Doctor WHO is a decades-old show that started going down in flames with the 12th Doctor’s run – when the writers thought strong-arming politics into every story until now PC culture has forced the Doctor into a woman. But BEFORE that, the series stood as an excellent example for anyone trying to write modern pulp fiction.
Of course, not every episode was great or even good. Some were downright awful. But when referring to Doctor WHO as a great model for new pulp fiction writers, I’m talking about its structure.
Back during the Golden Age of Pulp Fiction – pulp writers were paid by the words, and only when a story was greenlit for publishing. So, as capitalism often does, writers were inspired to create high-quality stories much faster. How did they do that? By turning writing from an art to more of a mechanic.
They made plot engines. They made story templates where they could just plug in a few new things and pump out the next story. And that’s what I believe Doctor WHO does particularly well. The Doctor is an interesting character in his own right, but it’s the elegant plot engine, powering his adventures, that has kept him going for more than 50 years.
- The Doctor lands at a location
- Something goes wrong
- The Doctor solves the problem
- The Doctor leaves
That’s the typical structure of a Doctor WHO adventure. Some of you might be thinking that if you boil it down, that’s essentially the plotline of almost every series. You’d be right. But here’s the trick. The secret ingredient that makes Doctor WHO so uniquely qualified as an idol for new pulp writers – its premise.
Doctor WHO is a time traveling/world jumping alien. In other words, while it’s true that a WHO story follows a simple plot structure, the bounds of a Doctor WHO story are virtually limitless. One story he could be fighting an alien invasion, and the next he could be trying to solve a murder. This open premise has allowed various writers with their various styles to write interesting and convincing stories for the franchise. It’s also how The Doctor can easily branch out into television, novels, video games, and even radio dramas. The premise can support almost any personality. If your writer is more conservative, you can have The Doctor smash a government conspiracy. If your writer loves the occult, you can send The Doctor against a brood of vampires. And the idea of The Doctor regenerating allows the franchise to organically take the show in new directions with fresh ideas.
Now, I’m not saying your new pulp serial should center around a time traveler or an alien. I’m saying that when starting a new serial that you intend to stick with, check its flexibility. How many kinds of stories do you think you can write for your main character? Does your premise allow organic changes in direction?
If you want another example, look at the superhero genre. Every story revolved around fighting crime, but the flexibility of a superhero universe allows for nearly limitless possibilities: aliens, demons, magic, mad scientists. Star Trek is another good example. The premise of exploring the “final frontier” allows for almost any kind of encounter. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman follows Dream, an immortal entity who can travel time and space. If Gaiman decided not to end it, it probably could’ve gone on forever.
Just remember, there are different rules for one-shot novels or novel trilogies than there are for continuous serials like Doctor WHO. Trilogies and one-shot novels can be more rigid – less concerned about staying fresh.
You might not think Doctor WHO was the best example, but I chose this franchise because it’s the most overt in showing off its plot structure and premise. It does a fine job and the mechanics are easily identified. And that’s why I recommend the series to anyone wanting to write a brand new serial for the awesome Pulp Revolution.