Dr. Who’s 50th Anniversary: A Save the Cat!® Perspective
Thanks to Cory Milles for this outstanding Blakean tribute to the classic show:
He has lived for over a millennium, traversing time and space as he explores the farthest reaches of the unknown. He has single-handedly fought back entire armies, saving our planet from total annihilation. He often travels with a companion, yet is perhaps the loneliest individual in the universe. And he is known by one simple name: the Doctor.
The BBC television series Doctor Who reaches a milestone tomorrow (November 23, 2013), celebrating its 50th anniversary. Devoted fans across the globe, affectionately known as “Whovians,” eagerly see this as a cause for rejoicing. Not many television shows have such a lasting legacy, let alone make their mark on popular culture to such an extent.
The show, which began in 1963, follows the adventures of a man known only as the Doctor. Hailing from the planet Gallifrey, he is a member of a race known as the Time Lords. Desiring to explore time and space, he stole a piece of technology known as the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. Its chameleon circuit, which usually cloaks it as an ordinary object to help it blend in to its suroundings, became stuck as a Police Call Box, and it has remained like that ever since. The iconic image of the TARDIS has come to stand for Doctor Who and is recognizable by fans and non-fans alike.
Audiences first met the Doctor, played by William Hartnell, on November 23, 1963. When two schoolteachers followed the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan Foreman home in “An Unearthly Child,” they discovered the TARDIS in a scrapyard. As the teachers stumbled into the phone box, only to discover that it is bigger on the inside, they learned that the Doctor is a time-traveler. They began a journey with him as companions, moving throughout time and space, experiencing history in real life. Their adventures took them to 100,000 BC, to the Aztec Empire, and to places not of this world.
Throughout the show’s history, the Doctor would go on to meet new companions who would travel with him. He, himself, would change as well through a process known as regeneration, a Time Lord ability to heal his body when it was close to death. Of course, even though he was the same man with each regeneration, his personality would change along with his physical appearance. This allowed for a variety of actors to portray the Doctor until 1989, including Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. A television movie starring Paul McGann failed to launch a reboot of the series in 1996, but it still holds a place in the hearts of many fans.
The show received a new dose of life when the series was brought back to television by Russell T. Davies in 2005. At the same time campy and serious, the show gained a huge fan base, both old and new. There was something about the Doctor that made audiences gravitate toward this Gallifreyan and follow him through his regenerations.
What is it about this show and this character that makes grown adults go to the store to shell out $30 for a plastic sonic screwdriver? What is it that makes people want to dress up like a Dalek or build their own TARDIS bookcase? Clearly, there is something about this character and these stories that strike a chord in the psyche of our culture, one that we can tap into as writers. Furthermore, by examining Doctor Who through Blake Snyder’s work, we can understand some of the reasons for its success. Blake laid out some of the principles of good storytelling, and they seem to be just what the Doctor ordered.
Blake’s book series is called Save the Cat!® for a reason. By giving the audience a reason to root for the hero, the writer creates an emotional link between the audience and the character. We learn to have feelings for the protagonist, wanting him or her to succeed because we like them as if they were a real person.
The Doctor not only saves the cat, he saves the entire universe. Through his travels in time and space, he is thrown into situations where he must act for the betterment of others, often putting his own life at risk. In staring down threatening aliens bent on humanity’s destruction, he boldly declares that the planet Earth and its people are very dear to him, and he will defend them until his last breath. How can anyone not like a guy who says that?
But that’s not the only reason we like him. Audiences love his quirks, his mannerisms, and the ways he is slightly different with every regeneration. They know that he is the same Doctor deep down, but there are slight nuances that set him apart from previous versions of himself. Watching him interact with others around him, one can’t help but entertain the notion that if he were to show up, standing outside his blue TARDIS, beckoning them to join him, that they would do so in a heartbeat.
And while Doctor Who demonstrates the Save the Cat! concept, the show also seems to reflect even more of Blake’s ideas. Take, for example, Blake’s different story genres. One might expect a show about time travel to be straightforward science fiction, but in the case of Doctor Who, the stories transcend the traditional genres, and this is where Blake’s story types really stand out. Is Doctor Who a Superhero story? While the Doctor does not have superpowers in the Marvel or DC sense, he does have something that sets him apart from all others. He can travel through time and space, speaks every language, has two hearts and heightened senses, can regenerate into a different body when he is about to die, and possesses a keen intellect. Clearly, these attributes set him apart from everyone else.
