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Are Doctor-Lite stories the best of Doctor Who?

Guest contributor Ash Kershaw takes a look.

turn-left-donna

A potentially controversial title for an article, this, bearing in mind the character of the Doctor encompasses the whole show (to the extent of his anonymity being the subject of the show’s title). The question is – does not having the character of the Doctor in to fall back on make the writers pen better plots? I’ll take a look at the topic generally and also through various Nu-Who episodes to see.

Love and Monsters

Love & MonstersFirstly, we’ve got the infamous Love and Monsters from Series 2, as the first episode in the revival that the Doctor is not focus in. Now, we’re all aware of the reputation this episode has, but there may be an argument for its decline in quality being due to it being both a budget episode, and the competition prize for Blue Peter (the Absorbaloff having, if you weren’t aware, been invented by a nine-year-old).

The Doctor’s absence does, admittedly, seem to be blindingly obvious here, due to the relatively weak ‘love’ story between Elton and Ursula. If we’re going to enjoy an episode of Doctor Who without the Doctor, we need the substitute plot to have something substantial enough to distract us from his omission, which Love and Monsters sadly doesn’t achieve. Russell, in ‘The Writer’s Tale’, claims that the first wholly comedic episode in the revival was The Unicorn and the Wasp – I disagree, and think that Love and Monsters comedic aspects made it a less than satisfactory Doctor-Lite episode.

Human Nature (aka the one you didn’t think was)

Human-Nature-The-Family-of-BloodSpeaking of from the ludicrous to the sublime, we have Paul Cornell’s (and Russell T Davies’, although his major contribution went uncredited) Human Nature and Family of Blood. Now, whilst this was a very David Tennant-centric episode, I believe we can consider it Doctor-Lite as the character of the Doctor is almost entirely absent. David’s stellar performance in the role of John Smith more than makes up for the lack of his finely-tuned Doctor, but the very presence of the actor who portrays him – and the fact that the plot was centred around the act of getting the Doctor back – possibly exonerates these exceptional episodes from being classed as Doctor-Lite.

Blink

blink-angel-endAnd following Human Nature/Family of Blood, we had the bizarre situation where we had three episodes – that’s three consecutive weeks in a run of thirteen – without the Doctor, with Blink being the next under scrutiny.

Now, we know that this episode has been hugely critically successful, winning Moffat one of his two BAFTA awards (the other being for Sherlock’s ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’), and it is perhaps the best example of the lack of the Doctor necessitating an intricate and engaging plot to make up for his absence. As with the previous episodes, the Doctor’s involvement was centred on trying to retrieve him, however it is with the wonderful character of Sally Sparrow that we are left focusing on. The fact that she is so stunningly portrayed; an independent, intelligent and instantly likeable young woman, makes us be fascinated by her plight. The fact that she is acting almost alone enhances the episode – without the Doctor, there is no safety net, and all the jeopardy and threat is therefore increased tenfold.

Turn Left

Turn LeftNext up was much later, in Turn Left, the first part of a finale trilogy for Series Four. This episode happens to be one of my personal favourites, but I think there is an alternate reason for it having such appeal for many fans other than the focus on the absence of the Doctor, or other events taking their place. This is a companion-centric episode, primarily on Donna, and her horrendous plight near the episode’s close. We’ve also got the return of Rose to contend with, and it seems that the presence of both Donna and Rose in the same episode more than compensates for the lack of the Doctor. It’s likely that having the Doctor in this episode too wouldn’t give us chance to appreciate Billie and Catherine as much, as their acting and the characters they portrayed deserved the screen-time awarded to them.

Of course, it could be the familiarity of the plot that makes this episode shine without the Time Lord. We’ve got recurring themes from right back to the start of Series Three, events that we recognise and that tie the whole of RTD’s era together. This perhaps makes the world recognisable enough to us to not need the Doctor in the story.

The Matt Smith era

doctor-who-the-crimson-horror-promo-pics-(10)Matt Smith’s tenure doesn’t actually give us a traditional Doctorless episode as we knew in RTD’s era, not until arguably Series 7’s The Crimson Horror – which, despite Mark Gatiss’ assertion as to its lack of reliance on him, many fans still consider to feature him heavily. The question here is whether or not Smith’s tenure has suffered as a result of over-exposure of the Doctor, and not taking a step-back occasionally. Some opportunities for such episodes might have been a huge detachment of the Doctor’s involvement in The Crimson Horror to tighten some of its plot-flaws, or maybe taking the Doctor out of episodes such as Amy’s Choice, and watching the companions suffer in the presence of only the ‘Dream’ Lord.

