Feb 5 2013 1:30pm

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. 

1. Fnard
After Girls has been on the air for 26 seasons, it can start giving Doctor Who advice on how to be successful.
Charles Moore
2. Shadeofpoe
Yeah... ignoring the fact that Dr. Who is a romantic, near pulp-like scifi meant to celebrate child-like wonder, simple and fun plots, and intellectual heroes beating brutes whereas Girls is a gritty, real-world, want-to-be voice of a generation type story. Which is essentially Apples to Oranges.

As fnard points out, the good Doctor has a bit of a pedigree. It's all kind of like the LeBron vs Jordan argument. The Doc has proven his staying power and success. Lea Dunham so far has proven her...ability to show hipsters living in Brooklyn?
Thom Dunn
3. ThomDunn
This certainly makes some valid points about compelling dramatic storytelling. I actually enjoy GIRLS quite a bit, but it's also a very different show from DOCTOR WHO, and while I agree that the characters' actions on GIRLS are often very realistic, I think that applying that narcissism to DOCTOR WHO would do as much harm as good, if not more. There are plenty of times with Amy would disobey The Doctor, for example, and end up unexpectedly turning the tables and helping save the day through her disobedience. DOCTOR WHO is so much more epic in scope, than the small, focused drama of GIRLS, so there's much less room for characters to make the same self-involved mistakes. What if Mickey had cheated on Rose, so then when her and the Doctor went back to Earth, she decided to get revenge on him by blowing off the Doctor and having sex with a random guy in a bathroom stall, and then Rose isn't there to help the Doctor, so now the Cybermen win? It's a big difference.

That being said, I do agree, for example, that teasing out the Amy-Rory breakup would have been great drama, but that also goes against Moffat's plans to make each episode into a "mini-movie" this season, and do away with the longer story arcs. It's two very different approaches to storytelling that aren't easily reconcilable.
4. Noblehunter
I agree that the River Song arc didn't quite pay-off. Partially because I think series 6 missed a lot of it's big emotional notes. It got epic, but it never really delivered, in my opinion.

I think that Amy and Rory had significant character development.


Pretty much all of the fallout from Demon's Run for those two happened between episodes (the series 6 hiatus and before series 7). They do change on their own but we never get to see it.

I'm worried that Clara is going to follow the same trajectory as River. The more we know, the less interesting she gets. Moffat's great at making mysteries and mediocre at solving them.
Ryan Britt
5. ryancbritt
Yeah, of course I love DOCTOR WHO and I know it's pulply and silly, it's just at this point, I really wish the companions had more going on for them and did things that suprised me. GIRLS is doing a great job of that, and it seems like those lessons could be applied. And I don't mean they would need to apporirate the sexual nomenclature of GIRLS, but instead do DOCTOR WHO sci-fi things. For example, people in real life might totally refuse to do what the Doctor says way more often than they do on the show.
6. Gary in Toronto
Fnard pretty much sums up what I think of this entire article with this first comment. I'm also tired of articles telling me I have to love Lena Dunham and must think she's brilliant.
7. Andrea K
You weren't paying much attention to Donna's season if you think she always does what he says. Hell, first episode of main season you have Donna insisting the Doctor at least _attempt_ to save some of the Pompeiians.

I have a ton of trouble with some of the companion arcs in Doctor Who (please, Moffatt, not another mysterious white pretty young girl whose entire life revolves around him), and 'character development' lately has been thrown out the window in favour of "cool moments" - but you're comparing apples to oranges here. Self-sabotaging yourself in an essay presentation is not the same as "dumped in weird alien civilisation, everyone dying, can I have a technological solution please?"
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
I can't comment on Girls, having only watched the show once, and not enjoying it much (but then again, I have very little in common with the viewpoint of young girls in the big city). But I do see that there could be a little more attention to depth of characterization on Doctor Who.
While I love the show, I must admit that Moffat is better at tricksy wicksy stuff than he is a charactery waractery stuff.
9. Bryan Rasmussen
"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."

Sure, and writers of tv shows also just switch things around without any logic or care for previous characterization in order to get that audience shock thing going. So when we like it it's because real people behave that way and when we don't its because it's pretty unbelievable.
Walker White
10. Walker
The problem is that a large part of the role of the companion is to give the audience an insertion point because the Doctor is (by design) unrelatable. That, by its nature, makes the companion personalities a bit generic.

