On the drive in to work this morning I began listening to the latest Doctor Who audioplay from Big Finish Productions. Titled “Enemy of the Daleks,” it stars Sophie Aldred, Sylvester McCoy, and Philip Oliver in a Seventh Doctor adventure. Something caught my attention as the plot unfolded, something that I’ve noticed before with Doctor Who stories. The stories I like the best are the stories in which the other characters — the ones among whom The Doctor and his traveling party find themselves — have their own plot already unfolding. I most like the stories in which the guest characters and one-of parts view The Doctor as an addendum to their own story, not the focus.
This is the plot aim of most Doctor Who stories I’ve encountered. It’s the aim of most of the Nine and Ten stories I’ve watched, the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth stories I’ve listened to in audio, and the First stories I’ve read and heard about. But sometimes, in some stories, this is clearer than in others. I particularly like the audioplays “Colditz,” “The Fearmonger,” and “The Genocide Machine” for the ways in which the supporting cast are really concerned with their own business. The arrival of The Doctor is a nuisance, a puzzle, or a hazard — but as far as they are concerned, he’s not the point of the story.
I’m imagining “The Genocide Machine” from the point of view of the archaeologist/thief character who’s name is escaping me. In her narrative, she was on this planet, her team was attacked, she met up with some others visiting the planet, events occurred — I won’t spoil it too much. But I wonder how much mention The Doctor would get in her narrative. Ace would get a fair bit, certainly. But I expect not The Doctor.
That’s why I liked the Tenth Doctor episode about the support group, and “Blink.” I like seeing how people deal with incursions of the extraordinary.
Because, the thing is . . . The thing is, it’s one of the principles of later Doctor Who — of Seven through Ten, anyway — that sentient life is important not because it’s important, but because it’s there. In Nine and Ten the big cataclysm-thwarting fights are fights to protect everyone. Not just the people The Doctor values — in fact, he seems prepared to let them sacrifice themselves despite the pain it causes — but everyone. One of the things I like about the apocalypse-prevention in Nine and Ten is that The Doctor seems excruciatingly aware of all the life in his vicinity, and how precious it is. One of the things I like — no, love — about the Seventh and Eighth Doctors are the moments in which The Doctor looks at a new liifeform he meets and really, really sees them. In those moments, and kudos to Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann for pulling this off, we understand that The Doctor respects, admires, and has intense compassion for everyone he meets. (Often coupled with a grinding condescension, but that’s another issue.)
In Doctor Who — in the stories I like the most, the ones I think are better-written — we get to understand that everyone is the hero of their own story. We get to understand that all the characters had lives before The Doctor showed up, and if they are lucky will have lives after he leaves. We understand that meeting The Doctor changes these people, but so does birth, death, love, pain, hate, and joy. We understand that these one-story characters, these one- or six- episode characters had childhoods and triumphs and disasters and that this current event is not the center of their life. We understand that The Doctor is passing through, and that our stories go on without him.