Lessons Learned from Doctor Who: Themes v Messages

I’ve been thinking a lot about several stories recently. Some stories I’ve encountered in the past month have deeply disappointed me. Others have delighted me. I wanted to reflect more on what authors can learn from both the good and the bad.

My goal is not to bash any stories, nor is it to blindly praise any. I want honestly reflect on what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I am learning as an author.

First up: Doctor Who

I’ve loved Doctor Who for about the last eight years of my life. As an American, I was a bit late to the game.

In the last couple months, I’ve caught up on recent seasons and started listening to the Big Finish audiobooks…and I have a lot of thoughts. Conversations with fellow author and friend Kyle Robert Shultz have helped me sort through these thoughts. He has written in-depth reviews of Doctor Who episodes, so I highly encourage you to go visit his blog.

One of the things that stood out as I contrasted episodes I disliked with episodes I liked was whether the authors focused on story or message. Today, we will look at The Lazarus Experiment (episode 3.6) and Nicola Tesla’s Night of Terror (episode 12.4). This is your spoiler warning for those episodes.

“The Lazarus Experiment”

In season 3, “The Lazarus Experiment” opens with the 10th Doctor dropping Martha Jones at her apartment. He overhears Professor Lazarus, a wealthy businessman and inventor, claiming that he is going to “change what it means to be human.”

Curious, the Doctor and Martha go to Lazarus’s unveiling party.

Meanwhile, we’ve been switching with Lazarus’s point of view. We see hints of his flaws—he is arrogant, he flirts with much younger woman, there are hints that he is very self-focused. We also hear him reflect on his motivation: childhood trauma from WWII air raids have left him afraid of feeling close to death. His flaws make us dislike him, but his motivation fills us with compassion. We can understand Lazarus, even if we might not fully approve of his choices.

At the party, Lazarus undergoes a transformation that de-ages him. The Doctor gradually figures out what Lazarus is doing, and slowly discovers that the procedure has also started morphing Lazarus’s DNA, changing him into a literal monster. Lazarus transforms more and more frequently into the monster, and his flaws become more clear and more exaggerated. It’s not clear whether that is Lazarus’s choice at this point or if that is a natural result of the monster taking over, something outside of Lazarus’s control.

There are a couple small moments where Lazarus and the Doctor directly exchange ideologies.

Mostly, it’s running and hiding and frankly creepy (not in a good way) effects.

In the end, the Doctor defeats Lazarus. Then he kneels by Lazarus’s broken, humiliated body, looking on with sorrow, pity, and compassion.

“Nicola Tesla’s Night of Terror”

In season 12, “Nicola Tesla’s Night of Terror” brings us another episode about businessmen/inventors. The episode opens showing us Tesla giving a speech about the power of nature, about his inventions, and about the future, with the lighting, framing, and music casting this as admirable.

Everything is not as peachy as it seems, however. Tesla and his work are being threatened, and the 13th Doctor arrives right in time. After some initial pretending that she thinks he’s a liar and therefore bad, when the Doctor realizes who Tesla is, she lectures her companions on why they should be ashamed that they don’t know who Tesla is: “Nikola Tesla dreams up the 20th century before it happens.”

They find that Thomas Edison has been spying on Tesla and confront him, and here the Doctor really does think Edison is bad. Before hearing the story of what happened between Tesla and Edison, she assumes Edison was at fault in breaking their relationship, asking leading questions. And Edison behaves just as she expects. We realize that Edison makes at least much of his money by hiring promising creative minds and patenting their ideas as his own.

Tesla turns out to be in danger from a species of alien that survives by making other species do the work for them, then taking those species’ inventions. It’s very clear that the aliens are meant to be a stand-in for Edison, especially when the Doctor says things like this:

In the end, Tesla and Edison have a conversation where Edison offers for Tesla to come back to work with him. Edison half-heartedly tries to suggest that his business sense would help balance Tesla’s creativity, but Tesla turns this down because he only believes in pure invention. Based on the Doctor’s final conversation with Tesla, we are led to believe that Tesla is right and Edison is wrong.

Theme versus Message

Now, I will admit that “The Lazarus Experiment” has never been one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, largely because of how much the Lazarus monster disturbs me. But after watching the Tesla episode, I found myself disappointed and nostalgic for the Lazarus episode.

With such similar protagonists and ideas on the surface, how are they different?

Showing or Telling

The key to what makes Lazarus a compelling antagonist is that we are shown who he is through his actions. When he goes out of the way to take his young employee’s hand and later does the same thing to Martha, we don’t have to be told he’s a womanizer who probably harasses his female subordinates all the time. This is something we can relate to our world, even though he is wealthier than most of us will ever be.

Similarly, we see how his obsession with living forever leads him to turn down the Doctor’s offer of help and escalates his downfall. Without telling us that Lazarus’s pride and fear are leading to his failure, we can draw our conclusions about that.

On the flip side, we don’t really see Edison being evil. We’re told that he took Tesla’s ideas in the past. We’re told that Tesla doesn’t like him. We don’t have evidence of his actions in the story to confirm that, though.

