Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pop-Drama: Doctor Who

Here’s my first contribution to Andrew Hickey's Pop-Drama meme-thing he’s tagged the whole of the internet to do. Don’t know for sure if there’ll be another one (I’ve still got Seven Soldiers to wrap up, and I have a new blog series I may or may not decide to do in the end), although I actually think I have an idea for a Transformers series that wouldn’t just be a big wanky waste of everyone’s time.

Before we start, let me just say that I’m not a huge Doctor Who fan, actually. I really love what I’ve seen, but I haven’t seen very much; I live in the States and don’t get BBC America, so I’m pretty much at the mercy of PBS, the Sci-Fi Channel and DVDs at my local library for whatever they happen to play or have in stock. Consequently, I’ve only seen about eight or nine Fourth Doctor serials, the Eighth Doctor TV movie everybody hates, and episodes here and there from “New Who” (although not all of them, and I haven’t seen any of the latest series).

But Doctor Who is something if you’re as thorough as geek as I am, you learn bits and pieces about through osmosis and secondhand sources. So what I’m going to lay out is basically what my impressions are of what the Third Doctor’s show was like without ever having seen a single episode.

Written very quickly and very dirtily, but that’s what you get, I’m afraid, and look, maybe that’s even in the spirit of the show? Here goes:


Tomorrow morning, Earth makes First Contact, and it is not friendly.

It’s not a full-on invasion, mind you. Earth is discovered by a small party of aliens, who land in a small village in the English countryside. They had intended to go unnoticed, but were spotted by the natives – so the aliens got spooked, and started shooting, thinking nothing of it; two-thirds of the village’s population was killed, and the aliens holed up in their spaceship. A three-day standoff later and a global military response had breached the ship’s defenses. The last alien left alive after the ensuing shootout had learned some rudimentary English in those three days – “Primitive slime, you! Only explorers, we!” And when our scientists got a look at the instrumentation on the craft, it’s light years ahead of anything we’ve got, of course, but they could make out one thing: sometime during the first day, the explorers had sent out a signal with coordinates.

The Earth has been discovered … and now everyone out there knows about it.

Flash forward seven years, and Earth has formed the United Intelligence Taskforce, or UNIT, based in the bombed-out ruins of that country village, to deal with extraterrestrial relations. They’ve reverse engineered the explorers’ spaceship for a technological boost to weapons and communications, and now they’re preparing for whatever comes next. And so far, nobody else has actually come to Earth (takes awhile, you know), but we have made some brief, crackly subspace communication contact with some of the beings out there.

And as near as we can tell, the universe is populated by a multitude of diverse races – but most of the ones with interstellar flight capacities are the colonial ones. And you can imagine how the story got back from the explorers before they were killed – "This Earth is populated by bloodthirsty savages, and you’d be doing ‘em a favor by taking over, frankly."

And the series opens on the eve of the first attempt to do so.

Oh, let’s say it’s the Cybermen. Unfortunately, not one of the handful of potential invaders we know even a little bit about. We send out some scout ships hoping to make peaceful contact, they just blast them out of the way without even accepting the incoming transmission. An invasion party lands in London and takes over quite quickly, using it as a base from which to attack UNIT HQ. The rest of the world’s screaming at UNIT – “You dropped the ball! You had seven years to prepare for this and you didn’t last seven hours!” To which the only reply is, “We only had seven years. We’re lucky to last seven minutes.” Because face it, all we had to go on was the one spaceship, and the one the Cybermen have parked over London in geosynchronous orbit is a hell of a lot more impressive than that first one. We, frankly, do not have a clue, and we don’t have a chance.

Then there’s a lurching, grinding sound in the control room at UNIT HQ, and what looks like an old police box materializes from out of thin air.

UNIT troops swarm in, form a perimeter, train their guns on the door. This is it, boys, this is war. Cyberkind’s first strike on them, surely. The doors slowly open, and out pours thick, acrid black smoke.

