When I heard they were resurrecting Doctor Who, I was overjoyed. For many years, Doctor Who was treated abominably by the BBC, as they heaped indignity upon indignity upon their tired workhorse: culminating with The Candy Man, a homicidal Bertie Basset from space. Every episode was the same 50 minutes of an eccentric man and an odd sidekick picked up at random, running around Britain being chased by men in suits. Nothing of consequence really happened, and you knew The Doctor would be okay, because he always wins.
With a near invincible time-travelling hero, and a Sonic Screwdriver that can open or break anything, it’s boring. Doctors may die, but they always get resurrected as ‘new Doctors’, with quirky scarves and stupid hats and a massive block of memory loss. I want the Doctor to be a hard-bitten grizzled cynic, perpetually fed up with mankind for not sorting its shit out. I want the Doctor to be utterly fed up with mankind, and to want a holiday. If I could time travel, and I was immortal, I’d have a sit down a cup of hot chocolate to ponder: what does it all mean? Is this it? Is all my life spent rescuing a species that mostly doesn’t even know I exist?
The Doctor is nothing more than an interstellar dandy, roaming a couple of planets, on a sci-fi bug hunt every week, and if the ratings drop, throw in a Dalek or a Cyberman. Don’t worry about making great, immortal television and concentrate on cheaply throwing out an episode, ticking off a check list :
Sonic Screwdriver? Check! Weird man In An Alien Suit? Check! Sidekick in mild peril? Check!
So, all those years ago, I breathed a sigh of relief. At last, I thought, the BBC will commission someone worthy of their flagship, one of the most brilliant creations of modern science fiction, and allow him the scope and breadth to break down the walls of tiny budgets and even smaller vision that have hemmed the Doctor in over the years.
The bottom line is that, despite what you might have read, seen, or heard…Doctor Who is nowhere near as good as you are told it is, as you think it is, or as you want it to be. Even now, Doctor Who is constrained by a poverty of vision that has seen only few truly memorable episodes since its resurrection.
Doctor Who could be brilliant, compelling storytelling, stretched over an immense arc, a vision of a work as genius as The Wire, a self-contained, fun, and massive world with the BBC treating sci-fi seriously for adults in a way that is mature and intelligent. But instead it is a self-contained, ghettoised niche of 50-minute chunks of ‘Doctor Versus The Aliens’ and potential squandered for merchandising opportunities, rubber masks, action figures, and pencil cases.
Given the rare and brilliant opportunity to create 18 hours of television, The BBC have instead concentrated on dumbing down each episode to a short self-contained narrative arc, and in these 50 minutes, each story must be told, numerous characters introduced, sliced off and (mostly) killed or saved. It’s not long enough.
When the Ecclestone series debuted, I was hoping – and again, hopes were dashed – by the hint of the potential of the first series, and hoping that instead of great, but self-contained, tiny stories, there was an enormous plot underneath it
What if, the Doctor’s big secret was that he was responsible for the death of Gallifrey and the Time Lords? What if that was his guilt? What if he saw himself as a Christ figure, saving failed and flawed civilisations the universe over in order to make up for that? What if he had been entrusted with that role by the Timelords, once they knew they were doomed, because he would be the only survivor? That’s exactly where I wanted the BBC to go – and they didn’t.
Make The Doctor something more than a flippant emotional blank with a quip, an admiring comment, and a Sonic Screwdriver. Give him depth instead of an idealised, celibate 12-year-old in a big coat.
Yes, there are episodes with an emotional arc that calls upon previous episodes in the series. Like The Simpsons, you can watch an episode, and if you miss the next ten, it doesn’t matter. Because in that time nothing fundamentally has changed. Every episode begins at the Reset Point, with everything in the same place it was at the beginning of the previous episode in almost every instance – aside from when the season is coming to a close and it’s time for contract renegotiations.
Remember the way the five-episode Torchwood recently gripped us all? If that’s what five episodes could do, is it not time for Doctor Who to pick up the mantle and create a massive, series-long character arc, time to tell stories, weave epic tragedies, take risks with the format and the medium, and step outside of lazy plotting? It’s time, Doctor, for more.
