He was! Now, before I have legions of fanboys screaming for my blood, let me say a few things. First, I am a Doctor Who fan myself; I lean more toward classic Who, most notably the Fourth Doctor (current during my childhood, so naturally—and in fact, I’m watching “The Ribos Operation” as I write this), but I like the entire series, and in fact I’m rarely ever even so much as critical about it. Second, note that I used the word “was”, not “is”, a distinction that will make all the difference in what I’m going to say. And third, look again at my title, above; you’ll notice that “Doctor Who” is not actually enclosed in quotation marks, or underlined, or otherwise set apart. I’m not in fact talking about the show itself; I’m talking about the character. (And please, for the love of all that is good, DON’T get distracted by the fact that “Who” is not actually a part of his name; I know that, but how else was my title going to grab your attention?)
For the sadly uninitiated, a brief recap: “Doctor Who” is a British science-fiction show that holds the distinction of having the longest cumulative run time of any sci-fi show in history. It ran from the early sixties to the late eighties; it was revived in the early 2000’s, but the revival is considered to be a continuation of the original series, not a reboot or remake. The titular character (commonly called “The Doctor”, with no name as yet revealed; the “Who” has many explanations, but it is not considered to be a part of his name or title) is a time-traveling alien who moves through history as a sort of vigilante adventurer, righting wrongs and generally meddling for the better of history and civilization. He also has the interesting capacity to change his form and personality at death (an act referred to as regeneration), and thus continue living. He can do this a total of twelve times, for an accumulated thirteen lives, although if the show is successful enough (and it is), the writers will assuredly find a way around it and allow him to continue. To date, there have been eleven Doctors; this is the mechanism by which the show his continued for fifty (!) years with mostly-unbroken continuity.
So, why would I call him boring? He clearly isn’t. He’s been every type of flamboyant character imaginable. His adventures span everything from dinosaurs to war to a multitude of alien races. How could he possibly be boring? And indeed, he ISN’T—but he WAS. He has to have been. You see, the Doctor is over a thousand years old. (“I’m The Doctor! I’m an alien from another planet, I’m a thousand years old, I’ve got two hearts, and I CAN’T FLY A PLANE!” ~The Doctor, The Bells of St. John) The problem with that is that nearly-unbroken continuity we mentioned earlier. Since 1963, we can account for nearly all of the Doctor’s time, which covers every regeneration since the first, and collectively can be encompassed by that relative handful of years. That means he lived about 950 years in his first incarnation. (No wonder he looked that way!)
So, what was he doing all those years? Hints in the show indicate that his troublemaking days began not long before the show, and he was relatively unknown (within his universe, that is) until then. I’m telling you, the man was boring! For nine and a half centuries! But we, the viewers, don’t pay any attention to that. Oh, the aforementioned fanboys (and yes, I have been one, so I can talk) are fond of coming up with theories, but the rest of the viewership isn’t concerned with that. We just want to see a good, believable story.
Writers are a cynical bunch; we could be positive and talk about belief, but we find it so much more fascinating to talk about disbelief. There is a commonly-referenced quality, called “suspension of disbelief”. It’s the ability that we all possess, to ignore whatever it is that makes a story (inconveniently) unbelievable. I know that it stretches credibility that the Doctor could be so perfectly boring and unremarkable for nine hundred and fifty years*, then magically become this fascinating, rebellious, adventurous wanderer, cramming eleven lifetimes of excitement into fifty years…but I choose to set that obvious knowledge aside in order to enjoy the show. And enjoy it, I do!
Suspension of disbelief is more basic than that, though. When reading or watching fiction, we have to set aside everything we know to be true about the real world, and treat something that is essentially a lie as though it was the truth. There’s no such thing as time travel—physicists are still quite adamant that it is impossible. Likewise with faster-than-light travel. And science fiction is not the only genre with impossible tropes; magic still seems to be beyond reality, as are telepathy and telekinesis, despite the multitude of fantasy novels out there. Dragons don’t exist, and neither do unicorns. Yet, we willingly set aside our knowledge that these things don’t exist, and in so doing, we enjoy a story we might otherwise have mocked.
The challenge for a writer is to give your reader reason to set aside his or her disbelief. Now, I’m of the opinion that you can tell any story you like, and you can make it work! (That’s not the same as saying there are no bad stories; there are terrible stories out there. It’s simply to say that any story can be told well, which is a different thing altogether.) And the only way to do that is to tell your story well and compellingly. Do it well, and your reader will ignore the most blazing errors, even discrepancies, just to find out what happens! Do it badly, and it won’t matter how fascinating your characters are, or how vital and significant their adventures; they won’t get past your first chapter before they throw up their figurative hands and leave in disgust. We do this with movies all the time; visit www.moviemistakes.com and check out the vast hordes of mistakes to be had in movies, things that by all rights should throw us out of the movie’s world; but because the movie told its story well, we let the mistake go (if we even notice it at all).
I will talk in other posts about things that I consider to be important parts of good storytelling; there is so much more than I could say here, tonight. It occurs to me, though, that the burden of responsibility for suspension of disbelief is on the writer, not the reader. We can’t fault the reader, really; after all, a reader only has so much time and energy to invest, and he expects a return on that investment, in the form of enjoyment. Why should he waste his time and energy on a story that isn’t enjoyable? The only people to whom suspension of disbelief comes naturally, instinctively, are children. Watch a group of children play (if you can find one, here in the electronic age), and listen to the way they pretend; it doesn’t matter how farfetched the story they are acting out, they will all participate willingly anyway—and have fun doing it! As adults, we learn to be skeptical, and we lose that easy capacity for belief; so we, the writers, have to cultivate it in our readers, by writing in such a way that they CAN believe—or at least suspend their disbelief—if only for a while.
Now, if you will excuse me, I’ve got plans for the evening: I’m hanging out with a thousand-year-old time traveler…he may be boring, but I hear he has a few good stories to tell!
*I’m stretching the point about the Doctor’s age a bit; I realize that the show does, in fact, incorporate a few gaps in his lifespan. The very episode I was watching earlier, “The Ribos Operation, Part I”, includes an argument between the Doctor and his companion, Romana, about his age. He insists he is 756; she is confident that it is 759. Romana herself claims to be only 140, so she could be forgiven for being wrong at her young age. Still, I thought I made a good point