In his book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker explains that, if you boil down every fictional story we tell, there’s actually only seven stories. The characters, setting, and details might change, but (if Booker is right) this means we can fit everything into seven very large buckets.
Recently, Ritch pointed out that Russell T Davies supposedly once told Moffat that we all write the same story over and over again. If we take Booker’s hypothesis of the seven plots and couple it with Doctor Who could we classify each story based on this literary theory?
Since the plots are quite in-depth, I’m going to try to dissect them using episodes of NuWho (sorry, I am not as familiar with the classic episodes yet to really delve into them, I’m working on it).
First plot: Overcoming the Monster
It’s no accident this is one of the first plots in the list. After all it’s the plot of the oldest Anglo-Saxon story we have, “Beowulf.” Overcoming the monster seems ideally suited for Doctor Who which deals with some sort of monster in almost every episode. In this plot the hero must learn of an evil threatening the land and overcome it. We can see this plot played out in episodes like, “The Idiot’s Lantern” when the Doctor arrives Muswell Hill, London on the day before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and discovers that something odd is happening. He uncovers the monster, a being called the Wire, who is using the highly televised event to soul suck people through their televisions. One of the more recent episodes that dealt with this plot is “The God Complex.” Vital to the Overcoming the Monster plot line is the steps that the hero usually takes to the conclusion.
The Anticipation Stage
The monster/danger makes itself known, but from a distance. Usually the reader/audience doesn’t see the monster right away, but the fear is very real. The monster must be the stuff of nightmares, something not entirely human. In this case the beast turns out to be a Minotaur-looking alien. While the monster in this plot may be different in appearance, they must have some kind of beastly quality that makes them the evil. If it’s a humanoid character than they must be malformed (or really big like the giant in Jack in the Beanstalk). If it’s an animal, like in “The God Complex,” then it must be cunning or capable of something that makes it partly human. Usually the monster is the representation of the darker side of humanity (in this case, it seems, the darker side of faith and possibly instinct, as he tells the Doctor later all that’s left is instinct).
We see the monster from a distance when the episode opens. We never catch a full view of it, always quick closeups (mostly the beast’s eye, which is significant). In this first case it’s Lucy, a police woman, who narrates the end of her life without much exposition, leaving the audience perplexed. As Lucy scribbles notes down in her pad we see more closeups of the beast. The beast’s animal noise growls and breathing (which aren’t entirely natural sounding) and heavy footsteps tell us it’s fierce and ferocious. Though there’s something more in the reaction the victims have which gives us our supernatural twist. A scream signifies poor Lucy’s demise.
The monster in the Overcoming the Monster story takes on three basic forms:
- The Predator – Stalking victims (like in this story).
- The Holdfast – the beast that guards a treasure or princess (wary of strangers, and suspicious). This beast is often sleeping when the hero comes up to claim the treasure.
- The Avenger – the beast that’s awakened once the treasure/princess has been taken and hunts down the person(s) who have taken it.
Obviously, the monster can be all three of these forms in one story, but “In the God Complex” there’s no treasure or princess to rescue.
Hero’s Call to Action
Once the story has established that the monster poses a great threat (in this case with Lucy’s death) the hero must receive his “call to action.” As with many of the Doctor’s adventures this call to action happens because the TARDIS has landed somewhere other than where the Doctor was planning on going. The Doctor was going to take Amy and Rory to Ravan-Skala, but instead is dropped off in a replica 1980s hotel. “Something must have yanked us off course,” The Doctor says dismissively.
When the Doctor, Amy and Rory are set upon by four frightened hotel guests, he receives his call to action. The exposition goes quickly with the Doctor asking questions of the four guests. The hero has a simple solution, The TARDIS, but discovers quickly his simple solution is gone. He then sums up their situation:
“Okay, this is bad. For the moment I don’t know how bad, but it’s certainly three buses, a long walk and a taxi from good.”
Once the hero receives his call of action he has choices (or does he). He can accept the call or try and run away from it, in the Doctor’s case he’s rarely run from a fight, so he starts right away to figure out the problem. He questions Joe, whose “tied up at the moment” because he’s very close to the same stage we saw Lucy at (acceptance that the Beast will kill him). This propels the story into the next stage.
