50 Years in the Vortex: Roleplaying in the worlds of ‘Doctor Who’
“Let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?”
Ian Chesterton, Doctor Who “An Unearthly Child” (23 November 1963)
On 23 November 2013, Doctor Who, the world’s longest running sci-fi show, turns 50, with a spectacular special episode airing in 70 countries at the same time.
With 800 episodes to the end of this year with more to come and hundreds of expanded universe works, the multiverse of the show is a hugely developed one with lots of ideas for roleplaying.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
Doctor Who was created by a committee at the BBC in 1963 (the most famous members of that team were Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, the former the creator of a spy show so popular that a recent Marvel film had to change its title for UK release), looking to develop a early Saturday evening family drama to fill a gap in the schedule for BBC TV, as BBC1 was then called – and generally assist a channel doing badly in the ratings against its then sole rival ITV. Premiering on 23 November 1963, the day after JFK was assassinated, the show focussed on the adventures of a mysterious alien time traveller called the Doctor, who travelled through space and time in his time machine, writing wrongs and running down corridors, a lot. It was actually intended to be educational, but that gradually fell by the wayside.
After the arrival of the evil Daleks, the show became a huge success and would air a total of 26 seasons, with 155 multi-part serials, from 1963 to 1989. Regularly watched by over ten million Britons and widely sold overseas, it became an iconic bit of British television, loved for its varied monsters and characters (even if mocked for the effects)… so much so that its cancellation due to falling ratings wasn’t the end of it.
Popular interest and expanded universe works continued and in 1996, a TV movie premiered in the US and UK as a backdoor pilot for a possible revival… but FOX was involved, mis-scheduled the former airing and got insufficent ratings to make it happen. The show didn’t go away though and in 2005 was brought back in a modernised continuation of the story for BBC1. It recently concluded the seventh season of said ‘new’ series, with an eighth (or rather 34th) on order for 2014, airing to strong ratings in the UK, US, Australia and many others.
The show’s lead character, the Doctor (not “Doctor Who”), a Time Lord from the destroyed planet Gallifrey, is a great character to roleplay; he doesn’t carry a gun, is several hundred years old and sometimes isn’t entirely au fait with human behavioural conventions. He’s also a pretty snappy dresser with two hearts… and the power to transform his appearance.
‘Regeneration’, where the Doctor changes his appearance and personality when mortally injured to save his life, is a key part of the show’s longevity – it has allowed eleven (so far) actors to play the lead role in widely varying style, the current being Matt Smith, whose eccentric bow-tie wearing Doctor has a distinctly alien manner about him. While you could of course play one of these, regeneration allows you to come up with non-canon incarnations of the Time Lord, to have whichever ‘played by’ you want.
Of course, you can always use another Time Lord (I have a non-canon incarnation of Romana, one of the companions of the Fourth Doctor i.e. Tom Baker) or even a human with access to a TARDIS.
Companions/Assistants/Little Tin Dogs
The Doctor doesn’t travel alone by any means; with few exceptions, ever since 1963, he has travelled with one or more companions (no, not Companions – this is not that kind of show), ranging from his granddaughter Susan to the mysterious Clara Oswald, his current sidekick. Typically human, female, attractive and from the present day (but by no means always), they serve to ask the questions the audience want answers to or get into trouble and have to be rescued by the Doctor… or frequently vice versa, providing the Doctor with a moral restraint. The ‘screaming girl’ stereotype is inaccurate – they’re generally a lot more than that; the most famous companion, Sarah Jane Smith, was a journalist and ardent feminist.
These characters, ‘muggles’ in a world of temporal magic, can be really great characters to play, although those wishing to run traditional games involving a TARDIS should limit the number to three.
Doctor Who is a show about time travel; with stories set in the past and the future, as well as alternative dimensions. In addition, there have been “timey-wimey” stories involving paradoxes, stable loops and out-of-order meetings that sometimes need diagrams to make sense of… especially if Steven Moffat (the current “showrunner”) has his name on the writer’s credit.
