Doctor Who story problems that wouldn’t be allowed in a Hollywood movie


You're right. This is from GalaxyQuest, not Doctor Who. But read on and all will become clear

If Doctor Who was being made as a Hollywood movie, two lazy, cobbled-together storytelling problems would have to be sorted out.

I love Doctor Who. One of my earliest TV memories was Patrick Troughton drowning in a room of foam, which sounds cheap and silly but actually was bizarre and horrible. 1970s Doctor Who became my weekly tutorial in creativity. It was ‘what if everything around you was different’, on LSD. Shop dummies came alive and drove the Doctor away in a car, and turned around to look at him with blank faces. A storyteller couldn’t have a better start in life.

The reborn Doctor Who is different, of course, and in many ways better. However, the writers have got lazy when they have to extricate the Doctor from trouble. Husband Dave touched on this on Mirabilis Year of Wonders (which you can read here after his rant about the Daleks– strange how if you put our names together they make Davros).

 These are the two storytelling sins I’m seeing worryingly often in Doctor Who.

1 The Doctor deals with a crisis with an outburst of gangsta-like posturing – ‘Yo, I’m the Doctor, be very afraid.’ Like he’s channelling Kanye West.

 I like a character with attitude, and can get my groove on to Kanye West. But Kanye West Doctor Who is embarrassing. It’s not that the Doctor can’t be a remarkable, fear-inspiring creature – the problem is that the writers don’t show it.  

 Sherlock Holmes, a chap not known for modesty, doesn’t tell enemies to give in just because he’s Sherlock Holmes; he does something brilliant. But telling readers what to think and feel, instead of showing it, usually backfires. When Kanye West Doc says ‘be afraid of me’, my response is, ‘I’ve met plenty of plonkers like you’. 

Yo, show not tell.

2 ‘Solve the situation by giving the bomb counselling’.
In the new Doctor Who, aliens, bombs and errant Hoovers are often talked into finding their inner humanity and then renouncing their evil intentions.

 Actually, this would work if the writer had set up a weakness early on in the story that could be exploited in that way. You can pull absolutely anything out of the hat to solve a problem if it has been seeded properly. But in Doctor Who it often isn’t done, and so counselling the bomb looks like sentimental rubbish and the last resort of a writer who couldn’t think of anything better. Sir Terry Pratchett calls it makeitupasyougalongeum in his guest blog post on SFX. (He also points out that in more academic circles it is known as deus ex machina.)

You might say that I shouldn’t take these things so seriously. In that case, I urge you to look at the climax of GalaxyQuest. Although it’s a spoof, it played fair by the audience. The crew dragged a magnetic minefield behind the ship and tricked the enemy to wander into it. It was properly set up – earlier in the story we saw them have a tricky encounter with the minefield. It wasn’t plucked out of the vacuum as a thing they’d suddenly found and could use.

(This reuse of ideas seeded earlier is called reincorporation. It’s extremely satisfying and you can find more on it here.)

 In Doctor Who, makeitupasyougalongeum surfaces in another guise: ‘get out the sonic screwdriver’.

The sonic screwdriver can get the Doc out of any hotspot if convenient. Some producers of earlier series minimized its use, because they didn’t want a gadget that could cure all. But now it’s a magic wand that writers can wave to solve any problem. Handily, they have it malfunction or make up new characteristics for it when they want the problem to last a while longer. Eg in Silence in the Library it apparently won’t open a door made of wood. I bet it’s opened plenty in the past.

 The first rule of magical or powerful devices is to give them boundaries but this has none. What the sonic screwdriver can do is entirely governed by what is convenient for the writers in each episode.

 As I’ve said, I love Doctor Who and regard it as essential brain food for creatives, young and old. But often it is plying audiences with major story cheats – ones that Hollywood movies, for instance, wouldn’t allow. Hollywood storytelling may sometimes push obvious buttons, but its principles are underpinned by what we respond to as intelligent life forms. We don’t like fudged explanations and we snigger at plonkers.

It’s kind of a law of the universe. Yo, don’t mess with that, Doctor.

 Do you have any examples of makeitupasyougalongeum or Kanye West Doctor Who? Share them here!

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  1. #1 by Dave Morris on May 27, 2010 - 12:34 pm

    Chekov’s gun (that’s Anton, not Pavel) was originally intended to mean you shouldn’t introduce something into the story unless you mean it to be used later. But a far more important interpretation in this context is that the gun that is going to be crucial to the third act must be shown to us in the first act.

    A lot of TV writers are pretty much making it up as they go along, as Sir Terry pointed out, so they don’t plant any hints. They just create a problem for the character and then pull a solution out of the bag. I’m talking about UK TV here btw. In the US, more money means bigger teams means more chance of getting it right. Though not always.

