Some Characters are Timeless

Lately I’ve taken to examining television series, how they’re constructed, how they arc, and how so many writers and producers can keep track of a story and push it forward. Comic books are a great resource for such analysis: Superman, Spiderman, and Wonder Woman have all been with us for years. Dozens of writers have touched their story, added to its framework, sometimes radically and sometimes by embracing the status quo. Supporting cast members get killed off. New characters arrive to offer a fresh point of view. At the heart of the lifelong series is the timeless character, someone we can relate to and touches us enough that new generations discover them and their appeal does not wane. But they can’t survive on nostalgia alone. That much is clear when an imprint tries to bring back a classic character without giving them enough connection to current times. A timeless character has to find relevance in the world of their audience.

As a kid, in Guthrie, Oklahoma, I’d try to wait up for my dad to get home. He’d make it in just after 10 pm, wake me, and we’d meet me in the living room to watch Doctor Who on PBS. That was my first timeless character, the first time my head filled with ideas about other worlds and histories long forgotten. Sure there was a lot of running and screaming, but there was a robot dog, and I came to love the series and stuck with it on public television through much of my childhood.

I’ve kept up with the current version, updated and straining to be more adult, but weighed down by sentiment and the vast history of the series. The acting could be very strong, with some good doses of just over the top. David Tennant and Catherine Tate especially brought a great interplay, but the sense of wonder had largely gone out of it for me. Still, I decided to follow the current season from the beginning, driven mostly by my affection for Steven Moffat.

I knew he’d written some of the strongest episodes of the last few years, and I knew he could write razor dialogue from his work on Coupling. I knew from his creation of River Song, that he could create strong characters who really embraced the concept of time travel and what it would entail for disjointed meetings and lost moments.

What I didn’t expect was to find him getting to the heart of the Doctor and his relationship to his companions and audience. In season five, Moffat takes the Doctor back into a childhood context, the place where I met him, and brings him forward into our adulthood. The companion this year, Amy Pond, acts as a surrogate for all of us who grew up with Doctor Who. Companions have always been a point of view character, a way for us to get our questions about the Doctor’s world answered and feel like we’re not the only ones looking into a strange new universe, but Amy meets the Doctor in her childhood. When he vanishes, she has to remember him anew, matching her fantasies to her reality.

A character with no sense of adventure gains it, a character running from the inevitability of growing up embraces it, and the Doctor begins to show an awareness of the vastness of his life. He starts to show a maturity and the uncertainty that comes with it as he learns that there are things even he does not know.

While Moffat reduces the show’s sentimentality, the weakest moments still come when it gets center stage (the third episode, with Winston Churchill, being the clearest example). The hints and nods to past continuity are for the most part, well placed Easter eggs that remind us of the show’s long history, but don’t bog us down in obscure lore. The plots work without a trip to Wikipedia, which isn’t always the case with long-standing comic book heroes.

I was deeply impressed by the finale, which moved me in ways I hadn’t expected. Doctor Who grew up a little and a childhood hero has managed to stay with me through the years.

One thought on “Some Characters are Timeless

  1. Sean says:

    I think David is capturing exactly what so many creators are wrestling with these days. New ideas vs. resurrecting or remaking the old. IT is very very hard to take something and re-imagine it in a way that brings in new fans, but doesn’t alienate the old. The producers are faced with an almost untenable choice, resulting most often in a half-baked hodge-podge.

    One of the things that has most impressed me with Dr. Who is the gradual but clear re-introduction of classic elements, while maintaining the effort at making something new. The Firs season was almost devoid of anything “class”. Aside from the hero and the outer appearance of the TARDIS, there was little to connect it to the 30 year history that could have weighed it down. Gradually, with a sprinkling here and there, the producers gave the hardcore orginalists little pieces of their past. Little pieces of what David, myself and so many others were captivated by back in Long-Ago (to borrow a phrase).

    This new season is, as David writes, somewhat of an even bolder experiment. Bringing character development to a new level and playing things not for nostalgia, but as a foil for a new perspective. Both for our heroes and for us, the watchers.

    This show, since I was 12, has had a deep and significant effect on my development. I have always wandered in one way or another. My twin passions for history and the future, my burning curiosity of almost everything, my VW van that’s as reliable as the old Type 40. When I step back, I see them for what they are to me. Pieces of what I wish for. Pieces of what I felt deep inside when Amy spent the night waiting for the Doctor to return. What she felt when he did. And her easy, happy wave goodbye to the world she hadn’t really lived in and knew, on a deep level, wasn’t hers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *