Storytelling 2

fivedoctorsYesterday I talked about storytelling in Doctor Who and how the show has a very versatile format.   Today I have to balance that by talking about the negative side of Doctor Who.

I had mentioned that my own gold standard was Babylon 5 which was a show from the 90s that took place on the space station, the 5th to bear the Babylon Project name.  Babylon 5 was a series that contained 110 episodes and a couple “movies”.  Of the 110 episodes, 90 were written by one man.  This is relevant because having one lead writer is a good indication that the story will have cohesion.  In other words, there is a world built by the writer and he holds it together through a strong narrative.

When Breaking Bad came out, it was the creation of Vince Gilligan.  Breaking Bad was the gold standard of the modern era, and while a number of people were responsible for writing it, the lead writer was Gilligan.  He starts the series, wrote on and off throughout the series and wrote the finale.  He had the vision to know what he wanted to do with the story and completed it.  Game of Thrones is written largely by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss.  This gives cohesion to the stories because the writers know where they want the story to go.  This year, HBO also released Westworld; a brilliant piece of television consisting of ten amazing episodes.  Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy started it and at least one of them had a hand in 9 of the 10 episodes.

One of the big complaints with Star Wars: The Last Jedi was that the audience was asked to accept too much.  Luke has changed beyond recognition and has powers we never knew existed before.  The problem is that the original 3 Star Wars movies were the work of George Lucas.  Since then, it’s changed a lot.  This is not dissimilar to Doctor Who.  But what hurts Doctor Who far more than Star Wars is that it never had one lead writer and by the time it did have showrunners like Davies and Moffat, the show was such a loose collection of stories, no cohesion could be claimed.  Even as early as the 60s when the show was brand new, between their first and second appearance, the Daleks had a whole new story.  They even looked different, although only slightly.  And over 50 years of storytelling, so much has happened that none of the current writers are keeping track.

So what happens?  What happens is that you get the Doctor in the 20th anniversary, The Five Doctors, realizing that immortality as a stone is a curse but then he resurrects Ursula in Love and Monsters to give her life as a head made of stone; the curse of Rassilon.  And believe me, even with one lead writer there could be inconsistency when the show is as big as Doctor Who.  Look how Steven Moffat handled regeneration.  Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is determined not to regenerate because it feels like death.  This was established by David Tennant’s Doctor a few seasons earlier, yet it didn’t stop Moffat writing in that for the Time Lords, regeneration is like the flu.  And he proceeds to gun down one of his own to rewrite history; another thing that he’s said time and again, he can’t do.  Or the 11th Doctor suggesting that he could regenerate to overcome cybertech in his head, but only a season later he admits he is in his final incarnation because the War Doctor counted as a regeneration and so did Tennant’s seemingly aborted regeneration.  The fact is, there’s no lead writer who could stay on with Doctor Who for its potentially infinite run to make sure there is cohesion to the stories.  At best, you get a fan who wants to do it  (hint, hint… )!   Someone who could read the script and say “no, the Doctor would never do this!”

The universe the Doctor lives in has become disjointed.  Maybe Doctor Who can get away with it because of time travel.  The moment the Doctor went back to the genesis of the Daleks, he changed the future thus potentially wiping out the original run of episodes with our beloved trash bins.  But that doesn’t mean some semblance of a universe shouldn’t be worked on.  I’ve raised this flag before: there should be repeat races, even the ancillary ones.  The Rings of Akhaten brings us to a world teeming with life… no two characters are the same.  But why not?  To create a universe, there should be links.  For instance, where are some of the races like those from The End of the World?  Where are Jabe’s people?  Why not have them come back?  If nothing more, it would save cost on some of the costumes, but it would also create a universe that is recognizable.

And that brings us to world- (or universe-) building.  As a writer creating something, the days of our parents are gone. Classic TV was just entertainment, often mindless entertainment at that.  You watched it for a laugh or just to get away from the busy work day.  But today, the fans have inherited the earth and we want a universe to escape to.  And as evidenced by the modern era of television, it has to be recognizable.  It explains the allure of Star Wars… until new things turn up that we didn’t know about and it’s no longer the recognizable universe.  That’s when fans start petitioning to “strike it from the record”.  (I’d like that done for season 9 of Doctor Who and I know how it could be done with minimal impact too….)

