This Blog Contains Doctor Who Spoilers

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Doctor Who, Structure And Why Russell Got It Right

Yes folks, this is the Doctor Who article you've all been waiting for, but never thought would come - not from me anyway! It's the academic one. And it's going to be wordy, so if you're on your lunch break or have Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (a fear of long words - I shit you not!) then you should really stop reading now! Maybe wait for the film? They always do adaptations these days...

Tonight I was having dinner in Cardiff's 'Bar 33' with two fellow Whovians and we were discussing the ins and outs of the show and what it's meant to us over the years, especially, since it's return in 2005. We talked about characters who were good, lines that were bad, silly stuff and the show's structure in general. And this got me thinking. The Russell T Davies era of the show was very hit and miss. Or, I should say HIT and miss. It was all "good". But some episodes stand out as being clever, meaningful and witty and others are just big, silly romps through time and space. Russell and the production team got SO much abuse and criticism from fans for their "...kitchen sink" approach to making epic, universally threatening series finales. Lazy writing, bad plotting and weak, shallow characterisation has been blamed for epic, yet empty episodes.

I think, however, that there is more to see here than just substandard scripting. Think in terms of how the series, as a whole, is shaped. Think about the fantastic episodes we've had! Think about the reaction to some of the more "meaningful" episodes. Stories like Human Nature/Family Of Blood, or Blink, for example. Loved be fans and non-fans alike. THEY may not have been written by Davies but they are part of his Who. Midnight is an episode that has been loved by all! It's dark, scary, interesting, different and very clever. But it'd make a shit finale...

Let me break it down. I call it the "Camp Sandwich". My theory goes thus:

-The first, middle and last episodes of the series need to be big, camp, balls-out entertainment. The episodes in between are open to experimentation. Hence, Camp Sandwich.

Let's look at Series Three as an example. The series opens with the clever, but fluffy, Smith and Jones. "Judoon Platoon Upon The Moon" - a big, hearty chase story that introduces a new companion and an old Doctor to brand new viewers in style. It's a something-and-nothing episode with a big, funny monster, a sparky, slapstick Doctor and a ballsy new companion. As openers go it's pretty flawless. But there's nothing especially moral in there. Nothing overly challenging or outwardly new in there. And that's just how it should be! In order to "get into" a series, of whatever, you have to ENJOY the first episode. It has to promise you things. Look at the very first episode of Lost! They crashed on an island and spent most of the hour dealing with the rescue of people from the plane. It was exciting, fun and new! If they'd begun a week after the crash, with mysterious monsters, polar bears, flashbacks to meaningful times in these (new) characters' lives, people would get lost, zone out. There'd be something missing. TOO much going on. It would confuse us and we wouldn't have a base for the characters who will suffer and change throughout the series.

Same with Doctor Who. Human Nature was great. Touching, challenging, different, scary, lovely... A real triumph in storytelling. It's the "strange" story that takes the Doctor in a completely different direction. It'd be a shit series opener though. New viewers would be lost. The Doctor ISN'T the Doctor, Martha ISN'T Martha... There's no intrinsic Dr Who elements, no time travel, no TARDIS, no monsters. There's something missing... BUT mid series it's perfect! It allows a new take on the Doctor/Companion relationship and challenges it's audience to THINK as opposed to sitting back and allowing the show to pour liquid fun into their brain-cups.

Stories that are fun work as hooks. Smith and Jones is such an episode. Then you can "butter" the fun bread with thought and challenge and direction change and dare and risk, all the things you'd lose an audience with if it was done in Episode One. You can play with time, a la Blink. You can mess with identity like in Human Nature. You can fiddle with history, like in The Shakespeare Code, because the audience are hooked. They're committed to the show that made them laugh and cry last week. The one that excited them, without taxing their brains too much.

