So, ‘Doctor Who’ is over until Christmas. To quote my German friend (probably on another matter entirely), ‘Damn!’
(I wrote a wonderfully long piece on character writing and WordPress has eaten it up, leaving virtually nothing of it left. Here is a shorter version of that tale.)
This season of new ‘Who’ has been so good and so unexpected that I reallly can’t think of much to say other than ‘I am a fanboy and I need more!’
(And that’s two exclamation marks in the space of one post, so you know I am being serious.)
‘Doctor Who,’ the new TV series, is a good example of writing a series to please old fans and to bring new fans in. The fanbase of ‘Doctor Who’ is vocal and has had sixteen years of fans basically controlling what gets produced. Any continuation of the series on TV had a lot to live up to.
Still, ‘Doctor Who’ has been a variable show over its life-time. Some of us love the latter seasons of McCoy while others yearn for the replete TARDIS crew of Davison. Each Doctor has had a unique character, each companion a different way of coping with what they confront, and each series tied into its time period. Pertwee’s swashbuckling, Troughton’s childishness and Baker I’s bohemianism.
So what is the new ‘Who?’
‘Doctor Who’ managed to almost entirely avoid the nineties. A TV-movie… Novelisations. There were a few radio plays. But, mostly, ‘Doctor Who’ existed as snippets of the past.
Like all things tending towards history, some of the past is good and some of the past is bad. ‘The Creature of the Pit’ is a fourth Doctor story that some people do not want to remember. New ‘Who,’ ‘Who’ that will become history, will be looked at in the same light, but it should not be directly compared to its predecessors but to its successors. Fifty-minute stories are a different beast to that of four or six-parters of half an hour per episode. It is hard to compare, say, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ to ‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.’ Both are excellent examples of TV but their narrative structures are radically different.
In the space of a fifty-minute story you need to tell a story, develop characters and, in the modern age, present some sense of greater continuity to the season as a whole. ‘Doctor Who’ has always had the issue and virtue of being set in different places, in different times and saddled with different ancillary characters for each story. This allows you a certain grace in story writing; you only need to progress your main characters a little and you can, instead, focus your efforts on the one-off characterisations of the bit players. Thus Rose doesn’t have to become mature in the space of one story; you can age her gracefully (and give her mini-skirts) over thirteen episodes and rather leave the improbable character growth to parts you will never need to touch again.
I’m being serious here. One of the biggest issues in writing is apt character development.
In the series predecessor there was a character called Turlough. He was not evil per se, but rather… Misguided. The new ‘Who’ had a similar character. He existed for two episodes, and this was good. He starts off as arrogant and he ends up stupid; had he stayed for another story then it would have either had to have become a major plot point or we would have been pressed to the edge of plausibility and would start to wonder what was going on.
Because this is how character writing works.
In a series of thirteen episodes you want your main characters to develop slowly. One reason is that the characters need to believeable, and believeability comes from giving your audience time to adjust. Another reason is that sudden changes tend to lead to escalation; if character A gains lots of power this episode and you want to develop her in the next then eventually you are going to run out of things to do with them.
So, to be a happy writer you introduce ancillary characters.
You can do anything to a character who won’t be back the next episode.
Consider the bit part. For a plot to work you need character change, if it be the fall of a villian, the death of a loved one and so forth. You need characters like this every week, and you don’t really want them to be your mains. So you create bit parts and you put them through hell, because you can, because it is satisfying and because it serves the story. The audience will accept this; if the character never reappears or only does so once or twice a year then they won’t notice that while everyone else develops at a normal speed, they are the proof of punctuated equilibirium.
And it works.
(I had more, but it has gone, eaten up into the ether.)