And thus, Doctor Who succeeds in versatility, but fails on cohesion.  If not for an immensely versatile format, its lack of cohesion would hurt it but it is so capable of change, it can still correct that lack of cohesion over the next 50 years.  That’s the incredible part that defies easy analysis.  Most linear shows will sputter and die if they tried to build something like Doctor Who.  That’s where the anthology format can still save Doctor Who from itself; because it’s able to be something new every time those doors open and take the Doctor out of the TARDIS, it can get away with a lack of cohesion.  But imagine how much more powerful those stories would be if it had it!

I’ll leave these ideas to settle in, like seeds planted, and see what grows from them.

In the meantime, let’s start a discussion.  What shows do you recommend?  Let’s see how they fit into the idea of strong storytelling.  Let the discussion begin!   ML

About Roger Pocock

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4 Responses to Storytelling 2

  1. A fascinating and brilliantly argued article, and one that I disagree with almost every word of 😉 Something made me think in the 5th episode of Orville: the captain is showing an alien child where Earth is and he shows him a bright star and says if he looks through a telescope just to the left of that he will see our sun. That brings into focus how big the universe actually is, so I actually see nothing wrong with a completely different collection of aliens in Akhaten to the ones we get in End of the World. As much as it is fun to see returning aliens it actually makes far more sense not to, and I think it is a testament to creativity that new ones are created rather than dusting off old costumes. I don’t want Doctor Who to be like Star Trek Voyager, with the same race of aliens popping up after 2 years of travelling in one direction. As far as coherence, RTD in particular heavily rewrote a lot of other writers’ scripts, so there was very much one guiding hand. Since 2005 the show has been run by fans and that will continue this year, so any inconsistencies are either (a) due to time constraints causing mistakes (“metebelis”), or (b) because treating what has come before as if it is a bible to be followed is to the detrement of the story that is being told. For me the story has to come first. I see a problem with Ursula’s fate in Love & Monsters, but that problem is nothing to do with The Five Doctors. But to come back to my first comment, that’s why I find the article fascinating, because of the degree to which people can love a series, and often enjoy it on completely different levels. RP

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike says:

      Ah, like a good friend, you anticipated my next part on Storytelling. Call it “the saving grace of Doctor Who”. As usual, you make a great point and I had already planned on coming back to that in a 3rd storytelling piece in the near future. In a nutshell, the danger of cohesion is too formulaic a story which is what Star Trek ultimately ran into especially with Voyager.
      But the point is, I will be talking about where cohesion is good and where it isn’t. Since Doctor Who is a unique lifeform, it does find a way to live on both sides of the fence.

      More on that by month end.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Basil says:

    The UNIT era of the classic Doctor Who qualified enough as a cohesion. But it was problematic in the consequential difficulty of making each following Doctor Who story specifically different enough to sustain the show’s unique flexibility. I still enjoyed the UNIT stories. Who didn’t? But when The Key To Time made another significant attempt at cohesion, despite including the 100th Doctor Who story and the first of three Doctor stories written by Douglas Adams, it was the same consequential difficulty even it wasn’t a failure either. Tom Baker made that point himself even though he still had enjoyable chemistry with Mary Tamm as Romana 1 and good confrontational scenes for The Pirate Planet with the Captain and Count Grendel in The Androids Of Tara. The poignant drama between Unstoffe and Binro in The Ribos Operation, particularly outside of the regular cast involvements, is a timeless statement on how Doctor Who can always compensate with great drama and storylines despite the otherwise noticeable drawbacks. Speaking as someone who tentatively finds likes and dislikes in everything in the fictional world for the sake of remaining objective, Doctor Who works in my favor by not relying so much on cohesion. Cohesion is still a good thing and the balances with Doctor Who’s endless pivots are always an intriguing challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think the UNIT era was particularly problematical in terms of variety. If anything that accusation should be thrown at the Troughton base under siege stories, which are very much a mix and match, but it works because viewers don’t generally get bored of lots of the same of something magnificent – at least not very quickly. The UNIT era was problematical for very different reasons, mainly because it made the Doctor part of the establishment, and he was never a good fit for that without compromising what he stands for.

      Liked by 1 person

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