So You Want To/Write the Next Doctor Who
Since 1963, entire generations have grown up with Doctor Who, and have been thrilled - and terrified - by the Doctor's adventures against some of the greatest evils in the galaxy, including the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Doctor's arch-nemesis, the Master. The show has been brought back to TV twice since its cancellation in 1989 (the first time, in 1996, being something of a non-starter; the second time in 2005 proving more durable) and has seen a complex and intertwining expanded universe of novels, audio plays, comics and even a set of Alternate Continuity movies. So someone obviously did something right.
Needless to say, following in the footsteps of Doctor Who is a daunting task indeed. Fortunately for you, there's plenty of Doctor Who fans around here who can steer you straight.
You can also take heart in the fact that Doctor Who is in fact really just a framing device for whatever story the writer wants to tell - there's no Star Trek style continuity bible, no fixed limits to The Verse and an almost infinite variety of narrative styles, settings and devices.
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions
- 5 Writers' Lounge
- 6 Departments
First and foremost, Doctor Who is a Walking the Earth story, at least in its televisual incarnation. While the Expanded Universe has had more freedom to explore ideas, the TV series' young target audience means a Monster of the Week (or other villain-of-the-week) format has proved most successful. The best monsters are firmly the stuff of nightmares. Also important is the element of True Companions between the Doctor and his companion, who usually functions as The Watson. Different characters will relate differently to the Doctor, of course, and there have been one or two less-than-lovable companions, but ultimately, both Doctor and companion will rescue the other, if it comes to that.
Some of the things seen by casual viewers as Necessary Tropes are actually not. The companion doesn't need to be a young, attractive human female from contemporary Britain: it's true that that's often the case, but the Doctor's had several male companions, and one of the longest-running companions ever was a man. Similarly, the UST between Doctor and companion is largely an invention of the 2005 Retool.
Chase sequences, preferably up and down corridors, are absolutely mandatory.
Who writers frown on using the TARDIS as a Deus Ex Machina, and most will use it only as a way to get the Doctor and companions to the plot hook. Actually separating the TARDIS and its crew, and making the Doctor's primary motivation getting back to it, is a classic plot device.
"You wouldn't believe it, but every writer who comes in to write their first script has the TARDIS answering a distress call! You just sit there going, "No, just have him land, why can't he just land, walk out the door and go 'Where am I?' Then he can hear a distress call. But it's the most boring way to start a story."
The standard excuse to the companion (and audience) for "why doesn't the Doctor just go back in time and..." is that once the TARDIS has landed, it has become part of the events. Something called the Blinovitch Limitation Effect was frequently name-dropped in previous series to imply that the Doctor going back in time and fixing things once he's already involved in them would have Extremely Bad Results. (The Russell T. Davies era brought out the Clock Roaches as just one of the ways things can go horribly wrong.)
In addition to transportation, the TARDIS is also legitimately used as a Weirdness Magnet and as a repository for whatever technobabble gadgets your plot requires.
"Less is more" goes for the sonic screwdriver, too. Yes, it is essentially a Magic Wand: it can do whatever you, the writer, need it to. But it shouldn't solve all the Doctor's problems--and it is emphatically not a gun. Beware of Invincible Hero.
In general, the screwdriver works best when limited to performing small, concrete tasks: opening doors, disabling security cameras, etc.
- The standard truism for writers is that the Doctor is never cruel or cowardly (cautious, yes, cowardly, no). You can, however, have an Unreliable Narrator like the Valeyard or the Dream Lord accuse him.
- Human traits that the Doctor particularly admires include tenacity, creativity, and courage. That he values these traits is a clue to his own character and problem-solving style.
- The Doctor always sides with the oppressed against the oppressors. Government Drug Enforcement or any other form of coerced happiness counts as oppression in his book.
- He prefers to incapacitate -- or, better yet, outmanoeuver -- his enemies rather than kill them. He does have a weakness for poetic justice, though, and especially likes to catch enemies in their own traps.
