I write this just hours away from the Doctor Who Flux global premiere. Like many whovians, I eagerly await The Doctor’s return. In preparation, I’ve been watching the Wholloween marathon on BBC America, and, as I writer, I am, once again, amazed at the consistency of The Doctor’s characterization across their many regenerations. This is not a new thought for me. Recently, I presented on two panels about characterization, one which I moderated at Eternal Con, and one online at Inbeon Con, and when asked for an example of strong characterization, I pointed to The Doctor each time.
It doesn’t matter who is playing The Doctor (through we all have our preferences and favorites), The Doctor is always recognizably “The” Doctor. Sure, 9 was darker, 11 was sillier, and so forth, but, at the end of the day, despite the individual quirks of each regeneration, the character is remarkably consistent in most of the ways that matter, and while fans can argue over which version is “their” doctor, few would argue that any incarnation–even the ones whom were not their personal favorite–is not a legitimate, believable version of their favorite Time Lord.
Let’s take a step back and look at what a remarkable achievement that is. Many character descriptions start with the way a character looks. Well, no one is going to mistake Peter Capaldi for David Tennant, much less Jodi Whittaker. Sure their have been other long-running characters who have been played by different actors, but these characters, ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Superman, each have a type, and most of the time certain costume elements which link their various incarnations across the years. Batman is going to look like Batman, as long he’s wearing the signature cowl. And yet, despite changes in physical appearance, age, and even gender, each version of The Doctor has remained, quintessentially, The Doctor.
Thus, there is something else that defines the character. In the 50th anniversary episode, The Doctors say, “Same software, different case.” The case, it seems, it unimportant, at least relatively, based on the analysis in the above paragraph. What is it that comprises that software? Is it quirky way the character moves? The way they speechify? The way they go from clueless to terrifying in the blink of an eye? The way they champion kindness and understanding? Their odd mix of arrogance and vulnerability? Their obsession with Victorian England out of all the places in time and space? These all seem like pieces of the puzzle, but not that which makes The Doctor essentially The Doctor.
That is my challenge to you, the writing community: We recognize The Doctor in all their forms as a masterpiece of characterization. Unlike much of what we’re taught about character description, this characterization has little to do with physical appearance, age, or gender. What are the essential traits that define this character? What makes us believe them–any and all of them–the first time they say, “I am the Doctor”?
Obviously, I have my own opinions on the subject, but I don’t want to cloud your analysis with my thoughts. If there is enough interest, I will write a follow-up to this post with my detailed analysis and response to your comments.
Please leave your response to this challenge in the comments. I look forward to reading and responding to your analysis.