Why Doctor Who can’t sustain dark storytelling

The Doctor has been taken down a dark path several times in Who's history. Andrew explores why it's not a sustainable storytelling approach

Iain M. Banks said he didn’t want to write Doctor Who because you have to put all the toys back in the box afterwards, as it’s written with a view to infinity, to the story never ending. Doctor Who is the answer to the question ‘What if a game of Consequences never stopped?’.

With different writers and creative teams the show has dabbled in dark, violent stories, occasionally for a sustained period of time. Sometimes this is due to the aesthetic considerations of the creative team, sometimes things just fall that way due to the production situation. Every time this happens points to the same conclusion though: Doctor Who cannot sustain itself as a grimdark show, something with a tone, style or themes that are disturbing, violent or bleak.

The first time this happened was in 1963, where we meet the Doctor in An Unearthly Child. He’s an enigmatic alien, a smug snob and ethically dubious, but the premise of the show requires people to travel with him. Thus, he moves away from his initial characterisation to become someone that people could plausibly travel with, and from there the hero of the show.

Then in 1964, after the first change in production team, that heroism is undermined in the sequence of stories from Mission To The Unknown through to The Massacre. Over twenty one weeks the Doctor consistently fails. In The Myth Makers, the siege of Troy moves from comedy to tragedy. Vikki is left behind, Steven wounded. Her replacement, Katarina, is killed in the next story as the production team decide her character wouldn’t work. Katarina’s replacement, Sara Kingdom, kills her brother before dying at the end of The Dalek Master Plan.

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The pyrrhic victory in this story is followed by the Doctor abandoning Steven in Paris the night before a historically established massacre that he does nothing to prevent, leading to Steven angrily abandoning him for his callousness. It makes for some excellent telly, but here’s how it resolves: Steven meets a woman in contemporary London who looks like and has the same surname as someone they left behind in Paris. This is quite the thin thread to hold onto, but it’s deemed sufficient for the show to shrug and carry on like nothing happened. This is most likely because these storylines were more by accident than design, pragmatic responses to production problems rather than an artistic vision, but ultimately the relentless grind against hope just gets casually reset on a flimsy pretext, diminishing its potency.

Season seven, Jon Pertwee’s first in the main role, also demonstrates the difficulty in making consequences stick. The new production team, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, inherited a restricted format of an Earthbound Doctor working for UNIT, a military organisation. At the end of Doctor Who And The Silurians, the Doctor’s intention to engineer a peaceful coexistence between two species is halted when UNIT blow the non-human ones up. The Doctor says “That’s murder.”

In the next story he is still working for UNIT.

What happened was that Malcolm Hulke wrote a story in which the uneasy relationship between the Doctor and the military is shown to be unworkable, and Barry Letts suggests the murder line to highlight the difference between shooting at attackers who are firing back at you and blowing up a defenceless group. The problem is that it’s the second story of four that season, and they’ve got to keep going with this format. So the Doctor works for people he considers to be murderers, but this idea isn’t explored because it emerged while writing the scripts, not when planning the season as a whole.

On a side note, the later story, Inferno, raises the stakes by showing the end of the world. In order to actually see this, it takes place in another dimension. Nothing so drastic can happen in the main story universe, but you can’t pop into alternate realities every week.

Tom Baker, like Pertwee, took over the role as production teams changed. The partnership of producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes is thought of as one of the most successful creative teams to work on the show. They managed a sustained period of blackly comic, occasionally violent stories by not building this tonal change into anything like a story arc. Holmes would have the Doctor overcome opponents by physical violence more often, but this wasn’t something the show planned to address. This era wasn’t an examination of dark ideas, but deploying them as an aesthetic. There was still a sense of fun, and there was still a line, as evidenced by a scene cut from The Ark In Space where a mutating man begged his fiancée to kill him, but in terms of visuals the show was indulging in more intense sequences than it had previously.

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The reason this couldn’t be sustained was twofold. Firstly, the BBC was getting complaints. Secondly, Robert Holmes was exhausted. To sustain the consistent tone over more than three years ran the risk of over saturation and burnout. Steven Moffat once said of Douglas Adams that he gave us the entirely useless example of what Doctor Who would look like if written by a genius. Holmes cast a similar shadow. However, Hinchcliffe was moved on from Doctor Who as a result of complaints and the decision to overspend on their final story meant changes for the next production team in terms of tone and budget. The darker stories were more successful here, but the real world practicalities of maintaining this style had long term consequences.

For Peter Davison’s first season, Eric Saward was given the Script Editor role after writing The Visitation. His second script, Earthshock, was atypical Who with its short scenes, regular gunfights, and fast pace. Its success owed a lot to Peter Grimwade’s direction, but also negatively influenced Doctor Who for the next four years with misplaced attempts to bottle lightning twice.

There’s an argument to be made that Saward’s version of the show echoes the First Doctor’s undermining, only with a satisfying conclusion to the arc: the Fifth Doctor regenerates to save someone he barely knows, this heroism set against the kind of macho grit that had been killing off supporting casts and affecting his judgement in previous stories.

Indeed, this would make sense if the production team hadn’t chosen to follow up this with a story where the new Doctor strangles the person he just saved and ends it saying “this is what I’m like now, deal with it”. The natural point for a tonal shift was ignored, making it clear that this was again about aesthetics rather than a long-form story.

Indeed, the Fifth Doctor’s heroic sacrifice is neutered by what follows, because it’s for nothing if he then abuses the person he saves. Nothing about Season 22 suggests that Peri, the Doctor’s companion, is enjoying herself enough to stay on board the TARDIS, and we return to the issue that faced the show in 1963: if travelling with the Doctor isn’t fun, why would you stay?

Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, at least partly at the actor’s insistence, was also initially unlikeable, but unlike Colin Baker he got to evolve the character on screen. The fact that it is difficult to travel with this sort of Doctor was addressed, and the type of person who is able to travel with this sort of Doctor considered.

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With Steven Moffat as showrunner, after the unexplored suffering of Amy Pond, the show moved towards more optimistic conclusions. Companions die or get converted into cyborgs, but still get happy endings as the Doctor is there to take the hit. This evolved from a more bittersweet structure at the end of Russell T Davies’ series, where none of the main cast die but the companions and Doctor suffer. No one quite gets what they want. Moffat, on the other hand, ultimately rejected darker endings – if not journeys – in favour of happier ones. The Day Of The Doctor is the most obvious example of this, retconning an attempted double genocide into the saving of billions.

Since 2005 the show has – with varying degrees of success – tried to contrast the light and darkness more effectively, structuring the series so it allows for consequences to linger, for people to recover. It’s never going to become dark and edgy for long, because it can’t. Doctor Who is designed to keep going, and to do this it reverts back to its default format: the Doctor and their friends go on adventures, and if they’re no fun why would anyone bother?