The Story Thus Far, Part 9, An Interlude and a Revelation

The new novel is going quite well, so naturally I took a couple of weeks off to write a short story. This makes more sense than it would at first seem.

When doing some rather detailed world building, i find it helpful to do some beta testing of that world. Work out the kinks and maybe explain some back story as to how things got that way. Even if it doesn’t make it into the finished manuscript, at least you know why, say, the Exposition Empires took hold. A short story can be a good way to explore this, and in away that doesn’t interfere with the main plot of your novel.

My plan of attack for this particular a short story was to look at the quasi-steampunkish[1] world from a different perspective. To keep things simple, i borrowed a fairly well known story structure. Basically, the short story was going to be a Doctor Who adventure with the serial numbers filed off. Ix-nay on the time travel bit, just focus on the crazy mad Captain Ersatz of The Doctor and his assistant fighting some weird monster in the setting. Seemed simple enough.

Half way through I discovered something tangentially interesting that had been bothering me for a while but that I couldn’t quite figure out. Namely, that the Doctor is a really lousy character. I mean relaly, he warps meta-fictional reality around him wherever he goes. This makes writing a good story with him as the central character nearly impossible. Which is why the best Doctor Who stories of the last few seasons have been the ones where he’s hardly in it at all (“Blink”) or not the protagonist (“Girl in the Fireplace”). The problem with The Doctor is that he’s evolved over the last nearly 40 years into a force of nature.[2] Stories about him feel trite and silly, because he’s essentially a walking avatar for the author. He knows everything, can fix any plot hole with a magic wand[3] and warps the dramatic stakes out of kilter.

What I mean by the later is, the presence of The Doctor introduces a randomizing factor into the story. He either brings aliens to well known historic events,[4] or shows up at important moments to alter events so that they concur with the consensual time line.[5] That is, civil drama– all the minutia of daily life, the sort of stuff that makes up romantic comedies and period dramas — is either reduced to meaningless theatrics or amped up to high melodrama — the stuff of action adventure stories with high stakes, political intrigue and cosmic importance. The Doctor is a hurricane of plot coupons, in other words. Stuff happens because he is there. He doesn’t have to do anything but show up to make stuff happen. This seriously challenges storytelling.

I got around this problem with my short story by simply cutting the lawyer-friendly Doctor-type character. This forces the normal human type characters to fight an existential enigma without resorting to magic wands or staying one step ahead of the monster by knowing everything instantly. They have to discover, along with the reader, why these weird things are happening and then react against that drama in a human way. But I can do that because I’m not actually writing a Doctor Who story. Stephen Moffett, author of the two good Doctor stories I mentioned above, can’t really leave the Doctor out of Doctor Who, because then it’s Random People Running Around Fighting Monsters. Which still works, but would cost him his job. He gets around it though in an interesting way. Or rather, two interesting ways.

In “Blink” Moffett removes the Doctor form the main plot. The Weeping Angels feed on potential energy, zapping people out of their time, into the past and feeding on the momentum they leave behind. Not only does this create one of the more genuinely frightening monsters in the show (killer angel statues that only move when you turn your back!), it removes the Doctor from the plot in a legitimate way, while still keeping his presence in the story. It’s up to someone else to figure out what is happening and save The Doctor. It also allows for some really nifty timey wimey shenanigans, which is great and novel for a show where time travel is usually just an excuse for changing the setting.

In “The Girl in the Fireplace”, The Doctor has a more active role but the story isn’t about him, it’s about Madame de Pompadour and her relation to this “imaginary friend” who intersects her life in a few crucial instances. Again, this plays with the meta-narrative of the show’s concept in a way that is unique and adds some much needed variety to the story. Instead of showing The Doctor palling around with the king, saving the day in his usual know-it-all way, he’s struggling to stay one step ahead of an enigma. This makes him almost human (up until the end when he pulls the usual “I can do anything because I’m secretly a God” stunt but even then it backfires poignantly.

In both stories, the Doctor is challenged by being put in positions outside of his normal know-it-all comfort zone.[6] He is forced to make dramatically relevant sacrifices, something he normally is not allowed to do by nature of him being a know-it-all space god/force of nature. Which, from a storytelling perspective is something to keep in mind. If things are going to easily, remove your Doctor and let everyone else squirm or switch the focus so it’s someone else who has to deal with this mad bad and out of control force that is outside of their normal comfort zone.

1. Steampunk is an evocative sub-genre but it means very little as a nomenclature. It’s curiously light on steam and rarely has anything punk about it. My version is even more so, which makes it kind of hard to really explain what the world is like. It’s neither Victorian nor altogether steamy. It’s more Interwar period post-steampunk retrofuturistic. Raygun Gothic, without the ray guns.

2. And in the hands of lazy or not too terribly skilled writer, a walking Deus Ex Machina.

3. The sonic screwdriver can do pretty much anything the plot calls for, short of killing a person directly or reversing the flow of time. When they blew it up at the start of season 5, I had hoped they would leave it gone. But alas, no. The TARDIS just made him a new model, with the added ability that it now serves as an all purpose medical scanner/tricorder type know it all sensor.

4. Like the killer clockwork robots who show up at the court of Louis XV.

5. As in “The Fires of Pompeii” where he blew up the volcano in order to save the world. It makes sense in context. Sort of.

6. Alas, this can’t happen in every episode, for some reason. It’s still fun to see the Doctor save the day by being brilliant and impossible, but I’d like to see him do it by being human and having to make sacrifices just a little more often.