I’m going to do something a bit unusual for Campaign Mastery today, and talk about one character and one TV show in depth. Specifically, as you should be able to tell from the title, I’m going to talk about Doctor Who, the iconic British sci-fi series that has just celebrated it’s 50th Anniversary and which has a new season that has just kicked off featuring the 13th actor to play the role on television (The movies with X are not considered Canon and have been excluded from the series.
And then I’m going to use this discussion as a window of insight into the secret of complex characterization. Bear with me, it will all make sense in the end!
I’ve just re-watched a television special, Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide, and part of the narrative mirrored thoughts that I had been nurturing on the subject of the TV series and the eponymous role of the title character for some years. But it didn’t complete the picture, and so that’s my first step: to simultaneously bring everybody up to date and at the same time extend the analysis offered to bring it right up to date – well, as up-to-date as it can be without my having seen more than the ads for the new season.
In order to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show, you first have to accept the premise that all the different actors, and all the incarnations of The Doctor, are in fact aspects of the one singular character. This in turn gives great depth of character to that role. Each of the actors who have played the part have contributed something to that many-aspected identity, and it’s relevant to examine what each of these are.
William Hartnell, the first Doctor
Not afraid to be the smartest person in the room, intensely curious, eccentric at times but warm-hearted under a crusty exterior. He established the character and laid the foundations for the series.
Patrick Troughton, The Second Doctor
Eccentric to the point of comedy, Troughton established the principle of regeneration into a new version of the title character, and did not try to play Hartnell’s Doctor, instead establishing that with the change of actor came a complete reworking of character – within limits. Those limits were those of the character itself, but Troughton established through his performances that neither Hartnell’s version nor his own were the “definitive” versions, they were merely different faces, different themes of personality belonging to that one mythical and undefined “definitive” role. This enabled each actor to add whatever he wished to the role provided that it did not conflict with those established themes. Troughton’s Doctor never seemed to take things seriously until he had no choice – or his curiosity was engaged.
Jon Pertwee, The Third Doctor
Pertwee Added physicality, and never being short of an answer as to what to do – though sometimes he stalled for time, bluffed about how much he knew, or dug for information before forming a definitive response to whatever was going on. And if ever he was wrong, he was clever enough (for the most part) to twist his interpretation of events to show that what ultimately happened was what he intended all along. In other words, he made it up as he went along but did so with such speed and aplomb that he was never caught out. He added ‘action hero’ to the Doctor’s characteristics – but only when that was the right answer to the problem at hand. Like Troughton’s Doctor, he seemed to have a love/hate relationship with authority – it was fine as long as it did what he wanted, and he ignored it the rest of the time. Importantly, there were enough common elements between “The Dandy” and “The Clown” that you could accept the basic premise.
Tom Baker, The Fourth Doctor
Baker retreated from the Action Hero element somewhat, extending the charisma of the Pertwee version (something I neglected to mention) into a boyish charm and revealing – at times – that the eccentricity was (at least in part) a subterfuge to keep his opponents, and those in general who would get in his way or otherwise restrict him, off-balance. In many ways, Baker’s Doctor was the deepest thinker of the four versions so far, but he never showed his hand until he was good and ready.
Personally, much as I enjoyed many of his adventures, I think Baker stayed in the role too long (1974-1981, seven years). While the epic Key To Time plot was one of his high points in many ways, it also exhausted my love of the character for a long time – so I have never personally seen the performances of the next batch of Doctors. I am therefore completely dependent upon impressions from scant sources and the content of the documentary for the next few sections.
Peter Davidson, The Fifth Doctor
Davidson was already a beloved actor thanks to prior roles, and he (and the producers) were smart enough to take advantage of that – or at least not to put the actor’s history and the demands of the role at odds with each other. The result brought a vulnerability and a soft, tender aspect to the role that came in for a lot of criticism as “Doctor Who Lite”.