- He usually obeys a sort of temporal Prime Directive, in that he doesn't trust a society -- or even an individual person -- to have and use technology too far ahead of its time (or, more generally, that they didn't develop themselves). (This is the primary reason why he doesn't like the Torchwood Institute, whose whole purpose is to get hold of alien technologies and develop them for human users.) However, unlike most, this Directive does allow for him to intervene in history in order to combat a particular injustice or wrong. It does mean that he finds himself faced with the problem of certain events he can change and others he cannot; the new series usually phrases this as the Doctor being 'part of events', meaning he cannot go back and change something which he is already involved in.
- The Doctor's first choice in solving a problem is communication. He will attempt to figure out the nature of the story's antagonists (e.g. which species, and what they want). If the problem is one he can fix (e.g. the alien can't communicate with humans, or the alien is just lost and needs a lift back home), he will generally do so.
- The Doctor honors his word, and expects (sometimes naively) everyone else to honor theirs.
- He seems to view "life" as more or less equivalent to "sentience". That is,
- if someone's been taken over by an outside force and there's absolutely no way of getting the real personality back, then the Doctor views him as already dead;
- the Doctor will treat androids, monsters, members of a race that is shunned or stigmatized, etc., as he would any fellow sentient beings.
- Note also how many of the Doctor's more notable enemies (Daleks, Cybermen, etc) fall within a race which has become homogenized to the point of the almost-complete obliteration of individuality; a sense of the individual is clearly important to the Doctor's conception of 'life'.
- Also note that fierce individuality has been shown to be the hat of both humans, and, more importantly, Time Lords. A single Time Lord being involved in a plot is usually a very big deal while in groups they are usually overbearing bureaucrats, or even Complete Monsters.
- The Doctor only rarely has a plan of action at the outset. He makes it up as he goes along.
- Violence is the Doctor's last choice, and he nearly never uses guns himself. That the Doctor prefers to keep his hands clean by letting other people do his dirty work is a fair criticism. The Doctor is at best a Technical Pacifist; he doesn't like to fight, but he will if he has to, and whilst he might not use guns personally he's found plenty of ways to get around that in the past.
- In keeping with the above two points, the Doctor generally doesn't go around picking fights or looking for trouble (he does, however, look for excitement or something interesting, which generally leads to trouble); he usually just wanders across a problem, and his first instinct when faced with someone planning on starting something is to ask -- or warn -- them to change their course of action. (This is especially true of New Series Doctors, who make a special point of offering the enemy a peaceful way out.) When they (inevitably) refuse... well, though he didn't start the fight, he is perfectly willing to end it by any means necessary.
- The Doctor prefers to vanish right when the action is resolved; he doesn't want to be around for the cleanup.
- The Doctor feels some responsibility for the people travelling with him, and will always save them if he can -- even at the cost of his own life. If they or any of the other people he meets are really determined to make Heroic Sacrifices to save the day, though, he will applaud their courage and perhaps look mournful, but not stop them.
- The Doctor can and will lie when it suits his purposes, even to his companions. He will not, generally, lie about having lied.
We've talked a lot about the Doctor so far, but what about those he travels with? They're just as important to get right as the Doctor, and perhaps more so:
- Although not exclusively, the companion is generally female. The Doctor has travelled with male companions before, but male companions are greatly outnumbered by female ones, and the Doctor has rarely travelled with just a male companion (and not for long at that); the few occasions there has been a male companion on board, there's usually been a female companion as well (even Jamie, the male companion who travelled longest with the Doctor, also travelled along with two women -- Victoria and Zoe). This has the effect of establishing a clear male-female dynamic to the Doctor-companion relationship which, while not exclusive, provides a handy template to work from.
- The Doctor also usually travels with one or two people at a time; certainly no more than three. Having more than one companion around tends to be tricky for writers to handle, in terms of giving everyone enough to do story-wise; two companions on as well as the Doctor seems manageable, but having three or more seems to be a bit of a struggle. Something to keep in mind.
- So, who is the companion? Generally, they're:
- Human. The Doctor seems to like having humans around, often vocally considering them his favourite species. This is obviously a matter of practicality (it saves on make-up costs for a start, budget considerations being something the Doctor Who production team cannot afford to sniff at). This also enables the audience to engage with what's happening easily. He has travelled with non-humans before, to great success -- Romana, a fellow Gallifreyan, was quite popular with the audience, as was the robot dog K9 (although due to his tendency to break down, K9 was not popular with the production team) -- but they're outnumbered.
