Posts Tagged Daleks

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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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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