Friday, September 20, 2013

Five Drastic Ways to Make Doctor Who Better

Thesis: Doctor Who is less exciting and enjoyable when the Doctor wins every single one of his battles, and when it isn't all about him. To make the show more dramatically compelling and less character-centric, he needs to lose occasionally. (And other stories.)

Solution #1: Blow up the Earth.

I've written before about the problem of stakes in Doctor Who. It's almost a given in new-Who that during garden-variety crises, somebody will be about to conquer or destroy the Earth; during season finales, it's the universe, or all of time and space, or whatever clever-sounding sobriquet the writers have thought up for today. This is supposed to add drama by raising the stakes, but it really lessens it because there's no way the Doctor is going to lose when there's so much to play for!

That's why Steven Moffat should actually blow up the Earth. Do it in the first episode of a season, do it in the last, in the middle, I don't care. Make us think it's another ho-hum alien invasion, like the attack of the Sontarans or the Silent Invasion, when everything looks bad but the Doctor finds the aliens' one secret weakness at the last moment... and then have the Doctor fail. Let the Earth actually be destroyed. And sit back and bask in the astounded screams of the faithful.

Think about the narrative possibilities this would open. Why did it happen? Who blew up the Earth, and how? What about the Companions' families back on the world—they'd actually have to work through a significant loss that can't be timed away. What about a permanent change in the Doctor's character that isn't gone before the next episode begins, when he's actually reminded that he's not infallible? And don't tell me it would take away from possibilities, either; just go to Earth's past, or another galaxy, or anywhere at all. Blowing up Earth would completely change the show in one episode and usher in a new era of Doctor Who—different, scary, better.

Solution #2: Change the Doctor's motivations.

No matter what the villain is, when the Doctor is pleading with the Monster of the Day not to destroy Earth (right before he blows them directly to hell, do not collect $200), he invariably throws in a line about the potential of humanity and our deep character flaws, yes, but also our essential goodness. It's pretty much the same from villain to villain, and it's always felt sort of tacked-on haphazardly. For example, while it may have been true of Tennant, it's hard to imagine Eccleston or Smith actually caring about the people of Earth. It's just not in their characters. Eccleston was an embittered veteran who was driven by grief and guilt, and Smith is a happy-go-lucky mad scientist cowboy who wants to explore. It just doesn't fit with those personalities.

Making the Doctor an asshole has been tried before, with the Sixth Doctor, with disastrous and stupid results. Don't do that. Just make him a guy who cares about winning, not saving lives. He can still defend humanity and defeat villains, but he does it because he wants to prove he's better than anyone else, not because he's got a thing for humanity. It would turn a character anachronism into a strength that could turn into stronger Companion-Doctor relationships, character development episodes, you name it.

Solution #3: Give the Doctor a foe worthy of him.

Like I said above, the Doctor has to lose occasionally. Thinking back throughout all of modern Who, I count really one time where the Doctor loses. “Midnight”, which also happens to be my favorite Who episode, is a terrific deconstruction of the Doctor's motivations, behavior, flaws and purpose that ends with him being utterly defeated by a monster uniquely capable of neutralizing his greatest weapons. It's a glorious, thrilling, terrifying episode, and it's also the only one of its kind. The Doctor winning all the time is boring. We expect that he's going to solve the mystery, defeat the villains, and set things to rights (perhaps with some collateral damage along the way, but most of the people usually live). Wouldn't it be more exciting if, rather than just magically winning every single battle, the Doctor fought a foe that was actually a challenge?

A revived Master would be a great foil for the Doctor, but he needs to win sometimes. A few months ago I was shocked to read a list of the worst Doctor Who villains that prominently included the Daleks. They're great enemies! They're iconic, implacable, devious and crazy! What's wrong with that? Well, they appear more frequently than any other foe, and therefore they've been defeated more times than anyone else, to the point where they're not even a thing worth fearing anymore. Want to put some punch back in the Daleks' step? Have them overrun a human colony on some desolate moon that the Doctor can't save. Show them breaking free from Skaro, fighting dissension in their ranks, killing people by accident in their new Doctor-less confusion. You could think of a million ways to make the Doctor's villains better, and most of them start with letting them win once in awhile.

