Tuesday, 24 November 2009


This is a response to Andrew Hickey’s tag game of reworking established characters, in particular his take on Doctor Who. The supposition seems very much to be that most such characters have lost their way, and need re-finding it as much as they do reinventing for our age. It is weird in many ways to find myself back to writing what’s essentially fanfic! I suspect I was galvanised to respond by already having formed some very similar ideas myself, just through watching the show.

Where we come in:

NB: At the time of writing, I am assuming this is how the current run of the show will end, bases upon what’s happened or been hinted at so far. Of course only time will tell whether this is my reading, or whether I’ve actually rewritten it without knowing it.

First, some retro-continuity is revealed. To defeat the Daleks in the Time War the Doctor has to enlist the Time Lords, but then it comes to be that his only chance to kill the Daleks off means wiping out the Time Lords as well. Traumatised by slaughtering his own species, he suppresses this memory in his mind. He also leaves himself unable to do anything similar again, inserting a kind of mental circuit-breaker in his thought processes. (This is why he is unable to set off the bomb he himself assembled in ’Parting Of the Ways’ claiming “coward every time.”)

But this conditioning starts to break down, and the Doctor becomes more megalomaniac about his powers over time. Perhaps partly as a result of this, this suppressed memory reawakens. (Perhaps he is also forced into a similar position again.) This time the Doctor responds more radically, both regenerating and developing fully fledged amnesia.

The new series – the opening:

A hallucinogenic montage scene of lights and starfields. This gradually morphs into something more violent -  an aural fever dream of explosions, voices and cries from previous shows, Daleks chanting “exterminate” etc.  (No actual clips, but snatches of dialogue over near abstract visuals.) A voice arrives much more loudly over the top of it, shouting repeatedly “Doctor Doctor!”

A man suddenly sits bolt upright. He’s in pajamas on an old metal-frame bed, in a small and spartan-looking room. A woman is shouting “Doctor, Doctor!” down the phone, finally realises the connection is lost and crossly slams the phone down. She looks around and is astonished to see him awake. Figuring he awoke to the word “Doctor” she calls him that. For his part, he remembers nothing.

She explains she is called Isobel, that they are on a remote Scottish island. He was found on the shore and she has spent several weeks caring for him. (She doubles as the island Nurse, but as it lacks a single hospital bed she has had to do this at home,) She had been trying to get through to the GP on the mainland, the lines are normally bad but seem significantly worse whenever she tries to call him. But, she adds brightly, she got a call through to the Police who are coming from the mainland to interview him, in a day or two. They might be able to tell you something.

She shows him what was in his pockets, a Tardis key, a sonic screwdriver (neither of which he recognises) and a plane ticket to Thailand. She remarks on the co-incidence, as she was shortly to travel to Thailand herself. He shows her the ticket back, commenting it’s just a blank piece of paper. Concerned, she immediately checks his eyes for damage. (Of course it’s psychic paper.)

Character of Isobel
Isobel is Scottish but not native to the island, her hippy traveller parents settled there after a long time roving – a clapped-out camper van still stands beside her house. Despite growing up with stories of all their adventures, she’s never even been to the mainland very often and is now excited about her trip to Thailand. Exotic-looking posters of Thailand adorn her otherwise simply functional home. She’s level-headed and practical, as much Matron as Nurse. (A running gag is how many different jobs she does on the island.) She’s also something of a rallyer, good at getting people to do what she wants. But she is also frustrated at this ordering side of herself and would like more chaos in her life. She comes to see in the Doctor the freely associative wild card she needs to play.

Character of the New New Doctor
This Doctor is a mystery to everyone, including himself. He constantly says things which surprise even himself. He’s not talkative, charismatic or tricksterish like the Ninth, he’s more spectral and spaced out, forever on the borderline between breakdown and revelation, always saying something between gibberish and insight – a figure like Syd Barratt, David Bowie in Man Who Fell to Earth, or perhaps Fiver in Watership Down. People are always underestimating him, including himself. But when in danger his old survival reflexes come back.

