Doctor Who and Setting

Last night my wife and I mused over The Almost People once again last night.  By way of information, I thought it was good enough (for the most part), but my wife was a bit disappointed, especially where the cliffhanger occurred.  Both of us agreed, however, that The Rebel Flesh was a stronger episode than The Almost People.  Part one set up a lot of interesting ideas that were let down a bit by part two.  And as discussed yesterday, part two was overshadowed by the cliffhanger.  This prompted my wife to ask, “Why are we not getting more good stories?”  Doctor Who has better production values than ever before, the writers are rather good and certainly capable, and we generally have great performances.  And while there can be many charges leveled at why Cymru Who seems to have more mediocre or average episodes than great episodes, I submit that the starting point isn’t a good monster or even a mind-blowing concept.  No, I think the first key to great Doctor Who is getting the right setting.

Think about the basic concept of the show:  an alien who travels through time and space.  Even though he sometimes travels for exploration, sometimes for fun, sometimes to experience things anew through the eyes of his companions, the basic idea is that the show can go anywhere and any when.  Thus, location cannot be treated as arbitrary.  I think with Doctor Who, the plot and setting must be so intricately intertwined that you cannot separate them.  By way of example, in the classic series, Robots of Death is a fan favorite.  At it’s heart, the story is a murder mystery, but the setting dictates much of the story.  The spaces are confined.  The time period is established strongly through the attitudes of the workers and the treatment and operation of the robots.  While elements of the plot can be altered to fit different locations, the story would ultimately become unrecognizable if the setting was changed.  In The Talons of Weng-Chiang, we have the convergence of great characters and a great setting.  Victorian London adds the air of menace and dread, especially as this takes place shortly after the Jack the Ripper killings.  The setting, thus, adds atmosphere.  The setting also dictates the attitudes and portrayals of the characters, something that is key for Jago and Lightfoot.  In Cymru Who, setting is just as important.  Midnight‘s intensity is increased due to the cramped conditions of the shuttle and the characters’ isolation.  Amy’s Choice uses setting to give characterization to both Rory and Amy in their reactions to Upper Leadworth.  Ultimately, I think if you look at all the strongest episodes of Doctor Who from either series, you will find that setting is just as important to the plot as any other element, be it monster or characters.

Daleks in WWII. Practically writes itself, don't it?

Episodes where setting is inconsequential.  In Victory of The Daleks, the story didn’t have any real need to be set in World War II.  World War II was a mere backdrop, but The Daleks could have put their plan into motion in whatever period of time they landed.  Setting, in this case, didn’t help dictate plot developments.  Plot occurred regardless of setting.  The Impossible Astronaut and Day of The Moon, likewise, didn’t need to be set in 1960s America, unless tapping in to United States mythology was part of the point.  Even if that was the point, that doesn’t mean the plot is strong, it merely means the gimmick dictates the setting and the plot.  Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, while being fun rides, also didn’t need to be set during Roman occupation of Britain or at Stonehenge.  This setting was likely chosen for visual identification, but not because it made any dictates on the plot.  It could have easily taken place in Mongolia or St. Petersburg.  The location was inconsequential.  And The Library didn’t make any dictates on the plot of Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead.  Nothing about the story needed that location.  The virtual world could have been shunted to another futuristic society that was abandoned.  Likewise, the Vashta Nerada could have come from any place that had a lot of wood (this sentence typed as I eye my hardwood floors and piano with particular suspicion).  

I can't figure out if he supports my theory or proves me wrong.

Certainly, we can’t say that setting is the only factor in writing a good Doctor Who story, but it should definitely be treated as extremely important.  Setting is essential for good world-building, something the classic series did better than the new series (but let’s also be honest: the classic series had more time to world build).  The setting helps establish motivation and limitations in character perceptions (see Tltoxl and Autloc in The Aztecs), limitations in how obstacles can be overcome (see pretty much any base under siege story), often it provides the very danger that threatens the characters (House is both a monster and setting in The Doctor’s Wife, also see the desert episodes in Marco Polo, Platform One in End of the World, and everything in The Mind Robber).  Having a detailed, complex, or at the very least interesting, setting, one that aids or hinders the characters, is a great starting point to writing a good story for Dcotor Who

Lots of light . . very few shadows . . looks safe enough.
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2 thoughts on “Doctor Who and Setting

  1. Great essay.

    I think the setting can sometimes be unhelpful. For instance in Pyramids of Mars, the menace of Sutekh is diminshed by the historical distance of the Edwardian setting. Hence, we get the nonsensical ploy of the Doctor taking Sarah to an alternate 1980.

    Personally, I think Victorian London in Talons of Weng-Chiang comes across as a bit cartoonish and theme park.

    • I would say that the Edwardian setting in Pyramids of Mars is rather inconsequential to the story beyond the dig at the pyramids. While I enjoy Sutekh and the story as a whole, it really could have been set at any period in time, so long as a tomb is discovered. But I will admit that the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era chose settings based primarily on how they played for the horror genre, not so much for world-building. In fact, Robert Holmes seems to have done most of his world-building through exposition, not so much through setting.

      And with regard to the Victorian setting of Talons, I seem to recall he was going for a vaguely Victorian impression rather than a recreation of anything particularly authentic. As such, I can totally see how it would seem cartoonish and theme park. Although, I think he intended it to be a bit cartoonish.

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