Ironically, I am writing this not that long after the announcement that Peter Capaldi is going to star in a single hander episode. That’s the literal opposite of a Doctor-Lite episode, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll post it around the time of that episode too.
First of all though, I should really explain what I mean by a “Doctor-lite” episode, just because it’s entirely likely that not everyone would be familiar with the nomenclature.
So, the production schedule for Doctor Who is pretty intense – I believe it lasts for about nine months – and that is going to be pretty hard on the actors playing the Doctor and the companions. Ever since 2006, then, they’ve had a “Doctor-lite” episode, with the intention being to free up the schedules of the actors a little bit, and let them have a much needed rest. At first, they had episodes with very minimal appearances from both Doctor and companion – that’d be Love & Monsters (a masterpiece) and Blink (similarly extremely good) – but later this evolved into double banking episodes. One would feature heavy appearances from the Doctor (Midnight, Closing Time, Mummy on the Orient Express) whilst the other would feature heavy appearances from the companion (Turn Left, The Girl Who Waited, Flatline). Essentially, then, it’s an episode with minimal appearances from one or both of the main leads. (Interestingly there wasn’t really a Doctor-lite episode in Series 5, but there was a companion-lite story. Matt Smith was in all likelihood worked half to death that year.)
The Doctor-Lite stories fascinate me, actually, because they tend to explore some themes and ideas that you can’t always do otherwise (I’ve actually written a little about that before, a rather long time ago) and give you new opportunities to tell different stories – part of the reason Blink works so well is because of it’s non standard structure, and the absence of the Doctor.
They have, however, more or less abandoned that sort of idea, and they tend to err more towards the Flatline style of Doctor-lite stories – confine the Doctor to one setting, so it’s easy to shoot all of his scenes relatively quickly. It’s a little bit of a shame, actually, because I think something was lost there.
Which brings me onto how I would do a Doctor-lite story.
One concept that Doctor Who hasn’t really explored as much as other forms of sci-fi has is alternate dimensions and parallel universes – and that’s how I’d go about doing this. Essentially, you’d turn over one of the episodes to be an Unbound episode – featuring an entirely new actor playing the Doctor, just for the one episode, in an entirely different timeline.
I think the plot would actually have to acknowledge this, though, and be based around someone changing time. That’s why we have the Doctor being played by a different actor, a red phone box as the TARDIS, and various other idiosyncratic and strange departures from the norm. (This is actually partially inspired by an old comic from DWA, where someone kept changing time and Donna ended up with Lobster claws. It was great fun.)
You can riff off of other Doctor Who stories there quite easily – things like the moral dilemma of changing time from The Fires of Pompeii, but also the distress of John Smith having to become the Doctor again in Human Nature/The Family of Blood. After all, at the end of the episode, our parallel Doctor would have to fix the timeline, and become Peter Capaldi once again.
(You’d probably have flashes of Peter Capaldi throughout the episode, as if his timeline is trying to break back through. I’d actually ape something Community did once – you could reshoot “flashbacks” from earlier episodes with, with the new Doctor in place of Capaldi, and then overlay that with the scene as we saw it, as though the timeline is still glitching between the two different states.)
The fact that excites me most, though, is that you have a lot of potential for different actors that you can bring in. The show attracts a lot of pretty high profile guest stars, and there’s a lot of people who would be interested in playing the Doctor – so why not let them? You can let an actor go wild for 45 minutes (or 90 minutes, because this gimmick could probably support a two-parter) and give us, the audience, their interpretation of the Doctor.
That’s the role you might put, say, Daniel Radcliffe into, or Michael Gambon, or Hugh Laurie, or Benedict Cumberbatch, or Johnny Depp (or John Hurt, if it hadn’t been for the 50th) into – fan favourite casting choices,or big Hollywood stars, who wouldn’t really be able to play the part long term, but would be able to give a really good performance for a one off episode.
(Mind you, I’d explicitly suggest against a female Doctor for this episode, and I’m not entirely sold on a minority Doctor either – neither of those should be shown as a deviation from the norm that needs to be fixed at the end of the episode, even if Idris Elba would do a really good job of this sort of thing.)
Actually, you know who’d be really good at it? Mat Baynton. He sort of strikes me as an amalgamation of Matt Smith and David Tennant at times – he’s the sort of actor who’d be a fantastic Doctor, but you can’t really cast him, because in many regards he’d feel too similar to what had gone on before… though, in this particular instance of alternate timelines, that’d actually be an asset, wouldn’t it?
It’s the sort of idea that would probably only work once, but if done right, you could get a lot of mileage out of it.