Given his condition, his dependence upon Isobel is greater than with any previous companion (except perhaps with the First Doctor and Susan). He’s continually forgetful and impractical, which tries her patience. (She continually complains at him that she gave up Thailand for this.) Yet one moment he’s burning the dinner, the next demonstrating some flash of genius.

Like in The Avengers the gender roles become reversed, when what’s required is fisticuffs then it’s left to Isobel (who turns out to be a keep-fit freak).

Continuing the set-up...
The Police arrive, taciturn and robotic, something which stands out against the island’s face-to-face society. They take one look at the Doctor and announce he’s immediately to be taken back to the mainland. Isobel protests, he’s still so weak, and finally insistant. At this they forcefully shove her back. Then when they’re about to put him on the boat they find she’s rallied other islanders to his defence (though some are clearly more fearful than her at the prospect of this). They use a piercing siren device to incapacitate everyone, clearly some kind of alien technology.

Isobel (somehow) rescues the Doctor and escapes the Police. Fearing a manhunt on the island will now ensue, they take a small boat to the mainland, landing on a remote beach.

She searches for ‘The Doctor’ in an internet cafe in a nearby town and discovers all the Who lore. She rushes back to explain to the Doctor he is part of “it all” He’s at first confused by this explanation (“all of what?”), then dismissive of the whole idea (“you can’t believe what you read on the internet”), but to her it seems to explain much.

The series formula

From that point, they’re forced to go on the run. Authority figures are always after them, and it becomes there is someone who wants the Doctor who is both powerful and clearly knows who the Doctor is – the only person within the series who knows this. With the Doctor not even knowing what the Tardis is, all these adventures happen in Britain. It would be something of a cross between the Pertwee Era, (dare I say it) Torchwood, The X-Files and The Fugitive. Like The Fugitive, their constantly having to move on will propel into fresh adventures all the time. (The otherwise inexplicable Sonic Screwdriver turns out to beep when in the vicinity of alien technology, like a geiger counter of alien-ness, drawing them into story situations.)

The theme would be modern paranoia and technofear – the conspiracy theories that all new technology is actually alien etc. Technology would always be a step ahead of what you suspected, governments and authorities just fronts for shadowy institutions never up to any good. Unlike the different-alien-invasion-every-week of the Pertwee era, alien influence would be more indirect – more akin to Quatermass.

Despite this throughline, each adventure would itself be standalone and comprehensible in isolation. (If always expounding upon the theme given above.) However, moments would allude to the throughline. For example, they could come across an old Police Box in a museum. This triggers a memory in the Doctor, who even tries his key in it. It doesn’t fit, and Isobel chides him for wasting time. Or alien dialogue would be incomprehensible, then switch into English when the Doctor entered the room.

With them travelling everywhere by normal means, the feel and pace of the show would be correspondingly slower-paced, much less frenetic. They would steep in situations rather than just charge through them. There could be scenes of trying to get an emergency shelter put up hiding out in the rain etc. The whole thing would be more ‘grounded’, the viewer should feel the earth beneath their boots. There’d be no magic maguffin solutions to problems, but instead a renewed emphasis on teamwork, on their winning the day by forging friendships and alliances with the people they run into. Isobel is but the first of these occurrences.

Similarly, music and sound effects would be less invasive, and ‘spacey’ only when accompanying something alien.

Sample episode:

A green energy company is promising to solve the earth’s energy problems with an inexhaustible and nonpolluting supply of energy – if for a price. This secret source turns out to be from a UFO they have discovered and are tapping it’s power source, but without understanding it – once the whole power source is switched on it will surge, and blow up everything in a wide vicinity. The aliens have all died upon impact, so do not actively participate in the story, but the initially altruisitic become possessed by the power (in both senses) this will give him. The power source is triggered by thought power, so the company chief must put on a (somewhat symbolic) crown-like device to use it.