And out steps, instead of a merciless machine-man, a striking older gentleman with silver hair dressed like he’s stepped out of a PBS Jane Austen adaptation. He is gentle and kind, but a bit condescending. He makes little account for himself other than that he’s a bit of an explorer (and that sets UNIT off after the last bit, you can imagine). They stick him in the brig and say they’ll get to him if and when they get this Cybermen business figured out.

To which the visitor replies, “Cybermen? Oh, that’s an easy one so long as you’ve got enough gold.”

He introduces himself as the Doctor, to which the reply is, of course, “Doctor Who?” and the name sticks no matter how many times he insists that is not his name. With his knowledge of the Cybermen they’re able to drive off the invasion. And, once things have settled down, they find out he knows of all the other alien empires that might threaten the Earth because of his extensive “traveling” through space and time. This guy is an invaluable resource and could well be the key to the Earth’s survival – and he just appeared out of thin air. They keep him on retainer, which suits him well enough; he says he can’t go anywhere anyway with the TARDIS being broken the way it is.

“What’s a TARDIS?”

In the weeks to come, everyone gets a different story about their mysterious visitor. He gives the sense it’s some sort of time machine, but beyond that details are vague. The word either means Time And Relative Dimension In Space, or Time Anomaly Research Deep Immersion Scout, or it’s the brand name of the manufacturer. As for Doctor Who himself, he tells some that he’s a scientist and inventor from the year 4172, some that he’s an alien Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey (“Why do you have an English accent if you’re an alien, then?” “Oh, is it that convincing? I can do a German one if you like as well.”) He tells a young researcher one night that he’s just a confused old man from 1815 who’s found a time machine, but never mentions that story again. Complete mystery, and between themselves, UNIT’s say, hey, maybe even the Doctor doesn’t know Who he is.

Whatever the hell that TARDIS thing is, he’s working on repairing it whenever he’s got a spare moment. Nobody’s allowed inside of it, and no one can open the doors except for Doctor Who. I wouldn’t even want to show the inside of the TARDIS for several episodes (I’m assuming this is a television show, but we could do it in comics as well); the first person to be let in and see the bigger-on-the-inside thing is a middle-level officer in UNIT we’ll call Brian.

Let me steal a bit from RAB here:

“…my take on the Doctor is this: his view of humans should be the same as my view of dogs. What charming, intelligent, brave, friendly, affectionate creatures! How charming the simple things that make them happy! How wonderful to make the acquaintance of each one! But they can also be vicious and dangerous if mistreated, and they’re ignorant of the harm they can cause. And when a more capable creature abuses them, our duty is to rescue and protect them.”

I would like to add that sometimes, no matter how much you love that dog, you get furious at it when it pees all over the kitchen or eats your shoes when it really should know better, and from time to time the Doctor will go off on humans when caught in a bad mood. “You bloody imbeciles! If I’d had known you were going to act like this, I’d have left you to the Cybermen!” After which, of course, he apologizes profusely and sincerely because he didn’t really mean it.

Still, not many people in UNIT like the Doctor. (Well, some of the girls do; he doesn’t seem to have any interest in sex, so it’s kind of a “flirt with the sweet older man for a laugh” sort of deal.) It’s society’s natural mistrust of anything smarter than us. They think he’s being superior when he’s not, and so they assign Brian (I haven’t given any thought to this name at all, so don’t read anything into it) to be the Doctor’s “handler” because nobody likes him much anyway either – everyone finds him irritatingly earnest, which they don’t suppose is a very useful personality type when you’re Earth’s first line of defense against alien invaders. He is, however, a survivor of that attack on his village seven years ago.

So Brian becomes the Doctor’s “companion” of sorts (UNIT treats him as a go-between) while Who is stranded on Earth and helping UNIT fend off alien invasions and other curious phenomena (not everyone wants to conquer Earth – some are looking for zoo exhibits, and some are just thoughtless tourists who don’t care if they park on the Louvre). It should be stressed that the Doctor’s main usefulness is in information about these various invaders; he’s got a sonic screwdriver, but it’s not any better a weapon than a real screwdriver, and it’s certainly not as useful as it is in the current series. The Doctor’s attribute is his knowledge and his wits, and nothing more. He’s up for adventure, but he’s old and needs a lie-down after a particularly stressful day.

So that’s the engine driving the entire first “series” (I’m using series in the American sense, not the English of what we call “seasons”). That can go on for years until everyone’s about had it. Then … "The Final Invasion." And since I know I’m never going to get to do this for real, I might as well spoil the whole thing.

It’s Daleks, of course, and not a moment before but the kicker is this – Doctor Who doesn’t know a damn thing about them. He’s heard about them on his adventures, but he’s as blind as us primitive screwheads on this one.

The Daleks, however, know all about the Doctor (they even call him “the Doctor”) or at least they seem to. There’s a thread running through the series of researchers finding references to “the Doctor” throughout history, intervening in matters of global importance – wars, plagues, scientific discoveries. Except he is always described differently: young and old, fat and thin, tall and short, sometimes a woman, sometimes any number of things. And so during the Final Invasion, Doctor Who tells only Brian very briefly about the whole regeneration thing we all know from the series – when he dies, he “comes back” in a new form, and sometimes there are side-effects. In this case, his memory about Daleks seems to have been erased, although Brian can tell he’s lying about something, and he gets quite furious with the Doctor. “After all we’ve been through, you’re just telling me stupid made-up stories the way you would anyone else!”

Big budget special effects, carnage and destruction at the hands of the Daleks. This isn’t conquest, this is extermination. The extinction of the human race, and the truth is this – they can’t win. There’s no way to defeat the Daleks. So the Doctor has a breakthrough. He finally fixes the TARDIS (maybe it was never really broken in the first place, I'm not sure) and uses it to go back in time…divert the explorers landing in the English countryside all those years ago…

and prevent anything in the series from ever happening. Because for the sake of my series, we’ll say that’s how it works.

Humanity is saved, but here is the thing – Brian can’t go home anymore. Because in the world he and the Doctor have made, that little English countryside village is still there, and there’s a Brian who lives there and has a date with the girl who works at a small IT firm he met at the shops one day. Well, obviously this is hard to hear, but Brian doesn’t really have a choice, and he’s nothing if not pragmatic. And it’s not even one of those “one life in exchange for all the world” deals because, hey, there is still a Brian knocking about. So he spends one last day walking through his old village, calls his mum on the phone (can’t go to see her, of course, he is seven-plus years older) and even pays himself a secret visit. Basically saying goodbye to his old life, but even that’s okay – most people never even get to do that.

So it’s settled, then. Since Brian doesn’t have a place in the world he helped save, the Doctor will take him along as a companion on his travels, although he never really explains what that exactly entails. They’re about ready to set off when, suddenly, the Doctor clutches his chest and falls to the ground.

“Doctor! What is it?” Brian asks.

Panting, sweating, the Doctor replies: “It’s the Time Tribunal! Passing judgment on me! Altering history is forbidden by their laws! The sentence is death! Can’t you see them?”

The Doctor points in the air in front of him at this last sentence. Brian, with horror: “Doctor ... there’s no one there.” And it looks for all the world like he's just having a heart attack. “But you’ll come back, won’t you?” Brian asks, desperately. “You – you said you regenerate, when an old body dies…?”

“It’s a lie,” the Doctor responds between breaths. “There is no regeneration. It just works like this: You who stand by my side: I charge you to carry on my work.” His eyes are bugging out, face wet with sweat.

“Doctor, wait! What work? What am I supposed to do?” Brian eyes the TARDIS.

And the old man’s last words, very difficult to even get these out: “I know you’ll be brilliant.”

“Doctor, wait! There’s so much I don’t know! You never even told me – Doctor! Who are you?”

But he’s already dead.

Brian sits crying over the mystery man’s purple, choked body. For a second he almost believes that the body will just magically vanish in a puff of smoke or a flash of light, but it’s just there, and it’s heavy. And he’s left to stew on that.

