Doctor Who: Concepts for Writers

Writers need to consider specifics in the creation of their narratives. For instance, they need to put a bit of thought into names and plot developments. But apart from this, there are the large concepts that should at least be thought about, if not addressed directly. Some of these concepts are time, emotion, relationships and environment. Each of these are handily addressed by several personally selected episodes of Doctor Who. Because why not?

Time – Girl Who Waited

Your story may not *be about* the passage of time, or how time works in whatever version of reality you’ve conjured. Nor need it be about quantum mechanics. In fact, your story doesn’t have to be any kind of SF, but could be about the most prosaic examination of the usual life things. Somehow, however, the issue of time will need to be addressed. Writers need to work out if they need to skip great swathes of inconsequential time to get to the ‘tent pole’ moments. Conversely, story tellers need to know almost from the start if they are writing a Mrs Dalloway-esque stream of consciousness where every moment over the course of a day or week is indicated by an event: Time = Things happening. Similarly, point of view and tense also decides story timing. Is an old woman relating events that happened to her in the past? If you decided that you have thought about time.

The Doctor Who episode that explores most of these facets of time is The Girl Who Waited. This episode looks at how time works in two versions of an altered reality. The writers decide to follow The Doctor’s time-line as they diverge. Thus, in telling Old Amy’s story the writer decides what to skip (most of it) to get to the big moments. Literally, it is about attempting to harmonise two streams of consciousness as they pass through time, and meet, and whether this is possible. Then the story converges (yes) to where Rory and the Amy’s talk about what time means. It is only significant that 36 years have passed to Rory as it was  36 years they spent apart.

Other episodes: Blink, 42,  The Girl in the Fireplace, The Doctor’s Daughter and The Eleventh House.

Emotion – Vincent and The Doctor

Stories can be about anything. Historical events, alien invasions, coping with personal bereavement, or all of the above. Many stories though, will need to provide an emotional core with which readers or audience can empathise.  No matter how weird or alienating a story gets, it needs both an internal logic and emotional logic.

Vincent and The Doctor demonstrates historical events, alien invasions and bereavement can be thrown together and work. Without rewriting Vincent Van Gogh’s life this episode of Doctor Who brings with it psychological insight as the Doctor, Amy and Vincent battle a terrifying mostly invisible alien beast that is not what it seems. Of course the parallels can be made to van Gogh’s own battles for his art and health. The magic of the episode is not in how we know the end in store for Vincent, even as we hope for a change, nor does it lie in its didactic explanation of van Gogh’s legacy, but in that it is witnessed.

CURATOR: Well… um… big question, but, to me van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular, great painter of all time. The most beloved, his command of colour most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.

The lesson for writers is as for painters: use your pain, in fact use every emotion to portray the world of your story.

Other episodes: Fires of Pompeii, Midnight, The Waters of Mars and Amy’s Choice.

Relationships – School Reunion 

Every story, even if it is about a bug and a rock, or a lone character, or an inanimate object, features relationships. That story about a bug and a rock will no doubt go some way to explore how the bug relates to the rock and what the rock means. The story may go some way to represent the relationship between the rock and bug in all kinds of ways – in terms of symbols, plot and character development.

In School Reunion, the plot is an alien invasion, world domination thing. Yet the point is that each of the characters goes back to (re)learn the basics in the school in which it is set. They learn again, about each other and edge around the issues of their unspoken expectations and demands. The point is how Rose sees what happens to those The Doctor travels with, she learns he may spend years with someone and then never see them again because he lives forever and humans, like Rose and like Sarah Jane Smith, don’t. How each feels about the other, how they relate, can be summed but in the wonder in The Doctor’s face after he sees Sarah Jane for the first time in what is decades for her and even longer him as a time traveller. The episode too explores the tension between Rose and Mickey and how travelling with The Doctor comes between them, whether Mickey is ‘the tin dog’ or with them. Sarah Jane’s sacrifice of her opportunity to return to time travel and The Doctor is sad, while the restoration of K9 is bitter-sweet. Each of these events goes a long way to outline how each character feels about the other.

Other episodes: Father’s Day, Asylum of the Daleks, Hide, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, Listen.

Locating your story in a house set inside a completely sealed bubble world has implications.

Locating your story in a house set inside a completely sealed bubble world has implications.

Environment – The Doctor’s Wife 

How people act, work, live and speak is shaped by the environment in which they exist. For writers, it means consideration of accent and language, of appropriate technical jargon, and of how all characters move, travel and interact. It matters for a contemporary medical drama as much as it does for a speculative fiction world where hybrid tree-cyborgs rule empires of data cloud forests.

In The Doctor’s Wife the gang escape the universe on a rescue mission. Landing on a bizarre asteroid called House, they encounter a scrap yard peopled by odd and ood locals. Their environment is sentient, it speaks through Auntie and Uncle. In a bid to escape House transfers its consciousness to The Tardis. Once the safest environment in (or outside) the universe, The Tardis is now the enemy of Amy and Rory, who are trapped inside.  The Tardis herself, her own consciousness, has been transferred inside the human (like) body of Idris, another inhabitant of this giant Tardis eating mollusc.

DOCTOR: A valley of half eaten Tardises. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
IDRIS: I’m thinking that all of my sisters are dead. That they were devoured, and that we are looking at their corpses.
DOCTOR: Ah. Sorry. No, I wasn’t thinking that.
IDRIS: No. You were thinking you could build a working Tardis console out of broken remnants of a hundred different models. And you don’t care that it’s impossible.

Idris, who is now the Tardis, thus provides a contrast to The Doctor view of the environment that is attacking them.

One point of the episode is to give viewers perspectives on the physical environment of the Tardis, in that we literally get to see new (and old) bits of it and we learn it is comfortingly familiar and also strange and dangerous. Another point is that the Tardis is not just an environment for hijinks to ensue but an entity, just as conscious as House – but not usually so able to communicate directly. For one episode we see The Doctor fully express not only his connection to the Tardis, but his love and we get to see for the first time the Tardis express her love for him with direct language. This is what makes her first and final ‘hello Doctor’ so heartbreaking. The Tardis is an environment to set the scene, but she is also a character symbiotically linked to The Doctor and they influence each other.

Other episodes: Tooth and Claw, The Idiot’s Lantern, The Shakespeare Code, Night Terrors, The God Complex.

How characters treat each other says a lot for their relationships.

How characters treat each other says a lot for their relationships.

All of the above episodes could be examined for each of the other concepts. School Reunion talks a bit about the passage of time, while there is so much relationship emotion in The Doctor’s Wife, similarly with The Girl Who Waited, which is also about the environment that embittered Old Amy. There are many other episodes that deal with the above concepts. Like I said each writer must deal with them in some way, directly or indirectly. Deciding your setting is the Moon has implications for characters. Deciding your characters hate each other has implications for how they interact and whether they are motivated by emotion or logic.

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