Having never heard of the Doctor Who phenomenon, I approached our “Doctor Who week” with an open—and curious—mind. After consuming a healthy amount of Doctor Who, I found it to be an enjoyable, at times thrilling, franchise with one weak leak: Charles Cecil and Anwen Aspen’s computer game, “Doctor Who: Blood of the Cybermen”. “Blood of the Cybermen” is not a horrible game, but it comes across as a merchandise-based afterthought. Ignoring any technical issues, I did not feel invested in the game’s story or missions. The narrative consists of thin, incoherent explanations of zombie invasions jumbled together within a disjointed gaming universe. The voice acting is unfortunate; Matt Smith, in particular, seems to have misinterpreted many of Doctor Who’s lines. Additionally, the missions seldom require any real problem solving (the characters solve the problems verbally then players are asked to search for whatever object or destination they mention). Although I am not a fan of video games in general, I’m confident that these problems are not inherent in the medium. Actually, from what I’ve seen of the franchise, Doctor Who seems like it would contribute itself quite well to a video game, but it would require a more thoroughly defined universe and story arc. In fact, what drew me in to the other media we experienced last week were the skillful plotting and intriguing fictional world that the storytellers incorporated. I don’t think that a Doctor Who video game could ever reach the storytelling heights of these other media (the logic required to solve the Doctor’s time-bending mysteries is not exactly reasonable to expect of the average player), but with a good creative team it could come closer than “Blood of the Cybermen” does.
The remaining platforms were immediately engaging as each contains its own medium-specific quirks that contribute well to the stories being told. The television show made full use of its status as a visual medium by incorporating memorable special effects and beautiful cinematography. Additionally, this particular story, entitled “Blink”, benefitted from the marginalization of the Doctor. Viewers, for the most part, are more likely to identify with a civilian (in this case, Sally Sparrow) who has no prior knowledge of time travel than with the Doctor (whose experience with time-bending adventures makes him less accessible as a protagonist). The drawback to this format, as mentioned by many classmates, is the fact that very few aspects of the story are left to the viewer’s imagination, making for a slightly removed experience. The opposite is true for “Human Resources,” the Doctor Who radio show in which a seemingly mundane office is revealed to be a robot. “Human Resources” surprised me with its lack of unnaturally descriptive dialogue (a common flaw of audio dramas). This allows listeners to create a purely individual image of the characters and setting, an imagination-based skill that is rarely encouraged in modern storytelling. While some may see this as a drawback, I found myself fully immersed in the visual universe I had created. Additionally, the acting is on par with that of the television show’s cast (excluding Carey Mulligan whose talents aren’t easily matched). The only flaw in telling the story of Doctor Who exclusively in an audio format is the inability to incorporate distinct imagery that, as evidenced by “Blink’s” weeping angels, can really elevate a narrative. Finally, the comic book version of Doctor Who proved to be a charming addition to the franchise. The Doctor’s trademark puns and quips contribute themselves very well to the comic book’s dialogue boxes and the storytellers benefit from having free reign over the imagery included (unlike budget-driven television shows ). Unfortunately, this format requires that narrative complexity be scaled down due to the dialogue-based storytelling and disjointed panel format.
Through this exercise, I have found that specific types of stories (even within the Doctor Who universe) are better suited to certain media channels. The audio format, for instance, favors stories that include outlandish imagery that drawings or special effects would only limit. Additionally, audio stories should be easy enough to follow without an excess of expository dialogue. A video game, on the other hand, would need to include mysteries that can be solved without extensive knowledge of the show’s mythology. Time travel would obviously be a large part of the story, but the missions required of players should not require a complete understanding of the supernatural logic behind Doctor Who (this does not mean that missions should consist of simply locating objects). Television episodes seem to be preferable medium for highly complex narratives while comic books seem like a good choice for more light-hearted, humorous fare. Imagining one coherent narrative told over multiple media platforms, a storyline reminiscent of J.K. Rowling’s first few Harry Potter novels comes to mind. The early Harry Potter books can be read and enjoyed individually because they tell contained stories with adequate closure, yet all contribute to the overarching saga. If the stories were told in this way, I can imagine a series in which the “sequels” would take the form of a different medium than their predecessors. This would make each installment enjoyable on its own, but would instill within the consumer a desire to venture into the other media. An example of this brand of transmedia storytelling can be found in Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies, a story that began as a great television show, but was forced to continue in the form of a graphic novel (to be released in 2011) for its third season, due to low ratings. I usually do not opt to read comic books in my free time, but in order to continue following the lives of the Pushing Daisies characters, I will probably take a look at this graphic novel.
Returning to Doctor Who, I found a number of consistent storytelling traits within each medium. The most prominent of which is the Doctor’s “whimsical manner,” as described by the introductory portion of the comic book readings. Although the Doctors that we experienced exhibited varying degrees of comic relief, each could be relied upon for the occasional corny joke or pun. In fact, Matt Hills, author of “Absent Epic, Implied Story Arcs, and Variation on a Narrative Theme,” partially attributes the loyalty of the series’ fan base to this consistent characterization. Also a uniform aspect of the series is the presence of a female sidekick who often gives voice to the consumer’s thoughts and takes away from the monotony of the Doctor. This character is described in “Truths Universally Acknowledged” as a narrative device that essentially translates the Doctor’s babbling for consumers. Additionally, Hills mentions that certain background characters like the Daleks and objects like the TARDIS can be found in each medium, adding an increased sense of familiarity with the universe that the Doctor inhabits. Each of these running threads contributes to the overall cohesiveness of the franchise, making each medium automatically more accessible to fans.
Doctor Who’s storytelling structure is also rather similar in each medium, bringing us back to Jason Mittell’s theories on narrative complexity. Although the stories of each medium are certainly episodic, the nonlinear structure alone classifies the narratives as complex (just glance at the “Blink” timelines and this is obvious). The way in which Doctor Who combines its overall mythology (as described in “Universal Truths…”) with episodic story arcs is reminiscent of Mittell’s descriptions of the “interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling” that the X-Files employed. Even more so than the X-Files writers, however, the storytellers behind Doctor Who have found a way to make the show at once intricate and accessible.
Interesting Link: Simon Nelson, who commissioned the Doctor Who: The Adventure Games (including “Blood of the Cybermen”) is leaving BBC after 14 years—maybe he got tired of complaints about the Doctor walking through walls and falling through floors.