  2. #2 by Jen Brubacher on May 27, 2010 - 12:55 pm

    I think this might be a good explanation of why I don’t like Hollywood movies. 🙂 I adore the Doctor’s confidence. I think it’s unique– as you say– and it makes me smile because I know no human being should be able to get away with it. And of course he’s no human being.

    As for the sonic screwdriver, it’s a device that basically gets him out of everything we aren’t interested in seeing him solve. Open this door? Close that window? Explode that box? Whatever– get to the good bits. Use the screwdriver and let’s move on.

    Doctor Who is about confidence and kitsch. I understand that it’s not to everyone’s taste, but I doubt making it more Hollywood would be an improvement. Like most American versions of British television, it’d lose what makes it great.

    Just my opinion. 🙂

  3. #3 by Yvonne Johnston on May 27, 2010 - 1:15 pm

    I think that sometimes script/screenwriters get away with these ‘tricks’ because viewers have not invested the time in the programme/film that readers do in a novel. A reader will feel cheated by a contrived get out. It is similar to long-running TV series where the writers have to wrap it all up in the final episode even though they had no idea, in previous series, of how they would eventually end it. I felt this after last week’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ where the final revelation that Gene and co. were, in fact, all dead coppers in some sort of purgatory led me to keep reflecting ‘yes, but…how does that fit with episode x in series y?’ Charles Dickens must have been faced with similar writing challenges, given the way he wrote piecemeal for periodicals. One has to admire his brilliance in comparison.

  4. #4 by Roz Morris on May 27, 2010 - 1:38 pm

    @Dave – the old loaded gun trick… I was going to mention that but didn’t have room.
    @Jen – interesting point that the old screwdriver may be used for problems that aren’t terribly important – but then I wonder why they’re even there. And I’m all for the Doctor showing interestingly inhuman characteristics, in fact, fascinated by them – but to me those overconfident moments look like story fudge.
    But then I’ve never got ‘kitsch’, when it means ‘so bad it’s good’. I only like ‘good’. I feel cheated by ‘shoddy’.
    Everyone enjoys different things, though. A problem for me is clearly not a problem for you at all!
    @Yvonne – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you talk about the ‘wrapping up’ problem. Very often series are designed with no clear idea of where they’re going. I think in the US the writing teams are much bigger and able to devote more time to tying ends up properly – much as you would in a novel where you have time to revise and make sure everything works.
    And Dickens – yes, what he managed to do keeping all those balls in the air was amazing. Occasionally someone had to spontaneously combust, or their name changed, or they disappeared from the story altogether – but by and large he kept the stories together.

  5. #5 by Verdonk on May 27, 2010 - 1:48 pm

    What’s really smart is when the writers use a double bluff. Eg, on his maiden flight, Iron Man’s jets freeze up at high altitude and he’s nearly killed. He fixes the problem, then much later uses that trick to outwit a pursuer in much heavier armor. But *that doesn’t work* and it isn’t how he actually beats the guy in the end. Very clever.

    Jen, Tony Stark is confident (“narcissistic personalty disorder” says the man himself) but if he just stood there without armor and told the Mandarin to surrender, “Coz, yo, I’m Tony Stark” then that’d be pretty lame. I think the magic wand – er, screwdriver – outstayed its welcome when the Doctor used it to kill half a dozen cybermen by “overloading its circuits, can’t do that again today…” That’s lazy, lazy writing.

  6. #6 by Paul on May 27, 2010 - 2:06 pm

    @Verdonk – when Tony Stark next annihilates an entire species not only from the universe, but from time itself so that they never existed, maybe the Mandarin would give up when told to “Coz, yo, I’m Tony Stark”. 😉

  7. #7 by Verdonk on May 27, 2010 - 2:54 pm

    Hi Paul – no, he’d use his right hand ring finger (to disintegrate Stark) or index finger (crushing blast, Tony becomes a soggy pool) or maybe a heat blast from the left-hand index finger. Or perhaps the left middle finger for a simple but reliable electrocution. Although if Stark was carrying a sonic screwdriver I expect he’d simply deactivate all ten rings no prob 🙂

  8. #8 by Roz Morris on May 27, 2010 - 7:00 pm

    @Verdonk – phew, thanks for sorting that one out. My Mandarin’s rather rusty.

  9. #9 by Jemi Fraser on May 27, 2010 - 11:41 pm

    I’ve only gotten the chance to see bits and pieces of Doctor Who – it seems fun and silly. Definitely a creative show!

  10. #10 by Daniel Clay on May 28, 2010 - 12:10 pm

    Great write-up. I’ve been shaking my head at Doctor Who more and more often since the last David Tennant series began – same as you, with a bit more effort and seeding, I really think it could be so much better.

