I recently reactivated my Netflix account (getting another month free service) for the purpose of watching the BBC series Doctor Who. On one practical level this was a mistake. I started, and could not stop watching. I’ve fallen behind in a number of commitments, and haven’t done much work the past week on my new novel, Refuge. But now that I’ve come up for air (sometime in the middle of Season 5), I realize there are some wonderful lessons in how to tell a story available from the tales of the Doctor and his companions.
For those not familiar with it, Doctor Who is the wonderfully quirky BBC science fiction series about a time-traveling immortal alien. It originally aired from 1963 to 1989, and was revived in 2005. I’ve been watching only the new series; I may or may not try to find the original one. It features a main character called the Doctor. The Doctor is a Time Lord, a member of an alien race who travel about in time and space, are sensitive to any anomalies in time, have some limited telepathic abilities, possess incredibly encyclopedic scientific and historical knowledge, and potentially live forever. When the Doctor is mortally injured, he can regenerate and heal himself, taking on a new body in the process. (That last is of course a device used to incorporate new actors in the leading role seamlessly, but it works well.) He travels about in a time-space machine called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which is good sized on the inside but on the outside looks like a British police phone box from the 1960s.
The Doctor is obsessed with humanity. (Especially with the British. Go figure.) The reason for his obsession is never explicitly stated, but we may easily deduce it from the fact that he has lost his entire species, along with the fact that humans strongly resemble the Time Lords in appearance and in some aspects of behavior. (Amy Pond: “But you look human!” The Doctor: “No, you look Time Lord. We came first.”) The series goes all over the place in space and time, but the Doctor does spend an abnormally high percentage of his efforts saving humanity. The Doctor is terribly lonely, and finds companionship mainly among humans.
That will do for an introduction. Now, let’s consider what we may learn as storytellers from the longest-running science-fiction television series of all time.
There is no such thing as too much danger.
In every episode, the Doctor, his companion, others under his protection, the human race and the planet earth, the universe, all of the universes, or up to all of the above are in mortal danger. (Rose Tyler: “Is it always this dangerous?” The Doctor (grinning happily): “Yes!”) The Doctor is a formidable figure, feared by mighty conquering races and demonic entities, yet he always seems to be in a horrible predicament and never in the series waltzes in and shrugs off the flea-bite threats of mere mortals.
Trouble and danger, danger and trouble: these are keys to storytelling. You can’t have too much of them. Put your main characters in mortal danger, make them suffer and fear, give them challenges that seem completely impossible. Your readers will not be frightened away, and in most cases they will readily suspend disbelief when your characters manage to overcome the danger after all (as they must, even when they sacrifice themselves in the end to do it). If you make the danger believable, if you get the heart racing and the adrenaline pumping, belief will follow.
Toning down the danger and challenges facing the characters for the sake of believability or of not scaring off readers is a common failing of beginning writers. It has been one of mine at times.
Creative solutions are more interesting.
The Doctor almost never carries a weapon. The only device he routinely carries with him is a tool called a “sonic screwdriver,” which is handy for opening and sealing doors, fiddling with computers and other devices, breaking ropes and chains, and similar uses. Confronted with terrible obstacles and impossible challenges, he improvises solutions from his amazing store of knowledge and what’s available, and even then the line of the plot is seldom straightforward.
This makes for a much better story. The protagonist must be faced with challenges that are outside his experience and which he cannot solve using solely the tools in his inventory. The reader should be puzzled, not seeing how the problem can be solved until the story presents it to them, or at least not easily. Simple and straightforward equal predictable equals a dull story.
One need not go to the extremes of Doctor Who and few plot situations allow for that level of lunacy, but when in doubt, make it trickier.
Passion makes a character appealing.
The Doctor is an immortal character of immense age and vast knowledge, but he is far from a robot. He feels deeply and intensely about so many things: the destruction of his home world and of the Time Lords, the Daleks who were responsible for that, the human race, the people under his care, and above all his companions. Although he maintains a jaunty and sometimes preposterous demeanor, the passion underlying this exterior reveals itself frequently. (To Rose Tyler: “I could save the world but lose you.”)
Your main characters should never be wooden, passionless, highly efficient creatures. They must love, hate, desire, fear, burn with fury and ache with loss. This is what will make your readers identify with them and care about them; that which does not feel evokes no compassion or empathy.
Sexual tension makes great character interaction.
The Doctor’s companions (in the new series) are always young women of extraordinary courage, resourcefulness, and strength of will. With one exception, they are also always highly attractive young women. The Doctor himself is always a bit goofy-looking even in his handsomer incarnations, but he is mysterious and impressive enough to draw desire even so. Yet the Doctor never, never has sex with any companion.
One might plausibly suppose that the Doctor, being an alien despite his appearance, is not attracted to human females, but that isn’t the case. If it were, why would he invite one hot young babe after another to join him on his adventures? Also, one may see the suppressed desire in him on the rare occasions when the Doctor has kissed a companion. There is always an ostensible practical reason for the kiss (such as the kiss given to Rose Tyler at the end of the first season when he absorbed the TARDIS energy from her to save her life, or the one given to Martha Jones shortly after they first met to give her some alien DNA that would show up in a scan reading), but the Doctor could have achieved these purposes in some other way and the passion in the kisses is obvious.
The reason the Doctor avoids sex with his companions is because he is immortal and they are not. (The Doctor: “I’m 907 years old and I never age, I just change. This could never work out.” Amy Pond: “I wasn’t thinking of anything that long-term.”) He would like to have his companion as a lover (most of the time), and she would like that, too, but he can’t. And he isn’t the type not to think long-term.
Whatever the reason for it, though, sexual tension is a great thing to have between two characters. It draws them together and animates their interactions in a way that few other things can. It lends intensity and passion to everything else they do together. If you find two characters drawn to each other sexually, think carefully before you have them give in and consummate that desire. This will change the nature of their interaction completely, and make for a different story.
One final lesson is that yours truly is pretty damned creative in finding justification for obsessive behavior. I’m rather proud of myself. 🙂