I personally don’t think Davidson was given a fair chance because there was absolutely nothing he could do about his biggest handicap – he wasn’t Tom Baker, whose extended tenure on the series had taken the character to iconic mass-popularity.
The Fifth Doctor was a staunch pacifist and a tendency towards indecisiveness, according to Wikipedia. It was the latter trait, which directly contradicted the Third and Fourth incarnations, that seemed to upset a lot of fans at the time, and started some thinking about the deeper implications of the series central motifs. Eventually, the apparent contradiction was resolved with the suggestion that this indecisiveness was present in all versions of the character, but some hid it in various ways – Troughton with comedy, Pertwee with action and energy, Baker with Charisma, scarf, banter, and Jellybabies.
Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor
One of the most polarizing incarnations of the role, the sixth Doctor was either loved or hated at the time. This Regeneration was initially unstable, hinting at an underlying instability within the character.
To quote Wikipedia, “The Sixth Doctor was an unpredictable and somewhat petulant egoist, whose garish, multicolored attire reflected his volatile personality. He was both portentous and eloquent, even for the Doctor – of whom he saw himself as the finest incarnation yet – and his unpredictability was made even wilder by his mood swings, manic behavior, bombastic outbursts and glib, unflappable wit. His personality also displayed occasionally fatalistic overtones.” … “However, not only did his melodramatic arrogance and caustic wit eventually subside, it actually hid the fact that this incarnation retained the Doctor’s strong moral sense and empathy”.
It’s probably fair to say that Colin Baker’s contribution to the role was undervalued and under-rated at the time, because many of the characteristics grated on viewers. This led to his tenure as the Doctor being cut short, and to Baker’s subsequent complaint that he was not given enough time to ‘unpeel the layers’ of his interpretation of the character. What would have emerged had he been given that time was evidenced by the audio plays, in which he came across as somewhat calmer and much happier version of the Doctor, a difference largely attributed to the interaction between Baker and the Doctor’s companion of the time, Evelyn Smythe. In 2001, a poll in Doctor Who magazine voted this incarnation to be “the greatest incarnation” of the audio plays.
Many of the more controversial elements of the incarnation have been referenced in various ways during the series’ modern revival. Perhaps most polarizing was the Sixth Doctor’s chosen wardrobe, which to fans of the time seemed to mock and caricature the series’ premise (aside from being an eyesore). It is, perhaps, notable that this costume was foisted upon the actor, who wished to be dressed in black, especially in Black Velvet, to reflect his character’s darker personality.
It’s also reasonable to suggest that criticism of the Davidson interpretation was probably a factor, and that – just possibly – the initial instability and ego was an overreaction in an attempt to contrast with that interpretation of the role.
Silvester McCoy, The Seventh Doctor
The McCoy version was the most ruthless and manipulative incarnation of the character, though this was frequently concealed beneath a bumbling exterior that harkened back to the Troughton interpretation. Wikipedia describes him as displaying an ” affable, curious, knowledgeable, easygoing, excitable, and charming air” while also presenting “more serious, contemplative, secretive, wistful, and manipulative sides with undercurrents of mischief and authority (constantly giving the impression that there was more to him than met the eye)”, and that sums him up remarkably well.
McCoy himself has said that he wanted to bring the darkness and mystery back to the character. The biggest problem that the series faced under McCoy was that the impressions and performances did nothing to woo back the disenfranchised followers who had been turned off by the 5th Doctor’s indecision, the 6th Doctor’s ego and/or costume, casual viewers lost because the stories themselves had moved in a darker and more adult direction during the 22nd season, or simply because it wasn’t Tom Baker in the role.
The series had been on shaky ground for a while – evidenced by the 18-month break in production between seasons 22 and 23, and at the end of Season 26, the show was canceled. It had pursued it’s own tail out the window, becoming too closely focused on the fans of the show and lacking appeal to the casual viewer.
Paul McGann, The Eighth Doctor
In 1996 there was an unsuccessful attempt to relaunch the series with a telemovie starring Paul McGann. While this failed to woo sufficient audience numbers, McGann played the role extensively in subsequent spin-off media. In modern interviews, McGann takes great delight in his inclusion within the show and appears an unabashed fan.
