Writing Nowadays–The Doctor Who Template

A writing career makes it occasionally difficult to enjoy television or movies. Writing stories yourself means you know the patterns. You know the moment the plot should twist, you know what direction the story is going, and you can often predict the ending within the first ten minutes.  Sometimes you can predict a show before it even begins.

Actually, it’s not just writers who can do this. Watchful fans can, too.

Take Doctor Who, for example.  Steven Mofat, the show’s main producer, puts a stamp on virtually every episode he’s involved with.  I noticed it some years back.  Nearly every episode was the same.  Mofat’s template goes like this:


PROLOGUE: A bunch of people we don’t know about are rushing madly about trying to deal with a completely incomprehensible situation. (This is meant to intrigue us, but usually we only find it confusing.)

1. The TARDIS arrives at the prologue place.

2. The Doctor and his companions are swept into the completely incomprehensible situation.  Very often, this incomprehensible situation involves a bad guy we can’t see, or a set of bad guys with faces that don’t move (such as dolls, robots, flat-faced children, or mannikins) because these things are scarier than something with an expression.  (Apparently, British people find emotional villains too difficult to film or to watch.  And the Brits are especially terrified by children.)

3.  Someone dies and/or the companions are endangered in some dreadful way.  In fact, they are endangered so badly that any person with a decent psychology would be sucking his thumb in the corner for PTSD after it all ended.

4.  The Doctor, talking very, very fast and using words that having nothing to do with any kind of science, advances a number of solutions that make no sense, then finally hits on one that’s probably on the right track.  He tries to implement it and gets a partial victory, but abruptly the situation becomes WORSE (cue evil music).

5.  Worse things happen to the companions and/or to the people around them.  The faceless/expressionless villain gains in power.

6.  The companions are forced into some Enormous Emotional Moment.  However, because every episode has some kind of Enormous Emotional Moment for the companions, the impact is rather diluted for the audience.

7.  The Doctor makes some kind of sacrifice. Sometimes it’s personal, but usually it’s by hurting or endangering one of his companions. Mysteriously, the companions continue to adore him anyway, much like abused people continue to adore their abusers.

8.  The problem is solved.  The Doctor makes cheerful, pithy comments about how great humans are (presumably so his companions won’t leave him).  Just as the audience is beginning to relax, the camera focuses on a final sinister image.

9. End credits.

This is why I don’t track down Doctor Who live, and wait for it on Netflix instead.  The show is cute, but only worth it when I run out of other stuff to watch.  I very much fear Mr. Mofat has turned into Joss Whedon at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when you could predict what was going to happen because you knew the writer’s pattern. Or Janet Evanovich with all her Stephanie Plum novels past the fifth.

Writers should never allow their stories to become predictable.

–Steven Harper Piziks
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Writing Nowadays–The Doctor Who Template — 3 Comments

  1. I don’t watch Dr. Who (I keep expecting a Nerd Certification Agency to revoke my membership), but I so agree with you about the Evanovich novels.

  2. I came late to Doctor Who myself, jumping aboard during the Christopher Tenant era, and rather enjoyed it until I noticed the template. Then I lost much of my interest. And ohhh, how I liked Janet Evanovich, and I =wanted= to keep liking her. But really, I can’t see spending my time–and money–reading the same book over and over. Sniff.