    As for not knowing where it’s going from episode to episode, series to series, I’m not sure I agree. Characters often turn up in one episode and reference something that will happen quite a bit down the line – the whole of the last series had a string of references to the fact the Doctor was going to regenerate or die, and there have been references in this one to something that’s goingg to occur down the line. They do know where it’s going, they just can’t be bothered with explaining their set-tos properly.

    Also, re Hollywood blockbusters not allowing this – did you never see Face/Off with Travolta and Cage? The baddie’s in jail in the middle of the ocean so far from land it’s never been escaped from before. So he gets out of his cell, which is explained, he escapes to the outer wall, which is explained, he throws himself into the sea, which is shown, and he, er, just pops up on land in the very next scene.

    Lazy writing’s not an English disease, it’s a writer’s! Just wish I could be paid a fortune to do it…

  11. #11 by marta on May 28, 2010 - 2:05 pm

    Have you read Russell T. Davies book on his writing for Doctor Who? Davies talks about the sonic screwdriver and bits that don’t work. The book helped me understand how tv shows are made and why they turn out the way they do, how scenes are often rewritten for budget, time, and actors who suddenly can’t be in the show. But he also talk about when he just got something wrong.

    I think Hollywood commits plenty of lazy storytelling sins, so I’m not sure I’m convinced problems in Doctor Who wouldn’t be done there.

    To me, TV has inherent flaws. Decisions are based on ratings, budgets, and advertisers as much as story. There are so many cooks in the kitchen–writers, directors, actors who have opinions on their characters, producers… And TV shows must be produced on a schedule. You have to make an episode to fill its slot and contract even if you are running low on good ideas.

    Novel writers can sit around and talk about waiting for the muse. TV writers have to write when they’re told. And for most shows, they have no real idea how long the show will last. I mean, I’d imagine plenty of TV writing is as-you-go-along because you might get canceled or you might be a longstanding hit. How do you constantly write for that? And of course in the rigid time frame.

    Obviously some shows overcome all the nonsense to produce great stories without sonic screwdrivers, but, you know, there really aren’t that many shows that do (as far as I’ve seen), and it is no wonder when you consider how many places there are to fail.

  12. #12 by Jonathan Moore on May 28, 2010 - 3:18 pm

    Weirdly I was talking about both this blog and Dr Who to my friend Frazer last night. He also voiced his concerns over the Doctor Posture thing going on. It’s annoying because it really would be very easy to stop him.
    I am enjoying the series though – much more with Matt Smith in the role and Steven Moffat at the helm – but if the point of the Dr is that he’s a thinking hero not an action hero, there does need to be more thought in the structure of the story.

    Referring back to the Ashes to Ashes complaint, I think the resolution was set up from the start – there was an episode in series one of Life on Mars that gave it away (Sam’s old mentor dies in the real world and turns up as a young black rookie).

    Buffy on the other hand offers a contrast of merit and mistake. Series 5 (Glory) has a show down utilising all the weaponry and tricks that have cropped up in episodes earlier in the series. Series 7 (finale) uses Spike as a virtual atom bomb under Sunnydale, raising the question ‘why did anyone else have to die?’ and ‘where the hell did that medallion come from anyway? Angel got it from an evil law firm?’ most unsatisfactory. How hard would it have been to set scenes under Sunnydale with a volatile device and identify a few structural lynchpins, then send in the slayers to bring the roof down? (and I’m still annoyed that Willow didn’t really kill Warren). Deep breath. Move on.

  13. #13 by Dave Morris on May 28, 2010 - 7:56 pm

    Wait a minute, Jonathan..! Willow didn’t really kill Warren?!? Oh, you mean in “season eight”? Well, as that features an entirely gratutious “Buffy-experiments-with-lesbianism” sequence, I’m not inclined to treat it as entirely canonical. What happens in comic books stays in comic books 🙂

  14. #14 by Roz Morris on May 28, 2010 - 8:16 pm

    @Jemi – it can be silly at times, but the creativity is definitely worth it!
    @Daniel – I haven’t seen Face/Off, and now I definitely don’t want to! You’re right, of course – lazy writing is lazy writing, but Hollywood seems more inclined to invest in getting the story right.
    @Marta, you raise some good points about the practicalities that possibly mean that less-than-perfect scenarios make it to the finished episode. I think the trouble is that in this country the writing isn’t valued enough, isn’t funded properly and the programme makers don’t mind if the story is compromised. I have that book on my shelf waiting for a nice long rainy afternoon. I’m sure it contains horror stories about the pressures and compromises.
    @Jonathan – I have to wait for LoveFilm to deliver this season of DW, and shall be interested to see the Matt Smith Doc – and Stephen Moffatt at the helm. Ashes to Ashes is also on my list so I can’t comment on that either… but yes I seem to remember the Buffy medallion which was a bit of a cop-out in an otherwise excellent series.