It seems that the Doctor is, quite obviously, an essential component to the survival of the show, as whilst the nature of his portrayal is famed for changing, the raw bones of the character – a mad, funny genius – remain the same. The format of the show, though, allows for the odd episode every now and again to go on without him, and it has produced some of the finest drama of the series, both in Nu-Who and Classic (with Classic Who going so far as to once feature an episode with neither Doctor nor companion). It would be interesting to throw the debate open. Doctor: No likey, no ‘lite’y?

Step back in time...

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103 comments
Erimemushinteperem
Erimemushinteperem

But what about Mission to the Unknown? That was the most Doctor-lite story of all time.

DaireConstantineOReilly
DaireConstantineOReilly

Love and Monsters will alway be the best One. It shows how meeting the doctor once can effect a person. It also satirizes aspects of the show. I love this episode always will, and a bit of ELO.

Wibbly-Wobbly is John Reese
Wibbly-Wobbly is John Reese

I think The Girl Who Waited is quite Doctor-lite but his lying is a major part of the story. 


Also, I'd always considered Human Nature/The Family of Blood to be Doctor-lite too. 


As for that last part there, I think The Crimson Horror was perfectly fine. I don't think the absence of Doctor-lites affected the era in any way, really. I think it was nice for this type of episode to be characteristic of Tennant's era. 


Of course... if it makes its way into future Doctor Who, that's fine.

DW_girl
DW_girl

I love all of these Doctor-lite episodes: they are some of my favourites. Can't we count The Girl Who Waited as Doctor-lite aswell though?

DaftDalek is Ceter Papaldi
DaftDalek is Ceter Papaldi

Did RTD really co-write Human Nature? I have heard that he has importantly moderated many scripts without actually taking credit (Fires of Pompeii, Satan Pit). Is that true? I really like his work and I'm really interested in knowing. So if anyone knows, please answer. Thanks!

dragonsfyre
dragonsfyre

"Does not having the character of the Doctor in to fall back on make the writers pen better plots?"

The answer is a resounding YES YES YES and YES!!! (btw: THE GIRL WHO WAITED was a Doctor-lite episode from Matt's era. And look how good that story was!! That was an emotional rollercoaster, turning me finally into a fan of Karen Gillan who, IMHO, hadn't really shown her acting chops until that story.

And as with TGWW, the Doctor-lite episodes, companion-lite and companion-centric ones DO make the writers pen better plots and stories. Want proof? Look no further than the cerebral and gut-wrenchiing tale of survival in MIDNIGHT - and the jaw-dropping performances of Lesley Sharpe and David Tennant. No monsters to see: just tour-de-force acting with a stellar script.

Yes, when you take the focus off the Doctor-as-hero formula, the writers absolutely need to be more creative. And that creativity (which is born of necessity) shines through with a refreshing take on a beloved series. And some might argue, a better take on the series.

In fact, Moffat himself has indicated that lite episodes are even MORE about the Doctor because of his very absence. Sorry, don't have the quote at this very moment...but I could find it if required. I don't necessarily agree with that particular assertion of his assertion as I feel BLINK was more about Sally, Inspector Shipton and the Nightingales but still... the point is that the lite episodes are, on the whole, more creative and refreshing for their lack of reliance on the Doctor-as-Hero trope.

In my opinion, the the show would fare better if each season had at least TWO lite episodes (whether Doctor-lite, companion-lite or Companion-centric): giving the show a better range and allowing the series to really stretch its legs

gunslinger19
gunslinger19

i feel like the best thing about doctor lite episodes is that they stand out and offer variation. much like the show itself, there is almost infinite potential to doctor lites, and the genre hasnt really been exploited yet. i miss the truly doctor lite episodes the last one that i would really class as doctor lite would be turn left as the doctor was not the main protagonist. as far as im concerned, after that the supposedly lite episodes are just episodes that happen to have slightly less of the doctor in them. i think that each lite episode has added more to the overall whoniverse than the average story. take human nature, which still had an impact in end of time, and turn left which not only reminds us what would happen without the doctor, but also reintroduces Rose and vastly improves Donna's character and family imo. even love and monsters helped Jackie loads. im surprised that Moffatt hasnt really utilised this type of episode as it speeds up filming and i think it really improves the show! on the other hand, why waste a chance to see more Smith/Capaldi?

