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

doctor who worldwide global world tour 2014 south korea seoul asia peter capaldi jenna coleman twelfth doctor clara oswald

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: The Ultimate Doctor-Lite Story

Doctor Who Peter Capaldi twelfth doctor Silhouette tardis explosion explode doctor lite story fanfiction concept pitch

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.

Doctor Who Don't Blink! tenth doctor tv dvd easter egg steven moffat doctor lite story

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.

doctor who community Inspector Spacetime doctor lite dan harmon danny pudi donald glover steven moffat

(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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Class: 5 Things I want to see from the new Doctor Who spin-off

doctor who coal hill school class patrick ness ian chesterton greg austin

I think this is actually extremely exciting news, to be honest, and I’m a little surprised that some sections of fandom are calling it an anticlimax. It’s a new Doctor Who spin off, for goodness’ sakes!

Admittedly, though, I am probably the exact target demographic for this show – the characters are all going to be more or less my own age when it airs – so that is definitely contributing to my own excitement for the series, but come on. This is basically aiming for “sci-fi Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. I am genuinely quite surprised that this isn’t interesting more people than it has; that’s one hell of a hook, surely? Particularly when you include Patrick Ness (an author I’ve never read personally, but one who’s prolific enough that I’ve heard lots of very good things about him) and also the fact that it’s a brand new Doctor Who spin off.

Because, however, I am an aspiring despot, I have a few ideas and suggestions of things that I’d like to see in the show…

5). Links to the wider “Whoniverse”

doctor who william russell old ian chesterton return class coal hill school patrick ness

Yes, yes. I know. I’m a bit of a nerd, you see, and I like these things. I know that part of the misplaced disappointment at this announcement came from the lack of an anchor character from the main show, like Sarah Jane or Captain Jack. I don’t think it’s necessary, to be honest, to base the spin off around an entire character – honestly, there’s more than enough potential to this concept that you don’t need, say, Clara – but it would certainly be nice for characters to turn up from Doctor Who proper.

I think the main character that people are clamouring for is Ian Chesterton; it’d be really brilliant if William Russell is up for a cameo, or even a full appearance (you could easily have, say, the chairman of governors coming for a visit, and the kids trying to hide the alien from him… until he turns around and saves them all at the end!) but I think at this stage in his life, it’s entirely fair if he chooses not to. It’d be great if we did see some of the Sarah Jane Adventures characters turn up (”Rani Chandra, investigative journalist”) or perhaps Peter Capaldi himself at some stage.

4). Innovation

doctor who class coal hill school skovox blitzer patrick ness gareth roberts danny pink the caretaker

That’s a little bit of a hard target to set, isn’t it? Especially after I just said it’d be nice to see some Doctor Who links in the show. I should really explain myself, I suppose.

With this concept, they have some opportunities that Doctor Who doesn’t really. It’d be a real shame, then, if all we got was basically just reheated Doctor Who leftovers; it’d be very easy to get something that’s functionally very similar to School Reunion or The Caretaker, or a classroom under siege type story with a monster that’s been recycled from the Doctor Who prop cupboard.

Hopefully, each episode of this show will feel distinctive in its own right, and be easily differentiated from its peers.

3). A Diverse Cast

doctor who class courtney woods ellis george coal hill school patrick ness

This is something that’s quite important, I feel. The show has done rather well with this actually, particularly in terms of Coal Hill School, and also with this weekend’s Under the Lake, so I’m hoping to see this continue.

It’s particularly important, actually, for a show aimed at young people. (It’s on BBC Three, so it’s got the 15 – 25 ish range in mind, but it’s certainly likely that the younger crowd of Doctor Who fans will tune in too.) There are, obviously, far more eloquent people than I who have expressed this in a much more concise and meaningful way, but the sentiment is worth repeating: representation matters, and it particularly matters in the case of young people who are… well, I hate to say something like “who are only just finding themselves”, because it sounds so glib, but that is essentially what is I’d mean, no matter how I phrase it.