Advantages to this approach:

Advantages of this new direction would be the firewalls it would create against some of the problems of the old series recurring:
i)              The ‘Lonely God’ stuff is now literally written out of the memory of the show. Added to which, the New Doctor is much humbler and unsure of himself.
ii)             A whole house of get-out-of-jail-free cards had been stockpiled, dampening development of any dramatic tension, which would now be knocked down. These are toys the show has behaved so badly with up till now that they need confiscating. So now no-one now knows where the Tardis is, the Doctor has his sonic screwdriver and psychic paper but no knowledge of how to use them – they are clues not devices.
iii)           While the previous series didn’t suffer overly from continuity obsession, this format would insist that anything referred to from a previous series, even the most recent ones, would need explaining – making for a better jumping-on point. At the same time, with for example the Police Box scene above, the old viewer would recognise the Tardis but nothing within the show would expect the viewer to do so. To the new viewer, it would merely add to the mystery – a mystery which would be fully explained later.


  1. I'm be very happy to watch that.

    I'm not sure it would really be Doctor Who, mind you. But whatever it would be, it would have potential.

    Thought experiment: re-read the above, mentally crossing out all mention of the Stranger being the Doctor. I think it works just as well.

  2. This was actually the most common response to my exercise in fanfic. People were divided over how much they thought this mattered, but it was the most common response.

    Perhaps you shouldn't argue with the majority, but to me it still feels like 'Doctor Who.' It may be taking the tone a way away from the child audience, but that's the only thing. Plus I feel it's got the advantage that it works both ways, whether you're previously familiar with the Doctor or not.

    I wonder if it comes down to whether you see the Doctor as a fallible character or a kind of cosmic magician. Me, I see him at the best of times as winging it, barely sure himself how he manages to do what he does. When the current Doctor described himself as "a madman with a box", my ears pricked up! Of course I'm turning up the fallibility, but I don't think I'm inventing it/

  3. Surely the Doctor is a fallible cosmic magician.

    Towards the end of Tennant's tenure, the fallibility had all but evaporated, and I strongly agree with you that that's a crucial part of the character. Looking back from the secure position of Series 5 Episode 9, I now feel that the whole of the last year of RTD's reign (The Last Doctor, Planet of the Dead, Waters of Mars and The End of Time 1 & 2) were all a bad dream. By that stage, the Doctor had mutated into something different from the core character that has remained more or less consistent since -- well, since, say Tom Baker, but probably longer.

    But really, of course, that series of specials was an appallingly missed opportunity. The last ten minutes of Water of Mars seemed to acknowledge this change, recognise its significance, and point the way to a reckoning to come. But then of course the reckoning never did come, and all the WoM angst turned out to be empty emoting. Rats.

  4. Surely the Doctor is a fallible cosmic magician.

    If you are going to say things which make unarguable sense like this, then I am going to stop playing and go off in a sulk...


    I'm guessing you're a Schultz fan!

    But really, of course, that series of specials was an appallingly missed opportunity.

    Absolutely agree. Of course all the set-up is in some way shunted onto the Master, he becomes the megalomaniac (literally remaking the world into his image) and fulfils his role as the Doctor’s dark side. But that’s still a massive retreat from what we were promised, not just from ’Waters of Mars’ but at least from ’Voyage of the Damned.’ In effect, it was a dodge. (One caveat, when he takes the bullet for Wilf despite him being “not very important really.”)

    Making the sonic screwdriver into an ever-available magic wand isn’t just lazy writing, it cuts against the character. It’s like giving Sherlock Holmes x-ray vision, so he can spy out crimes as they’re committed and not bother with that long-winded detection business.

    But going back to the original point, snatching the bloody sonic screwdriver off him wasn’t my only intent. The Doctor’s always struck me as a shamanic character, so I wanted to give him a shamanic journey. First step was to get rid of all the cluttering accoutrements which might signify the character but do not define him. Then have him forget who he is, so he can be reminded.

    The way I had it figured, Isobel would at first appear the proactive hero. The weakened Doctor seems merely in her charge. Like the last part of ’Lord of the Rings’ if Sam was played by a Scottish Honour Blackman. But gradually, through being put in Doctorish situations, his instincts kick back in and he finds himself doing more and more Doctorish things. Only after her personality reconstitutes itself does he pick the tokens back up.