Arkleseizure
Arkleseizure

Doctor-lite episodes work best when the Doctor's absence is important to the plot. Love & Monsters doesn't really work, because for all it matters, the Doctor could have been undercover at LInDA all the time investigating the Absorbaloff. It wouldn't have made much difference.

Blink, on the other hand was all about the Doctor's absence, with him reduced to a mysterious figure on some DVDs to create the mystery. His absence is even more central to Turn Left, for reasons I don't think need explaining. Even back in the Hartnell era, the Doctor went missing early on in the Massacre, which gave us a superb story about a companion stranded in a dangerous age he knew nothing about and only just barely survived. (If you can stand Loose Cannon reconstructions, seek out the Massacre: it's brilliant).

tealeaves
tealeaves

I think that poor 7 year old boy is unfairly criticised for the Absorbaloff I like the idea of a creature that absorbs its victims into its own body is a chilling and ingenious idea. Imagine if a creature killed your friends and then wore them on its skill how horrifying would that be? I think there was scope for a much better story written around it.

ashpedantic
ashpedantic

Ta for publishing, DWTV. Thought this was an interesting topic to look at.

I've had an Accident
I've had an Accident

I love all of these except from Love and Monsters. In fact, Turn Left and The Crimson Horror and two of my favourite episodes!

Noybusiness
Noybusiness

Doctor-lite episodes, like the spinoffs, give the sense of there being a larger universe that the Doctor inhabits. Like having "Angel" for "Buffy" and "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland" for "Once Upon a Time". Speaking of which, I want another series of "Torchwood". I miss having more than one Whoniverse show around.

EricPavlat
EricPavlat

Wow--I'd definitely argue that The Girl Who Waited was a Doctor-Lite episode.  And one of my four or five favorite Smith episodes, as well.  Just a coincidence, I'm sure.  :)

JSDarwen
JSDarwen

The Doctor-lite (and companion-lite episodes) are great for exploring the wider DW universe. I think Love & Monsters had nice moments, but the Absorbaloff was just too silly. Blink and Turn Left are truly great episodes and totally deserve their fan-love - great examples of what that type of episode can do. 


Ultimately though - they just enrich each season, shake up the format a bit. I'd hate to see too many of them, but one per season is great.






plasticsoulman
plasticsoulman

Great article but I don't really think that Human Nature/Family of Blood can really be considred Doctor-lite episodes as they still required a heavy presence from the actor. Doctor-lite episodes are usually made so the actor can be off filming elswhere. For example, Midnight was a companion-lite episode which was followed by Turn Left the Doctor-lite episode.

VictorWong1
VictorWong1

I'll agree  that the Smith era could have benefited from more Doctor-Lite episodes. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Power of Three, especially, proved that Amy and Rory are strong enough characters on their own that a solo flight in the Tardis for either of them would have been doable.


I also think Clara would have benefited from a Doctor-Lite story; making her an enigma for most of Series 7B may have been a nice-appearing strategy for a story arc, but it's still a bit of a leap in terms of character development from Name of the Doctor to Day of the Doctor.

Luke273
Luke273

Doctor Lite is a term coined by the BBC production team for episodes that don't have the lead role for budget/timing issues. If we were to follow their terminology The Girl Who Waited is a Doctor Lite episode and Human Nature isn't, because the lead role David Tennant appears throughout.

JFrance
JFrance

Except for Love and Monsters, I actually like the Doctor lite episodes and If they did another one in the future I will watch it.   

Trekgal
Trekgal

MaraBackman, Turn Left was my introductory episode. It was confusing and my poor husband spent the episode explaining Rose, Donna, Torchwood, and Bad Wolf. It led to him showing me the rest of the revival series and I joined another fandom. :)

MaraBackman
MaraBackman

I recently watched Turn Left again and I wondered what it might feel like if this would be someone's introductory episode, a sort-of prequel. Being one of the most depressingly dark episodes made it would give a very grim first impression of the show, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing. The Waters of Mars was my first full introduction to NuWho, but even though I had no prior experience of the Whoniverse it was still fairly obvious why the Doctor snapped and decided to take charge of time itself. But I became intrigued enough to want to see what had driven this man so far, which made TWOM a prequel for me when I after that started to watch Series 1. Turn Left has many similar qualities and might raise similar questions in a new viewer, especially concerning the nature of the Doctor. Something like "What is so special about him that his absence causes everything to go to hell?"

