doctor who: a character study

| Monday, April 4, 2011
Today's Tune: I Am The Doctor

The blog got a facelift. It was about time for one - I've had the same layout almost since this blog's inception. Whatcha think? You like? I like. I'm normally not a big fan of bold reds (I'm more of a cool blues kind of girl), but I'm digging it. It feels new. Energetic. And stuff.

Let's talk about Doctor Who, shall we? Weird segueeeeeeee.

Here's a science fiction show that spans decades and has lasted throughout generations. It's so popular and beloved that it was resurrected for a new generation following its 1989 cancellation. It's a serial which is constantly rebooted -- literally. If you're unfamiliar with the show, every few seasons, the MAIN CHARACTER, the Doctor himself, suffers some sort of life-threatening injury or other would-be fatal ailment and averts death by regenerating his cells, giving him an entirely new appearance and a slightly (or very) altered personality. Essentially, the character "dies" without really dying and is reborn in a new body, with all the same memories but a different outlook.

This is a fascinating character study. I can't claim to be a Doctor Who purist, as I've only really watched the "NuWho" seasons (the resurrected version of the show beginning in 2005), but in just these five seasons I've seen the incredible scope of the storyline. The individual Doctors all tie in together in some way (shared memories, a visit from a past companion), but each one essentially represents his own story arc contained within a much larger tale. He's the same character, but he's not. His pain and joy from his past experiences will always color who he is, but each incarnation allows it to color him a different way.

Where one Doctor seems joyful and good-natured, another will react with
rage or even selfishness. Some incarnations appear completely in tune with the humans he loves so much, while others are entirely clueless about human relations. But always, always, he seeks to do right by the Universe, to protect those who need protecting, and to rise out of the ashes of a crippling war to be better.

What an incredible feat, eh? To create a character that is SO changeable but remains fundamentally tied to very specific roots is quite the accomplishment. Isn't this what we, as writers, are constantly trying to achieve? A character built on past experiences that have made them who they are, but who go through incredible personal growth and change throughout the course of our story? Such change doesn't come without a price, however. Every time, every time, the Doctor regenerates and becomes a new man, the audience goes through the same crisis. How can we let go of the man we've come to love? How can we be sure we'll love the man he will become? What if the changes are bad? What if he becomes someone we don't know; someone we hate?

That's just the risk we have to take. A character who stays the same becomes boring; stagnant. Some of us aren't willing to put our characters through this kind of change. We're not willing to hurt them, to really hurt them, and force them to become someone a little bit different. We're so afraid of hurting our darlings that we let them meander on, only putting superficial obstacles in their way and letting them achieve victory without having to do much of anything; without having to really try or grow or become more. What if the audience doesn't like the "new" changes? What if I think the "old" character is just fine?

Well, what if? If played right, putting your character through the ringer and letting them be "reborn" will deepen their personality. You don't have to go in quite the dramatic direction of Doctor Who -- you don't have to change their physical appearance, or give them wacky new personality quirks and a brand new wardrobe. But take note. Despite the differences portrayed by the new actors and new scripts, the Doctor always makes sense. You can tell when he's still mourning a lost companion and see the sparkle of tears in his eyes when he remembers his old world and the part he played in putting it beyond his own reach. Even being reborn cannot erase his past sorrows, but he always grows. He always changes. He always finds new adventures and new companions to share them with.

Try it. Take away something your character loves dearly. Cut away their family. Steal their significant other. Annihilate their best friend. Destroy their freakin' world. Then let them change. Let them grow. Let them become someone with a different outlook on the same past. Let them be stronger for it. And let the story continue.

Despite everything, despite all he's lost, the Doctor is still a person who loves humanity. He's still a person who wants to save the world. Whatever shape he comes in, he's still the Doctor. But he's a stronger, more powerful, more beloved character because of what he had to do to stay true to his core.


{ Old Kitty } at: April 4, 2011 at 6:52 AM said...

LOVE YOUR NEW LOOK BLOG!!! Yay!!! And what a way to start this new blog - with my favourite Doctor!!!!!

It;s always a nail-biting time when the old doctor I've grown to love and adore gets regenerated. Lots of what-ifs worry me but so far, touch wood - I've loved them all - cos you're so right. Fundamentally they are a the same but equally they aren't!

Take care

{ aspiring_x } at: April 4, 2011 at 7:15 AM said...

you look lovely in red, maybe!

ohmygoodness! i've only watched the nuwho's too, but!!!!!
i love them!
honestly i haven't caught the last year or so of the show- must visit netflix- but what you say is so true! i ALWAYS fear that i'll hate the new doctor, but the writers do an amazing job of keeping the doctor essence preserved while changing SO MUCH about him!!! i'll have to put some serious thought into metamorphosing some characters! thanks! :)

{ fairyhedgehog } at: April 4, 2011 at 7:52 AM said...

I love the new look!

{ jjdebenedictis } at: April 4, 2011 at 11:23 AM said...

Ooh, I do like the new look! It's jazzy and quite awesome.

*sigh* I don't own a TV, and the existence of NuWho is a bit of a torture to me, because I was a Doctor Who fiend when I was a kid. PBS used to run all the old series, and I lurrrved them.

