Yesterday 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