Anyone that knows me, knows that I am perpetually disappointed in the new series stories. They’re not that interesting, the exciting things are usually ruined in the conclusion, and the solutions often produce more holes than they fill.
So what makes a good story?
For me, probably the best story ever written is “Blink”. Yup, that’s a new series story, but it’s an outlier. In general, the best ones come out of the classic series and the Big Finish full cast audio plays. To be fair, Big Finish has a few advantages in that they can set their stories anywhere in the timeline in any season, have the benefit of modern technology to reference to make it more relevant and since it’s all audio, can do much more with their budget, since visuals are expensive. So let’s go through some of my top stories. In no particular order:
This is a 10th Doctor story with Martha. It’s a “Doctor-lite” story, which makes it seem an odd choice, but it’s not if you’ve seen it. The story is pretty simple. The Doctor and Martha have been sent back in time by the Weeping Angels, a race of angel statue looking things that can only move when you aren’t looking at them. If they touch you, they send you back in time and feed off the potential life you would have led. It’s an abstract concept, but they’re terrifying. The Doctor has to get the Tardis back from the future in order to escape, which means he needs help from someone in the time period he was pulled out of. Enter Sally Sparrow.
I won’t go into more detail, as I don’t really want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. But here are the elements that make it such a great story.
The stakes are very personal, the cast is small, so you care about the fate of everyone in it. There’s a big mystery around how the Doctor is communicating with Sally and why her. The monsters are absolutely terrifying and make for a very intense experience. Not much else I want to say about it, but those are the things that make it great.
Caves of Androzani
This is a 5th Doctor and Peri story. The Doctor and Peri land on Androzani minor and go for a wander, no real aim, just exploration. They touch some fungus type stuff that turns out to be lethally toxic if not treated. They get captured. They get caught up in a struggle between the military and a terrorist with a grudge. It’s a great story because they’re not there to save the world, or really get involved at all, they just get caught up in a mess and it’s a race against time to escape and get treatment before both The Doctor and Peri die. Again the stakes are very personal, but this time there’s a compelling bigger story going on that The Doctor and Peri are caught up in, but not central to. This makes it a pretty grand tale, full of suspense and tension. I won’t spoil it by giving more details, but you might already see a theme developing here.
This is a 7th Doctor and Mel story. Some may find this an odd choice, but I love this episode. Full disclosure: We had it on video when I was a kid and it was on all the time. I am almost certainly biased towards it, but it’s still good. Here’s why. The Doctor and Mel arrive in Paradise Towers to use the pool, because the Tardis one has been jettisoned. When they arrive, they find the towers in a state of disrepair. Rubbish and dirt everywhere, graffiti all over the walls. They are quickly confronted by the Red Kangs, a colour coded, crossbow wielding, girl gang. They like the Doctor, they don’t like Mel. The Kangs are chased by the Caretakers, sort of police/security force bound by a rulebook that seems sacred to them. Mel and the Doctor are separated. Through Mel and the Doctor’s exploration, we meet all the quirky, bizarre factions of the towers. Something more sinister is going on and it’s going to take all the fighting factions working together to stop.
This episode is great because it’s full of quirky characters and a dystopian society where even the language is corrupted in a way that makes it work. It’s fun and light hearted despite the dark overtones, with a bunch of characters you can enjoy. It’s a fun romp with engaging characters, on a larger than personal scale, but still keeps the good elements of the Doctor just getting caught up in something.
The Time Meddler
This is a 1st Doctor, Vicki and Stephen story. The Tardis arrives in early medieval Britain, The Doctor and his companions go exploring. They discover some anachronisms and discover that there is a Time Lord meddling with history, trying to stop the viking invasion. The Doctor and his friends must stop him before he destroys the viking fleet. This is a story with fairly large consequences, but a small cast. It’s a battle of wits between the Doctor and the time meddler. The Meddling monk is an interesting villain in that he believes he is making earth a better place in the name of progress. It makes for a fun and engaging adventure in history.
This is a 1st Doctor, Vicki, Ian and Barbara story. The Tardis lands in Roman Italy during the reign of Caesar Nero. After several weeks in a villa, The Doctor and Vicki decide to travel to Rome, where they get embroiled in court politics. Meanwhile, Ian and Barbara are captured by slavers. This story is a fun one, full of comedy, particularly around Nero and the court. The Doctor is mischievous and charming. He just wants to uncover the conspiracy for his own curiosity, while Ian and Barbara are trying to survive and get back to the villa and the Tardis. The only alien in the story is The Doctor, and this is a good thing. The stakes are for the most part personal, except where their involvement may inadvertently alter history. It’s a good fun romp.
