Good Doctor Who stories are all very much alike. Each bad Doctor Who story is bad in its own way.
I really don’t ask very much. I am aware that Doctor Who is a children’s TV show about a dotty old man and his little friends going to different planets and saving the world from space monsters. I am very happy to curl up with a cup of Earl Grey and a crumpet (with Marmite) and say “injecting micro clones into yourself to defeat a giant prawn, who would have thought it” or “Loch Ness monster swims up the Thames and threatens Big Ben, now there’s a thing.” Doctor Who has to work really, really hard to draw attention to its own stupidity before I stop believing in it. Very rarely have you heard me say “but that’s not what the word ‘galaxy’ even means, you bumbling old duffer.”
Spacemen and monsters, for a start. Spacemen that look a bit like Apollo spacesuits, which is what spacesuits are meant to look like. I guess there is a reason they have to be dome shaped, something to do with pressure, I shouldn’t wonder. I had a space helmet for my fourth or fifth birthday, a plastic one with a visor and a NASA sticker. I think the dome-shaped hats is probably the main reason space is exciting. A big space station, wheel shaped, that makes you think of the Blue Danube waltz and salt and vinegar crisps. There’s an aesthetic which says that space ships are all white and gleaming like a very posh kitchen owned by someone who doesn’t really like to cook; but there’s also a space aesthetic which is all bare wires and metal, like an oil rig, like the distilled essence of a machine. (The question, indeed, is about whether the doors should go shush-shush or budda-budda-budda.) And the idea of space-walking, or just being in space, with nothing between you and the stars, which is both incredibly fun and incredibly dangerous. Give us a ghoulish description of what actually happens to a person’s body in a vacuum, like watching film of surgery or seeing waxworks being tortured in the Madame Tussuad's.
Obviously, monsters, which are frightening, but not too frightening, but not trying too hard to not be too frightening. If you can come up with something that hasn’t been done before, or not recently, that’s good too. Zombies are good. Spacemen versus zombies. Dead bodies of dead astronauts still walking around in their suits after they have suffocated trying to kill the living ones. Living space men space walking around the outside of the space station in space suits and being confronted by the space walking dead. Very good.
The Doctor, of course: he’s what it’s really all about; and a grown up human lady to scream and get rescued (although this is the 21st century so she shouldn't scream and get rescued too much.) But she mustn’t have been with the Doctor too long. If she's hung around and got the hang of time and space and became the most impossible person in the universe and the Doctor’s girlfriend, that would stop being much fun. Better for her to be a bit wide eyed and surprised, partly because when she looks through the space ship window and says “wow this is a proper space ship” we can look through her eyes and be all wide-eyed and surprised as well, but mostly so we can shrug and say “oh, yes, the Doctor has shown us space ships before”, a bit like Piglet. But the Doctor being brilliant and the pretty lady being wide-eyed can get a bit much, so it’s even better if you can give the Doctor another friend, maybe say a bald alien man, who is a bit more cynical and on the Doctor’s wavelength and keeps telling everyone to go back to the TARDIS where it’s safe.
(Maybe the bald cynical alien man should be taken to one side and asked not to act quite so much? Maybe he could sometimes just read the line “Let’s go back to the TARDIS” without turning it into “Letttts… GO. Back tooooooooo ther TAR DIS”?)
Now obviously we’re not kids any more so it’s probably not good enough to just have spacemen and zombies; there probably has to be some reason for it, and there probably has to be some ideas for us to think about. Some good Doctor Who stories took something ordinary and made it frightening (what if your mobile phone turned into a plastic daffodil?), but nowadays they mostly try to be a bit more subtle. Ever one of us checks his mobile phone to see how much battery he’s got left dozens of times a day, so what if that little battery marker was counting down not just your battery-life, but your actual life. Maye the spacemen have to pay for their own oxygen? Very good. How often have you heard grown ups saying “Next they are going to charge us for the air we breath?” I feel a metaphor coming on. Doctor Who always did incorporate little moral lectures about the true nature of courage and how chess would be better if the black pawns and the white pawns fought the vampires together.
I’d leave in the joke about workers getting together to fight “the suits”, but drop the bit about how the Doctor rescuing the spacemen from the zombies accidentally precipitated the fall of capitalism. Grimy industrial futures where everything is ruled by The Company are just as much a Thing as space men and corridors and zombies.
There has to be a bit where you want to hide behind the sofa only not really. Dead bodies are bit macabre: the space zombies will need to be nasty enough to be scary, but not nasty enough to be really scary. Heads lolled on one side is a good start, and we should definitely see the grown up human lady freaking out when she first sees a dead person standing up. But the properly scary stuff needs to be a bad thing happening to one of the characters and imagining that it might be happening to you. So if you’ve told us all the icky things which happen to a human body in a vacuum, you have to follow through and show us the grown up human lady being stuck in the air lock without a helmet, with ice forming on her face, mostly from her point of view, everything going blurry and fragmented. If you are not careful, that could come out a bit too nasty and scary and gripping for Doctor Who, but that’s okay, because the best bits of Doctor Who always are.
Maybe, though, don’t go through the whole thing again and try to convince us that grown up companion lady is dead the second time, because we all know perfectly well she won’t be.
And of course, the Doctor has to save the day in the end because he’s the Doctor and saving the day in the end is what he does. Almost the most important thing in a Good Doctor Who story is that the Doctor should suddenly understand what is going on, and make a plan to defeat the baddies, and not quite tell us what it is, but when at the last minute it works we see how clever the Doctor has been being all the way through and remember why we love him so much. It could involve using scarecrows to make the evil alien robber baron think the castle is better defended than it really is, or it could involve setting up a suicide bomb so that the space zombies can’t kill the surviving humans without blowing up their own spaceship as well. It just has to be clever and a bit mad. And not, in any way, a big red button or a giant haddock that just makes the space zombies go away by magic.
Cliff hangers are good. We don’t get as many of those as we used to in the olden days because there are less serial stories. Arcs and “big bads” are all very well, but really all they do is tantalize us about the final episode, and frankly, we've all worked out why the words “Bad Wolf” are scrawled on the secret vault already. (It has the Doctor himself locked in it. Duh!) The best cliff hangers aren’t the “how will he get out of that” kind, or the “is he going to die” kind, they are the “That changes everything” kind. The Doctor sustained a permanent damage rescuing his little friend from the vacuum? But he won’t tell her about it? Provided you don’t just cop right out next week, that’s just the kind of thing we’re looking for.
All of which leaves us with not very much to talk about. It is a strange thing, but stories which are good to have watched are easily reviewed, and the reviewers are not much to read; while stories that are illogical, inconsistent and even ridiculous may make a good review, and take a deal of reviewing anyway.