Girls is in many ways the exact opposite. Opinions differ about the show because it is a voice of such a small segment of our population (urban white females from educated and priviledged upbringings); many people cannot relate to the characters at all.

But honestly, why would you to choose Girls just to say that you want more character development. It is not like character development is unique to that show. Why not say Dr. Who should take lessons from The Wire? This article is a such a non sequitur.
11. Puff the Magic Commenter
I'd like to see the Doctor -- 9 or 10, I think -- travel with Al Swearingen. There's a complex, self-contradictory HBO character with some meat on his story bones!
12. ParanoidAndroid
This is, without a doubt, the stupidest thing I have read all week.

'It' shows commonly clean up at awards ceremonies, which are usually based more on buzz and momentary pop culture zeitgeist than on and actual quality or genre defining attributes. Friends cleared up at the Golden Globes once too, so did Desperate Housewives. Should Doctor Who be more like them as well?

And if you are merely using Girls to make a point about character development, then why not point to something like Breaking Bad, or as someone above mentioned, The Wire. Real legitimate examples of the true art of character writing and development, rather than the shallow faux character development that something like Girls offers.

You're a Girls fan, clearly, and that's fine. But a show from a different side of the pond, in a different genre, and aiming at a much wider audience, that has managed to still be with us, and be as popular as ever, even after nigh on 50 years hardly needs advice based on a niche show that will be lucky to still be remembered 5 years from now.
13. Nik_the_Heratik
I agree Doctor Who could use more character driven stuff, but the problem is there aren't enough episodes to do these sort of gradual introspective things and still have the rest of the cool space and time stuff happen. I also have problems with the fairy tale mythology angle as it is taking away from the interesting one shots that RTD did much better than Moffat. A little mythology is good, but a lot turns the focus away from the interesting things that should be happening on screen.

And I don't think Doctor Who needs to take notes from Girls to learn this stuff. Doctor Who is more story driven with some character development and Girls is more character driven with some plot development. I don't feel that the draw for the show is to have the characters grow and change dramatically, but rather to see how characters you sort of know react to all of this weird new stuff that gets thrown at them every week.

What DW has been doing more of, and what I like is bringing in new and interesting characters and having them interact with the usual gang. The least interesting eps are the ones where you don't meet any new characters and you don't have any character development with the regulars. As long as one of the two happens, it's usually successful.
14. Jakk
20 years from now, the difference between these two shows will be shown. People will still be watching Doctor Who. People will be trying to remember what Girls was.
J Bizzle
15. wolfkin
as someone with absolutely no interest in watching Girls you make some interseting points. Still it remains to be seen if Girls can make it past that sophmore slump. A lot of shows have interesting full bodied characters in their first season. That's not too hard to do. Maintain that visceral dimensioned character development for 2-3 seasons you'll have something worth bragging about.

As others have said Doctor Who is a very different type of show that has to provide media over a much longer time period for the first part and has to appeal to a very different audience for another.

That said it doesn't make your arguments moot. The companions have a problem of being unchanging. I think part of that problem is they all come from the same place. These are all contemporary westernized women there's an argument to be made that we expect them to all be the same. (Ugh that make up of Rory and Amy was something I wanted but the way it happened WAS pretty weak) Part of the reason I'm excited for this new compaion is because she might come from a different time period. That alone should inject a much needed dose of newness.
16. BCsmith
Ugh. Hold on. That wasn't loud enough...


Seriously. The second Moffat (or anyone working on WHO) takes a hint from GIRLS will be like a quick kiss of death to one of britain's most well-recognized scienece-fiction icons (and this is coming from someone who's not a WHO fan).

Come on. When you manage to make freaking GOSSIP GIRL look like a masterpiece, something must be wrong (if only Lena could get that through her hipster skull).
17. Jencendiary
Belatedly, I wonder if this article would have gotten the heat it did if the author hadn't referenced a show written by and primarily filled with women.
18. bono
Sometimes less is more. (ie) Legend of Zelda's 'Link' character is the most beloved video game character of all time. He was designed so that players knew next to nothing about him, so that people could more easily imagine themselves in the hero role.

The only companion that was worth knowing anything more about was Rose Tyler.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment