A while ago, I wrote something on the difference between NuWho and OldWho. (NuWho is the reboot of Doctor Who on. Not sure where the TV Movie comes in. OldWho is 7th Doctor and back. 8th is kind of a world of his own, especially as I haven’t listened to the audio adventures to get a better idea of the guy and his narrative structures than just one movie.) I don’t remember the specifics, but I do remember at least one thing: I said that OldWho tends to concentrate more on the places. NuWho tends to concentrate more on the people.1 I still stand by that, but now that I’ve got a few more years of thinking about storylines analytically, I’ve got more to talk about.
OldWho really did feel kind of random in destination. Yes, there were times the TARDIS had a mind of its own and brought the Doctor exactly where he needed, but there must have been many disasters over the years the Doctor didn’t or couldn’t help, simply because traveling all of even his lives wouldn’t be sufficient, and the people had to deal with things all on their own.
But even more than that, not every destination had something to do with the life of the Doctor or one of his companions. Even in seemingly unrelated places like Satellite 5, it all has to do with the Daleks and the Big Bad Wolf, which are essential parts of Rose’s life and that of the Doctor’s. Story arcs kind of do this. While I enjoy story arcs, they also ensure that nothing can be random. And that…cheapens the universe slightly. Like nothing exists without being related to the Doctor or the lives of his companions, because of what we see. Suddenly the universe isn’t this big, fantastic place, where all sorts of things exist. It revolves around the Doctor and the lives of his companions.
It paves the way for lazy storytelling. Rather than dumping the Doctor and a bunch of companions in the middle of a situation, and learning about their past and character by how they react to the situation, instead writers can slip into the path of telling you about their past by having every episode relating to their past. You learn a lot more about Ace through her brash actions (easily falling on the use of explosives to solve any problem, taking a baseball bat to a Dalek which is still one of the most awesome things ever) than by watching her interact with a boyfriend, and a mother, and her workplace, and her mother’s cat, and her entire extended family, and this one person in authority who’s worried about her, and relationship drama.2 Worse, it sets up the idea that to get any interest out of a situation, you have to include soap opera-like relationship drama, or people will get bored and turn away.3 Entirely possible in a soap opera, for instance, but in a show about the wonders of the universe? That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have character interaction, or that they won’t clash ever. That’s life. But it can be something as simple as Teagan sniping at the Doctor that for the tenth time he’s failed to get her where she was going, or a disagreement about the Brigadier and the Doctor about an approach to an alien invasion. The more interesting and more invested action should go with the destination of the day or foiling an evil plot that’s been uncovered.
It makes maintaining a story’s verisimilitude that much more difficult, as in any story that revolves around its characters. It’s one thing to have a story that revolves around the actions and dialogue of its characters.4 It’s a completely separate thing to declare the entire world of the story (which in this case includes the whole universe, all of space and time, and probably all the other dimensions that exist too, which is a very large world indeed) revolves around your characters, and anywhere you go there’s bound to be something relating to them. Random TARDIS, my foot! Everyday companions? Yeah, for all of maybe a season, until you realize that they’re not anything like ordinary, because they just happen to be the parents of River Song, or behind the legend of the Last Centurion or the Bad Wolf, or somehow keep being reborn all around the cosmos.5 So, the next time that they introduce a companion that’s completely normal, you scoff and go “Yeah, right” which, I’m pretty sure, isn’t the response you’re meant to have. And this whole myth of the Doctor thing? Okay, yeah, impressive. He’s known all over the galaxy now. (And while it makes sense that a lot more places would have heard something, which makes this one of the very few continuity based things, even vaguely, that the Grand Moff was able to follow, I don’t think it would’ve reached the point shown.) He’s The Oncoming Storm, the Only One In the Whole Universe Who Can Do Anything About Emergencies, and You’re All Supposed To Follow ‘Scream and Shout’6 Protocols Until He Arrives To Fix All Your Problems Or Potentially Make Them Worse Because Writers Have Been Attempting To Say That Their Doctor is the Dark Doctor For About Four Incarnations Now. Big whup.
It cheapens it, again. So what if the Doctor wins? The only thing more capable of winning is the Weeping Angels, because there is no way to win against them so you might as well just lay down and die.7 It’s inevitable. It’s boring. The only thing you might wonder is how it’s done. But that requires investment. And if they’re relying on you to be drawn in through the characters, not the setting, that means that you probably have to care about the TARDIS-affiliated gossip.
