Doctor Who! (Spoiler Free) The Importance of Tone!

The Doctor

Doctor Who is back and I can’t be more thrilled. I love Doctor Who and was excited for the new season for so many reasons. One obviously was that Jodie Whittaker was going to be the Doctor, and that was historic for the show overall. (She killed it, by the way.) But even more than that, this was going to be the first episode and season without Steven Moffat as showrunner. And so, this gives me a chance to talk about an aspect of world building that I haven’t touched on much before: tone.

Tone is as important as any other part of world building. It sets up how the reader interacts with the world, what they can expect of out it, and gives a steady familiarity to an otherwise unfamiliar place. It’s all well and good to have a world filled with dragons, but is this going to be Tolkien serious dragons or Shrek comedic dragons? You definitely can’t put one in the other’s world and have it make any sense.

So how does this relate to Doctor Who? Well, if you’ve never seen to show, here’s a little background. The show follows the adventures of the Doctor, a time traveling alien, and his/her companions. Whenever the Doctor dies, he regenerates into a new body with a new personality. It first aired in 1963 and ran until 1989, had a not-well received attempt at a Hollywood movie, and was finally rebooted in 2005 into the modern version that continues today. What is interesting about the reboot was that it continued with the same Doctor and the same history as the classic show, so, it could be seen as one continuous show.

Most of time you refer to any period of the show by the Doctor who was leading it, such as David Tennant being the Tenth Doctor or Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. But in the modern era you can also refer to the showrunner to tell periods of the show apart, such as the Russel T. Davies (RTD) era or the Steven Moffat era. This new season begins the Chris Chibnall era, and beyond story or direction between these showrunners, the biggest difference they bring to the world of Doctor Who is tone.

Doctor and Donna
David Tennant and Catherine Tate as the Doctor and Donna Noble.

Now, full discloser, I’m biased to the RTD era. Not only does it have my favorite Doctor (Ten) and my favorite companion (Donna), it’s all around a lot more fun than the Moffat era. That’s the tone of the RTD era. It could be serious at times and it still brought out a great depth to the characters, but overall you knew that it was normal to have the characters bring up random inside jokes in the middle of otherwise life threatening proceedings. I think that beyond everything else, RTD wanted you to have fun with the Doctor, and that affected everything in the world.

The Moffat era pulled away from that ‘just have fun with the Doctor’ component in favor of overly-complex plot-driven stories, and to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of it. To me, the tone of the show became “look how smart the Doctor is, and look what he can do.” It wanted to be so clever that it lost a lot of the fun in trying to trick the audience into thinking it was going one way when it was really going another. Distrust became a key component of its tone, so much so I stopped believing anything it did and was rarely surprised because I was always expecting something other than what it suggested. Also, since the point was to showcase the superior intelligence of the Doctor, the companions’ character arcs suffered for it.

Side Note: I feel Moffat did a huge disservice to Capadi’s Doctor in the beginning. He seemed so scared people wouldn’t see an older Doctor as cool enough, he tried way too hard to make him “hip.” In reality, Capaldi’s best run was his final season when Moffat finally allowed him to be a little older in temperament and put him in the role of teacher and mentor. He had so little trust in the audience accepting Capadi, that each season Capaldi seemed to be a different Doctor.

Doctor and her companions
The Doctor and her companions about to run. All companions must be able to run.

While it’s hard to say where Chibnall will take the show in terms of characters and stories from a single episode, you can see the tone the show will have from now on. And, given the first episode, I am really looking forward to it. The tone is so grounded compared to the Moffat era it’s coming off of. The people and settings and situations all feel real despite the extraordinary circumstances they’re thrown into. And you can see how it’s not going to be just about the Doctor. She’s still the smartest person in the room, but she’s obviously willing to rely on her companions more and the companions’ skills are welcomed and utilized. The tone perfectly pulls the show down from the stakes of all the universe being destroyed and center on how individual people are affected by the things the Doctor sees all the time.

Doctor Who is a great example of how tone affects the world and I’d suggest to anyone unsure of what tone is to check it out. But then I love Doctor Who so, I’d suggest anyone to watch it anyway. If you’ve never seen the show, this is a great time to start.

What did you think of the new season and the Thirteenth Doctor? Comment below.

2 Comments on “Doctor Who! (Spoiler Free) The Importance of Tone!

  1. Loved the new Doctor! I was somewhat concerned that the writers (and Ms. Whitaker) might rely on the novelty of the Doctor being female to carry it, but after watching Episode one, I’m not worried anymore. They gave this Doctor space to really explore jumping into things with fresh eyes, and find out how she fit into the role of the Doctor. She had space to earn the title instead of just pulling it out of a hat when the iconic “who are you” came up. This show really allowed us to see who this Doctor is when all she has is herself! No sonic, no T.A.R.D.I.S., and no previous companion to distract from that discovery.


    • I whole-heartedly agree. I was very glad they didn’t overdo the “I’m a woman now” jokes, allowing the ones they made to land solidly. And, as a woman, I loved her obsession with her wanting everything in her pockets and having nothing. And I was so thrilled to see her get to be creative and mechanical to solve her problems. I’m looking forward to where she goes from here. They did really well in this first episode to set the new style and tone apart while still feeling utterly Doctor Who.


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