As in all Superhero stories, the blessing is also a curse. For the Doctor, this curse exists in that he is the last of the Time Lords. His entire race has been wiped out during the last Time War, leaving him completely alone to explore the universe unaccompanied. And while he may enlist the help and company of various companions along the way, their partnership often leads to tragedy and heartbreak. At times, he faces desperation and loneliness that few can comprehend.
While he doesn’t have one specific nemesis per se, he does have enemies. First, there is the Master, an errant Time Lord who surfaces occasionally to wreak havoc for the Doctor. There are the Daleks, machines housing organic creatures, patterned after the Nazis, bent on destroying anyone and anything that is not part of their pure “Master Race.” The Cybermen frequently appear, human minds trapped inside mechanical bodies. The Weeping Angels, some of the most terrifying creatures in existence, pose the problem in that they are trapped in statue form until the person looking at them blinks, at which point they can move with blinding speed and attack. And then there’s the race of aliens known as The Silence, bearing a resemblance to the character in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. When someone looks at a Silence, they can clearly see the alien, but once the viewer turns away, they have no memory of having seen them. And of course, this is only scratching the surface. The Doctor also faces the Sontarans, the Slitheen, the Vashta Narada, the Silurians, the Ood, and the Zygons, just to name a few.
Because of all of these enemies, the show can sometimes resemble the Monster in the House story type. Quite often, a monster or alien will wreak havoc, leading the Doctor to explore the situation in more detail. And of course, usually the monster is connected to a secret sin of sorts. An excellent example of this is the episode “Silence in the Library,” in which the Doctor and his companion Donna visit a futuristic library the size of a planet (the house). The only problem is that it is empty, save for the books. Eventually, a team of researchers arrives, deepening the mystery. Piranha-like creatures living in the darkness fill every dim area of the library, devouring anyone who steps out of the light, even attaching themselves to the shadows of others, “infecting” them (the monster). As the Doctor explores the situation, protecting others and trying to stay alive, he uncovers the reason for their presence: a sin that has been committed against the species.
Sometimes, the Doctor becomes a Dude with a Problem. Even though he has extraordinary abilities, there are occasions where he is simply an innocent bystander who only wants to explore and enjoy time and space. And in those moments, he happens to be in the wrong place at the right time. For example, in the episode “Midnight,” he is on a cruise to the planet Midnight when a sudden event occurs: something unknown tries to get into their stalled spaceship. The entity soon begins to possess passengers, repeating every word a person says. It is quickly apparent that whatever has entered the ship will destroy all those on board unless the Doctor intervenes in a test of survival.
Of course, the show features stories embracing almost all of the different story types at one time or another. At times, it’s a Buddy Love story. The Doctor is truly an incomplete hero without a counterpart or companion, but in those relationships, complications always arise. There have been Whydunit episodes, too (even one, “The Wasp and the Unicorn,” featuring Agatha Christie as a character).
The writers know the importance of the beats, and they use them effectively. While individual episodes can be broken down, some moments stand out above others. For example, during one episode, “The Waters of Mars,” there is a clear All Is Lost moment as the Doctor, arriving on Bowie Base One on Mars, realizes he has stepped into a fixed moment in time, one that he cannot change without altering the course of human history. It is one in which the whole crew at the base died during an explosion, and once there, the Doctor understands why it occurred. He struggles with himself deep down, desiring to help save the crew members, but knows he must walk away. As he leaves the base and walks back to the TARDIS, he can hear their panicked screams through his helmet’s headset, the whiff of death in the air. He fights the urge to go back, to rewrite time, and in his Dark Night of the Soul, he must make a decision. It is a memorable episode not only because of the plot, but because of how well the beats hit the mark emotionally.
But for a TV show to be this successful, there has to be more than just great stories or characters to support it, especially if it is to last for half a century. One key to the success of Doctor Who is its ability to “give the audience the same thing, only different.” This is something Blake mentions in Save the Cat!, and it essentially means that audiences want more of the same thing, but they don’t want it to be the same. Doctor Who, rather than function as a reboot of a series, is an extension of the original. When the show came back on the air in 2005, the Doctor was not a “new” Doctor, but was the ninth regeneration of the original one. This allowed for past stories and situations to carry into the new plots.
