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One of the winning ingredients of a great story is a believable setting. Giving the audience an identifiable backdrop is one of the surest ways of hooking their attention, which is perhaps why the 2005 re-launch of Doctor Who saw one Earthbound – or near-Earthbound – adventure after another. Incredibly, it took until Series Two for the Doctor to visit alien shores, in the shape of the Earth-copy world seen in New Earth (2006), and the titular planetoid in the two-parter The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (2006).

Russell T Davies and company certainly had a very good precedent to cite when opting to set most of the Doctor’s travels on or near terra firma: the hugely popular Earth-oriented UNIT stories in the first half of the 1970s. These adventures, with their realistic context, regenerated the series’ popularity and gave it the sort of viewing figures it had not enjoyed since the heyday of Dalekmania in the mid-1960s.

Given that a prepackaged backdrop, such as present-day Earth, presents the audience with a readymade setting, how should one go about writing a storyline whose location must be built from scratch – in other words, an adventure based on an alien world? The enormous success of science-fiction series such as Star Trek and Blake’s Seven, not to mention the phenomenal popularity of the Star Wars saga, would point to the fact that wholly-alien worlds are to be tackled with great caution, and that it is far more prudent to brave the challenge with an Earth-like planet, populated by human – or human-like – beings.

To this end, a number of possible options are available. One answer is the human or mostly-human outer-space settlement, or colony. This response has become the default setting of countless scripts involving an extraterrestrial location. In fact, many a Doctor has enjoyed his first alien-world encounter by way of a human colony. The Third Doctor’s first non-Earth adventure, for example, was set on a human colony planet (Colony in Space, 1971); whilst the Fourth Doctor’s off-world début was aboard an Earth-orbiting space station, housing a cryogenically-frozen human colony (The Ark in Space, 1975). The Fifth Doctor’s first genuinely-populated alien world (after the Master-invented people of the Castrovalvan citadel in Castrovalva, 1982) was Deva Loka, home to the Kinda people and an Earth survey team (Kinda, 1982); and in one of his final outings he encountered a human community on a far-off planet, steadily disintegrating under the pressure of a particularly insidious alien threat (Frontios, 1984). More recently, the Tenth Doctor’s spacefaring first was to the ultimate Earth-type planet, New Earth (New Earth, 2006); and in the case of the current Eleventh Doctor it was a visit to a human colony aboard the space vessel Starship UK (The Beast Below, 2010).

If the pre-made human colony is not to one’s liking, there is always the slightly more difficult path of creating an original society, but still relying upon a human or near-human population; essentially, a human-style world but several generations removed from the Earth colony from whence it came. Philip Martin’s world of Varos (Vengeance on Varos, 1985) is a case in point. When he imagined the once-penal colony with its penchant for state-sanctioned violence and push-button justice, he was surely taking the advice of former Doctor Who script editor Eric Saward, who had told him that writing a Doctor Who story involved constructing a whole world, with its own political system (see the DVD special feature ‘Trials and Tribulations’ on the 2008 The Trial of a Time Lord Box Set). Saward’s very own planet of Necros (Revelation of the Daleks, 1985) is a prime example of this method, as is Robert Holmes’ Androzani Minor, with its drug war and endemic corruption (The Caves of Androzani, 1984); and Helen A’s totalitarian regime in the former Earth colony of Terra Alpha in Graeme Curry’s The Happiness Patrol (1988).

Of course, in the above options what one really finds is a variety of storylines set on a pseudo Earth – pseudo in the sense that either the population, regardless of environment, is human or human-like, or one uncovers the double whammy of both human or human-like beings and an Earth-type world. Either way, the so-called alien setting is somewhat watered down at the very least.

However, if one chooses to create a world in which viewers can believe and which isn’t a quasi-Earth populated with quasi-human beings, one is faced with the inescapable problem of presenting an authentic alien civilisation on an authentic alien world. To be sure this is no mean feat.

Picking up this particular gauntlet is something which Doctor Who has successfully negotiated on a number of occasions. In these instances the creativity and ingenuity of the production team, and specifically the writer, costume designer and set designer, come to the fore. Of all the examples available, I would like to present three which are rather unusual in that they all hale from the same season: Season Eighteen.

To establish the context of my selection it’s important to understand that all seven of Season Eighteen’s adventures feature an alien locale; and only one features the Earth. Aside from my three choices, the rather black and white ‘reason versus faith’ dichotomy presented by the people of Tigella in Meglos is the weakest; whilst the wonderfully depicted time-sensitive Tharils of Warriors’ Gate, as well as the strangely-evolving people of the Starliner in Full Circle, are both noteworthy.

My trio of choices bookend the season; the first is the opening story, The Leisure Hive (1980) by David Fisher; and the second and third form the final two installments: Johnny Byrne’s The Keeper of Traken (1981) and Christopher H Bidmead’s Logopolis (1981).