Think of what Doctor Who is not doing that it could.
What if there was a season that took a cue from brave, realistic, gritty television? What if the stakes were so high that you could start an episode with his sidekick being vapourised, tortured; something that makes it clear that the stakes are high, the game has changed and you’d better pay attention. Nothing and no-one is safe. Hell, regenerate the Doctor in the middle of a season. Shake it up. Think outside of the box.
Doctor Who isn’t just sci-fi; it’s mainstream, and because of that it has the power to take risks and make it not just good television, but compelling, intelligent, and fun.
Think of an immortal trapped in a world that is aging around him. Think of the possibilities of that. A flawed Doctor, who has fallen hopelessly in love, watching forever as his friends and loves age and wrinkle with time around him as he remains forever, permanently, thirty. The temptations open to him to go back in time, change the past and keep them forever young.
Only once or twice in the current batch of shows can I remember the show attempting any level of effective emotional impact: Dalek and the fated beach meeting between Rose and The Doctor.
Think of an Evil Doctor, who turns his back on an ungrateful universe to indulge his whims.
After all, time travel is ridiculously easy. If you make a mistake, just go back in time and fix it. I’d use my powers for good. My good and the good of others. After all, I could spend my entire time in bars, propped up, meeting the mothers of the Hitlers and Stalins and Mugabes and Celine Dions of this world. I’d seduce their mothers so that they would never meet their respective fathers. I would flip my scarf and turn myself into Hitler’s dad, Stalin’s dad, Mugabe’s dad. Sure, human history would correct the pre-ordained path of history with an equal but similar event, but then I could just travel back in time a.g.a.i.n. and ‘correct’ that correction by meeting the mothers of Alternate Reality Number #1’s Major Dictators.
Anyway, by this point, we’d be on Alternate Reality Number #2, so I’d have to identify the dictators in ‘That’ Reality, and meet their mothers…and then do the same in Alternate Reality Number #3. I’d be Fucking For Humanity. Literally saving mankind with the power of my Timelord Love Action, constantly chasing the bubble in the carpet…the endless cycle of being a playboy and saving the world.
Think of a meddling Time Lord who keeps going back in time to try and create their own paradise, meddling with time and absolute flippancy, going back ever further to correct his mistakes until he finds himself fighting at the very dawn of human evolution, or perhaps trying to avert the Daleks’ very creation? Strangling Davros at birth, for example, as some kind of sci-fi TerminatorLord? Show the consequences across 18 episodes, as he battles to correct The Time Paradox/Butterfly Effect, as his every attempt to alter the core thread of time results in ever more threatening consequences.
You could argue that by saving the world from the Sontaran/The Daleks/The Cookie Monster, I’d be changing human history anyway, so why not go the whole hog and do a proper job of it?
And not even a thank you from the ungrateful humans. They wake up everyday and go to work, and they haven’t got a clue that I, Doctor Who, have saved the world again. And it’s happening right now, as I type and as you read this; an alternate version of me is currently battling Cybermen in a quarry in Cardiff. I’m saving the world. Again and again and again. Three times before breakfast thanks to time travel. And thanks to time travel, there’ll always be time for breakfast. After all, if I am busy saving the world, and feel a bit peckish, then every time I get in the Tardis, I can just set the stopwatch, eat a decent bangers and mash, then travel back in time the exact-number-of-seconds it took to eat the bangers and mash, reappear without a second’s gap, and carry on saving the world. And no one would notice.
A sci-fi gonzo nuts Groundhog Day. Why not?
And if I stopped JFK getting assassinated, but this resulted in the assassination of Thatcher to compensate, I wouldn’t even lift a finger. Tramp the dirt down. The possibilities of time travel are quite literally infinite. And there’s nothing you could do, and nothing that could surprise you.
Why is it that time is treated so flippantly by the BBC? Why is time travel only used as an excuse to change the backdrop, put on a posh accent, zoom off to an old Victorian stately home, and run around the past for an hour?