    I even started thinking about a follow-up series, where the Doctor has his mojo back and is travelling in time and space. Except he chooses to keep his old unassuming persona. Alton said “great men are almost always bad men.” Through a kind of disarming spell, the Doctor tries to do great things without ever becoming a great man. Though of course at times he seems unsure himself what is cover story and what isn’t. It would be a kind of ‘Space Columbo’, I suppose.

    Maybe I’ll even write it up one of these days...

  5. Well. I'm still attracted to your Alternative Doctor Who, but I don't think it could ever get made, because by the third episode all the viewers would be going "Where's the TARDIS? Where are the Daleks? This isn't Doctor Who!". It could never be made to work as a TV series.

    It could be made to work as a novel.

    Just sayin', is all.

  6. Well I wasn't constraining myself into thinking of what might get made, as I doubted I was on the commissioning editors' shortlist to start with. (And they still haven't phoned, so perhaps I was right.)

    I'm obstinately still insisting, however, that it's recognisably 'Doctor Who.'

  7. I've never been able to understand why RTD's staff never contacted me to write an episode for them; now we must add to this mystery the equally perplexing matter of why they never approached you either.

  8. I'm fairly sure the writers of 'Fear Her' and 'Unicorn and the Wasp' must have been decided upon by postcode....

  9. I have to admit I've never understood the extreme hatred that a lot of Whovians have for Fear Her. Granted that it wasn't one of the all-time great episodes, still it had some fine moments -- I didn't anticipate that the Doctor himself would get trapped -- and it was a lot more interesting than, say, The Rise of the Cybermen from the same series (a rare case of a two-parter where the good stuff was in the second half).

    No argument on Unicorn, though: that and the equally abysmal The Doctor's Daughter are the only episodes I've not watched at least twice (and the only ones I've not bothered showing to my sons).

    What a strange thing Season 4 was.

  10. 'Fear Her' wasn't even good enough to be bad. It was just non. It was like it had been speed-written up by someone with a hangover. And as for all that Olympics tosh, it made the ending of 'Vincent and the Doctor' look tasteful and understated.

    I'd actually defend 'Doctor's Daughter' to some degree, as I would 'Idiot's Lantern' and 'The Next Doctor.' 'Rise of the Cybermen' I'd reckon you to be a minority in disliking.

    My hate list would also include 'Boom Town', 'Lazarus Experiment' and (inevitably) 'Love and Monsters.'

  11. (This is a very inefficient way to have a conversation ...)

    If you really are prepared to defend The Doctor's Daughter then I challenge you to do a full-length blog post on that subject. And I do mean "challenge". Agreed on Lantern and Next Doctor, modulo the super-dumb kaiju ending.

    It's not that I actively disliked Rise of the Cybermen; it's that it had nothing in it that made me think, or wonder, or imagine. The cybermen parts were dreadfully generic (that word again) and the Rose's Dad parts were a painfully obvious and inferior retreat of the excellent Father's Day. So Rise passed the time painlessly enough, but left no impression on me. Fear Her by contrast did have some interesting ideas, even if they weren't worked through as well as they could have been.

    Finally, the Olympic torch ... I know everyone hates it and I know it doesn't actually make a huge amount of sense, but when it comes down to it I just can't help laughing at the Doctor's obvious huge enjoyment of the moment. I'm grinning now just thinking about it. Yes, it's silly, but didn't a wise man once observe that there's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes? I put that in the same bucket as the Spitfire attack on the Dalek ship: very silly, but endearingly so.

    YMMV. In fact, YMDV.

  12. "(This is a very inefficient way to have a conversation ...)'

    But... this is the future!!!

    I'm not sure I liked 'Doctor's Daughter' enough to get that embroiled with it! I'd probably end up describing it pretty much the way you describe 'Fear Her'.

    I have been watching the very early episodes, and may well write some stuff about them sometime...

  13. "YMMV. In fact, YMDV."

    Please remember I am retro when using abbreviations.

  14. Ah, so you're RWUA, are you?

    YMMV is conventionally Your Mileage May Vary; I coined YMDV because it's evident that your mileage does vary.

  15. OIGIN.

    That's "Oh I get..."

    ...oh you got it.