Criticism at the time suggested that the show had been too Americanized, that the role was not played with any depth, and that special effects and action-adventure elements were too dominant. Personally, I quite enjoyed the telemovie. If Colin Baker can complain about not having enough time to fully explore the role, McGann has an even better basis upon which to voice such a complaint.
Most of the characterization of the Eighth Doctor stems from those spin-off appearances, and shows this Doctor to be youthful, energetic, wide-eyed and full of enthusiasm, encouraging those around him to engage in and celebrate life rather than withdrawing from it.
Disregarding that for the most part, I see the eighth Doctor as restoring the Pertwee-established man of action character thread, while bringing an energetic aspect to the character.
This is also the incarnation that establishes the romantic aspects of the Doctor, something that had been eschewed in the past. Although controversial at the time, it has since become accepted canon that the Doctor can experience romantic love for others. In that respect, the Eighth Doctor makes just as pivotal a contribution to the collective characterization as any of the others.
John Hurt, The War Doctor
Hurt’s version was retroactively inserted into the continuity as part of the 50th anniversary special “The Day Of The Doctor” (with appearances in the closing moments of the 2013 episode “The Name Of The Doctor” and a featured role in the webcast “The Night Of The Doctor”).
The story is that the Eighth Doctor to take up arms and become a warrior, fighting in the “Time War”. This is an incarnation that subsequent versions of the character would not acknowledge because he became so disheartened by the “Time War” that he committed what the other incarnations of the Doctor consider an unforgivable act – he committed an act of total genocide against his own people and that of their enemy, the Daleks, and went so far as to renounce the title/name, “Doctor”.
In the course of the 50th anniversary special, this incarnation finds redemption and salvation by teaming with two of his subsequent incarnations, but the “Doctor” doesn’t know this at the time.
In this incarnation, pre-redemption, the characters sense of hope and morality are ground away by the brutality of war. This leads to an utterly ruthless driving determination to end the violence at any cost; there are clearly elements of the Pertwee, McGann, and McCoy Doctors together with the Egotism of the Colin Baker Doctor coming together to form this personality.
Christopher Eccleston, The Ninth Doctor
In 2005, the show was relaunched with Eccleston in the title role, and he deserves credit for revitalizing the series.
Ecclestone’s version was dark and brooding, without a lot of the eccentricity and foppishness of earlier incarnations while retaining an element of charm and frivolity. This was a character haunted by guilt over his role in the Time War, and much of that charm and frivolity was a mask for his survivor’s guilt, in just the same way that many of the mannerisms Ecclestone rejected are now seen as being exaggerated by past incarnations. Ecclestone’s version is also a tourist and dilettante in many respects, fighting depression by refusing – as much as possible – to get involved.
Ironically, this makes him more perfectly Gallifrean, since non-intervention is their law and credo, and something that his past incarnations have repeatedly been punished for violating. It’s also ironic that the Time War had destroyed Gallifrean morality and led them to employ every forbidden weapon (save one, which is used by the War Doctor) and break every one of their own laws. In other words, his people had become, in the course of the Time War, a perverted version of the Doctor, and the War Doctor had been forced to end their existence, in the process becoming a persona that this and subsequent incarnations would reject utterly and completely.
Beneath the surface, this incarnation is trying to deny his own nature, because that nature can lead to the Gallifrean Madness, his own acts of Genocidal destruction being simply a representative example of that madness.
This was the first incarnation to actively draw on elements of all the past Doctors, and that was Ecclestone’s other great achievement: he unified the character. It can be argued that his interpretation came closest of all to that mythical “definitive” personality. It is actually both reasonable and utterly essential that this be the case; all the veneers have been, or are, stripped away in the course of Ecclestone’s one season as The Doctor, rejected or abandoned or penetrated. Only the core of the character remains.
