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TGT Debate – Should There Be Fewer Earth Stories?

Last week we debated whether show runner Steven Moffat had had his day and asked you to vote. It was a close call, but 55% of you said he should stay.

The Doctor can travel anywhere in time and space in his TARDIS, but he’s a big fan of Earth. Over the years, there have been many stories set on Earth – be it in the past, present or future – but are there too many Earth stories? That’s what we’re here to debate this week.

“There should be fewer Earth stories.” argues Ben

“Anywhere you want. Any time you want. One condition: it has to be amazing.”

That’s the promise the Doctor makes to Amy and Rory in Vampires of Venice and it’s a line that sums up the premise of Doctor Who. The Doctor can take us anywhere in the universe at any point in history. So why does he keep going back to Earth?

The Doctor has a fond liking of our lovely little planet, that much is obvious, but I can’t help thinking that he’s a little bit obsessed. There are millions of planets in the Universe – or so the show tells us – but the Doctor always seems to come back to Earth. Let’s take a look at some of the stats, focussing on post-2005 Who. There have been 116 episodes since the series was brought back in 2005, with 70 of them set on Earth. 71! That’s over 60% of episodes set on Earth. Considering we’ve got all of time and space to play with, we’re still spending more time on Earth than on another planet. And even when we are on Earth, it’s often either London or Cardiff that we visit. More often than not, when stories aren’t set on Earth they are set on space stations or spaceships. So why exactly are the BBC so reluctant to show off any new planets in their hit sci-fi drama?

The BBC obviously have their reasons for keeping the Doctor firmly rooted to Earth, but surely they can improvise a bit. Okay, it may save costs to film in Cardiff and call it Cardiff. But surely they could find some abstract part of town – a quarry perhaps – and call it a different planet. The other cliche is that they’re doing it ‘so the audience can relate to it’. Why do I need to relate to it? If I wanted something I could relate to I’d stare out the window. I watch Doctor Who to lose myself in other worlds and immerse myself in a universe where anything is possible. Fair enough at the start of the 2005 series – as with the original 1963 run – it needs to start off in Earth so people can gradually get used to the idea of other worlds and aliens and the like. But in these days of supersonic hedgehog brothers and Jedi knights, people are used to other planets and aliens. Star Wars wasn’t spoiled because Obi-Wan didn’t keep popping back to Earth was it? Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t suffer because Peter Quill never went back to Earth did it? My main quibble with the ‘aliens invading Earth’ stories is that it breaks the illusion of reality. We know that the Daleks and Cybermen weren’t flying and marching around London in 2006, so therefore we know that what is happening isn’t real. I’m not saying that when the Doctor landed on Trenzalore I believed it was 100% real, but I’ve never been to Trenzalore, so for all I know it could be real.

But why does all this matter? It matters because the show is not delivering on its promise. Every time I tune in to Doctor Who, I’m thinking “I wonder where we’re going this week” but most of the time I’m disappointed because it’s another ‘Earth story’. They may not always be set in the present day, but the fact of the matter is that it’s still Earth. Yes it’s nice to see historical figures like Winston Churchill – played wonderfully by Ian McNiece I may add – but I prefer to see more aliens. With a universe of life out there, it provides us with endless opportunities for characters and stories. It’s not just the other planets we’re missing out on, it’s the beings that inhabit them. Daleks! Cybermen! Those are the characters that people remember, and on their home planets they’re even more deadly, with the advantage of being in their own territories.

Let me ask you this: would The Rings of Akhaten be better off as The Rings of Coventry? Or would Dinosaurs on a Spaceship work better as Dinosaurs on a Field in Yorkshire? Would you be more frightened of The Waters of Earth than The Waters of Mars? And finally, would anybody have tuned in to David Tennant’s first series of Doctor Who if the first episode was just called Earth? Of course not. Doctor Who should explore more of what the universe has to offer and let us delight in visiting these strange and wonderful planets.

‘There shouldn’t be fewer Earth stories’, argues Louis

The planet out there, with three suns, a wormhole, and alien sand – that planet is nothing. You hear me? Nothing! Compared to all those things waiting for you – food, home, people. Hold on to that.

Done right, an alien planet can be something quite special – conveying a sense of exoticism and sheer alienness that’s specific to science-fiction shows. The idea of a civilisation completely disconnected from Earth is appealingly escapist, creating an entirely new world with no anchor to the world we live in.

Despite that, I don’t believe that there should be fewer Earth stories. The first reason is a practical one; despite the fact that Doctor Who is one of BBC Worldwide’s biggest earners and likely has a larger budget than most drama shows on UK TV, there’s still budget limitations that constrain the show in places. If a writer pens an Earth-bound story, due to the fact that Earth settings rarely need the costly special effects or exotic filming location for alien planets, then it’s pretty likely that their creative vision of the story will be generally fulfilled.
If it’s a story set on an alien planet, it’s still certainly possible to do justice to it, but there’s a chance that the budget constraints will end up delivering a half-baked, disappointing version of that planet. Surely it’s better to generally go for something that can be accurately conveyed on-screen, rather than something that’s simply too expensive to do justice to, and therefore ends up as a creaky, watered-down and flimsy on-screen portrayal? It’s the sort of cheap effects that could thoroughly undermine the show as it is today, undercutting the growing idea that Doctor Who can often provide spectacle on-par with blockbusters.
Second of all, there’s the reason Ben mentioned above: the relatable nature of an Earth story. As Ben said, Doctor Who is escapism – but it’s not quite in the same category as more straightforward escapism like Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy. When Russell T Davies relaunched the show in 2005, he did it by opening with a shot of Earth, before zooming in to follow Rose Tyler’s life on Earth, visiting places and engaging in mundane activities that most viewers could recognise.
Doctor Who, at its core, should be a combination of the mundane and wonderful – it works because it eases the viewer into the sci-fi spectacle by providing a clear and tangible connection to the real world, and not just merely assaulting the viewer with wacky alien visuals. Doctor Who‘s Earth settings are a great way to anchor the show in a world that viewers can actually relate to, therefore enhancing the alien planet stories themselves – after spending time in a familiar settings, the trip to an exotic alien world is more rewarding and thrilling, mirroring the wonder felt by the companions as the show transitions from Earth to the furthest parts of the galaxy. By keeping the alien planet stories rare, they’re more viscerally exciting when they do come, preserving the novelty of the new setting rather than swiftly destroying it.
And, for the record, Ben, I would watch Dinosaurs on a Field in Yorkshire!

So, that’s what we think, but what do you think? Vote in the poll whether you think there should be fewer Earth stories and leave your comments below.

Should there be fewer stories set on Earth?