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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Doctor Who

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Doctor Who

(or “The Perfect Engine”)

Disclaimer time, here: I’m a bit biased when it comes to Doctor Who. I’ve been watching the series since I was two years old, I have loads of Doctor Who DVDs and videos, and I currently type this in a room with bookshelves stacked from top to bottom with Doctor Who novels, Doctor Who trade paperbacks, Doctor Who audio plays, and non-fiction books about Doctor Who.

On the other hand, a) that does make me pretty well-informed on the series, in all its various incarnations, and b) that’s a lot of incarnations of Doctor Who. Doctor Who is one of those rare concepts that has been adapted to every medium; there have been Doctor Who stage plays, Doctor Who poems, Doctor Who movies and radio plays and comics and yes, a television show that still holds the record as the longest-running science-fiction series in television history. So what is it that makes the concept of Doctor Who as enduring as Superman, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes?

The key, I think, is to look at the elements that have persisted throughout its forty-five year history. Because actors have come and gone, characters and settings have changed, and the show has constantly renewed itself over the years (“regenerated”, one might say.) But the constant? It’s about a mysterious man with a magic box that can go anywhere in time and space.

That’s a concept that doesn’t need any help at all to generate ideas. The supporting cast can change, the antagonists can come and go, but any writer who can’t do something with “anywhere in time and space” doesn’t have any business being a writer. Every other book, every other storytelling engine can be ground up and fed into Doctor Who’s mill. The Doctor can wander through any historical adventure, he can bump into any science fiction trope, and because of that, there’s no end to the number of potential adventures he might have. The only limitation on the series becomes the length of time an actor is willing to put into the part, and a stroke of genius early on even solved that problem.

Even the Doctor’s enemies are endlessly reusable. Pitting him against monsters instead of villains allows writers to bring back even the most definitively-killed enemies for another go-round; when you fight entire species of bad guys, nothing short of an extinction-level event is going to stop you from coming back to challenge the Doctor again and again. (And as the Daleks have proven, even those aren’t necessarily a barrier. Time machine, remember?)

The strength of Doctor Who is that its concept is so simple and elegant that it can be adapted to fit any other parts that come to mind. It’s like a Universal Adaptor for stories, constantly renewing itself by learning from the things around it. One day it’s Hammer Horror, the next it’s Buffy with time travel. In a hundred years’ time, when so many series have been forgotten, I fully expect to see the Thirtieth Doctor and his companions fighting the Daleks on some alien planet. And I look forward to every story between now and then.


One could probably get a different storytelling engine (even more than one) out of each separate incarnation of the Doctor, as well.

“I fully expect to see the Thirtieth Doctor and his companions fighting the Daleks on some alien planet.”

Unfortunately, isn’t part of the story that Gallifreyans have a limit of 13 incarnations? Or has that changed?

I really wish they could entice Paul McGann back to do a feature-length TimeWar, bridging the gap to Ecclestone…

The Master managed to work around the 13 deaths, didn’t he? I’m sure the future writers will come up with something.

The multiple incarnations was indeed a stroke of genius. It allows to change not only the actor, but also the characterisation whenever it suits you, but by keeping only a limited amount of regenerations you keep some drama. Also the changes in characterisation help to sell that each death is important and that each Doctor doesn’t casually change into a new version, because while the Doctor would live on, this current personality would not.

And even with a limited amount of Doctors, there is always room for other Doctors like Peter Cushing, Rowan Atkinson and Richard E. Grant.

There’s a 13 limit, but references have it as being something imposed (the Master was given a new regeneration in the 5 Doctors by the Time Lord Council…it’s unclear from the dialog if it was 1 single life or a full 13 set.).

Plus, all that needs to happen is the Doctor finds the Toenail of Rassilon and gets a new bunch of lives, or they finally reveal that he is in fact The Other of Time Lord legend, or the Guardians of Forever say “take this nice coupon book…it’s got 2 meals for one at Stuckeys..and 10 new lives…”

Plus, with the Master, we’ve only actually seen, what, four of his 13 incarnations, what’s to say the most recent one wasn’t an earlier one?

… And.. to counter my own argument… just for the heck of it, we’ve seen other dimensions with other Mickeys, etc., Surely they must have Time Lords and Daleks of their own? They have Cybermen…

We could always have a Doctor from another Dimension (that at least was my personal thought about the news that Tom Baker may be cameoing next season…)

Nice to see Who get a mention here. Being in the UK it’s sometimes hard to see how it fits into fandom as a whole. Sure I meet lots of American fans in Who sites but been mentioned on a comics blog is different. And cool.

Scavenger – the line was ‘a whole new regeneration cycle’. I always thought that kinda implied it was a cycle of 13. In any case, as everyone has said, writers will always find a way out of that problem. What I want to know is how John expects to be able to watch it in 100 years !

