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STORYTELLING CASE STUDIES: Walter White and The Doctor

The past week saw the season 7 debut of British sci-fi series Doctor Who and the mid-season cliffhanger ending of Breaking Bad which ends its TV run in 2013.xl I was so impressed with both, that I wanted to take this opportunity to do two things: review these most recent episodes and take some time to consider the story telling richness of iconic characters Walter White and The Doctor.

WARNING: SPOILERS MAY ABOUND BELOW. Well, there will be some. Whether they abound or not, I guess, depends how you define “abound.”

Breaking Bad, for the uninitiated, is an AMC drama about a family man, high school chemistry teacher, beaten down by life, who turns 50 and finds out he has cancer. Suddenly faced with the prospect of dying and leaving his family penniless, he hooks up with a former stoner student to cook an insanely pure grade of blue meth. Over the past four seasons, Walt has spiraled downward from nice guy-doing-bad-for-the-right-reasons to bad-guy-on-a-power-trip to where he is now in season five, bad-guy-trying-to-regain-good-guy-self. Problem is, last week’s episode suggests he may finally be busted. Walt is smart. Very smart. But he got careless. His love for Walt Whitman – and his brother-in-law’s lower intestine – could be his undoing.

Walt is not the only bad guy to play a prime role on a TV show. Tony Soprano was pretty consistently a bad dude from the start of “The Sopranos” to the end. Conflicted, sure, but a mobster through and through. Maybe you rooted for him to changed (or maybe you didn’t), but he was pretty much the same Tony from season to season.

Dexter is a “hero” of sorts because he targets murderers and rapists who have somehow escaped law enforcement, always meticulous about making sure his victim is guilty. But Dexter himself has always been the first to say that all he’s doing is directing his blood lust toward society’s dregs so that he doesn’t randomly kill his neighbors and other innocents.

But Walt is unique. He’s the first character I can think of where the series premieres with its central character a clean-cut innocent and devolving into murder and mayhem, challenging the viewer to stay with the show and making that viewer really question if they are rooting for or against the character. That’s a fascinating storytelling challenge. It’s easy to write a good character that readers/viewers want to root for. It’s also easy to write a bad guy that people love to read – why do you think actors always say in interviews they want to play the bad guy? But writing a central character so strong that the viewer stays with him despite (because of?) the increasingly bad things he does? That’s the storytelling olympics, friend. I picture a lot of late-night pots of coffee in the “Breaking Bad” writer’s room. Also whisky. And, oddly, a lazy susan full of cheese cubes.

Anyway, if Walter White is a masterclass in redefining “protagonist”, then The Doctor is a study in tweeking a legendary character in ways that deepen his appeal rather than deflate it.

It would take too long to summarize fifty years of TV history, but in short: The Doctor of BBC TV’s “Doctor Who” is a Time Lord who travels the universe in a  TARDIS that looks like a 1960’s British police call box on the outside, but inside is an infinitely large spaceship that can travel anywhere in time and space. The Doctor has devoted his life to protecting the defenseless. The original “classic” Who ran for almost thirty years, then, after a fifteen year break, returned to TV, and gangbuster ratings, in 2005. The Doctor’s (Did I mention the character can regenerate when mortally wounded? I’ll save that for another time.)

The new show, along with better special effects and, honestly, better acting, has more of an edge. The premise of the new show is that the Doctor’s entire race has been wiped out – by his own doing. He destroyed his own people to end The Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks (giant slugs housed in scary looking metal canisters that like to kill things) Classic doctors tended to be more professorial. Cranky, occasionally petulant, often funny, but ultimately good guys.  The modern era Doctor is angrier and not occasionally egotistical. The heroism and humor are there too, but there’s a lot of rage underneath. There have been a lot more speeches made to the Doctor about getting too big for his britches. And last week’s premiere found The Doctor facing his dread enemy the Daleks again. Kidnapped, surrounded, the Doctor waved his arms proclaiming, “Here I am!” He went on to help a woman realize that she was turned into a Dalek. Then blew her up.

Don’t get me wrong. “Doctor Who” is still great sci-fi fun, but more and more these dark passages are being sprinkled into the mix. It’s a light touch, sure, but still a stretching of the classic Who fabric; a delicate dance for a decades-old formula.

“Writing” is a technical skill; being able to put together words and paragraphs, proper spelling and grammar, in a way that is concise and coherent. “Storytelling” is an art; using writing to captivate, thrill, repel, and otherwise move you in a way that the DVD player manual just can’t. The Doctor and Walter White are just too fine examples of that art.

Go watch some TV.

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