie, in a pseudo-House mode – would be my choice for the role although he may not be enough of an old man.

  17. Tilt Araiza said, on November 22, 2009 at 6:05 am

    For a moment I thought that photo was Frank Randle.

    You really need to get hooked on Public Eye. Its relevance to Dr Who is that the lead character is an incredibly charismatic problem solver and yet on paper is a cypher. Frank Marker is totally a confection of remarkable deeds and remarkable acting, but his past is (largely) unspoken. The relevant bits of conversation we had years ago were my handwave to make the Doctor’s history and identity mysterious by virtue of being null (fortunately, you haven’t reproduced the meat of my relaunch pitch which was very much poor man’s Rod Serling).

  18. [...] (Pop-Drama 2.5) By Andrew Hickey I’ve been away a few days, and the responses to the Doctor Who post have brought up some very interesting points, so I thought I’d go through those I’ve [...]

  19. pillock said, on November 23, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Justin has a Who, by the way…

  20. [...] But once again it’s one of these. [...]

  21. [...] the comments to my Doctor Who Pop-Drama post he wrote: Andrew, I’ve been thinking about heroic hyping the X-Men pretty much all year, but have [...]

  22. diffrentcolours said, on March 16, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Re-reading this because you linked to it from a later post, I can’t help but think of the “reconstructing from amnesia” parts as being reminiscent of a Spectrum computer game called iD.

    In this “game” you had to interrogate (using some fairly sophisticated text parsing for the time) some kind of time-travelling entity, which has been present (possibly deliberately) at several pivotal moments in human history, often influencing events by taking a particular inanimate form. The one example that springs to mind is that iD was a reed that a young Adolf Hitler grabbed to save himself from drowning when he fell into a river as a child. However, iD rarely seems sure what it has been in the past, and its statements change over time, not least in relation to what you have to say to it.

    I’m sure that if I replayed it as an adult I’d find it desperately simplistic, but as a child it was magical!


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