Solution #4: Build a universe around the Doctor. Have recurring characters.

We're in the early stages of this one actually happening, but we need to go further. Part of the show's charm is its ability to go off and do a completely different thing with completely different people every single week if the writers want, and I'm not suggesting that that be taken away entirely. But the Doctor needs an establishment. Like it or not, there is only so much you can do with the Doctor, a couple of Companions, and a few family members back on Earth we see once or twice a season. The Victorian England bunch is a great start, but here's why it needs to go further.

Doctor Who would be better if it was a little more grounded. I get that it's a vehicle for science-magic-y stuff, and that the changes from week to week in era and technology and enemy mean that the writers can put basically any damn thing they want and get away with it. But you get to a point where all the threats out there and all the different technologies and time periods just get kind of overwhelming. Nothing really registers because anything is possible, and therefore we're not surprised or impressed when we see anything. One really good way to draw people into a TV show is by breaking your own rules (judiciously), but Doctor Who doesn't have many to break.

And plus, it'd just be better. Think about, say, “A Good Man Goes To War”. This goes along with #3, but the schmucks that he defeated that day—who were they? Did we ever hear of General Runaway again, or the headless monks or anyone else? Did it feel like he'd really expended any real effort to defeat this massive coalition drawn together from across time and space to stop him? Nobody, no and no! Wouldn't it have been better if we'd spent a while getting to know these people, establishing how good they are and how determined they are to defeat the Doctor, and then have the Doctor beat them anyway? That, at least to me, beats seven kinds of hell out of a bunch of khaki-clad nobodies who are less interesting than almost any other monster of the week. Give me background, and I'll give you a better show.

5. Solution #5: Everything so far leads to a more story-focused show, which has less character focus. That is a good thing. Do that.

Doctor Who, for the last few years, has been all about the characters. The overall storylines to each season are hiding behind the scenes (Bad Wolf, vanishing planets), unexplained until the end of the year (cracks in the walls) or what have you. The characters are what we see, what we fall in love (or hate) with, what absolutely drives the show. The plotlines, a.k.a. “What the hell is Moffat thinking?” are always a source of interest and debate, but the characters come first. And sometimes, they just suck.

There's no way to say this without coming off as an opinionated ass, but I've never had a problem with that before. River Song is not a compelling character to watch, in my opinion. Neither is Amy Pond. I don't like their acting, I don't like the way they're written, I think they're generally unexciting. Not bad, not good, just mediocre. But we're stuck with them for multiple seasons because the show is about watching the characters interact in weird situations, not watching characters play through a story arc. To put it another way, very few things influence the characters' (Doctor and Companions') decisions outside of the needs of the moment. There's no overarching plot that governs a season, and there should be.

It doesn't mean the end of character-centric play, either. Look at shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, which balanced excellent characterization with a general sense of where the story was going. Yeah, they could be tangled and convoluted, but they also had a general direction they were going in. Doctor Who could benefit from that. It would give the characters room to grow and develop in directions determined by the storyline, rather than fumble along from standalone episode to standalone episode all the time. (One thing I've noted for years is that any change or growth in the Doctor's character in particular usually lasts until the end of the episode, no longer. They rarely reference previous episodes by name, and rarer still by their behavior. This isn't a good thing.)

So what's my vision for Doctor Who? It's bold. It's unafraid to mess with your head. It builds a universe for the Doctor, gives him enemies to fight, establishes that he isn't invincible and in so doing, makes him more relatable. And it pumps up the stories, which despite Moffat's brilliance and incorrigible scheming, have been the weakest part of Doctor Who for a good long time. 

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