Doctor Who and the infinite possibilities – how original ideas take time

Last week Dave had a piece in the Huffington Post about the day his father took him, age 6, to meet a Dalek at the BBC, and then to watch Doctor Who being filmed. That evening we dug out the DVD of the old black and white story he saw filmed all those years ago.

More riveting than that story, though, was a feature on the extras about how the series was originally devised – the forms it might have taken and how much refining it took to get to its distinctive shape. On and off, inventing Doctor Who took about a year.

Doctor Who: the quantum shifts

1 A sci-fi story about telepaths or time travellers, or a time-travelling police force, or scientific troubleshooters keeping experiments under control for political or humanitarian reasons

2 Characters are a handsome young male hero (Cliff), a well-dressed heroine age 30+ (Lola), a maturer man with a character ‘twist’ (no name yet). They are scientists with different skills operating from an HQ with a lab and a Sherlock Holmes-ish office where they interview people who need their help.

3 Scrap that, make Cliff and Lola teachers, and add a teenage pupil (Biddy) to get into trouble and make mistakes. Cliff is a hunk, because everyone likes a hunk. Maturer man is now 650 years old and called the Doctor. Their HQ is a time machine the Doctor has stolen from his people, an advanced civilisation on a distant planet.

4 Hey, what if the Doctor was a villain who wanted to travel back to the perfect time in history and stop the future happening…? (Stroke your chin now)

5 Hey, let’s call Biddy Susan and make her alien royalty. And Lola is called Barbara. Cliff is called Ian and he’s not so much of a hunk, more an average guy.

6 Susan is the Doctor’s granddaughter. And the Doctor’s a mysterious time traveller in an unreliable machine that disguises itself to blend in with its surroundings. Ian and Barbara don’t trust him, but they’re stuck in his ship. Conflict…. nice!

7 The ship won’t disguise itself. The series will be educational.

8 No, it won’t be educational, that sounds dreary and condescending. As you were.

We all do this

As those BBC dudes wrangled Doctor Who out of infinite possibilities, the questions they tackled were the questions all writers grapple with  –

  • who might we identify with?
  • what kind of story do we want it to be?
  • which of our ideas are in tune with that and which are derailing it?
  • what makes it fit in its genre (and therefore the audience) and what makes it distinctive? Are any vital ingredients missing or misused?
  • what will make it distinctive enough and allow us to take it in a new direction?
  • what will cause conflict and drama?
  • does it have enough mileage  – for a whole novel or a whole series?

Few ideas descend fully formed on a lightning bolt. All the writers I know spend time banging heads with their ideas, fiddling with prototypes that are discarded and even forgotten. Our stories start as experiments and hunches – and when you think about it like that it seems so magical and random.

Almost as magical as a grainy production still from nearly 50 years ago, where there might just be a small wonder-struck face.

Thanks for the pic Machernucha


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  1. #1 by Paul R. Drewfs on May 14, 2012 - 7:32 pm

    There is no escaping the spine straining tear-and-repair that weaves the fair rare, is there. The discipline matters not, for the great gnashing of teeth and mean pulling of hair must claim the lot, expel the rot.

  2. #3 by Carol Riggs on May 14, 2012 - 7:59 pm

    I love how creative people make successful ideas work! I’ve only watched snippets of Dr. Who shows (should I admit that?), but I enjoyed this post about the process of idea-generating. Thanks!

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 14, 2012 - 10:40 pm

      Hi Carol – glad you enjoyed it! I’m sure DW was a formative influence on my imagination, so I love an excuse to pay homage to it from time to time.

  3. #5 by Paris Franz on May 15, 2012 - 8:01 am

    The creative process is fascinating. I have to keep telling myself that as my ideas on my story change yet again. My WIP bears little resemblance to the idea that first hit me last summer. Oh well, if it’s good enough for Doctor Who …!

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 15, 2012 - 6:31 pm

      I love this evolution, Paris! But it wasn’t until I saw that Doctor Who feature that I thought how much they change. Good luck with yours

    • #7 by Teddi Deppner on May 22, 2012 - 11:11 pm

      Ditto, Paris! There are times that I’m vaguely disturbed by how far my story has come from that original flash of conception. But if Doctor Who followed a similar path… then there’s hope for mine, after all!

  4. #8 by DRMarvello on May 15, 2012 - 4:41 pm

    Thanks for the quick-reference list!

    Television shows and movies have become a fascinating new source of craft research for me. Until I started writing fiction myself, I never paid much attention to how the story unfolded in film or video. Now, when a story is brilliantly executed, I get so much more satisfaction out of the show by paying attention to how they did it. At the same time, when the episode “goes wrong,” I enjoy figuring out why. Now, even the duds have a usable takeaway!

    One of the most important side effects of this experience has been that my writing has become much more “visual.” When I create a new character who has anything more than a passing role in the story, I “cast” someone in the role so I can clearly visualize the character moving through the story and interacting with the other characters. Similarly, I no longer let characters move through a space that hasn’t been mapped, furnished, and given a “feel” first. It’s a lot of work, but by the time I write the scene, the characters are free to be themselves, and the settings feel more real.

    • #9 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 15, 2012 - 6:36 pm

      Hi Daniel! You’re so right – there is much to learn from duds. And deleted scenes. Slowly but surely, our writer brains find meaning in everything…
      Your description of how you now furnish a scene mirrors what I do. I hate writing cold, in a void. I don’t know where I’m going or what the characters can use. But if I do know those things, it’s a pleasure to take them there to play.

  5. #10 by alisonwells on May 16, 2012 - 6:04 am

    I love Dr Who! And this article is a good exploration of how our minds develop ideas through associations and iterations of the original sparks. Everything is a combination of something else and the best ideas involve the most seemingly bizzare combinations.

    • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 16, 2012 - 7:29 am

      Thanks, Alison – the trail of an idea is so interesting. Especially the abandoned – possibly disastrous – turns!

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