What Doctor Who can learn from Black Mirror

Black Mirror TARDIS Doctor Who Charlie Brooker Steven Moffat Chris Chibnall Netflix Channel 4 Science Fiction What Doctor Who can learn from Black Mirror

Black Mirror is known for being a show that offers commentary on the world around us; Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator and writer of most episodes, has called the show a warning about how we could be living if we’re not careful. Stories have tackled ideas as widespread as social media to populism in politics to how society approaches justice and retribution; in many ways, it’s this that makes Black Mirror so impactful.

Doctor Who doesn’t quite follow the same vein, and it doesn’t always succeed when it does try to offer commentary on modern issues. However, when it does do it right, it soars; one of the strongest episodes of series 9 was The Zygon Invasion, which alluded to ISIS, extremism, and the refugee crisis. It proved that Doctor Who could successfully engage with the real world, and provided an argument for why it should do so more often – when it does, it’s bloody good.

I’ve been really getting into Black Mirror lately; as a British sci-fi drama, it reminded me of one of favourite TV shows – Doctor Who. So I’ve put together an article with a few things that Doctor Who could perhaps emulate from Black Mirror…

Re-reading the above now, it’s a bit… I mean, I definitely wouldn’t write it now, and I suspect even then there was more than a little bit of an element of writing it for the headline rather than anything else. It weirdly undersells Doctor Who, too, in a way I wouldn’t do now – and I’m surprised I did then, even.

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Why Doctor Who should be a little more worldwide

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In The Eleventh Hour, Matt Smith’s Doctor quite famously said “all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will – where do you want to start?”, giving us one of the most eminently quotable lines of his era. It’s also one of the best ways to encapsulate the sheer potential of Doctor Who as a program; part of its magic, and indeed part of why I love it, is the fact that it’s a show that really can do anything.

Unfortunately, though, “everything that ever happened or ever will” has, more often than not, been portrayed more as “anything that ever happened or ever will in British history”. However, Doctor Who should strive to become a little more worldwide; the Earth based stories should diversify, spreading out across the globe.

In part, that’s simply a desire for something new and different; as I’ve mentioned already, we spend a lot of time in Victorian England, for example, or indeed contemporary London. Isn’t it far more exciting to go somewhere new, to see something different? Is that not the entire purpose of Doctor Who? Wouldn’t you love to see, say, an episode set in feudal Japan? Or perhaps a time travel episode centred around Ancient Egypt, the Rosetta Stone, and Napoleon’s army? Maybe it’s time to go to India, and meet Gandhi and Nehru? A personal interest of mine is communist Russia, so I’d love to see a story involving, say, the Bolshevik revolution or the Kronstadt mutiny. Not long after he first got the role, Peter Capaldi said that he’d love to see the Doctor meeting Martin Luther King Jr, and getting “involved in the civil rights struggle” – something that would require a TARDIS trip to America, really.

My most recent article for Yahoo, which is all about Doctor Who spreading out across the globe. It’s something that we’ve managed to do outside the programme – that wonderful picture of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman in Seoul is from the 2014 Doctor Who World Tour – but not quite so much in terms of the actual TV show itself, which is (albeit allowing for a few notable exceptions) still quite anglocentric.

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Doctor Who and the Problem of the Cybermen

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Iconic though they may be, the Cybermen occupy the funny status of not really having any purpose beyond being “the other famous Doctor Who monster, who aren’t Daleks”. Particularly for the new series, while it’s easy to point to strong Dalek stories, it’s much more difficult to do the same for the Cybermen. We’ve been lacking in any particularly strong stories for the Cybermen, as well as any instances where they may have been particularly scary. The reason for this, I think, is simple; there’s not really any clear angle from which to approach them.

They began as an expression of the creators’, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, concerns over organ transplant procedures and body modification, and the fear that humanity may one day augment itself to the point that it was no longer recognisable. It was a clever conceit in the 60s, but in an era where such medical advances have not only been accepted but also embraced, I’m not so sure that this is a concept that resonates in the same way.

Fond though I am of the Cybermen, I’ve long been of the belief that Doctor Who hasn’t quite figured out how to handle them properly. Without a clear central conceit at the heart of the concept, the Cybermen have oft been reduced to little more than clanking robots; ever since my recent rewatch of the 2006 series, I’ve been thinking about just what the Cybermen should be in terms of Doctor Who.

This most recent Yahoo article, then, is all about trying to present a solution to the problem of the Cybermen…

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Doctor Who: Looking back on Doomsday, the Doctor, and Rose Tyler

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Inspired by Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, and wanting to provide a cataclysmic event that would keep the Doctor and Rose apart forever, Russell T Davies decided to leave Rose trapped in a parallel universe that the Doctor could never revisit.

Doomsday, then, saw the culmination of a two-year plot arc, and it is heartbreaking. All of us in the audience had watched these two characters travel together, and grow together, ever since the show returned; it was with the Tenth Doctor that we really saw the depth of feeling these two characters had for each other. Notably, however, their feelings had never really been expressed to one another on screen before; though we all talk about the epic love story between the Doctor and Rose, it’s actually far subtler and much more understated than that.

