Humans, there are two elements you need, if you want to create a story: character, and plot. At its very base, this is what narrative comes down to; the events that occur, and the people that they happen to. In good stories, these two elements are intermingled to the point where they become inseparable, and you couldn’t have one without the other. Bad stories, on the other hand, have a disconnect between plot and character; the story is about things happening to the characters, not what happens because of, or about the characters. Now, I know I seemed pretty down on Doctor Who in that last post, but I really do love that show, and I’ll happily admit that it’s a show that can produce some great characters- the Doctor himself is one of my favorite fictional characters ever- and some truly excellent plots- Midnight was amazing, and more recently the Doctor’s Wife and the Girl Who Waited were shockingly good, too. Where it falls down is in connecting these elements in any meaningful way.

No, I don’t really think I should be writing for Doctor Who. In spite of all my vitriol, I am a diehard fan, and I’d be afraid of ruining the show if I ever did end up in a position of power over it. But I do get the feeling, especially in these last few seasons, that there’s been some seriously missed opportunities here. That the show could be something amazing, when now it’s content with just being good.

The key to any good story is the base; a coherent and consistent world for the characters to inhabit, and for the plot to happen in. Lately, and I speak of seasons five and six in particular, Doctor Who has no world to speak of, in fact it really lacks any kind of context at all. Each episode- or arc, pedants- is entirely self contained and very rarely references the larger plot or character arcs for the season. It’s gotten to the point where my internal map of Doctor Who goes like this: entertaining, suitably epic opening episode to establish what’s changed in this season (either a new Doctor, new companion, or new overarching villain, who will only be hinted at) then three to five episodes that are self contained adventures, followed by a two parter which may or may not contain some hint at the overarching plot. As we get to the final three episodes, one will be self contained up until a cliffhanger at the end, setting up for an epic two part finale that both reveals and defeats the series villain. Granted, the Wedding of River Song was one part, but I still maintain it’d be better as two.

That’s just how Doctor Who goes, for me; the plot such as it is, and the character development, only happens in the first and last two episodes. Mostly I’m fine with that, because it might be light, but it’s damn entertaining. But the more I think about it, the more I come to realize that it didn’t always used to be this way.

See, in the ninth and tenth Doctor’s eras, there was a sense that 21st century London represented a kind of home base, in a way. Whenever a story was set there, we’d have Mickey and Rose’s mum, and Harriet Jones if the story was big enough… series three gave us Captain Jack, too. There were a set of characters, outside the core Doctor/companion cast that were nevertheless recurring, and gave the show a kind of origin point to return to as needed. Now, it wasn’t ideal- three or four recurring characters do not a world make- but it gave a sense that there was something else out there, that life in this universe was bigger than just wherever the TARDIS happened to land at the time. Lately, there’s been none of that; Amy’s parents have appeared once, Rory doesn’t seem to have any, and the only time we’ve seen any friends, or even acquaintances of theirs is one instance of Jeff, and a hastily cobbled together Mels montage (which, admittedly, gave me a lot of cause to like and sympathize with Rory, poor adorkable bastard). There’s no sense of an outer world, no sense that Amy, Rory or the Doctor ever existed outside of the TARDIS. They might as well just have been born in there, sprung fully formed from the walls to have adventures for our amusement. It almost makes them more performing monkeys that actual characters.

Don’t get me wrong, Doctor Who is hugely successful at parlaying this style of self contained stories into something that’s generally interesting and fun to watch, but imagine how much more fun it would be if the world these characters were playing in was three dimensional. Those episodes I mentioned earlier? Midnight, Girl Who Waited and Doctor’s Wife? Those were all self contained stories, but they worked so well because they presented the characters we know in a manner we haven’t seen them before. Midnight does a great job of stripping away and deconstructing the tools the Doctor has that make him powerful, Girl Who Waited depicts Amy’s abandonment problems in interesting new ways (and shows that Karen Gillan makes a fine dramatic performer) and Doctor’s Wife… Well, that episode was awesome for too many reasons, really. It’s probably one of my favorites.

And I’ll tell you why that is, and why Doctor Who is unsettlingly one dimensional at times: the story actually remembered elements of the characters. Amy’s guilt over abandoning Rory in favor of the Doctor is on full display during their scenes with House in the TARDIS, the Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS itself takes center stage, and we get a sense that, if not within a world, these characters at least exist continuously. That one adventure follows on to the next, and that they remember what happened last week. That’s rare, especially in these last two seasons, where there was so much potential for character development that went down the rain.