When doing stories in the past, the show has had two approaches, which you might want to emulate in your games – the “pure historical” where the characters get involved in a historical event (such as the French Revolution) or the more popular “pseudo historical”, where a sci-fi/fantasy/horror element turns up in a past setting, say killer snowmen in Victorian London.
The TARDIS is best known for being bigger on the inside than out; the small police box exterior hiding a vast exterior with its own dangers lurking within… great story fodder. Not to mention that the police box is an iconic design – the BBC actually now owns the rights to it. The ship itself is known for not exactly taking the Doctor where he wants to go or suffering major breakdowns at the whim of a writer, something you can naturally work into a plot.
Aliens & Villains
The show has developed a veritable menagerie of alien creatures over the years (although most of them are sentient and would object strongly to being put in a zoo – as would the Doctor), by no means all of them villains. However, the alien races of most note in the show’s history have been bad ones – the Daleks (who are not robots, they have a creature inside them), the Cybermen (once humanoid, now pretty much robots) and the race of clones known as the Sontarans, who define “nasty, brutish and short”. Feel free to invent your own – and by no means limit yourself to their standard alignment.
The show has also had plenty of humanoid villains – the Time Lords do a fine line in institutional corruption and the race also possess the just plain mad Master, who has been going up against the Doctor since 1971, the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes. In addition, the Doctor has fought a good number of evil Homo sapiens, either in league with aliens or just nasty of their own accord.
Many of the best ‘monsters’ in the show’s history aren’t evil; they’re just doing what comes naturally to them and may just be misunderstood.
UNIT & Torchwood
Those of you with larger gaming groups may find the TARDIS set up a bit small for your tastes, or may want something a bit more action-orientated. Fortunately, the Whoniverse comes with two Earth-based covert organisations already playing a key part in the show, whose remit is to investigate and respond to alien presence among humanity… with force if need be.
The first of these organisations is UNIT, the Unified Intelligence Taskforce, first appearing on our screens in 1968 (so it’s almost as old as SHIELD – but don’t start a discussion on the setting of their stories unless you want to be there all night)). A multinational military organisation, with branches worldwide (best known being the British branch headed by the late Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart), they have a distinct tendency to go ‘five rounds rapid’, but are also a highly competent body that once employed the Doctor as a scientific advisor; fans of Star Trek or Stargate can easily adapt to this environment.
The other is Torchwood (who got their own spinoff show), a secret British organisation founded to protect the Empire and acquire alien technology for its use. With a high mortality rate among its members, combined with rampant sex and a general espionage approach, this one is recommended for more mature gamers.
The stories you can tell
Doctor Who‘s wide-ranging universe and differing approaches to it as the production team changed over the years (its current head writer was 2 when the show premiered and is a long-time fan) allow you to tell a variety of stories; you can inject a great deal of comedy, go hard on the horror or tell an epic space opera. The variation even runs within a season – to give one example, Season 10 (from 1972/3) has stories that cover all three of these e.g. The Green Death with mutant giant maggots in a Welsh coal mine, with a traditional Dalek encounter and a multi-Doctor parallel universe tale thrown in for good measure.
You can also set stories at any time in the Earth’s past or future, plus there are millions of worlds you can borrow… or create your own.
- The BBC is perfectly fine with fan works, unless you’re trying to profit off them; bear in mind that TARDIS is a trademark.
- Don’t worry too much about sticking rigidly to continuity – this is the show that destroyed Atlantis in three different ways in the space of ten years.
- Watching the “classic series” is highly recommended, but prepare yourself for a slower pace, some distinctly ‘theatrical’ acting and dodgy greenscreen. I can provide recommendations if you email me.
- Daleks are overused; come up with something original or use a lesser known monster.
- The Doctor is an alien and should be played as such.
Some games you might be interested in:
Silent Hunter is a long-term Doctor Who fan and General Coordinator of Phoenix Roleplaying; this article is based on a talk he gave at FallFest 2013.