It is not only the Doctor who is “the same but different.” Even his enemies and their designs look remarkably similar to their original incarnations. Take, for example, the Daleks. At first glance, they look like strange machines with a plunger and a whisk for arms. It’s tough to imagine them as the most terrifying beings in the universe, yet that is how the Doctor describes them. Of course, when the show first started 50 years ago, special effects were much more limited, and Daleks and Cybermen were created using parts that were available to the creators. Today, the show’s creators could easily use CGI to create a futuristic-looking Dalek or another creature, but instead, they stick with the original design. There are modifications from time to time, but they still retain the same essence of the original. Had the creators tried to do something completely new and groundbreaking via the technology available to them, the show would probably not have resonated with the audience.
In fact, according to The Dalek Handbook by Steve Tribe and James Goss, during the ‘90s, writers and producers toyed with the idea of using advances in special effects to change the Daleks into a race of cyborg-mutants, spider-like creatures that could emerge from their metallic casings to attack. However, would the Daleks cease to be Daleks at that point? By honoring the original design in the new episodes, it has kept the nostalgic “feel” of Doctor Who. There is something “fun” about the show precisely because it is the “same thing, only different.”
By continuing the storyline of the original series, one might wonder how the writers keep the stories fresh and the regenerations of the Doctor new and exciting. Whereas Blake suggested giving the characters a limp and an eye patch, memorable and distinctive qualities, the writers have given the Doctor “a bowtie and a fez.”
Each regeneration of the Doctor results not only in a different physical appearance, but also in a slightly different personality. He dresses and acts according to this personality. For the ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, this meant leather jackets and a taste for bananas. The fourth Doctor was recognizable by his hat, scarf, and penchant for jelly babies, while the fifth Doctor had a vegetable pinned to his lapel. The tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, loved wearing long trench coats while using old-fashioned 3D glasses to examine things. Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor made bowties popular again, constantly reminding his companions, “Bowties are cool.” Of course, whatever seems to catch his attention at the time is also “cool,” including fezzes and Stetson hats. Each Doctor carries a unique sonic screwdriver as well.
The writers of the show masterfully use these character distinctions when conveying information to the audience. By appealing to each Doctor’s unique character traits, they are able to accomplish what Blake termed the Pope in the Pool. As the Doctor solves mysteries, taking in all of the information during a given situation, his quirkiness pops out. Sometimes, this includes using 3D glasses to get a better look at something or licking random objects. Other times, he spouts off information in rapid-fire sentences, declaring, “I am not going too fast, you’re just not keeping up!”
No matter how much fun or how entertaining a story is, unless the character demonstrates genuine transformation, the audience won’t walk away from it finding the journey worthwhile. And the Doctor, though he possesses great knowledge and abilities, does show change. Over time, his companions influence him for the better. Having witnessed the devastation of war, he hates any form of violence, and will try every other option before resorting to it. He’d rather face his enemies without guns, taking the “moral high ground.” He sees the beauty in all of life, whether familiar or new. If something is threatening, he tries to understand it better, realizing that all of life is precious. He always presents hostile forces with a choice, hoping they will choose peace.
Perhaps one of the most powerful Themes Stated in the show is that everyone matters. The series follows the adventures of the “mad man with a box” throughout the universe, and yet he continually points out that everyone has a place and a purpose in the big picture. “Nine hundred years of time and space, and I’ve never met anyone who isn’t important,” he has said.
The problem with some television shows or movies is that the hero is an inactive one. Not so with the Doctor. He jumps right into a situation whether he is invited to or not. Someone best described the show as having a character who walks up to something he deems unusual or out of the ordinary and declares, “Let’s just poke it with a stick and see what happens!” But within those stories resides a character operating by primal desires: the desire to protect and to help those who need it most.
Two words: Doctor Who. A show that has lasted for five decades and has been enjoyed by several generations of viewers. When asked to describe the show to someone who hasn’t seen it, it can be quite difficult at times. It’s best to fall back on Blake’s words of wisdom: It’s about a guy who…
It’s about a guy who travels through time and space, enjoying all of life and experiencing the beauty of the universe. A guy who will give his enemies a chance to redeem themselves, because he believes that everyone can choose to do what is right. A guy who will risk his life to save anyone because all life is valuable.
- melody lopez
Way to go!! Its about a guy who… LOVE IT!
Thanks for the comments, Tom and Melody! I just saw the 50th Anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.” Fantastic!
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Thanks for the terrific blog, Cory. Insightful, informative, and extremely well written. I really enjoyed it. Practically a refresher course on all things STC. Great work. Tom