It is important for this show to have different character of colour, and it is important for them to have different female characters, and it is important to have different LGBT+ characters. That’s simply a matter of being true to life; teenagers like that exist, and that’s a fact. I know quite a few of them. It’s crucial to represent them accordingly.

2). Mature Storytelling

doctor who buffy the vampire slayer the body sarah michelle geller buffy mum dies

This is one that comes straight from Buffy, actually, which I maintain is a really excellent benchmark for Class to look to. You know how, quite often, the monster of the week on Buffy was something that represented an archetypical teenage problem? That’s an idea that I think they could use rather effectively on Class. I’m not suggesting a story on depression or anything (but, you know, if handled well…) but I do think that it’d work well if they kept the program grounded in real world issues.

We’re going to have an ensemble cast for this show, most likely; it’s important for us to really get to know them and see them develop over the course of this show.

1). A Sense of Fun

doctor who the sarah jane adventures class patrick ness rani chandra clyde langer daniel anthony anjli mohindra

And, finally, the most important of all. This show should be fun. Yes, go for mature and compelling storylines, but never let it get bleak, and never lose sight of Doctor Who’s own sense of wonder.

Class, as something of a spiritual successor to The Sarah Jane Adventures, should really try to encapsulate the same central motif of its predecessor: Life on Earth can be an adventure too.

I have a lot of faith in this show. But a lot of expectations, too. It has so much potential, and I think if done right, it could be one of the best things to come out of the Doctor Who brand. And, you know, I believe they can live up to that.

Wow. I am so excited for this. And it’s still a year away!

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A Private Eye Companion

doctor who noir detective private eye companion mystery frobisher danny pink samuel anderson series 8 episode idea pitch concept

So I mentioned a while ago that when I first saw Danny Pink, my first assumption was that he was some sort of detective. Anyways, since then I’ve been thinking about that, and how it might work in a series… Because, you know, if you’re going to have a detective companion, show them doing some actual detection – and who better for them to investigate than the Doctor?

So, the way I’m thinking this would work is if you use the detective (who probably needs a name. I’ll call him Danny for now) as the viewpoint for the series. Sort of a Doctor-lite set of episodes, similar in style to Blink. That probably wouldn’t be able to sustain itself for thirteen episodes though, so it’d probably be better suited to a split series set up.

Anyway, the very first episode would be quite a standard one. Alien invasion style piece, in a similar vein to Smith and JonesDanny the detective could help Twelve and Clara (just because it’s easy to use them as an example here, it’d work with any other Doctor/Companion set) to sort out the whole thing, wonderful, done. There doesn’t need to be anything specific here, it can just be a pretty generic invasion story.

At the end of it though, there is no offer for Danny to be joining the TARDIS crew, they just leave him there. Now, this could be what prompts him to go looking for the Doctor, but maybe not. Hell, maybe he doesn’t even like the Doctor very much, and thinks he needs to be stopped, which is why he goes looking for him. (But that might be a bit silly)

What I’m also thinking is that it shouldn’t be set in the present day, because that’s boring. If we can, I’d take it outside of England as well, but that might be a bit difficult. I’m leaning towards the 90s, maybe, or even earlier to give it a sort of noir setting. (Doing this first part of the series entirely in black and white would either be the best or worst decision. No inbetween)

So then you’ve got the next five episodes or so, which would all follow a similar ish structure; Danny does some investigating, looking to find the Doctor.