BONUS: I’m including “The Rescue” because it comes in a DVD set with “the Romans”, but it is a great 2 parter introducing Vicki. Vicki’s spaceship has crashed. She and one other man are the only survivors. Vicki’s father died in the crash. They are at the mercy of their tyrannical benefactor, the alien Kukquillion (I don’t know how to spell it). It’s a short story with very few characters, a great little twist and worth including really.
Genesis of the Daleks
This is a 4th Doctor, Sarah and Harry story. The Doctor is sent by the Time Lords to stop the creation of the Daleks or to change it in some way. This is the first story where we meet Davros, the creator of the Daleks. This is a great adventure, full of moral explorations, including the right of a time traveller to interfere with history because of the terrible outcome. There are lots of interesting characters, particularly Davros. The repercussions of the story, are of course large, in size it covers two cities and os the cast is relatively large. This story takes a rather large event and focuses on key players, bringing it focus. It’s a very iconic story for many reasons, most of them obvious: Tom Baker’s first encounter with the Daleks, Davros, Skaro, the creation of the Daleks. The Doctor isn’t really given a choice and he doesn’t have the Tardis, so it becomes as much about trying to escape as fulfilling the mission.
I could list lots of more good episodes, but maybe I’ll talk about some of my other top picks another time. Let’s get back to the point. What makes a good Doctor Who story?
From my list you can probably see that what I like best is when the Doctor and his companions are just there exploring, they’re not trying to make some big difference or change the world, sometimes they end up doing it anyway, but mostly they’re just trying to get back to the Tardis and survive. Often the best stories do not come out of some grand invasion by aliens, or the whole universe being at stake, but out of internal politics and the decisions of individuals rather than an external threat. However, this doesn’t mean the stakes can’t be high or the repercussions huge. To demonstrate some of this, I’ll contrast the new series episodes “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End” with the Big Finish audio “The Apocalypse Element”.
The premise of both stories is essentially the same. The Daleks have a tool that they can use to destroy the entire universe. It’s a plan they’ve been working on for a long time but there are several big distinctions between the two stories. This one will have spoilers, sorry, unavoidable.
In The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End (10th Doctor, Donna, Rose, Sarah, Jack, Martha, Mickey, Harriet Jones), the Daleks steal the earth because it’s the perfect size for their gravitational thingy they’re making that will cancel out the bonds between molecules, basically destroying all atoms, leaving the Daleks in their little pocket the only living things, with the rest of the universe destroyed. Donna saves the day by flicking a switch and destroying all the Daleks.
In the Apocalypse Element (6th, Evelyn, Romana) The Daleks steal a planet where all the temporal powers are having a conference, enslaving the representatives, including Romana, and mining an exceptionally rare element that they can use basically to the same effect, to destroy matter. The Daleks invade Gallifrey. they then threaten to destroy the universe if Gallifrey does not surrender, basically a “if we can’t have the universe, no one can”. They trigger their device. The Doctor uses all the power available to the Time Lords to stop it, so only a single galaxy is destroyed. The ruins of that galaxy form a new galaxy, new stars form, the Daleks move in to take control of the entire galaxy unopposed, which was their true plan all along.
So what makes “The Apocalypse Element” a better story than “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End”? The stakes are essentially the same. The entire universe. They both involved the return of beloved characters, both involve Daleks. The new series one even has Davros in it. For me there are two main reasons: Politics and use of scale. “The Apocalypse Element” paints us a picture of the complicated relationship between time travelling civilisations, the need for laws and the standing of the Time Lords with the other temporal powers. The whole universe is at stake, so there are multiple locations and complex interests, whereas in “The Stolen Earth” it’s all about Earth and a bunch of briefly mentioned places throughout the season with a reasonably pointless visit to the shadow proclamation. Basically, The Apocalypse Element sets the stage better.
Both stories use the Dalek’s “conquer or destroy” attitude to the same effect, but the 10th Doctor episode is less compelling to me. There’s no terms, there’s no ultimatums, it’s just destroy the universe and be the last ones standing. Then what? with no suns, no resources except the ones on the planets they’ve taken, what’s left? nothing to conquer, nothing to sustain the Daleks, no universe. In the 6th Doctor episode, they’re using it to hold the universe hostage, it’s part of a bigger plan. They get a whole galaxy out of it, with no competition. That’s a massive staging ground and a lot of resources for them to control for future conquest. A whole galaxy. Even when they lose, they still win, whereas in the 10th Doctor’s, Donna reverses the polarity and flicks a switch, all the Daleks explode. Really? That’s your resolution? A big red defeat switch?
