Lords of Time #11: Doctor Who

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Gustaff Behr concludes the series pitting Doctor Who against other time travel fiction.

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Over the last couple months, the ‘Lords of Time’ series has provided a unique insight into how other fiction incorporates time travel into their plots to make them more thrilling and entertaining. In this last installment, we look at Doctor Who, the main contender the past ten participants went up against to see just where Doctor Who ranks on the list of most popular time travel fiction.

What made every article in this series unique was not only that it covered media in all shapes and sizes, or stood out as popular in some part of the world, but that each featured a unique mechanic of time travel that made the show even more interesting to watch. Back to the Future showed the benefits of writing back to the future while Life on Mars showed us that something can be successful even if time travel is not in the foreground. Future Diary decided to use time travel as an actual plot element and trick it out by adding modern technology into the mix. Heroes gave us time travel as a superpower, Steins;Gate explored parallel universe and The Terminator featured the most commonly used plot used in time travel. The Time Machine showed us life in the future while Shadow of Destiny helped give us an idea of how Doctor Who can create a more popular game in the future.

So now we arrive at rating Doctor Who. No explanations of its lure or dynamics are in order as people already know enough. If not then I have no clue what you are doing on this site.

So how do you score Doctor Who? Well, over the past couple of months, people have maintained that Doctor Who should receive 30/30. Even if this site is dedicated to Doctor Who, this score is impossible. Why? Take for example the poll DWTV has been running these past weeks. If Doctor Who does deserve full marks, then you testify that you have rated every story in these polls 10/10. Even harder, you have to rate every story in Doctor Who as 10/10 for 30/30 to be possible.

Okay, but one episode out of 800 is still closer to 5/5 than 4.5/5. I agree, but the thing is, one thing this series did was rate the whole topic it was dealing with, not just the highlight episodes, so Doctor Who has the classic series you also have to give full marks to. Can you say with absolute certainty that all 800 episodes are 10/10 material? Let’s make it easier and try this:

Plot

Judging Doctor Who (the television series at least) solely on the plot of all its stories, can we fairly give it a 5/5? It has great plots most of the time, but not always. So 4/5? Well, the plots of the classic series were 70/30 in favor of good, so then maybe 3/5?

Actually, is it even fair to rate something that has so many episodes as a mathematician? Unlike Doctor Who, none of the topics covered in this series comes even remotely close to having as many episodes as Doctor Who. Okay, how about we pick one: Classic or New Series. What seems fairer: Judging the newest era of Doctor Who or the old one?

Characters & Character Development

doctor-who-companions-63-13Moving on, if you look at the character aspects, it’s a little easier to rate Doctor Who as only great actors are cast as the Doctor and only stunning people deserve to call themselves his companion. The question here isn’t if you (the audience) like the characters, but if the characters are well-thought out, interesting and enjoyable to watch. If you follow the ‘specific era’ approach and only judge the New Series, then Doctor Who does quite well. The New Series focuses more on character development and arcs to build up its characters rather than just having them there asking a bunch of questions. But if we look at the Classic Series, Doctor Who loses quite a bit. Up until Ace, we never really had a companion that involved in the story in terms of personal development, excluding a few others. However, very few can argue that before Ace, no companion in the history of Doctor Who was ever treated as importantly to the show and it’s episodes than her. Ace is the archetypal character after which new series companions were modelled. Also note that she is only one character and this criterion rates most of the supporting cast, including villains and whatnot. Thankfully, both in the new series and the classic, Doctor Who loves to provide good supporting characters that assist the Doctor and his companion and interlock the viewer into the setting they’re exploring.

Tearjerkers

doctors-wife-farewellA very important element in any story! People want to be emotionally involved and be connected to the people they’re watching. Regeneration stories are always hard to take for at least a certain portion of the fandom and even to those that didn’t love-love the departing Doctor like the lesser portion. Companion farewells are styled after being very emotional. Well except Adric’s. They just wanted to get rid of him. Doctor Who excels at tearjerkers in both the old and new series because of the flexibility of the show allows it to cater to a wide audience. Sadness is only one trigger for a tearjerker. Anger is another one, especially if things don’t work out the way you want them to or expect them to. So in that sense, surprise and personal background are also very good triggers.

Timey-Wimey Ball

timey-wimeyYou know, just to save the word count, we’ll ignore anything even remotely related to Steven Moffat because you have to give it full marks. His stories get bigger and bolder every time. But interestingly enough, the New Series uses time a lot and often breaks its own rules, regardless of writer. The only thing that can bring the score down is the classic series which featured time travel very pedantically. In fact, the classic series contains very few timey-wimey tales if you put that as a percentage, but it again begs the question: Do we rate it mathematically? Do we even realize that the classic series could possess more timey-wimey than we think it does? The Daleks vs Genesis of the Daleks? The UNIT Dating Controversy? Although these things are caused by out-of-universe mistakes and rectons, in-universe they add up to being very timey-wimey indeed (70s or the 80s) and they’re not the only ones – there’s more! How about realizing that past Doctors rely on the success of future incarnations in stories set further in the past to even happen? Now it gets really confusing. If one earth alien invasion is successful, then how many past/future Doctors in future story settings don’t happen?