But, obviously, just investigating is boring. No one is interested in that, and it probably wouldn’t sustain all that many episodes… so, the basic structure of the series would be as follows –

  • Episode 2: This one would be a little more detective-y, showing Danny investigating the Doctor and Clara. Alongside that though, he’d have to deal with doing his job. So we could have something of a proper murder mystery detective story. In keeping with the fact that this is, you know, Doctor Who, the perpetrators of the crime could be aliens, or other time travellers, whatever. Potentially, lets say, these aliens were trying to find the Doctor; potentially that’s what prompts him to start his investigation.
    I’m considering whether or not Danny should be working on behalf of a mysterious client, who’s interested in the Doctor. That sets up some intrigue, and gives a bit more weight to the overall plot arc.
  • Episode 3: This time, investigations into the Doctor take on a more central part of the episode. In fact, I’m wondering whether this one should be a more comedic episode; some sequences of near misses with the Doctor could potentially be very funny, but might undermine some of the effect of Danny’s character. Maybe this one could also start to show some of Danny’s family and social life, defining him some more as a character.
  • Episode 4 and 5: Two parter, and much darker in tone as well. This is where I’m sort of leaning towards the 90s setting. Here, Danny would be kidnapped by UNIT – a very dark, gritty, morally ambiguous 90s UNIT, rife with corruption. From there, it’s something of a prison story, with subsequent breakout. How dark can it be made I wonder?  As many boundaries as possible should be pushed for this one. We should feel as let down by UNIT as the Doctor would when he finds out. (Maybe there should be a moment where we expect it to be revealed this is Torchwood or something, but it’s not, it’s definetly UNIT).
    If Danny starts the series as a relatively optimistic, happy guy, these are the episodes where he becomes much closer to the cynical, disenfranchised detective mould.
  • Episode 6: Out in the real world again, Danny is continuing investigations into the Doctor. (Maybe if he was given any family in episode 3, UNIT could have killed them in episodes 4 and 5, meaning this search for the Doctor is all he has left…? Is that too far?)
    Anyways, yes. If Danny did have a mysterious client, they would be the big bad for the episode. (Ooh, what if they’re the Valeyard?) The Doctor and Clara would need to return this episode, to meet up with Danny.
    From there, it’s all pretty simple – another, standard Doctor Who episode. The thing is though, Danny is much more of a pivotal character in this one than he was back in episode 1; the things he’s learnt about the Doctor actually all come in quite useful, etc.
    After that, it’s pretty simple – the day is saved, and Danny joins the Doctor and Clara for adventuring across time and space. (although… I’m not quite sure why he would? Especially if going for the “Doctor is bad” kind of idea with Danny. Not sure)

So… what do you think?

Note: 4 years later, I do think this is a little overly grim, if still a basically interesting concept.

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Ooh, I just had a thought.

When we eventually get a female Doctor, there could be quite a nice scene early on in their run…

ALIEN: And what’s your name?

DOCTOR: Oh, John Smith.

ALIEN: John?

DOCTOR: Did I say John? Joanna, I meant Joanna. John, short for Joanna. Without the “an” and the “a” parts, obviously. It’s a family thing you see, John and Joanna… Yes. Joanna Smith, that’s me.

It’d just be a nice way to show the Doctor adjusting to the change. (Assuming that’s the way they want to go with it, of course, that’s hardly necessary.)

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How to bring Ian Chesterton back to Doctor Who

doctor who ian chesterton william russell return coal hill school school reunion clara oswald jenna coleman series 8 the caretaker

So, I keep thinking about that post that’s going around, saying how everyone would love to see Ian and Clara in an episode together, given that she’s working in Coal Hill now, and he’s the Headmaster…

It seems to me that there’s a great episode here, which I think could be done… relatively easily.

It should be a sort of an anthology story, framed around the idea of Ian and Clara swapping stories in the staff room.

So you’d open with them, drinking tea and laughing together, talking about the Doctor. And then Ian says, “Did I ever tell you about the time…?” From there, there’s two ways of going about things. Either you could film a new, short adventure with the Adventure in Space and Time team (you’re only looking at about 15 minutes of the episode here) or, should the missing episode rumours be true, you could have clips from Marco Polo, and tell a truncated version of the story.

Then, after Ian’s finished his story, Clara goes “Oh but Ian, let me tell you about…” – and you can either have Matt Smith come and film a short minisode (because that’s the sort of length we’re looking at), or you continue with Peter Capaldi.