This is a regular problem in the new series, a big, impossible to stop situation is set up, so an even more impossible magic switch is created to solve it. Often literally a switch. It’s either “magic button the defeats all the enemies” (Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, Journey’s End, The Christmas Invasion, The Shakespeare code, Fires of Pompeii) or a character goes god mode (Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, The Sound of Drums/Last of the Timelords, Time of the Doctor). This, to me, is a terribly disappointing resolution. Setting up a big, complicated situation, should take a clever resolution. If it’s too big, then there has to be a price. The Doctor does not always have to win in the end. Sometimes the victory is survival. Sometimes the tragedy makes something great. Examples of this would be Earthshock (5th Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, Adric), Caves of Androzani (5th Doctor, Peri), Logopolis (4th Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, Adric), Lucie Miller/To the Death (audio, 8th Doctor, Lucie, Susan, Alex), A Death in the family (audio, 7th Doctor, Ace, Hex, Evelyn), Resurrection of the Daleks (5th Doctor, Tegan, Turlough), Blue Forgotten Planet (6th Doctor and (spoilers)).
Some might cry at this point “but what about Rose in Doomsday? Or Donna in Journey’s End?” Or “The End of Time”? While all of these did have strong emotional impacts and consequences, they were not consequences of the storyline as such. Donna’s tragedy and victory was pure luck. No one planned it or made decisions to lead to that situation, it was just lucky it happened and there was a price to pay. The whole situation Rose was in was written in a silly way anyway, if she had left when told to, she wouldn’t have fallen, it was still better than the, except for the situation itself, which was stupid. Parallel realities have vacuums effects on anything with certain particles and will cleanly pull in everything no matter how many buildings and obstacles in the way, but not with enough force to pull people in who are pulling the levers right in front of it? Please. The tragedy in “The End of Time” was the gratuitousness of it, I realise that was the point, but the entire existence of those booths was absurd in the extreme.
The other aspect of the new series I dislike is the tendency to make alien invasion the problem all the time. Every important moment in human history becomes about an alien invasion in one form or another. In the classic series even when there were aliens, their goal wasn’t always the destruction or domination of earth. Examples: The Time Warrior (3rd Doctor, Sarah), The Horror of Fang Rock (4th Doctor, Leela), Day of the Daleks (3rd Doctor, Jo), Ambassadors of Death (3rd Doctor, Liz), Mark of the Rani (6th Doctor, Peri), The Two Doctors (2nd Doctor, Jamie, 6th Doctor, Peri).
We can directly compare two stories to exemplify this. The Fires of Pompeii (10th Doctor, Donna) and The Fires of Vulcan (audio, 7th Doctor, Mel). Both stories are set in Pompeii on the day Vesuvius erupts. The the 10th Doctor episode there are aliens, they want to take over the world, they made Vesuvius a volcano, the only way to stop them is to press a button and make Vesuvius erupt, killing all the monsters and the people. So there’s some emotional impact to the Doctor and Donna causing the eruption, but it’s another gratuitous hijacking of world history. In the 7th Doctor episode, The Doctor and Mel land in Pompeii and get caught up in local politics. The Doctor knows that his Tardis is unearthed in the future in the lava and believes that since he’s already seen that, he must die there and can do nothing to change it, Mel refuses to give up. No aliens, no great impact on history, just the Doctor, his companion, a race against time and challenging fate. To me, the addition of aliens to such a human tragedy cheapens it, making “The Fires of Vulcan” a better story.
I could go on and on, and I probably will in another post, but for now I think I’ll leave it at that.
So what makes a good Doctor Who story?
An appropriate level of scale for the stakes, the larger the scale, the more fleshing out it needs to make it meaningful.
A story where the world does not revolve around the Doctor or his companions. (there are of course exceptions, such as “The Deadly Assassin” (4th Doctor))
Not gratuitously using alien invasion where human conflict would do.
Recognising that larger stakes don’t necessarily make a better story. Small scale, low key situations with low level consequences for the universe can make a great story.
A personal story, about characters you care about has a bigger impact than a story about saving the whole world. (Usually)
A grand, epic problem requires a clever, sophisticated solution. A hasty solution to a problem that has been built up over the course of a season or episode to be solved with the flick of a switch undermines the epic nature of the problem. Reset buttons are lame. So is the constant messiah complex of the Doctor or his Companion being the only one that can save the world/universe every time, which has been the case with Rose, Martha, Donna, The 10th and 11th Doctors.
So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? What else should I discuss?