  15. #15 by Hugh on May 31, 2010 - 3:58 pm

    No one’s mentioned Battlestar Galactica, the re-invented version…

  16. #16 by Roz Morris on May 31, 2010 - 7:35 pm

    @Hugh – I’m afraid I haven’t seen either incarnation of Battlestar so can’t comment … but would anyone else like to kick off?

  17. #17 by Dave Morris on May 31, 2010 - 9:44 pm

    BG started brilliantly, held up well throughout season one, got a little too obsessed with the homeland security parallels, descended through season two and later into Babylon 5-style frothy mysticism. But watch season one (especially the opening miniseries and first few eps) for how TV sci-fi should be done. “33” alone is worth five seasons of Dr Who!

  18. #18 by Diana on June 1, 2010 - 1:21 am

    Alas, I fear the sonic screwdriver’s presence in every episode–“Cold Blood,” which just aired, is typical of Nu-Who’s reliance on it. It’s gotten much worse in the new era, and I seem to recall that maybe they destroyed the sonic screwdriver? But it keeps coming back…!

    Thanks for your post.

  19. #19 by Hugh on June 1, 2010 - 8:55 am

    The sonic screwdriver/deus ex machina in the BSG case was the ultimate – a deus, or god.

    It would be unfair to say that there were no set-ups for this pay-off. As the final series’ end approached they multiplied, but nonetheless the final revelation that God had been crafting the plot all along was I think too much for many fans to stomach. Even the writers admitted that it wasn’t in their minds at the outset – self-admitted makeitupasyougoalongeum, in other words. Some viewers compared it to Bobby’s dream in Dallas. That was sad because BSG taken as a whole was generally reckoned to be a real step-up in the space genre, even amongst the best in TV drama.

    An occupational hazard for limited-series sci-fi/fantasies (see Lost, Ashes to Ashes, etc.)?

  20. #20 by Verdonk on June 1, 2010 - 11:20 am

    Oh dear oh dear. I gave up BG after the admiral climbed into the boxing ring, and having checked out Wiki on how it all tied up I’m very glad I did. God’s plan also seemed to be the point of Babylon 5 – aliens as angels and being in tune with the mystic mysticness of everything, yada yada. A big problem that Brits have with a lot of US sci-fi (Star Trek excluded, of course) is that it goes off into a sort of mystical/quasi-religious area which doesn’t much appeal to the European mindset. I have nothing against sincere religious belief, but co-opting it as the explanation of the whole story seems very lazy and not a tiny bit cynical. The litmus test for the writer ought to be: is this acceptable as a way of tying up a serious work of fiction? War & Peace, say? No? Then why shove it into sci-fi?

    Btw yes, I know that some of the characters in W&P come to see the war and all the suffering as spiritually enlightening, but it would be a very trivial and unsatisfying novel if Tolstoy himself unequivocally made “God’s plan” the explanation of the whole story. Though “then Prince Andrei stepped out of the shower” would be almost as bad 😉

  21. #21 by Roz Morris on June 1, 2010 - 9:16 pm

    @Hugh @Dave @Verdonk – thank you, I think BG is something I can leave off my viewing list in favour of something more improving!
    @Diana – the reliance on the old Sonic Screwdriver is a bit dull, isn’t it? It looks like it’s only done so that BBC Enterprises can say the series is paying for itself by advertising their plastic pen version…

  22. #22 by Stuart Ian Burns on June 14, 2010 - 7:45 am

    On posturing: Actually he uses it relatively rarely and only when faced with one of his old enemies or in Stephen Moffat’s script and on both occasions when faced with aliens who have access to a massive database of his exploits. At those points, his greatest weapon is his own history especially if he doesn’t physically have anything else to hand.

    Plus its often used a joke now. When “the Oncoming Storm” nickname first appeared in the tv series during “Parting of the Ways” (after being adopted from some old novel –Love & War I think) it was for the effect you were describing. Since – in Girl in the Fireplace and on Saturday in The Lodger — it’s a symbol of irony. “Oh here he is the oncoming storm…” “*I* am the oncoming storm … oh you just meant beat them in football match”

  23. #23 by Tadhg Kelly on August 24, 2014 - 4:34 pm

    It’s always been like this, especially I’m NewWho, and fundamentally is why I don’t like the show.

    • #24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 24, 2014 - 5:54 pm

      It rather puts me off too, Tadhg. OldWho had more respect for the material – for most of the time. It did have ropey years, though.

  24. #25 by scskillman on July 18, 2017 - 11:23 am

    You’d be amazed what storytellers can get away with as long as they have a powerful central idea and a charismatic actor playing the main protagonist. Many Whovians will overlook or forgive your 2 caveats because the above two things take precedence and claim their attention

    • #26 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 18, 2017 - 7:00 pm

      That’s certainly true, Sheila, and it’s become much worse in the years since I wrote that post. I can’t help thinking it’s a shame. A charismatic actor and a powerful central idea deserve the best scripts possible.

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