- From the twentieth / twenty-first century. Again, the companion is usually intended as an audience identification figure, and it's often easier to do this if the companion comes from a time which roughly coincides with that of the viewer. This tends to mean the recent past or the near future at most. Of course, there are exceptions.
- Less 'intelligent' / more naive than the Doctor. This enables them to again act as an audience stand-in by asking all the questions the audience will have ("Where are we? What's going on? What's that?!"), enabling the Doctor to act as Mr. Exposition. Even Romana, who was established at times as more intellectually gifted than the Doctor, was still less experienced than him, allowing her to fill this role at times.
- Important note: 'Less intelligent' does not equal 'stupid'. Companions who have clung on too tightly to the Idiot Ball in the past have generally not gone down well.
- Curious. They have an interest in the universe around them and the wonders the Doctor shows them. Particularly in the new series, in their introductory / early episodes they're often directly compared with more jaded, less intellectually curious or more timid people around them to demonstrate how they stand out, and consequently why they appeal to the Doctor.
- Moral and ethical. The companion generally supports the Doctor in his battles against evil. However, particularly in the new series, the companion has often acted as the Doctor's moral guide; even when he's not being an Anti-Hero, the Doctor is still an alien, and therefore does not often operate according to human morality. The companion has often acted to guide the Doctor into doing what is right, express outrage when he does go too far and steer in him the right direction once again. Much has been made in the new series about how the Doctor needs someone around him to 'stop him' from going too far. (It may be that his new status as Last of His Kind has something to do with this.)
- Trustworthy. The companion usually functions as the Doctor's best friend, and unscrupulous types rarely get invited aboard. Although mileage has and can be made from making the companion an untrustworthy sort who may even be acting against the Doctor (such as Turlough in the classic series, and Adam in the new series), these generally don't tend to last long; Turlough eventually did a Heel Face Turn and became a genuine companion, and Adam was booted out of the TARDIS after one adventure because he betrayed the Doctor's trust and lied about it.
- Able to be frightened. It's a big, bad, scary universe the Doctor inhabits, and it's often been the companion's job to get scared by it when necessary (such as when the Monster of the Week is baring down on them). Be careful with this one, however; in the past, this has translated to the typical cliche of the companion standing around doing a lot of screaming. Keeping in mind that the companion is generally female, and this can lead to some quite outdated gender roles and Unfortunate Implications very quickly (it also tends to make the companion look rather useless and come off as rather irritating). Consequently, this means that more modern roles for the companion have made them more:
- Capable. Although they are usually still not as competent as the Doctor, the companion is expected to look after herself. You don't have to make the companion Ellen Ripley (although you could do worse), but modern audiences will find the timid, screaming, near-useless cliche of the Doctor Who companion unacceptable these days.
- In the past, the companion's relationship with the Doctor has tended be more a close friendship or a teacher / student-style connection, with little over romantic tension. The new series companions have generally introduced more romantic subtext between the Doctor and the companion. This also impacts on the male companion / female companion dynamic as well; the male companions in these cases are often the female companion's 'everyman' boyfriend, and is less than pleased at both the female companion's obvious interest in the daring, charismatic and heroic Doctor, which often expresses itself in hostility towards the Doctor.
Two main choices to make - setting and genre. Doctor Who is a very versatile format and continuity has never been strictly observed. The setting can be pure space fantasy with Crystal Spires and Togas, Twenty Minutes Into the Future, ancient Rome, Victorian Cardiff, Space Opera - or, of course, contemporary London. (His sojourns in places outside of Europe are quite rare by comparison.)
The main pitfall is in writing something that your effects budget can't create (leading to Special Effects Failure), or a story too big to fit into the time allowed. Steven Moffat once observed that Who monsters tend to work best right up until the moment they're revealed. Judicious use of Nothing Is Scarier can really stretch an anemic budget.
The other pitfall many writers seem to fall into is over-use of the Villain Ball (so many villains were only caught because they pointlessly murdered people) -- or the Idiot Ball (companions wandering off and into trouble ... again...)
