I’m not claiming to know an awful lot about Doctor Who, I’ve seen a tiny proportion of the TV episodes (a couple of the 1st and 2nd Doctors, a few 4th and 5th, the film of the 8th, all of the 9th and a fair few 10th), read a dozen or so novels and listened to most of the 8th Doctor audio adventures from Big Finish. So in the grand scheme of things I’m a latecomer, an amateur, and thus have no business sharing my opinions with the world. Sometimes, though, it’s easier to get a feel for something, or to spot discrepancies, by jumping in the middle and darting around than by following sequentially at a steady pace. I appreciate that it’s hard to take over a character from other writers, and with the Doctor there’s over forty years of TV, audio and written adventures to take on board, assimilate, and do your best not to contradict, but sometimes it seems like Russell T Davies doesn’t even try.
Since I was in a house with a TV over Christmas, I watched part one of the Doctor Who special as it was shown, but by about halfway through I was only persevering so I could discuss it with Big Brother on the phone later in the evening (and by the sound of it, so was he). Too much running, jumping and shouting, too many showy special effects and not enough plot, explanation or reflection. I know the nature of TV and TV audiences has changed over the years but we’re a far cry from Tom Baker’s moral quandary over the destruction of the daleks at their creation. He asked ‘Have I the right?’ and stood around agonising for a while; the way RTD writes the tenth Doctor, I can’t imagine that sort of moral question even occurring to him as he runs in at full tilt, brandishing his sonic screwdriver (which surely should be the sonic Swiss Army knife these days, given its ever-growing extra features. I don’t remember him actually using it to get a stone out of a horse’s hoof, but as I said, I haven’t seen all the episodes).
This lack of a clear moral dimension is one aspect of the humanising of the Doctor. ‘Human interest’ is a useful hook to bring in or keep an audience and that’s always been there, usually with the (mainly human) companions; however, the Doctor himself is not human, and that is (or should be) one of the keys to his character. That potential for stepping back with cold detachment to do what he has to do, never allowing himself to get too attached to anyone, even deliberately distancing himself so that he can always move on when necessary, and a constant awareness of his great age and responsibilities. With the ninth Doctor the new era barely got going but with the tenth, RTD has really got into his stride – and apart from the heartbreak of losing Rose, we’ve had a love affair in pre-revolutionary France, a woman he tells his true name to (the implication being that he’s in love with her), and a marriage to Queen Elizabeth (complete with crass joke about her virginal nickname). All (or mostly) good drama, but hardly in character for the universe’s favourite eccentric scientist.
Every writer for Doctor Who, be it the TV, audio or written adventures, will put his or her own stamp on the episode, but at the same time they need to fit in, however tempting it may be to go off on a tangent. The main character is not yours to do with as you see fit, if you’re writing a novel or audio episode you might have to channel the spirit of Jon Pertwee, but even for the current Doctor, unless you want to explain all the womanising with some kind of midlife crisis or bang on the head, you need to follow the character’s natural arc.
As a complete contrast this Christmas I also read Lungbarrow, a seventh Doctor novel by Marc Platt which I recommend (rather brilliantly available as a free e-book from the BBC these days; second-hand copies of the original are hard to come by). I’d heard that this novel hinted that the Doctor might in fact be the Other, a reincarnation of a legendary powerful figure from Gallifreyan history. It didn’t so much hint as write it in 10-foot high letters decorated with fairy lights and underline it in blood, but it could be that I missed some hint of ambiguity, possibly due to references I didn’t pick up on because of my patchy knowledge. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable read, with next to no ‘action’ but plenty of pathos, human interest and intrigue. I wonder if RTD ever read it?