Audiences connect with what they experience far more than they connect with what they hear. There’s an old proverb about teaching that goes, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” This is just as true with storytelling. Our emotions got involved in the Lazarus episode because we got to have emotional reactions to seeing him be gross and be deeply affected by childhood trauma. Our emotions were never invested with Edison because we were only told that he was bad, we didn’t experience his badness beyond a conceptual level.

This applies to protagonists, too. We were given a strong introduction to Tesla by seeing him in heroic framing and watching him explain his inventions to potential investors. Our emotions were getting invested in him. When the Doctor lectured her companions on why Tesla was great, it took us out of the realm of showing and into the realm of telling. That started weakening our connection to him. I started to doubt whether I actually liked Tesla and think that I was just seeing an empty hero rather than a relatable human.

As writers, it’s vitally important that we invite our readers to build connections with our characters. Those connections might be based on love, fear, loathing, pity, compassion, etc., but they need to be deeply rooted in emotions. That happens by showing our readers the characters in action, not by telling our readers what we as authors think about the characters.

Room for Ambiguity

The Lazarus episode leaves its audience with a story that means something, but the authors didn’t spell that meaning out for us.

When we think more about the story, we realize that Lazarus’s pride weakened him so that he more easily fell prey to other shortcomings.

We see that he desired to live forever, and the Doctor in comparison to us does live forever. We realize that Lazarus’s desire led to his premature death and led to him preying on other people, and we realize that the Doctor, despite saving the day, despite being motivated by love, also suffers because of his “immortality.”

These ideas aren’t spelled out, and they also leave room for interpretation. There’s a possibility that the Doctor might be wrong. There’s a possibility that technology’s failure, not Lazarus’s character, was the real cause of Lazarus’s demise. Maybe it’s not long life but humanity’s attempts to change the core of what we are that is the problem.

When a story hints at its core topic, leaving room for ambiguity and audience reflection after the story ends, we call it a theme. A theme is not black and white. A theme acknowledges that the author’s perspective is not the only perspective. A theme is scary because readers can interpret themes differently from how the author intended.

But that uncertainty is the true power of themes. By inviting reflection, they require the reader to involve themselves in the story and therefore stay with the reader. Asking “did Lazarus die because he was afraid of death or because he went too far in trying to change what he was” can easily change into more personal questions.

Am I afraid of death?

How am I trying to avoid death? Is that harming me or the people around me?

Do I try to change who I am? Oh, that might be hurting me.

Beyond this episode, stories written to explore themes are the ones that stick with is. That’s why Jesus taught in parables so often, telling stories steeped in ambiguity that required his listeners to keep thinking them over and to come to their own conclusions. In many cases, his stories changed lives and have continued to shape the lives of people ever since.

The Tesla episode leaves its audience with no such ambiguity. We know exactly what the authors wanted us to think: Tesla was a brilliant visionary who kept himself unsullied by money. Edison was bad because he was a businessman who “sold out.” Creativity must be pure, untainted by money.

Rather than giving us themes to discover and explore, by putting the authors’ ideas in black and white, this episode has a message: a definite, finite idea.

Unlike themes, which are birthed by the opportunity to ask questions about a story, messages discourage questioning. Sometimes this has a place, but that is usually in fiction aimed at children. Fables are a genre that deals in messages. Be like the tortoise, not the hare, because going slow and steadily often ends up better than trying to go too fast and burning out.

Most of the time, stories aimed at older audiences should avoid messages. Not only do messages rarely have actual transformative power for readers (“tell me and I forget”), but message-based stories often crumble easily when the reader tries to engage them more and ask questions.

The show wants us to believe that Tesla will endure long after Edison because he was unsullied by monetary pursuit…but I’ve heard more about Edison than Tesla in my life. That must not be true.

Why is it bad for creatives to partner with business people? Don’t inventors need to eat and need to buy materials in order to be great? Maybe Edison had a point and Tesla was foolish…

Maybe it isn’t so bad for creatives to have at least some business sense. I’m creative. I’d like to sell my books, my art, my songs, like Edison sold inventions. I’d rather know where my next meal was coming from…

Giving your readers a message insults their intelligence and presents a very limited view of the world. It cripples your story by making it easy to stop thinking about and weak under questioning.

TL;DR (or, to sum up)

One of the key differences between strong and weak storytelling involves how you approach your core topic.

Weak storytelling tells the readers a message that the author expects the readers to accept at face value. It doesn’t engage the readers’ emotions and doesn’t have a lasting impact, because it doesn’t require their interaction.

Strong storytelling shows the readers a theme that the author expects the readers to discover. It engages the readers by letting them have emotional reactions to the characters’ actions and it has a lasting impact, because it invites readers to draw their own conclusions about about the theme and decide for themselves how the theme applies to their life.

Do you agree about the distinction between themes and messages? Do you disagree? Let me know your own interpretation of this in the comments.

Also, let me know your thoughts on this blog type. Do you want more “Lessons Learned”?

ALSO: Stay tuned for a special announcement on social media this coming Tuesday :D

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