Only for a moment, though. Because then Brian does what he’s supposed to do. He kisses the old man on the head, buries the Doctor (…somewhere. Maybe in the village?) and grabs a change of clothes from his UNIT uniform. Something comfortable and durable, as well as a very long scarf - “In case it’s cold.”

So it’s the New Doctor, at the controls of the TARDIS (He’s never “Brian” again; as he points out, Brian is the version of himself that lives his life). He has no idea how to really set a course or destination – even the interface is totally alien and non-intuitive. So he spins some dials at random, pulls some levers, and when that’s all over, he takes a deep breath and presses a large red button.

There’s a grinding sound, and soon the police box has vanished.

And now you could do an entire second series about this New Doctor, but frankly I’d be happy just to end it there and leave the rest to imagination.

Not entirely pleased with "they just fix it all with time travel," but you need it for the New Doctor stuff to work, I think.


plok said...

I really like the Brian-Doctor, I think...I'd tune in to watch him. Human but inheriting a mysterious possibly-alien legacy, doesn't know if there really is a Time-Tribunal or not, finds a library in the TARDIS, perhaps...gets lonely...freaked out at visiting alien worlds...

It'd be great!

I like this too, don't get me wrong; in fact if you hadn't just done it so nicely, would I be so enchanted by the Brian-Doctor?

Damn it, now you make me want to do one too, except I want to do yours...

Justin said...

No, I really like the Brian-Doctor too, which is a bit of a problem. Even writing it, I'm aware that it's got a lot of *middle*. And I think you *need* years of that middle to make the end have enough weight ... but at the same time, it's really just spinning wheels and building up an expectation for the ending, which is the good part and really the whole point. As the showrunner for this imaginary program, I see myself in the network offices all the time saying "Can we end it *this* year?" "No, ratings are good enough. Give it another two seasons, maybe?"

The Brian-Doctor series, of course, has endless possibility. I like that it makes concrete a lot of the stuff Who fans take for granted - the Doctor really *doesn't* know where the TARDIS is going, and the Doctor really *doesn't* have an agenda except for Do The Right Thing. In some ways, Brian parallels my own unfamiliarity with Doctor Who; his activities as the Doctor will be interpretations of the bits and pieces he can remember from the original Doctor, and he'll make up the rest as he goes along. The new Doctor doesn't have any mystery about his identity, the mystery is in what he's supposed to be doing - Doctor Who becomes Doctor What?

And by the end of that process, when the actor playing Brian is just about ready to move on and pass the role onto someone else, I think he'd have grown into the eccentricity you expect out of Doctor Who.

Possible pitfall, though: I turn my back for a second and someone is going to want to *explain* it all, and say yes, there *is* a Time Tribunal, and yes, the Doctor was from Gallifrey and this and that. It's prettier if Brian never finds out, and his tribute to his old mentor is based entirely on experiences and not exposition; all show, no tell.

Josh said...

wow, I think you'd have me watching Doctor Who for the first time since I was 10.... other than catching the last 5 minutes of it before BSG at least.

It may not be the popular answer but what about extinguishing mankind? the Doctor is mortally wounded in the attack, and the second series kicks off with Brian as the Doctor on the run from the Daleks and is forced to randomly jump off into time and space. I know it doesn't have the sweet and sour wrap up of saving mankind, displacing brian from Earth continuity, or the mystery of the Time Tribunal. But mankind really needs its comeuppance. I'm tired of watching sci-fi where the earth is saved.

Either way, I love what you've come up with.

Digital Imbecile said...

I seriously love this, although I'm also worried that the Brian-Doctor idea is so perfect and beautiful that it warps the whole thing out of shape.

Generally I'm sort of wary of stories whose primary (or even auxiliary) purpose is to set up a different story, even when the second story is as downright inspired as this one.

Of course, even before I got to that part, I was still thinking "Yeah, I'd watch this," so maybe it's not too much of a problem after all.

