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