1. 1. In this manner, you could characterize NuWho better as a ‘drama’, because it’s all about the character’s drama, and OldWho as the science fiction it ostensibly is. Yes, RTD made some mistakes too. They just were a little more glaring when you look at the Grand Moff's stuff. (That being said, I still have the feeling that the Grand Moff is confused as to what fantasy is, versus science fiction. Science fiction requires some sort of ‘ability to answer questions’ accountability both in the science shown and the plot depicted. How in-depth the answers are expected to be and how realistic the answers are is what differentiates hard science fiction from soft science fiction. Fantasy doesn’t require those answers, which explains how such a brain-melting episode as The Angels Take Manhattan could possibly have been written.)
2. 2. spoilers: pretty sure we only briefly even met Ace’s mom, in a moment when she didn’t even realize that’s her daughter standing there. We did see Ace at her workplace. That’s it. And she was a better character for it. The best characters written tend to be ones in which everything like this is worked out; the entire backstory’s written, but we see an episode here and there, not an entire season or show devoted to it. Unless, y’know, that’s the point of the show.
3. 3. In this, I include the sudden drama at the beginning of the season of ‘I can’t have a baby’ ‘I can’t be with you’ ‘this is enough to drive us apart’ idiocy that was written between Rory and Amy. You end the last season with Rory, the Man Who Waited a Thousand Years for the Girl He Loves, and Amy finally getting married. But, oh, it’s a new season, gotta inject some drama, uh, let’s look and see what excuse we can find that would be severe enough…uhhh, baby drama! That’s an issue with relationships, let’s throw that in there!
News flash: that ain’t how these things work. Fine, it’s an issue? Build up to it! Paint it the Most Beautiful Romance EverTM but throw in a line of dialogue here, Rory flipping through a baby catalogue or something there. Throwing something serious in there without any buildup ruins the realism, because these things don’t usually come out of the blue like that. You get hints. Maybe they’re not strong hints; they’re ones you figure out after the fact as ohhh, so that’s what that was about, but they’re there!
Or the whole thing about River’s genealogy. I guessed it near the beginning of the episode of reveal. How, you ask? No, not through genius writing cleverly leading up to that conclusion. No, because it occurred to me and I said that out loud and continued with “But nah, it can’t be, that’s just too dumb.” Maybe if it’d been cunningly hinted at in previous episodes, it would’ve been a better reveal; as it was it was a dud. It felt like it’d just been thrown in there for shock value. To make Amy the latest ‘Average Person Off the Street that Ends Up in the TARDIS but no not Really She’s Actually a Special Snowflake Like All the Other Companions’. To give the Doctor and Amy more of a link. To make the whole ‘Amy’s attracted to the Doctor’ that much more awkward. It didn’t feel natural and organic, which any good writing should do. It should feel like ‘yeah, of course, there’s no other way this story could possibly have gone’.
4. 4. X-Files and NCIS are examples where the character development is given equal billing to the plot—but let me stress that the plot is not shoved aside in order to focus exclusively on the character development. I suppose the equivalent would be the person who posts every little detail about their day on their Facebook page, down to every bathroom visit and crumb on their plate. The story’s getting lost in the telling. Most of the time, you’ll be bored stiff. Now take a step back and think about that person who the minute they see you starts telling you everything that’s happened to them in the last couple weeks. They probably won’t go into the trolly level of detail, but they still will talk about a lot that you might find boring. (Of course, you may be highly entertained and follow them if they’re particularly witty in every post they make. But in that case, they’re telling a very different story than a science fiction or a mystery story.) Rather, in the examples of shows above, the plot and the character development are intertwined like DNA. They both help paint a better picture. We don’t have to hear all about Mulder’s sister every week (“And not everything I do and say and think and feel goes back to my sister. You, of all people, should realise that sometimes motivations for behaviour can be more complex and mysterious than tracing them back to one single childhood experience”). When appropriate, Mulder’s sister is invoked, when not, the story takes priority. That’s just an example; there are a lot of other personal details that aren’t shoved in your face every week but are instead taken out of storage when it’s a good time to do so. And the interactions between the characters help drive the plot forward as much as the external plot events the characters have no control over.
5. 5. All my knowledge about Clara is from the internet. I’ve watched maybe one episode with her in it.
6. 6. When in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.
7. 7. Okay, you take a very terrifying alien race, where the only method of protecting yourself is by not blinking. By keeping your eyes on them at all times. Except if you do that, the aliens will end up in your eyes (kinda like Killer Queen’s Bites the Dust) and you’re not even safe if you do that. So you have no way of defending yourself. So you might as well make it easy on yourself and lay down and let them do their teleport thing because there is no way to protect yourself and make it out safe. Maybe you could run. Maybe?
Especially when this cop-out is just to put the female companion in danger for drama. Let’s put the woman in danger, never mind the fact that this completely ruins the Weeping Angels as villains, because clearly there is absolutely no way The Grand Moff is a sexist.
8. I get that this is at times exaggeration. Don't point that out; I'm fully aware of that and can defend against straw man attacks.