And now I can't watch NuWho and apparently it's awesome. I'm just going to have to break down and start buying the box sets, aren't I? WHY-WHY-WHY WON'T MY LOCAL VIDEO STORE CARRY THEM? WHY? *sob*

Ahem. Got a bit off-topic there. My apologies.

It is amazing to me how many iterations of the Doctor there have been, and yet the actors always manage to make him recognizably the Doctor.

When the latest actor was cast and everyone was freaking out because he was so young, I kept looking at him and thinking, "No--there is something "Doctor"ish about this guy."

And seeing him in action just proves that. He is the Doctor, despite adding his own flavour to the character.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: April 4, 2011 at 12:14 PM said...

JJ, do they have Netflix in Canada? (... you are in Canada, yes? Or did I make that up?) I'm pretty sure they do. Anyway, if you're interested, you could join up and watch most of the first few seasons on Instant (you should be able to watch on your computer). If you're interested! Then you wouldn't have to invest in the whole boxed set. Unless you wanted to ;)

{ Andrew Leon } at: April 4, 2011 at 1:05 PM said...

I have long term dream of owning all of Dr Who on dvd (or Blue Ray or whatever). So far, I'm not doing so well with that, since I don't even own any of the new ones.
And, of course, there are all of those, now, non-existent episodes from the first 3 seasons. So sad.

I started with Tom Baker. He will always be -the- Doctor to me, I think. However, I loved Tennant. He runs a close close close second to Baker.
JJ, I also don't have "TV." Don't want it, either, although there are some shows I wish I could see as they're coming out. Like Dr. Who. But having to wait makes me a but more choosey about what I watch, so that's a good thing. I've only seen the first of the Matt Smith episodes, but I quite liked it. Especially the food thing after the regeneration.

Speaking of that, that's another thing that is good about Doctor Who; there is often a real sense of exploration about the character. Of "who am I?" I think authors often forget that in their writing because, in our heads, we know whom the characters are. And, maybe, if you're writing for a solely adult audience, you don't need that, but I wouldn't bet on it.

{ Phoebe } at: April 4, 2011 at 1:57 PM said...

I love this post--the Doctor is probably my favorite iconic character. He's convinced me that Matt Smith is hot, even though I don't find him hot at all physically. Because, you know, he's the Doctor.

If you haven't yet, you should really look up the audio dramas. They've enriched my understanding of the Doc a ton.

{ February Grace } at: April 4, 2011 at 7:03 PM said...

This is an absolutely brilliant post.

I love Doctor Who, in fact, I just posted a few days ago specifically about writers, the worth of their work and the episode called Vincent and the Doctor..

It's true that redefining a character is a risk but it can pay off so amazingly well if done right and carefully.

I did this a couple years back for a character that I'd been writing 10 years (in an online series I write with friends) and completely redefined her entirely- and it's the best writing I've ever done for her and ended up resulting in the creation of several other characters I can't imagine being without now. A good time was had by all.

I still, however, have not figured out how to stop missing David Tennant every time I see the new Doctor... :~/


{ Vanora } at: April 5, 2011 at 10:27 AM said...

I love the new blog look! Then again my favorite color IS red but I digress...

Dr Who! I've been watching all the "new seasons" as well and I'm absolutely in love with Ten :) Like <3 <3 10 he's so attractive for being almost 20 years older than me but he's so endearing! And 9 because he's so...disgruntled. :)

{ Sommer Leigh } at: April 5, 2011 at 10:44 AM said...

The new blog looks is great! Congrats :-)

Also man I love this post. I love Doctor Who and could spend hours talking about him. Each time he dies I swear I'll never love the next Doctor as much as I loved the one before, and each time I fall in love all over again for whole new reasons.

{ Elanor Lawrence } at: April 18, 2011 at 12:59 PM said...

I saw a link to your 'Rape is not a plot point' post on Twitter, and then I went browsing around looking at other posts and trying to decide if I wanted to subscribe.

As soon as I saw this post, you just earned yourself a follower.

{ } at: October 2, 2012 at 4:19 AM said...

Thanks! I was googling for an image for a Dr Who post, and the supremely lush 10th Doctor brought me here. I've shared your quote on becoming stronger through bad things happening; because it isn’t so far away from the Buddhist practice of Lojong, or making crisis into opportunity, which is a lot of what my Cosmic Loti blog’s about.
Well written my dear :)

Anonymous at: November 29, 2012 at 10:50 PM said...

Hello... ended up here searching for some info on DW. The page looks lovely, very good colour scheme. But all those "whatcha" "you like-I like" at the beginning, I know it´s intentional, but it´s like scratching a blackboard with your fingernails. For the sake of your other writing- GET RID!


{ Sarah } at: December 8, 2012 at 6:37 PM said...

And recently Sherlock has gotten reinvented a million times. Oh, and Bond.

I was actually just thinking about some of these issues - reinvention, risk-taking, core values, etc. just the other day. And it was because of Glee. Not so sure I like the direction or new cast, but I gotta admit it took guts to go there.

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