Expanding somewhat on my recent review, I’ve written a Yahoo article about Doomsday, talking about the Doctor and Rose’s relationship, the bond the two shared, and that final scene where they’re ripped apart forever. It’s great stuff, really; rewatching these episodes, I was quite keenly reminded of just how much I love Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who work.

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Doctor Who and the Music of Murray Gold

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There are plenty of wonderful scores amongst Gold’s earlier oeuvre, naturally. Highlights during Tennant’s era include This is Gallifrey, a genuinely majestic that’s absolutely befitting of the Time Lords (I can often be found humming it while walking down the street) as well as the haunting, ethereal theme Doomsday. I’m also quite fond of the piece written for Madame du Pompadour, from The Girl in the Fireplace, and I’m convinced that “Song for Ten” is possibly the most quintessentially Christmassy music ever composed. 

Another Yahoo article from me! This one is all about Doctor Who music. I must admit, I don’t know a lot about music – but I do know what I like.

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Celebrating Father’s Day with Doctor Who

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Brilliantly, but perhaps also obviously, Pete isn’t anything like Rose expected. He’s not the wonderful man in the perfect marriage that Rose was always told about; Pete is fallible. More than that, he’s already failing. His marriage is strained, his business non-existent. Rose gets to know her father as he is, not as he was remembered. It’s really compelling drama; we’re seeing Rose build a relationship with a person, not with an idea, all while having to confront her preconceptions about her father.

Today’s Yahoo article is about Father’s Day – not just the day, but the Doctor Who episode! I’m quite fond of this episode; it’s one of the highlights of Christopher Eccleston’s first season.

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Doctor Who: The Ultimate Doctor-Lite Story

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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.

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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.

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(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.

Related:

Doctor Who Series 9 Reviews

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Some More Thoughts on a Female Doctor

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Introducing a female Doctor isn’t really a new idea – I want to say that the earliest time it was brought up was at the end of Tom Baker’s tenure, but it’s entirely possible that it happened before then too. At one point in the 1980s, Sydney Newman (one of the creators of Doctor Who) made a serious pitch to the BBC, in which he advocated for a female Doctor: he wanted to move on from the “presently largely socially valueless, escapist schlock”, and create something that would “engage the concerns, fears and curiosity” of the audience, by having the Doctor “metamorphosed into a woman.” (He also said Patrick Troughton should come back for a couple of years first, but that’s beside the point.)

So, it’s been something that has been given serious thought at some stage. Moffat has, in the past year, said that eventually someone will cast a female Doctor, because the time will be right, and they’ll think of an actress who is worth pursuing in particular – but that it’d very much be a case of casting a person, rather than a gender.

What I’m saying is essentially what Sydney Newman said – the BBC should specifically look for a female Doctor. From conception to casting, the thirteenth Doctor should always and completely be explicitly female.

Doctor Who is always at its best when it’s doing something new. The key appeal of the program is the breadth of the narrative; when Doctor Who fully realises the concept of “anywhere in time and space, anything that ever happened or ever will”, that is when it really sings. Innovation has always been the biggest achievement of the show.

And a female Doctor is the next logical step. It’s the next thing that the BBC can do to open up new possibilities, bring new potential and create new stories.

It comes back to a Steven Moffat quote, actually – “when your new idea has become your old idea, it’s time to get a new idea.” The male Doctor has become an old idea. At this stage, it’s time for there to be a new idea – a female Doctor. (Or, at least, it’s an old idea, but it’s one that’s never been realised, so…)

Think, for a moment, about all the different actresses who could play the Doctor. Olivia Coleman. Lara Pulver. Tilda Swinton. Angel Coulby. Katie McGrath. Sophie Okonedo. Natalie Dormer – my own personal choice.

I would say there are very few fans who, if you asked them, couldn’t think of an actress who’d do an amazing job as the Doctor. One who’d be just as good as Matt Smith, David Tennant, or Peter Capaldi. One who’d be just as good as Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugh Laurie, or Alexander Siddig.

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Surely the fact that so many of these fantastic actresses could play the part, and that plenty are willing to do so, is a compelling reason to actually cast one of them? The idea of casting a person rather than a gender is a perfectly fine one – but the fact is that, at the minute, the thinking process is inevitably skewed male. They are, if you like, thinking inside the box. Peter Capaldi was the only person who was auditioned for the role, because they thought he was perfect for it; the thinking leans towards a man. (Not a slight towards Peter Capaldi, of course, he’s excellent.)

Now, okay, I say it’d be new, and at this point, you’re perhaps asking why, or it what way. (Apart from the obvious, that is)

The female Doctor presents a variety of different stories and approaches that you wouldn’t have got with a male Doctor, because it changes the dynamic, and it changes the way in which other characters are going to relate to the Doctor. It’s a new place to take the character – after 50 years now, with a fairly broad character arc, this change offers new choices about where to take the character next.