There is more to Britain than Cardiff, and London.
Time to look further afield. Take the Doctor to Scotland, Northern Ireland, France (the Eurostar is dirt cheap), take him to the near future, take him back to the 1980s, take him to the 1480s, have him caught in the rise of Christ, the Second World War, anything other than the usual, utterly tedious contemporary dramas of ‘London And Cardiff Threatened By Men In Suits’. Have him tried as a wizard in the pogroms for using satanic magic. See him escape his circumstance without the Sonic Screwdriver. The stakes are low when you have a Magic Reset Machine.
And the paucity of the bad guys! Bad Guys in Doctor Who are crap. Maybe when I was eleven, I’d hide behind the sofa as the cardboard box of tricks called a Dalek evaporated most of mankind before retreating to the World Invasion Base in Battersea (pronounced “Bay-ter-seyar”). They’re always useless, and whilst they may kill the odd sidekick (including, somewhat criminally, K-9, who should’ve stuck around for longer than one pigging episode), Doctor Who Bad Guys never really threaten me.
For example, if Doctor Who was really going to be brilliant, I’d introduce a thirteen-episode story arc that revealed that the Daleks, The Cybermen, and so forth were actually creations of The Devil himself. After all, if the Lord God made the world, no doubt he made a lot of other worlds where maybe he got things wrong (though quite how a merciless and lethal planet made solely of war-mongering species survived long enough to think about attacking other species and other planets instead of blowing itself and everything else up is a philosophical discussion for Douglas Adams).
For example, let’s say that each episode explored a different ‘baddie’, The Cybermen, the Daleks, The Sontagen, The Neurofen, each of whom were an unsuccessful prototype by God to create a peaceful society. In the pecking order of warring species, mankind would be mostly harmless, consisting of a race that has barely mastered space travel and seems intent of killing itself slowly in a variety of ways: nuclear weapons, ecological suicide, that type of thing.
You could then, if you wanted, set up Baddies Number (say) #2, #4, #7, #11 and #13 to be thinly disguised pot-shots at, say, Bill Gates (“Conquering The World, One Desk At A Time! Who Do You Want To Invade Today?”), Jeremy Clarkson, and so forth, playing characters enslaving mankind into destructive behaviours and ways of thinking that Doctor Who has to overturn.
With this plot arc, you could go all tinfoil hat and implement the lead baddie as the mysterious “Them”.
Who is ‘Them’? You know. THEM. The unnamed guardinista liberal elite who control thought and make us all slaves. Or the capitalist master plan itself, a headless idea that can never be destroyed except through…The Power Of Communism! And Doctor Who! Make The Doctor a Stalinist. Or a Marxist-Leninist. I don’t care. Just make him more interesting than a sexless wonder constantly saving mankind from its own stupidity.
Why not treat time itself, and moving in it, as a weapon?
How about an episode where the Doctor is, for example, knocked over by a car crossing the road, and finds himself as persona non grata in a bureaucratic nightmare? The Doctor sectioned as a madman who thinks he’s a time-traveller battling a mindless administrator. If you must, make it a plot by The Master to make The Doctor doubt his own sanity.
Knock The Doctor out and give him amnesia. Destroy his personality for an episode and make him a reluctant saviour.
Make The Doctor a target for The Master’s bounty hunters. It’s a wee bit Boba Fett or, if you prefer, Trail Of The Pink Panther, but imagine an episode that sees The Doctor’s absent internal narrative (what does he do when he’s not busy saving our sorry asses, for example?), tinkering with a new K-9, suddenly finding himself under attack from an unknown enemy out to claim a bounty on his head. And this could happen at any time in the entire series.
Explore the mythology of Gallifrey. Show the downfall of the Time Lords to explain a conspiracy bigger than anyone imagined. Show plans within plans, plots within plots, dark actors, political conspiracies to overthrow the Time Lords that were successful, a plan by The Master where everything turned on its head. Strand The Doctor in an alternate universe where The Master rules everything because… maybe The Doctor didn’t win. Make The Doctor lose, fallible, hurt, injured. Raise the stakes.
