I’m a Whovian. Let’s make that clear first. I watch Doctor Who for the characters, creative and improbable storylines, and, above all, the feels.
But I have to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with the show. There’s just something… offputting about it. It’s not enough to make me stop watching it, but I always think that it could be so much better.
It wasn’t until I got to watch the first five episodes of season nine that I realized what exactly the problem is with the show. Thing is, there’s not just one problem – there’s three.
Spoiler Warning – this post contains crucial plot points for Doctor Who up until the fifth episode of the 9th series.
The Plot is Rushed
Doctor Who is filled with complex characters, fascinating settings, and interesting ideas. But none of these things are given the space or time they need to have their most powerful effect.
Enough material for an entire season of television is stuffed into a single 1-to-2 episode story arc, complete with all the characters and plot twists. Now, these stories are, for the most part, entertaining and well-constructed… but we never spend enough time with them for any of it to really sink in and become internalized.
Some might argue that this is a reflection of The Doctor’s own harried life, constantly popping into existence right before the sh** goes down and leaving again the moment it’s over, but that doesn’t mean it makes good fiction.
Sometimes Doctor Who has tried to do an actual season-long arcs, as with River Song in the sixth season. However, more attention is paid to the episode-long arcs (i.e., the ‘monster of the week’ storyline), and the River story is reduced down until only the biggest, most essential points remain – and we miss the smaller, more subtle moments that make them actually mean anything. In fact, we have to rely on exposition to inform us of how ‘in love’ River and The Doctor are –we rarely get the chance to see it.
(Click here to read an article about more problems with River Song)
Another example of this is in series 9, episode 5, The Woman Who Lived. The Doctor encounters Ashildr, a woman he made immortal 800 years before. She is merely a shadow of the kind, courageous girl she was then. The years of heartbreak and isolation have turned her jaded and emotionless, and she blames The Doctor. The episode ends with her vowing to watch the doctor as he protects humanity – to protect humanity from him.
This is probably my favorite episode of Doctor Who ever (and many critics agree with me). Ashildr as a character is both interesting and heartbreaking – that said, I couldn’t help but feel that her potential was squandered by having all this shoved into one episode. Now imagine if this story arc were introduced slowly, throughout the season, giving us time to get to know Ashildr and become attached to her. It would make her final decision to stand against The Doctor so much more effective.
Every Episode is the End of the World
Literally. Did you see the one where The Doctor saved the world? Or what about the one where he saved the world? That’s nothing, do you remember when he saved the Universe… no, not that one, the one where there was….
you get the picture. The problem with having every episode be The End Of The World is that there’s nowhere left to go. It’s hard to raise the stakes after you’ve had a crack in the wall of time itself that was threatening to erase everything.
Not that the show doesn’t try. It’s just, every time The Doctor and Co. Saves The World, it feels like it’s a space we’ve occupied a lot (for the last 45 years, perhaps?). The details are different, but it feels the same. And because he’s done it so often before, we are never worried that he won’t be able to do it again. And this is the reason that Doctor Who is the show I watch when I’m caught up on all my other shows – I never feel like I JUST HAVE TO find out what happens next – because I already know. Continually raising the stakes is necessary to keep an audience engaged throughout a long series.
You can argue that The Doctor is an extremely capable character, and therefore needs larger-than-life problems – but this is, in fact, an almost-problem with the story. The overly-capable character trope has been done in the past, and while it was especially popular in literature of antiquity (see Beowulf, The Ramayana, and The Odyssey for examples), it has also been applied successfully to characters like Superman.
I don’t have much of a problem with The Doctor being so powerful. Most of his external (‘unearned’) power comes from his TARDIS, anyway, and you only have to physically separate him from it (which happens in nearly every episode) to rob him of this power. This forces him to use his intelligence and knowledge to solve problems, which shows capability and agency.
My problem is the explicit assertion in every episode (usually from his current companion) that The Doctor will prevail over whatever monster of the week he’s pitted against. This show of faith is endearing, but if the problem is so small that no one is really worried, then why are we watching? There’s no real conflict.
Doctor Who is at its best when it moves away from universal peril and focuses instead on smaller problems that deal with the current Doctor’s personal flaws (each regeneration has their own, which is absolutely fascinating), such as in The Woman Who Lived, which deals with 12’s flaw: his internal conflict between the power he has and the power he allows himself to use. We don’t know if he’ll make the right choice, or even what the right choice is. And that makes for a much better story.
So save Saving The Universe for the season finale, ‘kay?
Doesn’t play fair with the audience
A thought that always pops into my mind when watching Doctor Who is, “Man, this show needs a story bible, and bad.”
Now, I’m fully aware that this is the most popular show on a major television network. Obviously they have a story bible, or something equivalent (part of me wonders what sort of system they’re using to keep track of all the different timelines, the other part is sure that they’re not keeping track at all, only waving away continuity questions by muttering, “it’s explained by timey-wimey… stuff.”). Which means that they simply don’t care – they’re deliberately breaking character and reconing the canon in order to have the storylines that they want. Which is a prime example of not playing fair with your audience – we as viewers need to feel secure in the facts of the world we’re watching, otherwise we will be unable to tell which facts are ‘valid’ in any situation.
Check out this article on just a fraction of the inconsistencies in Doctor Who.
More egregious than the plot and world-building inconsistencies is just how willing the show creators are to bend or even break characters. Honestly, one of the reasons I gave up on the show for a couple years was that it was always flip-flopping between The Doctor thinking humans are the greatest thing since sliced bread and him thinking we all suck. And that’s just one instance of this.
A recent example if this is in the fourth and fifth episodes of the ninth series. In Before the Flood (9.4), the Doctor is fairly sure that one walk-on character, O’Donnell, is going to die if she leaves the TARDIS. He briefly suggests that she should stay behind without telling her why, but doesn’t bat an eye when she blows this off as chauvinistic.
He defends this later by saying that he can’t interfere with time, and he isn’t sorry. And that’s fine. Except in the next episode (The Girl Who Died, 9.6), he makes a very big deal out of saving another walk-on character, proclaiming that he doesn’t need to follow the ‘rules’.
It’s maddening. Probably the writers intended the first incident to be foreshadowing for this sudden change – but with no hint that he was conflicted about letting O’Donnell die, at all, so it comes off as a character break.
There are other ways the show doesn’t play fair with its audience – severe cases of skavonian dissonance, eucatastrophe abuse, and ‘fake-outs’ come to mind – but it would take too long to go into those here (plus I don’t want you to think I hate the show. I actually quite like it – my phone’s background is the time vortex, yo). Just be sure to keep your eyes peeled for them the next time Doctor Who comes up in your Netflix queue.
What Can Writers Learn from This?
The answer is not to simply never let these things happen in your story – though 99% of the time, that’s the case. The writers of Doctor Who know what they’re doing. They know that their storylines are rushed, that the plot is inconsistent at times. But they do it anyway, and to great international success.
Because what they stand to gain from doing those is more important to them. They choose to have rushed narratives so that they can have more happen, they allow inconsistencies so they can tell the tales they want to tell.
And that’s a viable choice – just make sure that if you make these choices, you do so for specific reasons, and not because it’s easier.