Today I’d like to spend a few moments on one of my favorite television shows–Doctor Who. This is one of those shows that has everything a really good story should. The characters are strong and rarely stereotypical, the dialogue is snappy, and the images and messages are important. While all of this is important, what ultimately drives the show is the plot.
It could be argued that because the entire show centers around The Doctor, the character is most important, but in the case of this show, I think The Doctor acts more as a plot element than as a character in what makes the story good and what makes the show popular. After all, the show is brief looks into a very long life of one extraordinary person. We laugh, we cry, we love him with all our hearts, but in the end, the personality of The Doctor changes often, almost as if he is another person (which, technically, he is to a certain extent when he regenerates). Additionally, the entire plot rests on him and drives every episode– “Will The Doctor save the day?”
An astonishing number of episodes later, and we’re still asking ourselves that. By this time in the show’s run all fans, new and old, know The Doctor does save the day. In fact, he does so every time. It’s like watching a Disney movie in the sense that whatever happens, when the day is over and done with, the world will be saved.
The biggest way Doctor Who differs from this disney-esque storyline is that unlike most children’s stories, any character is expendable. If The Doctor has a companion, there is a fairly good chance they will at some point die, lose their memories, be sent to an alternate dimension, or otherwise be semi-permanently separated from The Doctor. As heartbreaking as this is, the reason it happens is simple–to allow for a new companion.
And as sad as it can be, it really is necessary. Having a character be the driving force of a show is dangerous because it means that unless you want to end the show, that character is NEVER expendable. Harry couldn’t die in Harry Potter until the 7th book or there would be no book. We’d all be sitting around depressed because evil triumphed. Similarly, The Doctor cannot die in Doctor Who because there would be no show. Sure, he can have close calls, and he does, and they can tease us like they did recently with the notion that they could kill him if they wanted to, but it’s just not the same. There’s only so much suspense to be captured if the stakes can’t be high.
This is the role of the companions. They are disposable characters that are around just long enough for you to really identify with them–because you do, of course you do. They are, after all, the humans of the show. They are the ones you could dream of being. No matter how much you dream, you will never be a time lord–but then the characters disappear in awful ways. You know that at any moment during any season, the companion could die (although this predictably seems to happen at the end or mid-point of a season, but that’s television for you). This element of the plot raises the stakes. It invests you in the story. It’s no longer a story about a man who will never die–it’s a story about the man who continues living and tries to stop his friends’ inevitable endings.
That’s what this show is really about. It’s not really about “Will the Doctor save the day?” because we know that he will. The question really isn’t about The Doctor saving everyone, it’s about the characters we really know and love. It’s a question of whether he will save them. And what really keeps us on the edge of our seat is that sometimes the sad truth is that he won’t. Just like real life, things happen, and even if he saves the whole universe, losing his friends will never get easier. It will never be easier for him, or for us.