The linear chronology of attacks is pathetic.
It’s as if the Bad Guys operate a rota, or a turns system like the DSS: “Ticket 67? It is your turn to destroy the world! You have 47 minutes, starting now!”
A weekly invasion rota. That could work out wonderfully. The Daleks, and The Cybermen, and the Dantaerians, and the Ibuprofens would all meet around a resplendent black-varnished table of the Guild Of Evil, and they would discuss their evil plan, how to cackle in an evil manner, the new supply contracts with Evil Inc., the service level agreements with Henchmen Temporary Staff – and how the new staff there are appalling managers and you just can’t get the staff these days, and, of course, the Rota of Attacks. They could argue about who goes next to destroy the world. MY TURN! Orders the Daleks. NO, commanded Cybermanokillerbot… YOU HAD LAST WEEK, IT IS TIME FOR THE RISE OF THE CYBERMEN!
And so forth. Until they destroy themselves in the famed End Of The World Running order Squabble Fest, dissolve the guild, and all declare war on each other. Their evil would cancel all their other evils out, and all the Doctor would have to do would be turn up smugly at the end. ‘Divide and Conquer’.
See, if they were truly evil, they’d launch simultaneous attacks so that the Doctor would be defeated. He’d be putting his all into stopping the Furred Killer Destroybots plan of attack variant 11.1, whilst at the same time, far away from his eyes, unbeknownst to the Doctor, the Daleks would be over-running some other plane of existence, flooding the third world with their latest mode of attack, destroying Rio.
The Creationists, the latest Doctor Who baddies who breathe life into inanimate objects, instilled all the statues in the world with a consciousness, but made the 125-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer sentient, and Christ himself set about rampaging around Rio like a holy, and righteous, cross between Godzilla, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and The Equaliser. Made of stone, he could not be ‘killed’, and imbued with Christ’s mythical powers, he would simply walk across the water destroying everything in his path. A Cartel of Evil, if you prefer.
Since BBC budgets are limited, they could start with guest episodes. The Doctor Goes To Loughborough to defeat the Ladybirds, for example?
Or maybe, The Doctor could become drunk on his power and set himself up as a dictator…and The Master has to save mankind from the Doctor? Who knows?
Remember that astonishing, unforgettable episode of Buffy where there is a death in the family? No vampires, no gimmicks, just compelling drama that utterly confounded expectations. The fan boys sat down expecting another hour of undead derring-do to be utterly banjaxed by a leftfield kick in the emotional nuts. That’s the kind of risks you can take with 18 episodes. The kind of risks the BBC are too damn scared to do.
Hell, and it pains me to say it, there’s more visual style and flair in five minutes of Hollyoaks than there is in Doctor Who.
Take risks, for heaven’s sake. Abandon or emasculate The Daleks. Show the loneliness of the long-distance time traveller. Abandon conventional narrative, split it into a slowly unravelling mystery where the narrative is not linear, and that’s the entire point: with a time traveller time isn’t linear. The narrative liberties taken by Memento and Pulp Fiction are basic tricks, yet they are devastatingly effective when used with vision. You could fool the entire show for an episode, only to spin it on its head with a bait-and-switch trick that would make M. Night Shyamalan look like the one trick pony he is. And make you see the show – or even the Doctor himself – in a very different light.
After all, what’s to say that humanity actually wants The Doctor constantly bailing us out?
Break the convention of the medium. Use the television as a stylistic tool. Show a whole episode in the style of CCTV. Use degraded or strange film. Show a narrative that runs backwards. Make a meta-textual broadcast where the show itself could be regarded as a plot by The Master.
As it is, Doctor Who is safe, predictable, and lives in a very limited visual and narrative vision. Time to go anywhere the future can take you, BBC. The world is your oystercard. Time to go to beyond Zone 6.
Dear BBC, all you are doing is peeking through the curtains, hiding behind the sofa in fear at the outside world. Be brave. As a time traveller, you can go anywhere, and anywhen. The possibilities are infinite.