But audiences are fickle. They'll only put up with so much wishy washy, exploratory puzzlement before they start craving good ol' fun times again. Which is there the filling in our Camp Sandwich comes in. Another big dollop of DR WHO! [That's how you can differentiate actually! Dr Who is fun, exciting and usually epic and wondrous. Doctor Who is the experimental toying with time and character that the unique format of the show allows! Remember that, Dr Who and Doctor Who, two different things]. So, half way through a series, to bump up the ratings with a Dr Who tent pole and keep the punters on side you make an episode like The Lazarus Experiment, where a mad scientist turns into a giant scorpion and hunts people in a museum! Or shove some Daleks in there, taking over the Empire State building during the depression! BIG, FUN, SHINY DR WHO! And after those palette-clearing dollops have been served up, it's back into challenging, direction-altering adventures in Doctor Who. Possessed, crying Doctor - afraid for his life and sanity in the spectacular 42. Or NO Doctor at all in Moffat's Blink! Things that may even alienate the younger viewers and may require a little more "viewing intelligence" than popcorn Dr Who...

But you can't end a series like that! For the series to close, for it to gather the audience it deserves, you have to shoot back to epic, vast Dr Who. Utopia, The Sound Of Drums and The Last Of The Time Lords work as a beautiful bridge between the Whos. A troubled professor Yana struggles to send the last humans to Utopia in order to save them from a decaying Universe, with the help of the Doctor and his companions is Doctor Who. The last ten minutes, where Yana realises his true identity, scarringly blasting all positive opinion of him to pieces with the spitting of the wonderfully delivered "I. Am. The Master!" is damagingly Doctor Who. Scary stuff... He steals the TARDIS, stands our heroes on a barren world with cannibal tribes at the door. This is BIG scary Doctor Who.

Then the Master's regeneration into John Simm - and his deliberately hammy performance - brings us right back to Dr Who chasing the baddie about space and time because he's going to TAKE OVER THE WORLD! Straight away, in those closing seconds, we're on the edge of our seats clapping and whooping and hoping good old Dr Who will save the day once more. Enter the comedy and parody of The Sound Of Drums, a lashing of childlike aliens and a Dobby Doctor and you have a masterpiece. Not an intellectual one, but "one" nonetheless. You'll find criticism of the Series Three finales EVERYWHERE! And it's all justified, by point. But those complaining aren't who should be enjoying it. The masses love the cute Doctor Goblin. The 'Not We's love seeing the Master dancing to the Scissor Sisters (should a song that features the line "Fuck and Kiss you both at the same time" really be used on a Family show at 7pm on Saturday night? I guess we could pretend Jake Shears blurts "if I can kiss you both at the same time").

Doctor Who (and indeed, Dr Who) is not made for the ones who complain. If you're into it enough for something to bother you in terms of "canon" then you're not of the target audience. Doctor Who is for kids (be it kids aged 7, 27 or 57), it's popular science fiction, borderline science fantasy. What it isn't is a legend-strewn, canonical serial thriller. It's geeky to pick holes in Doctor Who. But it's not BAD to do so... As long as you realise that the series is created in a way that will bring in new viewers, not alienate them. And all of you worried about whether Moffat's finales will be as big and camp and silly and over the top as Davies' were, sorry - they will. But that's what this show is all about. Start big, explore a bit, big, develop and challenge, BIG! Credits roll, Earth is towed home safe and everyone's happy. CAMP-INTERESTING-FLUFFY-DIFFERENT-EPIC. It's the Camp Sandwich, with added cheese. And why not!

Now, when's Sarah Jane Adventures on... (not for ME! My nephew was asking... honest!)


  1. You are very right :) <3

  2. Hmmm... I'd recognise that anonymous Smiley Face/Heart combo anywhere

  3. Enjoyed that and you definately on to something :) In series 4 we had fluffy opener, bombastic return of classic aliens (TSS), light celeb historical (TUatW) and the finale. Makes sense to put the more "difficult" episodes layered between the light interludes and the bombastic epics.

  4. Just thought, if Moffat follows the pattern, we should have a light opener (looks likely), epic run-around (the angels?), funny episode (the Lodger), and epic finale (oh dear?)

  5. we've already been told by moffat that the finale is epic. but we all assume that because it's moffat that means "deep and legendary" when it's bound to follow the pattern. It'll be big and bolshy. And why shouldnt it!?

  6. I think this is a brilliant analysis. Yes, some episodes are not as good as others, but they all feed into the main theme of the Doctor and his companions, traveling through space and time. And really, I do love the ones even at the bottom of my "liked" list, because any Doctor is better than no Doctor at all!

    I'm anxiously awaiting Easter. As much as I loved Ten, I think Eleven will be smashing as well.