Nevertheless, he reluctantly begins to care again, and to “interfere” again in the troubles of those he encounters, and ultimately this leads to a catharsis. His companion of the time, Rose Tyler, sacrifices herself to save him, and he discovers that he still cares, more deeply than he had realized; he then, in turn, sacrifices himself to save her.
David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor
Having started to open up, Healing can begin, and that’s the premise of the Tenth Doctor’s personality. Superficially, he has started to come to terms with his past, and is “light-hearted, talkative, easy-going, witty, and cheeky” most of the time – though he still nurses profound anger, regret, and vulnerability beneath this glib exterior. He is far less merciful than he has been in the past, and is quick to anger at the perception of injustice. When Prime Minister Harriet Jones destroys the retreating Sycorax ship after they have accepted his terms of surrender, he ruins her political career in retribution. In “The Waters of Mars”, he goes so far as to declare himself above the laws of time – harkening back to the Egotism of the Colin Baker incarnation – though there are catastrophic consequences as a result.
But, having come to terms with his own destructive capabilities, he now has to deal with another issue – the price paid by those who accompany him.
Sidebar: The Companions
When the series began, the role of the companion was simply to ask questions and furnish an opportunity for exposition – while needing to be rescued on a regular basis. As the roles of women on television and women in society at large evolved, the companions became more substantial and integral.
Although many sources cite Sarah Jane Smith as the pivotal companion who brought Women’s Liberation to the Doctor Who mythos, I actually prefer to point at Jo Grant, her predecessor, who started back in the Troughton period as a “typical companion” and who ultimately left the Pertwee incarnation to pursue a more personally fulfilling life. This character’s role evolved through the series in step with the changing attitudes of the time, and it was her growth through the series that made a professional, liberated woman acceptable – Sarah was only possible because Jo had been there before her.
There is a principle which is thematically recurring within the tenure of the Eleventh Doctor – that he should not be alone. Think about this for a minute – you’ve done it all, you’ve been everywhere worth going; what’s left but to enjoy those things vicariously through the eyes of another?
At the same time, the companions provide a moral anchor for the Doctor, who – by definition – must see human lives as ephemeral, here one minute and gone the next. He comes to care for individuals, and by extension, those who surround them, and by further extension, the lives of the race from which they arise. It’s the companions that drive him to intervene, time and time again, and who at the same time tell him when he is going too far. Without them, the Doctor is incomplete, and that’s when he’s in danger of his underlying instability – the result of all the grief and tragedy that he has encountered – becoming overwhelming; which can lead to acts of self-destruction and acts of externalized destruction.
To quote Wikipedia again, “Loneliness is the Tenth Doctor’s most persistent personal demon: His relationship with various companions is always short-lived and often ends in tragedy.”
In particular, the final loss of Rose Tyler, with whom the Tenth Doctor has fallen in love, hits him hard; and with the subsequent loss of Martha Jones (who experiences unrequited love for the Doctor) and Donna Noble, with whom his relationship is more platonic but no less deep, he resolves to travel alone, seeking extreme isolationism. Each time that he does so, however, a new companion falls into his life and a variation on the same pattern repeats itself.
The encounter with a much older Sarah Jane Smith drives home the point. Life with the Doctor can be exciting, enthralling, intellectually stimulating, and intensely uplifting and rewarding – but it is also very dangerous, and can be both stifling and confining, subordinating the life of the companion to the (perhaps) more meaningful life of The Doctor. If you stay too long, sooner or later, you will pay the price.
There is a strong sense of making up for lost time in the Tennant version of the character. Having shed most of his survivor’s guilt and melancholy. the Tennant version is outgoing and exuberant, recalling aspects of the Tom Baker incarnation. Tennant is able to build on the unification achieved by Ecclestone to make the character one that finally begins to evolve as a result of his experiences, rather than simply being another static reflection of the one central “definitive” persona.
The final contribution of Tennant’s Doctor was that, for the first time, the character was able to express – and demonstrate – fallibility. Once again, it was therefore necessary for consistency of character that the fallibility flaw be retroactively inserted into all the preceding incarnations and accounted for; the descriptions offered herein have all taken this trait into account.