The Dream Stage
In this stage the hero sets off after the monster (or the monster comes to him), but the monster is still at a comfortable distance. Everything seems to be going okay. In this case, the monster’s presence is very far away. Joe’s creepy recitation of a nursery rhyme, the awful elevator music resumes playing, and a low growl reminds us the danger is real, but there’s still a lot of humor like the PE teacher who tells the Doctor he’s doing PE “in his pants” (pants means underwear American folks, not anything dirty… well, wait…) and Rory telling Howie that his conspiracy theory is “amazing” because he’s found a theory more insane than what’s actually happening.
We’re clued in that the threat is far away in several places in this stage. Even when Howie finds his door (filled with teenage girls making fun of his stutter), Howie dismisses it as a “messed up CIA stuff.” When The Doctor and Amy finally hear the monster growling (again from a distance), Amy says: “it’s not real, yeah?” The Doctor says it’s not, but that they should run away and hide anyways. Rory’s spotting the exit door also confirms this comfortable distance (though his entire storyline is a bit different than the rest of the characters).
Of course, during this stage every one of the newly introduced characters (Joe, Howie, Rita and Gibbis) find their doors, but not Amy, Rory and the Doctor [though, there’s a slight mislead with the Weeping Angels room, as we’re meant to think it’s Amy’s room at first]. The monster comes after Joe, but the rest of the characters are safely behind doors. We catch more glimpses of the monster as the Doctor looks through the peep hole. In this case, the scene mirrors the Doctor’s eye with the monster’s eye (indicating their relationship, now our hero and monster are tied). Joe’s inevitable death still is comfortable, because of the implied inevitability of it.
The comfortableness is continued as the characters are safe in the giant dinning room/kitchen. Rita hands out tea, which the Doctor finds surprising. She smiles and says:
“of course, I’m British, it’s how we cope with trauma, that and ‘tutting’.”
The danger is not immediate enough to keep them from enjoying the tea. This also allows for more exposition in the form of Lucy’s notepad, it echoes some of the information we received at the beginning of the episode, but it’s meaning is clearer. When Howie falls into the monster’s thrall the danger slowly creeps closer and closer. The Doctor decides to use Howie as bait to catch the monster because, at this stage, everything needs to appear to be working. We see more glimpses of the Monster (giant, impossible horns that scrape the ceiling, hooves, etc.). The confrontation between the Doctor and the monster is assured now, taking us to the next stage.
At this point, the hero has met the monster and the monster is impossible to beat. Defeat seems to be just a matter of time. During this time the hero may fall into the monster’s clutches or under his power/thrall. In the episode, once the monster is trapped, the Doctor tries desperately to understand it after it realizes that it is not the source of the nightmares or trapping the people in this giant maze. He can’t gather all of the words (a callback to the idea that the TARDIS can’t translate very old languages, and the monster is so old that his name is lost) and asks how to defeat the monster. The monster doesn’t answer.
Interestingly, the Doctor and the monster have a conversation in a room full of water and mirrors. Reflective surfaces such as water and mirrors have a huge significance in most religions (not surprisingly because religion/faith being a theme in this episode). Mirrors steal your soul, mirrors reflect your true self, mirrors are gateways to other worlds, and so much more. The Doctor is inches away from the monster, but the two are separated by falling water. Again, the scene invokes the relationship the hero and the monster have… are the Doctor and the monster opposites? Or is there something more under the surface? could it be that the monster the Doctor’s reflection?
There’s little time for the Doctor to truly grasp all of this because Howie’s convinced Gibbis to let him go and is heading up to the monster. The monster cracks most of the reflective surfaces, including Howie’s glasses and the trap has failed. To add to the frustration, Amy has now seen her door (the number being 7, the age she was when she met the Doctor).
