Time Lords, Self-Identity & Writing

By | Sunday, April 18, 2010 Leave a Comment
So I've been watching the new Dr. Who episodes starring Matt Smith. I've been a Who fan since the early 1980s when my father introduced me to the Tom Baker episodes then airing on our local PBS station. So I've seen the regeneration thing a number of times, and I can appreciate that each actor is going to bring his own spin to the role. His own way of portraying the character. But three episodes into Smith's Doctor and I'm just not feeling it yet.

Now, I'm still trying to be open-minded about him; I think it took me the entire 19th season to appreciate Peter Davison's version of the character. After all, it's a transition period for Matt Smith as an actor and I'm sure he's still getting a feel for the character. What he wants to portray with him and who he thinks is.

But, at the same time, I'm seeing these new episodes and I can't help but feel like they were written with David Tennant in mind. That whole bit in "Victory of the Daleks" where the Doctor confronts the Power Rangers version of the Daleks felt like a Tennant scene, with Smith doing his best to not make it feel like a Tennant scene. Same with the denouement in "The Elevent Hour." In fact, the whole custard/fish sticks bit in that same episode had the same flavor (if you'll excuse the pun) as when Tennant's Doctor would correct himself several times in a row.

See, one of the things I like about the Doctor, as a character, was that he was always very much an individual and didn't self-identify as anything but himself. Yes, he would sometimes note that he's a Time Lord or the "Destroyer of Worlds" or what-have-you but those were always presented as handy titles. The Doctor is a Time Lord in name only; he hardly practices the mores or has the characteristics of most of his people. The character of the Doctor is unique unto himself.

And part of the charm of the character is the unique flourish that any given actor brings to the role. Mad props to Pat Troughton for becoming a very different Doctor than William Hartnell, thus establishing the pattern other actors would follow.

But that has little to do with comic books, right? Well, except the fundamental problem -- at least with serial comics -- is the same. A writer, coming to an existing character, needs find their own voice. Their own identity within the character, as it were. Just as each actor coming to the role of the Doctor needs to portray him in their own manner, each writer coming to, say, Spider-Man needs to portray him in his/her own manner.

There's legitimate reason to alter a character's voice from writer to writer or from story to story, even if you don't have the benefit of the Doctor's regeneration. That reason, of course, is that an individual will play up different aspects of their personality depending on their role or identity in a given situation. Batman, as a member of the Outsiders, is in a different role than when he's out on patrol by himself. He's different again as a member of the Justice League, and different yet again when he's mentoring Robin. All of which, of course, is different yet again when he's noodling around as Bruce Wayne. But he's the same man in every case, just different aspects of his identity come to the fore. In real life, you act differently around your parents than you do around your significant other. Or around your employer. Or around the salesman trying to convince you that the undercoating on the car you just bought is really a great investment.

See, one of the interesting things about self-identity is that it's mutable. Most people don't define themselves in only one way. Peter Parker is a superhero, but he's also a devoted nephew. Reed Richards is a scientist, and also a husband. That's how a writer is able to change a character's voice without changing his/her character.

Of course, as I think about it, self-identity is only part of that. A person's role -- which is what I've mainly been focusing on -- is probably the main impetus for changing a character's voice. Self-identity is more about how the character thinks of his/herself and, while that can certainly be multi-faceted, there's less variability there generally speaking. But the combination of the two will certainly change how a character can be written. A character who identifies herself as a hero is going to react to a bank robbery differently than a character who identifies herself as a mother.

And that's something that's not frequently addressed in comics. How does Batman think of himself? Is he a mentor primarily? Or a vigilante? Or a detective? Or a team member? Who is Spider-Man as he himself thinks? Does Superman really consider himself as a Kryptonian? It's his birthright, certainly, but I daresay that's not the first thing that comes to mind when he asks himself, "Who am I?"

Now, obviously, each writer is going to interpret how a character would act in any given situation differently, and there's certainly wiggle room. But to really get to who a character is, and how they might react, their own identity needs to be considered. A good writer will at least consider his/her character's role and identity when penning a story.
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