Matt Smith, The Eleventh Doctor
The Eleventh Doctor is the one who has to come to terms with “the companion issue” once and for all (or at least for now). The exuberance of the Tenth Doctor becomes almost manic at times in this incarnation, but overall the personality of this incarnation is compassionate but quick-tempered. At times, the frivolity/eccentricity/instability comes to the surface and is clearly revealed as a mask for the serious person underneath – Smith is adept at dropping that mask in the middle of a line of dialogue, his entire attitude and demeanor changing to one of grim determination.
More than any other, this is the Doctor who begins to take control of his life, having overcome the brooding melancholy and survivor’s guilt of the Ecclestone version and then had a long, restorative holiday as the Tennant version. His initial plans to do so immediately go awry, however, as he quite literally drops into the life of young Amy Pond, and inadvertently utterly ruins it for the next decade or so. This incarnation spends much of its tenure making up for that by fulfilling the promise of a life of wonder and adventure that he made while still recovering from Regeneration. In fact, the Eleventh Doctor’s life becomes inextricably tied to that of the Pond family, whose daughter is eventually revealed as The Doctor’s future wife, River Song.
Along the way, the “companion issue” is explicitly addressed a number of times during Smith’s tenure.
At the same time, the Eleventh Doctor decides that he is becoming too well known and begins systematic efforts to restore his anonymity, a reaction to the “companion issue” when he is confronted by the Superman Curse – if who you are is known, who you care about is also known, and that makes them potential victims of those seeking to get to you. (This is not explicitly stated, but is clearly implied). He begins with a convoluted scheme to fake his own death, and things only get more involved from there.
The deaths of Amy and Rory at the “hands” of a Weeping Angel after many adventures with the Doctor hits him harder than the loss of any previous companions, including that of Rose. Brooding, melancholy, and isolationist to an extent never previously seen, he is eventually pulled back into life by the Doctor’s other great characteristic, his Curiosity, in the form of a new companion, Clara Oswald.
When the “Impossible Girl” plot thread is eventually resolved, Clara stands as the instigator of the reconciliation between the Doctors (Tenth and Eleventh) and the War Doctor and the impetus to the rehabilitation of the latter.
Peter Capaldi, The Twelfth Doctor
Technically, with that rehabilitation, Capaldi should be the thirteenth. Having only seen the promos for the upcoming season, his first, there is not a lot for me to go on – and I have deliberately waited to watch yesterday’s season premier to get this article written. So this is all forecast and on scanty evidence.
With the rehabilitation of the War Doctor, the Twelfth incarnation is finally free of any guilt over the Time War, and is thus the culmination of the emotional journey that has been at the heart of the character since the series’ revival. Spurred on by Clara, the Eleventh Doctor has “fixed things”, because “that’s what The Doctor does.” The soundbite from the season promos states, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. It’s time I did something about them” or words to that effect.
This character is therefore the beneficiary of those who came before him, who is finally healed from his experiences and ready to move on with his life. One of the most important steps in any rehabilitation programme is making restitution to those who have been victims of your excesses in the past, and that is the one phase of his rehabilitation that the Doctor hasn’t done so far. So I expect the twelfth Doctor to be more serious, and more active in the universe around him, unfettered by guilt, fame, or notoriety. For the first time, we have a Doctor who is in full command of his life and his faculties – a very dangerous man to get on the wrong side of.
And one of the foremost things for him to think about is that despite his actions in the Time War, the Daleks managed to survive – something they have rubbed the character’s nose in on several occasions – and remain his biggest threat. What’s more, they are free to grow and spread, exactly as they did prior to the Time War, this time with nothing to stop them – except him.