Like a lot of the recent Pop-Drama things, I'd love to see you file off the serial numbers and produce this as an original work.

Andrew Hickey said...

Bizarre... it's a good take (you're closer than you realise to a lot of the early Pertwee stuff anyway), but my friend Richard (Millennium Elephant, who I link to sometimes, a huge Doctor Who fan) sent me an email with *his* idea of how to do Doctor Who in it, and the penultimate paragraph was your twist...

I'm beginning to think there's a sort of 'steam engine time' happening with Doctor Who...

Justin said...

Andrew: I could see that; I'm sure I'm not the only person who thinks the Gallifrey/Time Lords thing is maybe a little more trouble than it's worth after X number of decades. Even regeneration, an easy enough concept to grasp quickly as it is, I feel could be streamlined even further.

Not that he's got to be from Earth, but "Mysterious yet altruistic alien" is more *inviting* than "Well, there's an entire civilization like him, but he's kind of a rebel, you understand, and..."

Josh: I'd also love to see a movie one of these days where the Earth just does get blown up at the end (well, Hitchhiker's does it, but it comes at the beginning), but the one thing I feel like the Doctor should always be able to save the day somehow. Too romantic to let that go, I guess.

Digital: Thanks, but I'm afraid I'm going to wear down the ridges on that file soon enough. First priority would have to be the Bride from Morrison's Seven Soldiers Frankenstein series, and I had an idea for a reimagining of the Transformers concept that somehow metamorphosed into being about a boy who controls mummies on a small island off the coast of Oregon. Filed down a lot more than just the numbers on that last one...

Gavin Burrows said...

I'd gather from your introductory comments you haven' actually seen the episode The Next Doctor. Which is interesting, because you're really doing the same thing the other way up. Your next Doctor can be the Doctor, just by saying he is!

Josh said...

Your transformers idea turned into "a boy who controls mummies on a small island off the coast of Oregon" ?!?!?!
Please elaborate.

Dave Page said...

I can also see a "Life on Mars" style thing here - Brian-Doctor ends up not knowing anything about the universe he's in, or about the Doctor he's replaced. This would obviously put him under immense stress, as would being cut off from the world he knew because Brian is out there living his life.

Perhaps Brian-Doctor would have dreams or hallucinations, not knowing if they're his imagination running riot in a universe he now knows has far fewer limitations, or a side-effect of the travel through time and space. Either way, sometimes they will turn out to be useful, sometimes they will turn out to be nonsense, and not even the audience will know if they're "real"...

Justin said...

Gavin: Yeah, I hadn't even heard of that one, but I shouldn't be surprised. So much of the new show (again, what I've seen of it) seems to be spent talking about how inspirational the Doctor is, it makes sense they'd take it to the logical extreme.

Dave: I picture the New Doctor having good days and bad. He'll save an entire civilization based on nothing but pluck and improvisation, and within twelve hours he's huddled in a corner of the TARDIS muttering, "Right, today we are going to wake up."

Josh: Dude, I never told you about MUMMY'S BOY? I had to call you about something soon anyway...

plok said...

Gonna need to see that Mummy's Boy thing, Justin. Get on it. Don't make me get tough with you...

Yes, I agree, the thing where he really *doesn't* know how to work the Tardis, he really *isn't* out there for any bigger reason than to explore...all this concretization is wonderful.



plok said...

Also, I think the "middleness" can be forgiven. It is just the pilot, after all...

Justin said...

Maybe you'll see Mummy's Boy one day ... MAYBE YOU'LL ALL see Mummy's Boy one day.

Back when I was drawing that little webcomic every week to see if I could hack a regular drawing gig (answer: no), Mummy's Boy was one of the webcomic ideas I was considering writing and drawing (the other was a comedy called "Mr. Kenzington's Mansion" and one of the characters looked a lot like RAB's Fishman, actually, except he was an Objectivist).

Basically, I need to win the lottery so I can pay people to draw these things for me. (Josh, you of course get the first check, and then we quit our jobs and buy a houseboat together, right? You, me, and the wives.)