Plot Point

Again, in the classic series, time travel was used as a travel vehicle primarily. The new series doesn’t follow this route anymore and have redeemed it in that sense. Also note that time travel was sometimes very instrumental even in the classic stories. We’ve also seen that time travel doesn’t always have to be in the foreground to be successful. What’s also interesting to note is that although time travel wasn’t used much in the way it is today, lots of stories relied on the TARDIS to function. Again it’s not just the travel vehicle thing. A lot of episodes have the TARDIS actually needed to make something happen to further the story while others featured entire episodes dedicated to the Doctor and his companion inside the TARDIS. Good examples would be Logopolis (which by the way, also adds to the time-wimey aspect above due to the TARDIS-inside-a-TARDIS thing) or The Armageddon Factor that used a Groundhog Day loop to buy time.

So after all that input, let’s rate Doctor Who…

Plot – 4.5/5:

You judge the plot of something as a whole as opposed to the individual episodes that make it up. Execution falls under production, so it’s really just the imagination that counts. Plots need to be interesting and one of the huge reasons Doctor Who has even reached the point of getting a “New Series” has always been its vast amount imagination making up for the sucky special effects it sometimes employed.

Characters – 4.5/5 & Character Development – 4/5

It’s not just the Doctor and his companions we follow. We’re also interested in the journey their ‘guide’ for the episode goes through. From plot setup to TARDIS ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ to finishing off that pesky Dalek/Cybermen invasion. They’re not just there to make up the roster. In the majority of stories, these characters are sometimes just as important and in most of the stories – those people who don’t end up dead – have been enticing to watch. Plus, nobody does imaginative villains like Doctor Who does! Half the good plot ideas are spawned thanks to a very creative monster concept.

Tearjerkers – 5/5

If there is one thing that must never ever be measured in quantity, its tearjerkers. It’s even in the freaking title: Tearjerkers! You can only judge these based on their strength and something Doctor Who excels at is entertainment and breaking hearts. Whether a supporting character you wanted to join the Doctor ultimately doesn’t, or somebody just died or a companion decides it’s time to finally go; tearjerkers in Doctor Who are powerful weapons of mass destruction.

Timey-Wimey Ball – 4/5

Much like Life on Mars and Future Diary, Doctor Who didn’t always put time travel as close to the plot as it should’ve, but that’s quickly changing and due to the modern success Doctor Who has gathered, it’ll continue to put stories in the ‘Temporal Confusion Box’. It started with RTD, got taken up to eleven by Steven Moffat so who knows where it’ll end up next?

Plot Point – 5/5

Much like the time-wimey aspect, time is continuously being upgraded by writers who want to use time travel more creatively. In-or-out of universe, time travel is essential to this show. Any past/future setting is impossible without the TARDIS and even then, Time becomes a more critical component, even if it isn’t physically used as much as it is in the new series. Actually, if Doctor Who was a series without a time travel element, just a space adventure, it would’ve died out long ago, regardless of regeneration. It has been touched upon numerous times, but you can’t do Doctor Who in anything less than five dimensions. You just can’t. Out-of-universe, this is one of the cornerstones of the show, so it is a very important plot point. Lastly, due to the size of Doctor Who, this aspect I feel also needs to be judged on strength, not numbers. When Doctor Who experiments with time, old or new series, it has proven to be entertaining, mostly correct and more often than not – confusing!

Based on these criteria, Doctor Who scored 26.5 out of a possible 30. This means that the final rankings look like this:

  1. Doctor Who26.5
  2. Steins;Gate  – 25/30
  3. Back to the Future / Life on Mars24/30
  4. The Terminator23.5/30
  5. Heroes22.5/30
  6. Future Diary 22/30
  7. Quantum Leap20/30
  8. Shadow of Destiny19.5/30
  9. The Time Machine16.5/30
  10. Groundhog Day16/30

Unsurprisingly, Doctor Who’s longevity, combined with its ability to incorporate the unique qualities that made the other topics possible, allows it to stand out tall. It’s not perfect. Nothing is, but it is special. It has a different take each week, yet still manages to loop ideas and villains more times than Groundhog Day. It jumps more time zones than Quantum Leap. Plots change more frequently than Future Diary entries. This is the reason why it is the Ultimate Lord of Time. Because unlike the other shows analyzed, Doctor Who can get away with telling stories this way and jumbling them up.

So there you have it! The best of the best of the best time travel fiction from around the world. It’s not just Britain that gets time travel right. There are some true gems out there. Some have already been forgotten due to their old age or has never even been heard of by the general public due to their format. One thing is for certain: It is impossible to replicate something as powerful, potent or precocious as Doctor Who. I doubt there will ever be a show as flexible, facetious, funny or as fascinating as the silly tale about a man who calls a little blue box his home.