This will be a character with a reasonably strong Ego, recalling the Colin Baker incarnation, and one with a determination to solve certain problems at almost any cost, reminiscent of the Silvester McCoy version. All that adds up to a lot of Hubris, and Davros – creator of the Daleks – is just the being to rub his nose in it. In interviews, there have been hints that the 51st season, and the twelfth Doctor, will take the show in a slightly darker direction, which seems to match this prognostication to a T. Will these speculations be borne out? Only time will tell.
The Secrets Of Complex Characterization
Every actor who has played the Doctor has added something to the character, an element that has lasted and added to the depth of the characterization. The Doctor is rich and deep as a character because of these contributions.
I’ve seen the same thing happen twice in RPGs. The first was the story of Blackwing, where successive players took what had been built by the preceding player and reinvented the character while staying true to its central core. This exactly parallels what happened with Doctor Who, and hence is the initial point of inspiration for this article. I’ve written about the Blackwing story many times here at Campaign Mastery, usually as part of some other article.
(The irony is that the current player is also a Doctor Who fan, and this connection has been lurking under his nose for years…)
The second occasion is an NPC – Ullar – who started as a Hero and Playtesting vehicle for me to learn the rules of the Hero System, became an iconic, even mythical character in death in two subsequent campaigns, was then resurrected/rescued at the last moment and found himself constrained and confined by the ideals embodied in his public profile. Initially a Hero only because that was needed and he was an instinctive problem-solver, his entire character was shaped by destiny into something he would not have recognized at the beginning. Eventually the character became something akin to a God, and rebuilt the universe after Ragnerok, sacrificing much of his individual existence and all his independence in the process.
But one of the great sources of ideas for GMs is to ask “What If?” and I did exactly that in devising the first Zenith-3 campaign. What if Ullar had arrived a few years later, and never been softened by his exposure to the suffering of bystanders at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What if he developed plans to implement his original ambitions, and took advantage of McCarthyism and fear of “The Red Menace” to obtain the power and influence behind the scenes needed to make it work? This was the premise of that first Zenith-3 campaign, and it added new potentials to the original character by showing how the same personality with exactly the same motivations could have become a villain under other circumstances.
This character has also been on my mind lately, because the PCs in the new Zenith-3 are currently dealing with the legacies of a version of the original who arrived pre-WWII and attempted to insinuate himself into the Nazi regime, which has many characteristics in common with his native society. By the time he realized his error, it was far too late. That was decades ago, local time; the Nazis won the war, and went on to world domination, and now stand poised to start conquering other dimensions – unless the PCs have something to say about it.
The Development Spotlight
This shows that there’s no need to wait when developing a deep characterization. A couple of central truths that can manifest in a variety of ways, a capacity for personal growth, and – above all – being affected by what’s going on around you, and depth of character is the inevitable result.
I’m not talking about improvement in external circumstances or in simple combat capabilities – I’m talking about growth in terms of who and what the character cares about, what they are prepared to do in pursuit of satisfying those cares, and the character paying the personal price that results. Character growth is marked by an evolution of actions, reactions, and relationships.
While it’s possible to achieve character growth without GM support, it’s a lot easier if you actively collaborate with the GM. However, if multiple characters are seeking the same thing at the same time, it can get unpredictable and lose coherence. The solution is for the GM to “theme” adventures for a while, and give each character their own share of the “development spotlight”, then move on to the next while the first character is evolving as a result. Clear communication between the player owning the developing character and the rest of the table is essential.
It’s a simple principle – the character changes; the character exhibits that change by reacting in an unexpected manner to some circumstance (which is what the GM’s cooperation is needed for); everyone comes to terms with the evolution; move on to the next character while the first explores the ramifications of the change. By the time he’s finished doing that, the Development Spotlight has swung back around to him again.
On top of that, the GM will always be looking for adventures with meaning for the PCs, because ultimately, they are a lot more interesting and entertaining for all concerned, so there will also be opportunities for shared development in spontaneous response to outside events, plus developments in reaction to the evolution of other characters.
Character development leading to a rich characterization is easier than you might think. It just takes getting involved in the life of your character, and not being locked into a rigid personality structure.