Linear Plots and Onionskins
A warning… I fear that in this post I sound like I’m just thinking outloud. As a result, it may come across like senseless babble!
I have been mulling over the essential elements of a Doctor Who plot while reading through an old FASA role playing scenario, ‘The Iytean Menace‘. As common in the game, the players take up the adventure on the urgings of the Celestial Intervention Agency, however, I wanted to see how you could introduce the players to the events involved without outside pressures. Take ‘The Empty Child‘ for example.
- Doctor and Rose discover alien capsule heading to Earth; Doctor investigates capsule landing, while Rose splits off looking for lost child.
- Rose finds child, faces death and Jack rescues her; while Doctor meets someone who knows about the lost child and follows her.
- Doctor discovers the location of the alien capsule; at the same time Jack and Rose discover the girl and the lost child.
- Rose and Jack find out where the Doctor is from the girl; Doctor finds out about the lost child ‘plague’ – and all three face cliff-hanger peril.
It isn’t so much investigation, as happenstance and luck that leads the Doctor through his adventure, while the companion must, quite vitally, get split up and discover something threatening or complicated to add to the Doctor’s worries when they get back together again. Wartime orphans and Captain Jack form subplots that link into the girl, the lost child and the Chula ambulance filled with confused alien nanites. The advancement of the story involves layers – like an onion – but one character may discover layers in different ways or completely on their own than another who might skip ahead a layer and realise the significance when the whole story starts to come together.
‘The Iytean Menace’ has layers, but they happen in a linear fashion that somehow smacks less of Doctor Who than it should.
- The CIA identify alien weapons in Victorian England and send the time travellers to investigate
- The travellers meet the owner of one such weapon and get rebuffed
- The owner’s daughter meets the travellers and tells them her father is paranoid and has been accused of stealing from another collector
- The travellers meet the other collector who explains about the burglary and the events that led to his accusation of guilt
- The travellers, potentially, investigate a doctor present at the house on the night of the theft and find he doesn’t care to talk to anyone and seems to spend a lot of time in his personal lab
And so on. It feels like a straightline, whereas ‘The Empty Child’ has more of a branch-like structure to it. While the ‘trunk’ of the story leads from beginning to end, the branches fork off, cross paths and generally create a more complex adventure. It seems to me a good Doctor Who adventure must involve:
- An unexpected introduction to the problem, probably at odds with the character’s original intent
- The Doctor and companions split apart, come back together, split and repeat!
- A subplot or two that feel like red herrings, but in fact tie neatly, but obscurely, into the primary story
- Exitless traps that prove to have at least one way out you didn’t expect
- One or more cases of mistaken or false identities that prove either useful or troublesome as the story progresses
Maybe I need to set the elements of the role playing story down and determine the whether the structure does overlap with the hidden depths of the onion skin principle…