DrIndianaJonesThatsWho
DrIndianaJonesThatsWho

I would say more often than not, no, and I haven't enjoyed a few doctor lite episodes. Blink is awesome, obviously, but this list left out 'the girl who waited' which is definitely doctor-lite and a fantastic episode in my opinion

Eternalitis
Eternalitis

Removing the Doctor from Amy's Choice is like removing River Song from The Wedding of River Song.

mgm1229
mgm1229

One reason Turn Left resonates so strongly is because it followed Doctor-heavy Midnight. The Doctor was basically companionless, and as vulnerable as we'd seen him. We almost lost him in Midnight, then lost him again in Turn Left, when Donna wasn't there to save him from himself. Bravura acting from both David Tennant and Catherine Tate. I sometimes watch them back to back for a perfect 90 minutes.

Benjamin Bradley
Benjamin Bradley

I would have loved to see the Pond's side of "Closing Time" literally just an episode running in parallel time to the Doctor and Craig's storyline but without monsters or external interference's. A plot that deals with their characters and how they are coping without the Doctor and without their daughter. Having an episode like that may have even helped to lead up to the sudden deterioration of Amy and Rory's relationship at the beginning of "Asylum of the Daleks".

LaraHarris
LaraHarris

This commenting system IS THE PITS!!!!

RoweMatthew
RoweMatthew

Blink is fantastic but the others are boring in my opinion. You need to have a really solid story, with great emotion. Turn Left kind of had that, but series 4 was so bad that I didn't care about revisiting past episodes to see what would change. Also if Human Nature is a Doctor Lite episode then I think Midnight could be considered to be as well. He spends half the episode possessed by the creature.To remove the Doctor from Amy's Choice would have ruined the whole point of the episode by the way





Baker Street is heading Into the Dalek
Baker Street is heading Into the Dalek

I'm a secret fan of Love and Monsters. I love Marc Warren's performance (he's great in everything, especially Mad Dogs), I love LINDA and the idea of a group dedicated to the Doctor (sound familiar?), I love the use of Jackie (who really shines in this episode) and the inclusion of previous invasions, I love ELO, and I love the concept of the episode. The whole video camera thing is very me, but what I really love is viewing the Doctor's life from a dramatically unique perspective. Also, Elton's little speech at the end is beautifully true. This episode isn't without its flaws, however, and they are the Absorbaloff and paving-slab lady here. The former is just a bit naff (even if it's a creepy idea), while the latter is just sick. Sorry, it is. But overall the episode's great, and the fact that it's Doctor-lite actually really benefits it from my point of view. And, in a way, we are LINDA.

trenzalew
trenzalew

Isn't "The Girl Who Waited" considered to be a Doctor-lite episode? Matt filmed all his scenes in just one day, and he pretty much remains in the TARDIS.

rosisundin
rosisundin

I love Family of Blood and Human Nature. It was when I discovered David Tennant. Up until that episode I thought he was just "not the Eccleston" and then I went: OMG that guy can act! Had to stop everything and watch season 2 again. Fell in love with him forever.


AztecsDaleksAndCavemen
AztecsDaleksAndCavemen

It is, I think because when an episode is created that features the Doctor less, it is created with a unique concept in mind.

Chronos the Fannibal
Chronos the Fannibal

The episodes mentioned here all have a particular sadness to them, like when all those people dead after the Absorbaloff died, the family possessing those people  plus the Doctor and Joan, nobody being able to see Kathy again and Billy dying. Then pretty much Turn Left is sad the whole episode.

lukashcartoon
lukashcartoon

@DW_girl  Oh, I would say so.  Considering The Doctor was in the TARDIS the whole time...it was basically about Rory and Amy.

KarenBee
KarenBee

I've certainly read where RTD has said that apart from Moffat whose work he never so much as changed a word, he pretty much worked on other writers' work. He did of course suggest Capt Jack as a character to Moffat to include in the Empty Child. I think RTD always wanted to exercise tone control and consistency in scripts. I imagine some writers accepted this more readily than others though!