And that’s key – it is a set of choices. There is no one specific way to do this. Maybe you’d want to tell a story about how someone feels when adjusting to a new gender – the transition between regenerations, and the impact of it, isn’t always focused on for very long, and perhaps this is an opportunity to do so. Or maybe you’d not make such a big deal out of it; concepts of gender could be very different for the Doctor, and it could be as simple as dialogue “This isn’t that different. After all, I’m not sure I ever was a man, exactly.” (I adapted that from an EDA, so there’s a precedent, at least)

I was reading a Doctor Who book once – I forget what it was, probably a guidebook of some sort – and it was talking about the younger Doctors, Davison and Smith, and how they experienced something of a culture shock after their regeneration; because they appeared much younger outwardly, people wouldn’t initially give them much respect, and it’d be harder for them to command authority initially. Obviously by the end of the episode, when they’ve saved everyone’s lives, it’s a little different, but I liked the idea that the Doctor has to adjust to the fact that people’s perceptions of them are different, so they perhaps can’t get they want quite as easily anymore.

Personally, I think that could potentially be an interesting idea to explore with a female Doctor. It could be hard to get right, I suppose, but I think it’s necessary to explore the fact that she would, at some stage, be on the receiving end of sexism. It fits quite well with Doctor Who though – if one of the big themes of the show has always been standing up to oppressors and to bullies and to people who are in the wrong, then misogyny and the patriarchy are logical things to address.

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But, you know, that’s just something I’d find interesting. There’s any number of interesting approaches you could make, and I think it’s something that would really improve and revitalise the show. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that you’d actually increase viewing things by a fair amount, if done right.

The first episode of any new Doctor always attracts a larger audience, because you get more of the casual viewers and general public who are curious to see how it goes. This would apply even more so with a female Doctor, I imagine, because the curiosity would be even greater. I don’t even think you’d alienate that many people, to be honest – everyone is going to be curious enough to watch at least the first episode. Even the massive nerds who threaten to quit the show won’t, because they want the chance to bitch about it online.

If that first episode was successful enough, I think there’s a chance to capture the attention of a lot of people who are more casual viewers, and get them to watch the show again each week. It’d require careful thought – you’d want something more in the vein of The Eleventh Hour rather than The Christmas Invasion. Perhaps it’d be worth showing the first two episodes as a double bill? Debateable really.

In any case, I think we can all say with complete certainty that there will be a female Doctor one day soon. Personally, my hope is that when Peter Capaldi eventually hands over the keys to the TARDIS, the incumbent Time Lord will be played by Natalie Dormer.

Related:

On the subject of a female Doctor Who

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The Pseudo-Science of Doctor Who

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So, In the Forest of the Night and Kill the Moon recently have both got me thinking about science and realism in Doctor Who, and to what extent something actually has to be ‘correct’ within any given episode of the show.

I mean, Doctor Who is only science fiction in the broadest of terms really – how concerned it is with the science part of science fiction is rather malleable across the fifty years of the show. I think normally people would point to the beginning of the show, or Christopher Bidmead’s episodes as evidence of a time when Doctor Who was more concerned with actual, ‘hard science’, but equally you’ve got the Daleks and Maths Priests saving the universe.

It’s probably fair to say, I think, that Doctor Who is a show that uses the trappings of science fiction to present different forms of drama, and examine aspects of society.

The question is though, of course, to what extent does it matter how accurate the scientific trappings are.

Things like the TARDIS and other original ideas get a pass, I think, because they’re part of the suspension of disbelief. You accept that because no one really has a way to argue against a time machine, or a warp drive – if the narrative says “Aliens can do this” viewers are more willing to go along with this because it’s all fictional, and that’s inbuilt into the show.

But conversely, something like the Moon being an egg isn’t going to have such an easy time of it, because people know a lot about eggs. The problems with an egg increasing in mass, or the Space Dragon laying another egg identical in size to the one it just hatched from, are relatively self-evident to a pretty large amount of the audience.

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It kinda comes down to a quote from… I think it’s Community? Anyway, it’s “That sounds wrong, but I don’t know enough about it to dispute it.” In scenarios where you can easily debunk something, or you know that the writer could have solved the issue with a quick google search, it’s far more likely to be a problem. But when there’s nothing more than a sense of “Hmm-I-don’t-know-about-this”, which is where In the Forest of the Night fell for me, I think one is more likely to go along with it, albeit with some reservations.

Equally though, how much does that matter?

For me personally at least, it depends how much I’m enjoying the actual story. I’m far more likely to give errors a pass if the plot itself is engaging – if I’m bored or disconnected from the story, I’m more likely to notice mistakes, and that’s only going to take me out of it more. (Incidentally, I think much the same of plot holes.)

And sometimes there’s moments where the incorrect science is actually better for the story than something which would be more correct – right now I’m thinking of Robot of Sherwood in particular. In a Robin Hood story, it makes sense for the resolution to relate to the firing of an arrow; the fact it doesn’t actually make scientific sense is mostly not the point, because it makes story sense.

Ultimately, of course, it is down to one’s own particular tastes. I think with simple things that can be easily fixed, then yes, the writer probably should amend it.

But to go into Doctor Who expecting rigorous scientific accuracy is probably missing the point a little bit.

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