What Doctor Who Could Learn From Girls About Character Development

In terms of public opinion, Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy Girls has run the gamut with critics, bloggers, and a lot of your friends. Is it racist? Is it brilliant? Is it representative of a generation? Does it contain enough velociraptors? And while all these questions may one day be answered, the real truth of Girls is that it is super compelling and highly watchable. And now that the show has cleaned up at the Golden Globes, I think everyone’s favorite genre TV show, Doctor Who should take some storytelling lessons from Lena Dunham and company. Because really, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, or Shoshanna would all make better companions for the Doctor than anyone we’ve had yet.

Spoilers for season one of Girls and a lot of Doctor Who.

The best thing about Girls is that it consistently writes characters in more than one dimension. Dunham achieves this by initially making the viewer think the character only has one trait, but then flips that expectation through small plot twists. Marnie (Allison Williams) is initially portrayed as being stuck-up and frigid, and when she’s aggressively hit on by Booth Jonathan (The Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone) at a party, you expect her to be dismissive, cold, and prudish, because at that point, it’s her only character trait. And yet surprisingly, she is secretly turned on by him. In a similar move, towards the end of the first season, Marnie and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) are lured into a near-threesome by Thomas-John (The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd). Jessa rebuffs him, but then unexpectedly MARRIES him in the subsequent episode. Previously, Jessa is depicted as a free-spirited, fuck-the-system character, meaning that when she gets married (and to a venture capitalist), she shocks not only all her friends, but also the audience. And yet, people do behave this way.

Girls is chock-full of these kinds of turns, and what’s significant here is that none of these moves seem unrealistic, and the character traits which express themselves in these decisions are subtly hinted at in preceding episodes. Ultimately, I think Girls operates on the following storytelling principle: in real life people say one thing, and then act contrary to that all the time. And the depiction of those turns is dramatically interesting.

How could Doctor Who learn from this? Well, one of the aspects of the show that’s getting a little played out, in my opinion, is how completely one-note all the companions tend to be. I know we could make an argument that Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy and Rory all go on specific journeys, but ultimately if they are changed at all, they are changed by the Doctor. The change almost never comes from them, and we see it coming a mile away. Usually the companion goes through phases along the lines of, Stage 1: The companion is bewildered/excited and we feel as though they are “finding themselves.” Stage 2: The Doctor and the companion become BFFs. Stage 3: Disillusionment sets in and/or the companion grows cynical.

Yes, Amy and Rory sort of “died” and Rose got trapped in a parallel universe, but elements of being fed up with the Doctor existed in both storylines. Things that happen to the companions are sometimes surprising, but actions that the companions take their own accord almost never are. The characters are, for the most part, really predictable. Rory does his Rory thing, Amy does her Amy thing. Rose does her Rose thing. The characters getting bigger guns or new jobs doesn’t mean they’ve grown or suddenly have agency. Hell, the most developed and interesting character—Donna Noble—had all of her hard-won character development taken away from her when her memory was removed. Talk about a lack of agency!

Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), the main character on Girls, would make a fantastic Doctor Who companion, because she’s so consistently strange about how she regards her superiors/elders. After being invited by an older professor to showcase her writing at a reading, Hannah essentially screws herself over by presenting an inferior story instead of the one the professor asked her to do. How often do the Doctor’s companions really disobey him? If you think about it honestly, (with maybe the exception of River Song), almost never. The companions, at a certain point (despite all their complaining) become the Doctor’s toadies.

But Hannah Horvath would never! And it’s not because she’s headstrong or fiercely independent, it’s simply that she’s a real character, with conflicting motivations and desires. Hannah and the other girls on Girls are great characters because they’re not predictable, making them more exciting as the show goes on. If anything, the Doctor’s companions became more boring and less conflicted once they get on the TARDIS and start having adventures. Rory and Amy’s brief break-up in “Asylum of the Daleks” was the most interesting development in their relationship, ever. When Amy says to the Doctor “It’s life. Just life, that thing that goes on when you’re not there,” it’s one of the greatest pieces of character moments for her in the whole series. It helps to indicate how realistic her and Rory’s relationship might be. And yet, it’s cheapened by Amy and Rory getting back together suddenly, just because they’re hanging out with the Doctor. Again, he changes them, they don’t change on their own. And, instead of challenging or subverting our expectations of how they would or should behave, they act just like characters on a TV show.

While do I love most of the Doctor Who companions, I feel they are thinly drawn folks who become less complex as the show goes on, instead of more. Just by featuring twists about who River Song is (Amy and Rory’s daughter!) doesn’t end up making River Song act any different. River Song is at her most interesting in her introduction in “Silence in the Library” and becomes more of a caricature in each subsequent appearance.

To be fair, it remains to be seen whether the characters on Girls can continue to develop and surprise us throughout the second season, and potentially on into the third season. Most TV shows run into the problem of having characters flattening out as time rolls on. But the attempt Girls makes, over and over, to defy our expectations of the characters without jumping the shark is really admirable. It’s nice that Doctor Who’s new companion Clara Oswin has some mystery to her, but it would be even greater if the changes she goes through, or the things that are revealed about her character stem from her actions and desires, and instead of just reactions to, or impositions by, the Doctor. 

But the big reason Doctor Who should meditate on Girls is because the only person on TV more self-involved than Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath is…the Doctor himself.


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. 

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