Now, personally, I think, in the context of the episode, it’d work better with Matt Smith. Not only is it a nice little reference to the past, it also means that the final scene of the episode works better – because it’ll be the first point in the episode we see Peter Capaldi…

Clara finishes her tea, and bids a farewell to Ian.

And then… there’s a sound. A wheezing, groaning sound.

Someone’s standing by the staffroom door. Someone that, despite everything, Ian recognises.

“Hello Doctor”
“Hello Chatterton”

And the two friends laugh, and talk. And the episode fades out…

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The Thirteenth Doctor?

doctor who last doctor silhouette thirteenth doctor matt smith idea concept death

The 13th Doctor is one I’ve sort of been looking forward to for a while now. I think that there is a brilliant story to be told with this incarnation.

Barring The End of Time, regeneration has never been portrayed as a death. The Doctor is, essentially, always safe – he can risk his life in ways others can’t because it’s not the same risk for him, not quite. He can run in front of that Dalek because… well, if it does exterminate him, he’s going to come back from that. (It’s because of this we have jokes like the one in The Curse of Fatal Death, where the Doctor wastes four regenerations or so in one go)

So, obviously, someone who’s never quite had to be afraid of death in quite so literal a manner is going to have quite a shock when it is a permanent fixture of their daily life – particularly when living a lifestyle like the Doctor’s. For comparison, I suppose… if someone lived their life never getting ill, and never really believing that they could, their first sneeze would be petrifying.

It’s because of this I think the Thirteenth Doctor would be such an interesting one. For the first time, cliffhangers really do hang in the present tense. Where does one go with this in the narrative? What this is, essentially, is asking a character who’s spent thousands of years as an undying traveller to face up to their own mortality.

Who does the Doctor become? Never cruel or cowardly is wonderful to aspire to… but sometimes, you’re going to fear for your own life. The Doctor would learn to pick his battles, perhaps. Maybe… maybe he doesn’t run in front of that Dalek. If he dies saving that one person, he can’t save a thousand people later on.

Would the Doctor become even more arrogant? Does he stop taking on companions, because it’s going to be that bit more difficult to protect them?

Is this what the Valeyard is borne out of? “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them” said Ian Fleming once. But… what if you’ve started to believe your days are worth their weight in gold? This isn’t wasting days, it’s investing them, surely?

Someone once described the Thirteenth Doctor as “a man dressed for his own funeral”.
If that doesn’t sound a fantastic opportunity for a nuanced, and new, story, then I don’t know what would.

Slight spoilers for The Time of the Doctor follow…

Now, it seems that a big plot point of Matt’s last episode is that he, the Eleventh Doctor, is the thirteenth incarnation.

Hmm. Okay.

Now, this is counting John Hurt, and presumably Tentoo as well. Little bit odd, but okay. (If there’s anyone particularly well versed on Gallifrey reading this, I have a question about regeneration limits. I’d always understood it to be, more or less, a psychological limit rather than a biological one – the problem was that a Time Lord would go crazy after thirteen lives, because of cluttered personalities in their heads? I suppose since the Time Lords are genetically engineered it’s related to the biology anyway but…)

Right, yes. Eleven as Thirteen.

I think this is a mistake. Essentially because we miss out on all stories, all the possibilities, the ideas that I spoke about above. We don’t get that because Matt hasn’t been the last from the start – he has become the last.

Now, obviously, it’s impossible to know what Steven Moffat was thinking. Maybe he was impatient, and just wanted to tell a particular aspect of that story as soon as possible.

Or maybe he’s gone in a completely different direction, and came up with something great – a perfect regeneration for Matt, that relies on the idea of a final death. (Again… after Tennant.. okay, struggling to see an upside to Matt as 13, but I’m biased because I’m quite so invested in the Thirteenth Doctor being a developed storyline.)

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