See, I never get the sense that anything these characters do is internalized and made into character growth. There are plenty of callbacks to prior episodes in Doctor Who, but none of them seem to be anything other than surface level references. And mostly those references aren’t ones that the characters are making, they’re not in universe at all; it’s something that the writers have thrown in for the fans. See, River calling back to being called Mrs Robinson in Impossible Astronaut (“Hello Benjamin”) is funny and all, but River herself can’t possibly have remembered that, she hadn’t done it yet. It’s just coincidental, and we’re never given any indication that the Doctor gets the reference either. It’s for the viewer, not the characters, and thus it doesn’t count as continuity.

When I sat down to think about it, there are very few actual in character references to prior events in Eleven’s run at all, and even the ones that do exist are very surface level. The extent of it seems to be occasionally referencing Vampires in Venice by name, and that’s only because the title is suitably kooky. I understand the need to make jokes in a show like this, but please don’t make that the only one. Especially in season six, there are immense, enormous, scarring events that take place, yet every single character gets over it really, really easily, and then never mentions them again.

I intend to go through this in far greater detail later, but what was up with Amy this season? She gets kidnapped– and let’s be really clear, for a real person that would be a traumatic event normally, to say nothing of being space kidnapped by an army of gun toting thugs and headless aliens- and… Really, this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen this show do, she has her daughter taken from her. I’m in the process of writing a much larger piece about this issue, but ask yourselves, how long after Melody was taken did it take for Amy to return to normal? Not even a single episode; there were parts of Let’s Kill Hitler where her lack of emotional response was truly disturbing. I’m a dad, humans, and very recently one too, and the idea of losing my little girls is utterly horrifying to me. No parent would get over it that fast, and the half hearted mitigation that’s offered to the audience (“Oh, Melody grows up to be River, oh, Amy and Rory got to raise her anyway in the form of Mels”) is not only insulting to the connection a parent shares with their children, but actually makes the situation far, far worse. It plays on an Adult Fear very effectively without even realizing it, and really becomes High Octane Nightmare Fuel for me, even worse than any monster the show could dream up.

Yet Amy completely recovers in the time it takes for the show to come back after its mid-season hiatus (I hated that, too. Remind me to discuss it later) and is back to her old self just in time for another set of adventures. Which is a problem, because she’s not the only one doing it, and it’s not the only instance of this happening. In this case, I think her character was handicapped by the “monster of the week,” format that Doctor Who sticks to. Amy being an actual mother and insisting that they find her baby- constantly- would drag down a self contained set of episodes, and Doctor Who isn’t really set up for a continuous, serial storyline. It’s just… forgetting about it like that is so lazy.

But it’s like I said earlier, all of these characters are stuck in their ruts; upon realizing that the TARDIS is fully cognizant and cares for him, the Doctor doesn’t change at all, despite the fact that this relationship is central to his character, to say nothing of being the longest running one that he has. Rory gets over his jealousy of the Doctor extremely quickly, and the fact that he’s now a two thousand year old roman soldier badass is neatly swept under the rug, despite confirming that he remembers everything. I’ve already discussed Amy, but there’s other elements to her, too; like her Peter Pan-esque flight from responsibility and guilt over leaving Rory, that’s just never mentioned again. Why is this?

The only reason I can think of that makes sense is that the format sells. The sad thing is that it might not even be the writing staff’s fault; they’re beholden to the BBC’s wishes as much as anything else. And it’s a family show; perhaps the network believes that the younger demographics won’t react well too longer, narrative driven stories or in depth character development? Hell, now that I think about it, the monster of the week format must be a godsend for their merchandising prospects, huh?

The more I think about it, the more this makes sense; the show really does seem to be in two minds about what it wants, on occasion. On one side, you’ve got some really very dark, deconstructive elements- latterly I’m thinking of the Doctor’s death (Before it was a cop out) and Melody’s entire character arc- alongside some really very interesting episode choices like I’ve already mentioned. But on the other are a lot of nicely commercial decisions that I don’t really think the writers had much to do with (why were the Silence involved with the moon landing really? I mean, I understand it was to get a working space suit, but if they didn’t want to be discovered and stopped, why go to the Doctor’s favorite planet? Seems like an excuse to go to America, to me).