The 2005 reboot has also been frequently accused of over-relying on the Reset Button and / or the Deus Ex Machina as a means of resolving the plot. To be fair, this isn't entirely limited to the new series, as the old series also had numerous moments where things built up to someone pressing the right button at the right time, which conveniently resolved the plot for them.
Techno Babble can also be a bit of an issue. In fairness, Doctor Who has always generally hovered around the 'soft' side of the 'hard' science fiction / 'soft' science fiction scale, but the over-use of technobabble can easily switch an audience off.
Some of the show's longer stories, particularly in the 'serial' format of the classic series, also tended to run out of steam by the third episode or thereabouts, generally relying on a lot of Padding wherein the Doctor and friends would get captured, locked up, threatened with death, escape, run around the villain's base a bit, and then get cornered again just in time for the end of episode cliffhanger (lather, rinse, repeat, depending on how many more episodes were left in the story). The new series, with a shorter running time, has generally avoided the problem of padding, but instead can seem to go the opposite route, resulting in a lot of frantic running around, shouting and waving of arms in the last fifteen minutes or so to effect a hurried (and not necessarily coherent) conclusion to events.
A note also about the fan-base: as might be expected with a series that has being going strong in some form for almost fifty years in a wide variety of styles, formats and approaches, Doctor Who has a huge fan-base. And this fan-base is incredibly varied, intensely committed and, so it sometimes seems, unable to agree on anything. Some like the new series not the old series, some like the old series not the new series, some like parts of the old / new series and absolutely nothing else, and so on. As such, no matter what you do, the fans will be split roughly between those who think you're the best thing to happen to the series and who worship everything you've ever written, and those who believe you're a soulless demon sent from Hell by Satan himself to spite them personally by ruining the show. Take this into account when you're reading the reactions of both groups.
Try taking one of the Aesops mentioned below and turning it on its head is always a good place to start. Maybe sometimes there are problems that no one can overcome, no matter how determined they are, or how great a team they have with them. Maybe there can be Happiness in Slavery. Maybe we would be happier if we were all the same.
Of course, keep in mind that a Long Runner like Doctor Who has probably already explored many of these themes in some form or another.
Age, Aliens, Ambassadors, Androids, Apocalypse, Ark, Attack, Blood, Brain, Carnival, Caves, City, Claws, Code, Curse, Dalek Invasion, Day, Death, Destiny, Edge, End, Evil, Evolution, Face, Family, Fires, Forest, Genesis, Hand, Horns, Horror, Invasion, Image, Keeper, Keys, Last, Mark, Masque, Menace, Mind, Monster, Nightmare, Parting, Planet, Power, Prison, Pyramids, Remembrance, Resurrection, Revelation, Revenge, Rise, Robots, Seeds, Sound, State, Stones, Talons, Terror, Time, Tomb, Vampires, Victory, Voyage, War, Warriors, Waters, Web
Androids, Androzani, Angels, Autons, Assassins, Axos, Black Spot, Blood, Chaos, Cybermen, Daleks, Damned, Dead, Decay, Death, Demons, Destruction, Dinosaurs, Doctor, Doom, Doomed, Drums, Earth, Eden, Evil, Fang Rock, Fear, Fenric, Fire, Fendahl, Forsaken, Ghosts, Impossible, Infinite, Infinity, Kroll, London, Lost, Mandragora, Monsters, Moon, Morbius, Nimon, Ood, Peladon, Rani, Robots, Sontarans, Space, Spiders, Steel, Terror, Tara, Time, Time Lords, Traken, Venice, Vervoids, Vortex, Ways, World, Weng-Chiang, Zygons
Probably the biggest theme of Doctor Who is that one man can make a difference and that it's always a worthy thing to try to help people. Even in the stories where the Doctor fails miserably and almost everybody dies, there's at least one person left who is better off for having met him, or some malignant entity who's worse off (and deservedly so) for having opposed him.
Another major theme is freedom. The Doctor is beholden to no one, goes where the wind takes him and on the few occasions he finds himself having to bend to the whims of authority he resents it with a passion. Those authority figures who aren't evil are usually well meaning, but incompetent, or at least woefully unequipped to deal with whatever predicament has come up this week.
