“Doctor Who” & Fairy Tales: Traveling Back To One’s Childhood to Re-Learn What A Story Is

by Rio Liang

The Eleventh Doctor eats fish custard with seven-year-old Amelia Pond.

I am neither eight years old nor British, but I love “Doctor Who” probably as much as any kid living in the UK. I don’t have a particular penchant for children’s shows, nor am I developmentally arrested (well…that may be debatable, but “aren’t we all?”). Instead, what draws me, a twenty-eight-year-old writer, to this kid’s show about an alien who travels through time and space in a little blue box is its ability to transport me back to a point in my personal timestream when I probably best understood the concept of a “story.”

I’ve been through the MFA wringer, an experience I value dearly but which unfortunately got me into the terrible habit of treating my pen as a surgical tool, and stories as corpses to dissect. As a grad student I was either way too obsessed with the rules of realistic fiction or way too drugged by the extremes of pomo lit; to add to this I had an affinity for French character study films with minimal to no plots. I had gotten to the point where the very concept of a story had become too self-contradictory, nebulous, convoluted. The cure for my ailment ironically came in the form of a children’s show with stories presented in their purest, most primal and undiluted form. A sort of back-to-basics for me, like correcting one’s posture in running or one’s lutz technique in figure skating. But “Doctor Who” is not just any kind of children’s show. Produced by the BBC’s drama department and with a history dating back to 1963, it doesn’t pander to children by dumbing down. Instead it engages by presenting entertaining, emotional, and of course, fun plots. This is why the show attracts the entire family to the living room (tweens, teens, middle agers, grandparents) every Saturday night GMT: the show caters to an all-ages sensibility for a good, simple story.

Steven Moffat as a child reading "Doctor Who and the Daleks."

After following the show for several years, you start to develop not just an affinity for the stories, but also specific writers. I’ve always been partial to current Executive Producer and Head Writer Steven Moffat (aka, “The Moff”), who is perhaps best known Stateside for the BBC’s “Coupling.” His DW stories have arguably the most enviable plots, the most electric dialogue, and the best endings. I am constantly in awe of his feats as a storyteller. (If a Cyberman ever assimilated his brain, that would be one lucky Cyberman). But think about them too hard, as many do who argue that DW is a science fiction show intended for an adult audience, and you’ll find that the Moff’s plots have loopholes in them. Science, if you’re a seeker of continuity errors and such, just falls apart. (On a related note, Terry Pratchett recently wrote about how the show is generally bad sci-fi). But to the Moff, the argument is moot because his vision of the show has always been as a “fairy tale” (even Neil Gaiman, who will be writing Episode 3 of the upcoming Series 6, backed him up on this). To him, the “science” of the show is basically just another form of “magic” (Hello, a police box traveling through a time vortex? An anthropomorphic alien who can “regenerate?”). Now, for someone like me who can at times be so hung up on making everything so psychologically real in his stories to a very limiting degree, it’s refreshing to see writers like the Moff who, for the sake of a good story, choose to just say to hell with science.

The ultimate spoiler for Steven as a child: Glimpsing his future self on the set of "Time Crash," a mini-episode his future self would write for "Doctor Who."

Leaving Television Land for a moment, one of my favorite up and coming fiction writers, Bradford Tice (whose “The Art of Human Surveillance” was one of my picks for Best American Short Stories last year), had a story in Best American Short Stories 2008 that was subsequently lambasted for its misinformed take on its subject matter.  But Tice’s blurb in the 2008 anthology was illuminating:

“When I went to write ‘Missionaries,’ I remember wanting the fact that these two boys were Mormon to be secondary to what I saw as the real tension. One of the cheerless realities of organized religion, in my secular opinion, is that often its spokespersons, the advocates of faith, end up seeming like used-car salesmen, while the truly devout go voiceless. My assumption here may indeed be flawed, but I guess that’s where the characters of Case and Joseph came from. I wanted to see what would happen if two young men of faith, both given this monumental mission, set their sights on two very different goals.”

Tice had a vision, and goddammit (or as some may have been thinking, God damn him), he went for it! One of my problems with writing is that I often second-guess myself based on what I predict people’s interpretations will be, especially when I think I’ll be offending readers. A certain degree of concern for that sort of thing is of course necessary, but people’s interpretations will always be out of my hands, and rarely will those interpretations intersect with my intent. So it’s refreshing for me to see writers like Tice and Moffat throw their inhibitions into the air, race past any limitations, and just go for it. To make leaps in writing you need to forget about gravity and just let go. As a child, watching a show like this about mad, impossible things like space and time travel instills in you that everything is possible. Now imagine transferring that wonder into your writing.

Perhaps one of the greatest things about “Doctor Who” is its ability to “reset” events, to rewrite history. “Time,” the Doctor says, “can be rewritten.” He is the ultimate reviser. Now, for those whose understanding of “stories” have been muddled through the years, just keep in mind that you can definitely travel back to your childhood and rewrite your personal definition of what a story is.

Are you a “Doctor Who” fan? If so, what’s the show’s appeal for you? Visit my blog for more on “Doctor Who,” including reviews of the recent Series 5 episodes, “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang.”

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