Thing is, I’m not even asking that the show become a narrative heavy, serialized thing. Nor would I dare dream of it; Doctor Who creates some timeless, classic monsters and stories that are entirely self contained and are just perfect that way. I like the format, but the insistence on constantly sticking to it is doing the series a disservice; these characters and the world they inhabit could be so much more than they are now, and in doing so the risk of the audience- or even a segment therein- rejecting it all could be mitigated.

Let you never say that I just bitch without providing suggestions, humans. Here’s some ideas, just off the top of my head, that would be fun episodes in keeping with the general atmosphere of the show which could nevertheless be character developing pieces; send the TARDIS back to Rome at the height of the Empire. Our trio is walking the streets when, suddenly, a woman catches sight of Rory, and recognizes him. Oh snap, he was here before, right? And yes, new universe and all, but Amy’s memory was strong enough to revive the Doctor, right? Who’s to say she, or even Rory, he’s been around the cracks in time too, couldn’t also bring back certain other elements? This woman could even be Rory the Roman’s wife, a part of his cover while waiting for the Doctor (or even just a surviving Auton made to look that way, if you wanted to make the argument that all his Roman memories were just implanted and he hadn’t been there that long.) See? Suddenly we’ve called back to Rory’s long, long life, we’ve ironically reversed the standard of Rory chasing after Amy, and we’ve given her a reason to be jealous. Hey, it’s something we’ve never seen before (I think the two parter with the Gangers was too awkwardly done to count.)

Or hey, let’s talk about that silly pirate episode from the first half of season six. Why is it that Rory didn’t use his Roman fighting skills then? Why did he let Amy take on all those pirates by herself? That’s… less that chivalrous, Rory. In fact, why only bring up that piece of his backstory, which should be crucial, only twice in the entire series? And only let it be applied once? Day of the Moon, Curse of the Black Spot, Girl Who Waited: that’s three examples of when those skills could have come in handy. What, did they not think Roman Rory action figures would sell so well?

Speaking of the Girl Who Waited… what was up with the ending, there? Shouldn’t Amy and Rory be angry, given what happened there? I mean, not only did the Doctor lie in such a horrible way, just to get what he wanted… but he also demonstrated a startling willingness to kill Amy (and let’s not bullshit around here. The show treats what happened to Older Amy as a death, and so they should have.). But there’s no conversation about it, no lingering distrust over this shockingly amoral act. Wouldn’t have taken much to convey, just a few added lines here or there, but no. It just didn’t happen.

Going along like this, there can be no union between character and plot. Everything that happens just happens to the characters, there’s no context or direct connection to our central cast at any point. Outside forces are conveniently written in to provide the adventure fodder for this week, and even what character development that can be gleaned from this is swept under the rug, half the time. Not all of the time; Amy’s issues with abandonment are occasionally brought back in for good effect, and I did like the Doctor’s lingering guilt over what happened to his prior companions in Let’s Kill Hitler’s voice interface scene, but it’s not enough. This idea that kids won’t react to complex characters- if indeed that’s what the issue is- is a ridiculous one because, by and large, kids aren’t into Doctor Who for Amy and Rory. No, they’re in it for the Doctor and the monsters. Besides which, even what I just said is giving them too little credit; can anyone say that Pixar movies aren’t complex? And yet, they do sell to kids. Even Up sold to kids.

Look, I find myself of two minds about all this because, by and large, Doctor Who is still fun and entertaining, and presents some ideas I don’t often see in family shows. It can be complex when it wants, I just don’t know why it feels the need to ignore potentially interesting ideas in order to write bloody God Complex, whose main plot objective- breaking Amy’s faith in the Doctor- could have been achieved far more effectively with even a little bit of continuity.

Listen, I love this show, I do. Just… it could be so, so much better than it is. Why it refuses to scale the lofty heights that the production crew is so very capable of, or even acknowledging that those lofty heights are there, completely baffles me. I’m not going to lie to myself and say that Doctor Who hasn’t always had cheap copout endings, because it has (admit it, most episodes end with the Doctor using a long string of sciency words, then waving his sonic screwdriver around, pressing some buttons, and running down a corridor) but that doesn’t mean the characters have to cop out too.

The writers have proven talent, the three central actors are really quite good, and the production staff can do fine as hell work, that’s beyond dispute…

I just think the Doctor deserves more than he’s getting, okay?

Kurokami, signing off!