Throughout the episode, from the first time meeting her, the Doctor has grown to admire Rita, who questions the Doctor’s calling (as the hero). He offers to take her away with him on the TARDIS, but (after the Doctor leaves) Rita utters the “praise him” line that seems to seal her fate. As with most frustration stages, the Doctor falls under the monster’s thrall, and opens his own door. Then he has to watch, helplessly as Rita goes to her death. True to her final wish, he does not watch her death. Her death causes him to smash things in (you guessed it) frustration. Finally, Gibbis points out the helplessness of their situation, after the Doctor has said he’ll figure out how to change it:
“You keep saying that but you never do. And while we wait, people keep dying and we’ll be next.”
Finally, the Doctor realizes that it’s not fear that’s killing them, it’s faith. The fear just caused them to fall back on their faith. The Doctor also realizes that he’s caused the deaths by asking people to dig into their faith, the things that make them strong. He’s fallen into the deepest frustration a hero can have. This leads us to the climax of the episode.
It’s time for the final battle between the monster and our hero. In this case though, the battle is not with the monster directly it’s with Amy and the Doctor. Much like Lucy’s haunting words, you never know what’s behind your door, but when you see it you realize it can be nothing else. Amy and the Doctor’s relationship has been leading up to this event. Amy, whose life has been so ruled by the Doctor’s presence in it, whose character is shaped by being “the girl who waited” has the strongest faith of the characters. Her faith in the Doctor.
For the final battle the Doctor must break Amy’s faith in him to save her. He admits that he knows what will happen to his companions, but takes them anyways because he needs to be adored. That it’s time that the Doctor and Amy see each other “for who we really are.” The long standing mythos of the Doctor as Peter Pan (as I pointed out in a previous post) is now broken. The Doctor has this realization earlier with Rita when he likens his offer of traveling through time and space as offering children a suitcase of candy:
I brought them here. They say it was their choice, but offer a child a suitcase full of sweets and they’ll take it. Offer someone all of time and space and they’ll take that too. Which is why you shouldn’t. Which is why grown-ups were invented.
Unlike Peter Pan, the Doctor realizes that Amy must grow up, that’s its better for her. He also acknowledges that (despite his age) he is not a grown up. Instead of forcing her to remain child-like (like Peter Pan tries to do with Wendy) the Doctor becomes the person who makes her grow up.
The Thrilling Escape from Death, and Death of the Monster
For this stage the monster’s power must be broken, the people liberated, and the hero rewarded. In the episode, the monster’s power is broken the Doctor “sacrifices” Amy’s faith in him to save the monster from the torment of his capture. The word choice is very deliberate with the theme of faith. We fully see the parallel between the Monster and the Doctor: both feed on faith, on the worship of those around them and now the Doctor has cut off the supply to both himself and the Monster.
The monster (which I should point out is related to the Nimon, a race who appeared earlier in the Classic Who episode “The Horns of Nimon”) dies, at first comforted by the Doctor and then he offers the Doctor a warning before dying (ancient beings must always offer the Doctor warnings as they die, we learned this from the Face of Boe). The Doctor translates what the creature is saying as he dies:
An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocents. Drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. Such a creature, death would be a gift.
The Doctor tells him to “accept it. And sleep well.” The Doctor pauses and then says the creature’s final words, “I wasn’t talking about myself.” Haunting the Doctor’s thoughts, indicating there’s more evil to come, and sealing the parallel between the two.
Usually, the hero at the end of the Overcoming the Monster story is rewarded. It can be some sort of treasure, or the ultimate other half (prince/princess), or a kingdom to rule over (or being the boss of one’s own company). Here’s where the story slightly turns, because it’s Amy and Rory who receive the treasure (Rory’s favorite car and a new house) not the Doctor.
Because of this one may think that this means there’s no treasure at all left for the Doctor, but as the episode ends, Rory runs out to the street and asks, “what happened? What is he doing?” Amy’s response comes as she looks up to the sky (again, religious symbolism), and says, “he’s saving us.” The final image of Amy is her at the window, looking up, indicating that she (once again) is full of faith in the Doctor. She once again is the girl who waited. The Doctor’s ultimate desire, the thing he sacrificed, has returned. Despite the solemness of the ending, it gives us the Doctor’s version of a happily ever after.