You should find a copy of The Writer's Tale which is both an excellent insight into how the process of writing is undertaken but more partivularly a great peek into how New Who came about and how RTD and others steered it in the first few years.

As a totally personal observation, I think this focus does show as there seems to be a more consistency in character development and continuity in the earlier seasons. Not so much character arcs, but rather a firmer hand on the till in terms of pacing and flow. In a few cases in Series 6 the not-baby plot and the reactions of A and R seemed a little loose and varied from ep to ep and the way Clara was written in the most recent run of episodes looked as though this hadn't been carefully monitored, so sometimes she seemed more clued in than others. Individual writers had different takes. Anyway, just my view and possibly more a function of stability in producers in the earlier run or maybe Julie Gardner's influence?

Raingembow
Raingembow

@tealeaves  I think the problem was that it looked ridiculous and was voiced by Peter Kay no fault on the kids part.

Wibbly-Wobbly is John Reese
Wibbly-Wobbly is John Reese

@plasticsoulman Interesting to note that in Series 2 and 3, the lower budget episode was the Doctor-lite one and in Series 4, the lower budget episode is the Doctor's episode. 

IIRC, the original plan for the episode that became Midnight was the Doctor going on some BBC Haunted House Reality programme to investigate a monster.

DW_girl
DW_girl

I agree. The Doctor was needed in 'Amy's Choice' because he was essentially one of Amy's choices! :)

blueboxgirl
blueboxgirl

@TheOncomingHurricane  I thought 'the girl who waited' was supposed to be doctor-life too, with his relatively small involvement being all tardis-based. I also agree about this comments system. Not great.....


DaireConstantineOReilly
DaireConstantineOReilly

I bloody love this episode as well, except the pavement slab girlfriend "love life" bit.

DW_girl
DW_girl

Finally! A fellow Love and Monsters fan! I love Elton, and his speech at the end is really inspirational (one of my favourite quotes i must say). And i actually didn't mind the Abzorbaloff- it was silly but it was okay. :)

floppy_who
floppy_who

@Baker Street I've never been a huge ELO fan, but the part of Love and Monsters at the end with Elton's mother walking off to the coda from Mr Blue Sky actually put a lump in my throat when I saw it on transmission.

I've since invested in a "Best of" ELO CD (which in turn lead to a Travelling Wilburys CD and then onto CDs by George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and so on..)

Actually, Nu Who has been resposible for my music collection going off in unexpected directions.. Rogue Traders and Cut Chemist are the most surprising ones- the Cut Chemist track being from the edition of Doctor Who Confidential that covered The Girl Who Waited (just thought I'd throw that one in as to tie this rambling post almost back onto topic..!)

TheOncomingHurricane
TheOncomingHurricane

@Baker Street  'And, in a way, we are LINDA.' Unless you happen to be an analytical fan, in which case, all you get to identify with is Victor Kennedy and a green blob...

Oodkind
Oodkind

@trenzalew It focuses on companions, but it still has the doctor heavily involved. He still influences decisions throughout the episode, even if he doesn't have much screen time, as opposed to Blink and Love and Monsters, where he is the cause of events but doesn't actually do anything, or Turn Left, where he is dead.

It could be considered either way.

DW_girl
DW_girl

@lukashcartoon @DW_girlThe person who wrote the article should have talked about The Girl Who Waited rather than going on about how The Doctor could be removed from Amy's Choice, which I completely disagree about.

Wibbly-Wobbly is John Reese
Wibbly-Wobbly is John Reese

@KarenBee I think Julie and Russell's moderation definitely helped. However, this is why you have a story editor. To keep consistency, although Russell, the workaholic he is, took on a major role of working on almost every script. And the product was amazing.

As for the Moff's era (which is my favourite), I think Series 5, 6 and 7, Part 1 were held together very well. God knows how. Maybe the story editing was different? Maybe it was Caro Skinner? Whatever it was, I didn't feel it in Series 7, Part 2. Neil Gaiman said there was not much moderation for Nightmare in Silver. Yet, characters are perfectly fine all through Steven's stories. So I think it was a minor mishap. It'll be fine.

Polyphase
Polyphase

@TheOncomingHurricane +1, Theres nothing worse than making an error and people not knowing what your on about because you can't edit :)