Are Doctor-Lite stories the best of Doctor Who?
Guest contributor Ash Kershaw takes a look.
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
Firstly, 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)
Speaking 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.
And 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.
Next 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
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?