Doctor Who, Robert Holmes and Writing Supporting Characters
As you are probably well aware, this year is the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who. The City of Melbourne, bless it, is full of the Spirit of Geekness with this and has been running a great program of related events: one of which was a writing workshop I ran at the lovely Southbank Library called Doctor Who and Building Believable Fantasy Worlds.
We had an entertaining discussion in part about how a show that was previously notorious for its wobbly sets, sometimes bombastic performances and shonky SFX was considered engaging and even believable enough that it kept viewers coming back year after year; that it regularly attracted new viewers; that even for the period where it didn’t exist as a TV show, it had books and audio adventures that filled those gaps with great aplomb.
The responses partly cited the ideas behind Doctor Who, but mostly, the workshop attendees talked about the characters, both lead and support, that populated the regularly changing worlds.
That led me in turn to talk about one of the show’s great writers, from whom I learned so much about writing supporting characters.
I of course refer to Robert Holmes.
Holmes was a genius at writing supporting characters that were bright and engaging people in their own right. He understood that to engage people in a story, you need not only lead characters you care about, but for those characters to live in a world filled with other fully realised people. Even if the latter only got a fraction of the screentime.
His supporting characters were not only there as plot devices, to force certain things to occur or to advise the Doctor or one of his companions of key exposition. They made the worlds the Doctor visited more real by making their societies real, and by having lives that extended beyond the story we saw. So many of them demonstrably had lives before we saw them and, if they were lucky enough to survive the episodes, would clearly have lives beyond it, too.
Take Robert Holmes’s Carnival of Monsters, which is essentially a story about a customs dispute. It contains three blue-skinned government employees who could easily have been identical cyphers but instead had discussions and arguments about government policy, the possibility of a worker’s revolt and the different attitudes members of a society might have about those social and political conditions in which they lived. They added texture to a world we never really saw, showing that it was not a homogenous civilisation with only a single viewpoint on how to live – just like the world we live in.
Carnival also contains two travelling entertainers who seem quite affable and fun, but who have an illegal device that treats sentient beings as zoo animals, and treats both them and the actual animals with less respect and care than in most zoos. They are quite nice people doing quite a terrible thing, without much thought. That ambiguity (good people doing terrible things; terrible people doing good things) immediately provides an engaging story-telling concept, a dichotomy that is used so well in more recent shows like Dexter, Being Human and Breaking Bad.
Robert Holmes also wrote The Ribos Operation, the first story in the Key to Time arc with Tom Baker’s Doctor and the first Romana. It contains a scene that is wholly unnecessary to the plot but is also one of the most moving scenes in the series.
The young, fresh-faced conman Unstoffe is fleeing from a guard and is hidden by a homeless man in rags – Binro the Heretic. Binro was ridiculed and exiled for daring to believe the little lights in the sky were not ice crystals, but the lights from other suns, and that those suns might harbour other worlds and other beings. His hands are gnarled, he lived in squalor and he is treated badly by the guard and others he meets. From him, we learn about this planet’s history, but in a very personal way.
When he tells Unstoffe his theory, instead of being ridiculed, Binro is met with kindness. Unstoffe actually tells him that those worlds and people exist; that one day, people will turn to each other and say ‘Binro was right’. Binro, tears in his eyes, commits to helping Unstoffe escape. When later he puts himself between Unstoffe and harm, it’s especially moving because those two characters, in so few scenes, have a bond borne of kindness and hope. It’s absolutely unnecessary to the main story we are seeing, but it’s one of the things that makes the story matter, and work so well.
Similarly, the vile and cruel Graff Vynda-K shows his only spark of true humanity near the end, when his old friend and brother-in-arms, Sholakh, is crushed beneath falling rock. For the only time, Graff doesn’t care about the precious stone he’s spent all this time killing and scheming to get. He only cares that his friend is dying, and when Sholakh breathes his last, Graff bends to kiss the closed eyes of his only friend. For that moment, I have sympathy for an otherwise shallow and hateful man. Quite an achievement. Again, it doesn’t contribute to the plot, but it does contribute to that story being memorable and emotionally affecting.
Robert Holmes wrote some of my favourite Doctor Who stories from the Patrick Troughton to the Colin Baker eras, including the The Time Warrior, The Pyramids of Mars, The Sun Makers and The Caves of Androzani.
Classic Doctor Who of course had many terrific writers, including Chris Boucher (The Robots of Death) and Terry Nation (Genesis of the Daleks) but Holmes was always the standout for me.
As a writer, he clearly demonstrated the power of telling memorable stories through creating strong, fully realised supporting characters.Through lively rather than merely expositionary dialogue, these characters help to build pictures and demonstrate elements of the wider world they inhabit, creating texture and emotional connection. Although they often serve to advance plot and give the lead characters interesting opportunities for interaction, these characters are not there solely to act as plot devices, obstacles or drivers of events: they are people, real and whole, with concerns, personalities, relationships and opinions that go beyond their function in the story.
These are lessons I try to remember in my own work, to make the worlds I build more real by making sure that everyone we meet in the story is a whole person, through whom the reader learns about the society as well as the protagonists – and perhaps the reader will care for their fates, too.
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