Paradoxically, the importance of teamwork is also a major force in many stories, with the Doctor and his companions, or UNIT and/or others putting their heads together to solve the problem. It's even been suggested a few times the the Doctor would be happier if he could find a place to belong, but this is usually dismissed fairly quickly.
The Doctor values self-actualization and the realization of hidden potential as much as he values freedom: "there's no such thing as an ordinary human".
Then there's the importance of diversity. The Doctor travels to many different places and touches the lives of many different people; generally, the only ones who are portrayed as irredeemable are those bent on trying to take away the freedom and/or individuality of others. This is best exemplified by his two greatest foes, the Daleks, who wish to EX-TER-MIN-ATE all other forms of life, and the Cybermen, relentless collectivists who believe the universe will be a much happier place when everyone else is turned into a faceless machine like them.
Similarly, the new series has taken criticism for the prevalence of the Heroic Sacrifice as a means of resolving a plot.
In either case, write whatever you want to write, but it does pay to be aware of form, and if the audience feel a particular device has been overused of late it may be wise to avoid it.
Motifs for the entire series include the police box form of the TARDIS; although initially just a way of cutting the budget by making the Doctor's time machine something cheap and easy to recognize and place in different locations, it's become an icon of the series. It's also quite tempting to view it at least partially as part of the Doctor's overall character; like the best police officers, he protects and defends the innocent.
Being an obvious symbol of time (and hence time travel), clocks are also a potential; they were quite a motif in the 1996 telemovie, and it's worth mentioning that the new series has had plenty of shots of Big Ben (which formed a central part of the plot of at least one of them).
The new series has opened several episodes with a long zoom shot from Earth in orbit to an aerial view of London.
- There has been a preponderance of plots in the new series about plots to destroy/take over the entire Earth, or the entire galaxy/universe. Or even just plots where destruction would be an unfortunate side-effect.
- The season finales to the past few series notwithstanding, not every plot that puts the Doctor and his companions in danger, and makes for intriguing viewing, has to imperil a planet (or an entire race, or the universe...) Smaller stories were done plenty of times within the original run of the series: take "The Caves of Androzani", mentioned below. The Doctor and his companion find themselves caught in the middle of a drug war and spend the entire story just trying to get back to the TARDIS - it's widely regarded as one of the best stories in the show's history.
- In addition to the old standby of "plop the Doctor in the middle of (or run-up to) some famous historical event that he must prevent (or not prevent)", plenty of events in Earth's history are kinda weird, even if we know what happened and there's a perfectly logical, natural explanation. Take one, and tell us what really happened.
- Here are some archaeological anomalies. We're sure you can provide the real story.
- Along the same lines, here's a list of cryptids sighted over the years. They'd make dandy aliens, would they not?
- The Doctor would feel honor-bound to topple any society in the Help! Help! This Index Is Being Repressed! index.
- A Busman's Holiday is another frequently used device to get the Doctor and his companions planetside. Basically, if the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS promising "Nothing bad ever happens on Halcyon VII!", then the Daleks are on their way. 
Currently, Doctor Who is filmed in Wales. Filming outside of Wales is relatively rare. That said, there's the occasional story filmed in England like "Rose" (London, in part) and "The Shakespeare Code" (London, Coventry and Warwick), as well as outside of Britain such as "Planet of the Dead" (Dubai), "The Vampires of Venice" (Trogir, Croatia) and "The Impossible Astronaut"/"Day of the Moon" (Utah).
Story-wise, many stories tend to take place in Britain, usually at some point in the nineteenth to twenty-first century. This is largely due to financial considerations; while story-wise Doctor Who has long been lauded as a device that can go anywhere and tell any story, in practice the producers have been limited by the budget, which has never been particularly extravagant. In the classic series, attempts by the show to show off alien planets have varied considerably in terms of credibility and quality, and the stereotype of the show relying heavily on the BBC Quarry for this purpose is not without foundation. Even with advances in CGI, the new series still faces this trade-off -- more alien worlds in a season means less money to be able to convincingly realise them.
Many fans, especially fans of the classic series, enjoy the slightly cheesy aspect to the show's special effects. The old series made extensive use of models and matte shots; the new series uses CGI as well. The sets aren't nearly as cheap as they were in the 70s, but the show is still a BBC production and doesn't have a gigantic budget. You still have more leeway before you hit Special Effects Failure than you would making a commercial American series. That said, if you get sloppy or lazy, you will get called out on it.
Past series have showcased all kinds of outfits for all kinds of creatures. The main thing is to make sure that things don't get too outlandish--this privilege should be kept for the Doctor. If things get too strange, it won't be taken seriously.
With regard to the Doctor's costume a wide spectrum of outfits have been used through his current eleven lives, from Nine's simple leather jacket to Six's eye-searing Technicolor dreamcoat. Striking a balance between ordinary and odd is key, but since no one really seems to notice what the Doctor wears wherever/whenever he is, this balance can shift. Period clothes seem to be a favorite among the costume designers, but this has been kept within recent parts of history (19th to early 20th Centuries). The Doctor's outfit also gives chances to lampshade how strange it is sometimes (e.g. Four's scarf, Five's celery stick, etc.) No incarnation of the Doctor has been particularly self-conscious about the eccentricity of his sartorial choices -- if someone asks why he's dressed so strangely, he usually replies along the lines of "What's wrong with my outfit? I like my outfit."
Despite the differences, certain fashion motifs tend to appear; a jacket with distinct lapels, something worn over the shirt (a waistcoat or sweater of some kind), a distinctive form of cravat or tie, the occasional Nice Hat. Although the costuming of the new series made a distinct effort to get away from the more period styles of the classic series Doctors by clothing the Doctor in something more modern, some of these motifs still bled through, and the Eleventh Doctor's tweed jacket and bow-tie look -- rather like an Oxbridge don on holiday -- perhaps indicate something of a return to the classic series template of Awesome Anachronistic Apparel.
One thing has emerged after eleven Doctors and fifty years: designing the Doctor's outfit without the active participation of the actor doesn't end well.
Companions can pretty much wear anything they like. It's been established in canon that the TARDIS contains an enormous wardrobe, so there's no shortage of choice, but they generally wear the clothing of their home planet/era, the clothing of modern-day Brits, or some combination thereof. The Doctor only rarely imposes a dress code on his companions... which is fine, since -- except for a passing comment on his or her "strange outfit" -- practically none of the locals they'll meet will care.
Alien clothes should fit with the kind of alien they are and/or what kind of world they live on; sometimes having no clothes is appropriate. Sometimes the simplest of outfits work the best (see the Tritovores and their boiler suits). Make it interesting, but not too outrageous; it needs to be strange to humans (namely the audience), but seen as ordinary by everyone else.
Casting the Doctor is one of the hardest jobs. Whoever comes next will have many previous incumbents of the role to follow, all of them generally well thought-of. Your actor will need to be commanding when required, but always remain likeable; have the acting chops to pull off high drama and the timing for high comedy; and something to set him apart from the previous incarnations. Casting rumours surrounding the Eleventh Doctor in 2008 suggested he would be played by a black actor (either Paterson Joseph or Chiwetel Ejiofor), and although the casting was eventually that of white actor Matt Smith, it is notable that the prospect of a black Doctor was met with little to no resistance. Furthermore, in Eleven's guest appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures, after regenerating since he last met the gang, he states that regeneration isn't always the same skin tone, and it can be anything. In the episode "The Doctor's Wife", the Eleventh Doctor mentions the Corsair, a Time Lord who had some incarnations in the form of a woman as well as a man.
Again, this can be a matter of budget. High or low, however, we're not exactly talking Michael Bay movie territory here. The traditional cliche of the standard Doctor Who action sequence involving a lot of running up and down corridors is not without foundation, either in the old series or the new, mainly because it's quite cheap. Extravagant stunts tend to involve the actors struggling against either a special-effects backdrop or a Monster of the Week, both of which can lead to Special Effects Failure.
- It's suggested that the Doctor does often has nice, relaxing visits to planets where he doesn't end up risking death and/or dismemberment, but obviously that doesn't make for interesting television