Via TARDIS of course! ;-)

Biggles—right..they say cycle, and iirc, they refer to another lifetime…but that’s the debate…is a cycle a life-death, or a whole boat of 13. It’s never really been said (and the Master’s return didn’t clear up anything, given the Time War…which could have erased the 13 limitation anyway…)

Blackjak, it’s always been established that Time Lords meet each other in sequence…so you don’t have the Doctor bumping into a younger Romana, for example. (doesn’t mean that they can’t just change it and drive the fandom nuts…it’s what they live for:)

Also, the alternate dimension episodes seem to point to their being Time Lords, period. kinda like Oans were pre crisis…no alternates…they’re the group from everything. (again..until mirror universe doctor shows up)

You’re “biased”?

I’d say you’re downright OBSESSED!!!!!!!!!!!!!


“… And.. to counter my own argument… just for the heck of it, we’ve seen other dimensions with other Mickeys, etc., Surely they must have Time Lords and Daleks of their own? They have Cybermen…”

Daleks sure, but the episode with that other dimension heavily implied that there’s one group of Time Lords for all the dimensions. Thus why the death of the Time Lords in the main dimension led to the dimensional walls closing for _all_ of them, why there was no local Doctor helping folks out there, etc.

“again..until mirror universe doctor shows up”

They got REALLY close to doing that during a Pertwee-era episode, if memory serves. Too bad they didn’t go all the way – would’ve been fun to see the Third Doctor sporting an Evil Goatee.

I’d say the implication was actually fairly heavily in the other direction: Alternate dimension had it’s own Torchwood, which is very difficult to get without it having had its own Doctor.

As I recall, the Master was _offered_ the new regeneration cycle, but didn’t live up to the bargain in the end and so never collected. Since he was able to regenerate in the new series, presumably he did something else to earn a new set, possibly involving military service in the great time war.

Personally, I figure that the 13-life limit is either more a law than a fact of nature (and thus unenforced now that Gallifrey is no more), or else the ability to grant new regeneration cycles has devolved either to the Doctor or the TARDIS following that fall…

But the constant? It’s about a mysterious man with a magic box that can go anywhere in time and space.

Well, there are more constants than that. He always charges into danger completely vulnerable, which contributes substantially to what makes the character so cool. In one of the behind the scenes Dr Who confidentials, Tennent asked around the creative staff to what makes a monster, and one of the things they touched on is how none of the monsters are monsters to the Doctor. This makes sense for a character who confronts strangers completely defenseless.

There’s also that thing that Captain Jack Sparrow does — at least since the Tom Baker era — where his plans often fall into place in a manner where the people around him are even wondering if he planned the vistorious outcome most of the episodes end on. In the more somber eras, it comes out more as an issue of (ir)responsibility, especially with Davison and Eccleston.

It would be interesting to see a future Storytelling Engine installment devoted specifically to the Third Doctor era, since that was the point at which the series actually did follow a fairly standard pattern: such-and-such alien race attempts to invade present-day Earth, only to be thwarted by the Doctor, with an assist from Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart & UNIT.

It is worth noting that the production team that set up that status quo quickly left the show once it got established, leaving the incoming team of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks to immediately try to figure out how to actually make it work one story after the next, as well as attempt to break out of the formula as soon as possible.

I always thought that introducing the Master as a recurring adversary was probably the best way to go, in that he had a grudge specifically against the Doctor, and he was leading all manner of alien menaces to Earth just to piss off his nemesis. Kinda helped make it a little more plausible why all these invaders from space kept showing up, one after the other. Otherwise, you almost could imagine a big line (or queue, if you’re British) of them forming in orbit above the Earth, each waiting for their shot at conquering the world, with the next coming in to land once the previous guys got thumped by the Doctor :)

Biggles said:

“What I want to know is how John expects to be able to watch it in 100 years !”

Hey, if it’s wrong to want to live to 140, then I don’t want to be right. :)

“Since he was able to regenerate in the new series, presumably he did something else to earn a new set, possibly involving military service in the great time war.”

It would make sense that if the Time Lords were actually going to war that they’d extended or completely remove the limitation for regenerations for everyone involved. It would be logical to give your troops as many “1-ups” as possible.

Of course I suspect that the Time Lords will have eventually made a return, in one capacity or another, by the time we we get to his 13 regeneration, so the rules might be radically changed by then.

Have you read Paul Magrs’s Eighth Doctor novel ‘Alien Bodies’? After being captured by an enemy desperate to hear him tell stories, the Doctor invokes Vladimir Propp theory about Russian fairy tales in relation to how his own adventures work by turning them into pretty much the list of functions you have above and suggests they make them up themselves.

[…] my favourite newly discovered websites of the past 12 months – has lookeds at Doctor Who as part of John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines […]

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