Fifty years ago, the world experienced one of the greatest upheavals of the modern era. Lives were changed. History was made. Nothing would ever be the same! I am talking, of course, about the premiere of Doctor Who on this date in 1963. What, something else happened that week? I’m confused now.
I’ll admit, I am a diehard Doctor Who fan. I’m rewatching the fiftieth anniversary special as I type this. I was born at the end of Tom Baker’s tenure as the Fourth Doctor, but my local PBS station ran a few years behind, and so I grew up watching his wild hair, fourteen-foot scarf, and robotic dog gallivant around the galaxy, searching for the Key to Time. I missed out on the Sixth and Seventh Doctors (our station dropped the show prior to that), but I remember writing to the station as a child, and begging them to bring the series back, not understanding how syndication works. Somewhere in my parents’ basement, there is a very cordial letter from their programming director, apologizing for their inability to do as I was hoping. I remember watching the 1996 movie the day it premiered; and I was completely appalled when I discovered, five years too late, that the show had been revived. (I’ve caught up since then! I watched the last episode I was missing this morning.) And of course, in anticipation of today’s special, I have driven all my Facebook friends insane for the last two months. They will be thrilled to have this behind them, of course.
It is a unique show for one reason: It is not bound by the ages of its characters. Supporting characters get traded out, but the key is that the main character, the Doctor, is a Time Lord, and Time Lords have the unique ability to regenerate. When a Time Lord approaches death, his body expends a vast amount of energy to transform itself (usually into a drastically different appearance) and begin a new lifespan. The core of who he is, his personality and memories and values, remain the same, though the specifics can change; some have been serious and surly, some playful, at least one arrogant. The character is over 1200 years old, but that is divided over twelve lives so far, with number thirteen coming this Christmas.
I like that mechanism for Doctor Who. I’m very glad that this show has managed to continue for fifty years, when other popular sci-fi shows have come and gone (and been rebooted—I’m looking at you, Star Trek!) But it wouldn’t work for every series, and indeed it shouldn’t. For me, it begs the question: How should a series handle its own aging? Should it live forever, or should it die; and if it dies, how should it go out?
I write prose fiction—that is to say, novels (or novel, singular, with more on the way), novellas, and short stories. That, I must admit, is worlds apart from writing for television or film; and I have no experience with the latter. I think that when you write for television, you must purposefully leave things open-ended; after all, since television is first and foremost a money-making enterprise, a show that is profitable will receive a lot of pressure to keep producing. “Planned obsolescence” may be a thing in technology, but not in television! No, the average tv show is here for the long haul, as long as the ratings keep rolling in. It’s tough to plan for your show’s ending when you don’t know when it will end (Lost, anyone?). In movies, you have a little more stability, because most movie series are written with a number in mind, as in a trilogy; and the end is planned from the beginning.
Prose is the opposite of television, for the most part. A book series usually has a goal in mind from the beginning, although the author may not have planned out all the steps from here to there! We can see this in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which was intended to be a trilogy, but is already up to four lengthy books, with more to come. He knows how it will end, even if he hasn’t plotted out every chapter (and death—that man can kill a character like nobody’s business) still to come. Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series was intended to be six or seven books, but topped out at fourteen, each with at least six hundred pages, and yet he wrote the final scene of the series during the writing of the first novel.
Sometimes, a series will end as many television series do—without a clearly defined ending. Most often, this happens because the author dies with the work unfinished. I have always thought that there is something poetic about this; to think that an author’s last words on the subject were not planned, not designed to be an ending, but rather, they represent a snapshot of the work in progress, a glimpse of the process rather than the product.
Given the choice, I think that that is a better way to have an untimely end to a series, as opposed to attempting to wrap things up without the appropriate time for planning. Give me Mostly Harmless; with regards to Eoin Colfer, I don’t need And Another Thing… If letting a series die where it stands allows it to stay true to the original intent, then that is the way to go out—with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a steady hold. Better the open telephone line than the bad news.
And what does that make me think about Doctor Who? Stephen Moffatt, the current showrunner, has said that he hopes the show is still here in another fifty years. I think that may be asking too much, but I could live with it if it happens; I like the idea of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren watching the Doctor’s adventures like I did. But if it must come to an end, then set it up in advance; and if you can’t do that, don’t slap the ending together. Just let it go. Better that the Doctor go on in our imaginations than that he—and his series—suffer a bad death.