David Fisher’s work for the programme reveals an apparent penchant for alien planets; three out of the four scripts he wrote for the series were based on worlds apart from the Earth. In his 1978 script The Androids of Tara a chivalrous ruling elite delegates the sophisticated business of robot engineering to the peasants; and in his next story, The Creature from the Pit (1979), the metal-scarce planet of Chloris is nearly brought to annihilation by the crass machinations of the scheming Lady Adrasta.

It was Fisher’s final script, The Leisure Hive, which saw his depiction of a wholly-alien people so smartly married to sumptuous costume design, makeup and set, delivering an alien race which not only looked the part but was also in possession of a strong backstory. Set on the planet Argolis, Hive considers two highly serious issues in race-wide sterility and the disastrous environmental effects of all-out nuclear war. Both of these factors shape the recent history of the Argolins, who face complete extinction without the seemingly incredible research of an Earth scientist, Hardin, who claims to have made a breakthrough in the field of temporal engineering. In the three key Argolin figures of Morix, Mena and Pangol one finds the past, present and future of Argolis artfully played out, as Morix finally succumbs to the accelerated ageing process which is destroying his people; and Mena and Pangol each undergo rejuvenation through the new science developing on their world.

The Argolins are in no way a two-dimensional race. As the first adventure in a season seeking to take the series in a fresh direction, Hive sets out to present a realistic alien people with whom the audience can sympathise. By establishing this sense of sympathy the story can unfold in the safe knowledge that the viewers care about the characters – not such an easy proposition where aliens are concerned.

Johnny Byrne’s The Keeper of Traken picks up from where Hive left off in that, after the more hit-and-miss alien experiments of the intervening stories, there is once more a seamless coming together of script, costume/make-up and set design. Indeed, the Traken people are perhaps the most nuanced alien race for a very long time, and even after more than thirty years and countless intervening adventures it is not so easy to find another alien society quite so well developed.

The Trakens, for example, are given a political structure tied together by the unique principle of the ruling Keeper and the bio-electronic source – the means by which an entire planetary empire is kept in harmony. The five Consuls of Traken govern with the Keeper’s guidance and blessing, whilst the Proctors are both the guards and the gardeners of the state. Traken, in short, is a paradise where evil is said to simply wither up and die. Of course, this Eden-like world is soon beset with the most terrible of threats, in amongst which one learns of how the succession of Keepers occurs, and the inherent dangers of this highly delicate process.

Traken is a well-considered world which, in only a four short episodes, presents the viewers with an alien reality that is above all else believable. It is this vital quality which helps to carry the plot and enables the audience to become entangled in events. More, the authenticity of the Traken culture means that it is simply accepted without being gawped at. In this way the audience can sit back and enjoy the story without being distracted by the nature of the unearthly people it involves.

With the physically striking and technology-driven Argolins, and the extraordinary politics and governance of the Trakens, my final selection may prove the least impressive. Yet I would advise reflection when attending to the Logopolitans of Logopolis, who, in my view, engage a good deal of curiosity in the manner and style of their society.

As anyone who has seen Logopolis will know, the Logopolitans present an intriguing population. Their hive-like city contains a monastic-like society, guarding what is perhaps the greatest secret in the universe. Still further, in the space of less than three full episodes the unspoken lives of these seemingly retiring people are given the most skilled spokesman, in the form of the eloquent and gentlemanly Monitor. Amongst his seemingly mute fellow citizens, Monitor’s role is not unlike that of a living interface, for a city of mathematicians whose inhabitants act like so many bytes in a computer processor because, in a certain sense, this is exactly what they are: living data in an organic computing mechanism, the only device immune to the decaying touch of entropy.

As a society, the world of Logopolis could not be more unique. Its extraordinary citizens, ceaselessly calculating away at the edge of space to save the universe from heat death, present one of the rarest alien peoples in the series. Yet the successful act of realising such a civilisation is almost as unusual. Put simply, it is so much easier – and less risky – to use a prepackaged society, such as an Earth colony or descendants of an Earth colony. In this respect Season Eighteen ought to be lauded for the number of well-developed alien races it presents.

There is a fine line to be drawn between the unearthly and the earthly, and to be sure there is a good deal to be said for an exciting story set close to home – Jon Pertwee himself once observed that discovering a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec is a good deal scarier than finding an equally threatening beastie in some far-off world. But even the great Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks recognised the variety of storytelling provided by the time-space travels of the TARDIS. This is where alien planets come into play. Relying upon the seemingly ubiquitous human colony or post-colony society can become fatiguing, and that is why a good dose of believable extraterrestrial peoples is needed from time to time to give the series that extra dimension.

Portraying a race of extraterrestrials is no easy task, and believability is the key test of this portrayal. But to avoid taking up the challenge of presenting alien worlds and cultures is to diminish the believability of a science-fiction series with the whole of time and space to explore. Indeed, with that much scope at the script writer’s disposal, it’s a wonder that the Doctor visits the Earth at all.

© Copyright Jez Strickley & Doctor Who Online, 2011.
Page Last Updated: 21/9/2011

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