The 1984 Doctor Who roleplaying game published by FASA is, as roleplaying games go, not hugely exciting or interesting. As Doctor Who merchandise it’s slightly more exciting – and inadvertently hilarious at times, such as when it provides a character sheet for Peri that reveals her to be wildly less competent than a newly created player character would be. (So far as I can tell from a perusal of the rules she’s spent exactly eight attribute points and three skill points. A new character should have 74-84 skill points and 38-48 attribute points. I assure you that if you knew what any of this meant it would be hilarious.)
But what’s interesting about it, and why it gets more than a footnote in the blog is that it allows for an interesting look at the rather nebulous process of “identification” and its slightly saner cousin “empathy.” It should come as no surprise, given the rather hardline anti-realist and anti-escapist position of this blog, that I am no fan of “identification” as a concept. In almost all cases I strongly favor models of reading/viewing/whatevering that openly and consistently acknowledge the fact that fiction is fiction, feeling that even if the resulting theories are a bit more complex at first glance they avoid the sorts of absurd contortions that are needed the moment you start digging into a model based around the idea of immersion, escapism, realism, or, yes, identification. Readings based on some flavor of “suspension of disbelief” require the reader to continually moderate between a knowingly false premise (“this is real”) and a true one (“this is not real”). In practice this is always going to be more complex than a system that sticks to one set of true premises.
Many years ago a professor expressed the problems of identification with the following example, which I don’t know if was his originally or not. Imagine a horror movie with a female protagonist walking up a hill towards what the audience knows to be a haunted house, but that she does not. The girl is not afraid in this circumstance, but the audience is. Then, at the end of the movie, imagine her battered, injured, but having finally killed whatever monster lives in the house. At this moment the audience feels triumphant, but the girl feels traumatized, hurt, and terrified. Not only is the audience clearly not identifying with the protagonist here, were the audience to identify with the protagonist the story wouldn’t work at all. In order to function that plot has to have the audience and the protagonist feeling almost the exact opposite.
To my mind, at least, everything one wants to get out of the concept of identification can be accomplished with far more sensible concepts like “investment” and “empathy.” What’s at issue in the hypothetical horror movie is not that we feel the same things as the protagonist but that we both understand what she feels and have an emotional investment in it that is rooted in similarities between her and her situation and things we recognize in our own lives. This sort of structure lets us have all of the emotional responses that an identification-based structure lets us have with the handy side-effect of actually making sense.
There are, however, two consequences of this line of thought that are worth looking at. The first has to do with Doctor Who. In An Unearthly Child, it is easiest to invest in and empathize with Ian and Barbara. One can invest in/empathize with Susan, but it’s harder – on the one hand her basic position is familiar (a slightly rebellious granddaughter with profound love for her grandfather), but on the other she knows a lot of things the audience doesn’t, and that makes empathy harder. It’s nearly impossible, on the other hand, to invest in and identify with the Doctor, who has unclear motives, knows scads the audience doesn’t, and whose basic position is at best unfamiliar and at worse familiar but negative (he appears to be a runaway criminal).
Over time, however, this changes. The Doctor, by dint of having been around for decades, becomes increasingly familiar. Many of the key things he knew that the audience didn’t – his origins, for instance – become progressively better known to the audience. His motivations crystalize and become predictable. Meanwhile, the companions cycle in and out. This both makes us less likely to invest in them (we know they’ll be gone, after all) and makes it so that we never get the chance to invest in them as deeply as the Doctor.
On top of that there is the fact that the universe of Doctor Who is teleologically configured around the Doctor. He’s the only completely irreducible part of the show – it’s impossible to have a Doctor Who story that the Doctor isn’t at the heart of. Even in a story where he’s absent like Mission to the Unknown, his absence becomes a tangible force that is at the heart of what happens: When he’s not there, everyone dies. Heck, even if you decide to make the Doctor less well known and less famous, as Moffat obviously has recently, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t the center of the universe. It just means not everyone knows it. In the end, he still is. This isn’t some flaw in the show – there’s no way that, over twenty-plus years, this wouldn’t happen. And so eventually the audience focus was going to be on the Doctor – not just in the sense of him unambiguously being the hero, but in terms of his reactions and character arc being the focus of a story. Simply put, the thing that most defines Doctor Who’s setting is the fact that the Doctor arriving somewhere ensures that everything is going to go to hell in a handbasket, and, more specifically, that there’s going to be some serious social upheaval. In this regard it really is the case that the universe revolves around the Doctor.
All of this is to say that the old truism that the companion is the audience identification figure is rubbish on two levels. First of all, as I said, screw identification. Second of all, the companion isn’t even the figure the audience invests in the most. The role of the companion is to provide a consistent voice to people who aren’t the teleological focus of the entire universe in the story. That doesn’t mean that their perspective is the one the audience is most invested in, though. I mean, if nothing else, the story follows the Doctor when the companions leave, not the companions. It’s his story. The companions provide a moral grounding to the story more than they provide a narrative perspective.
The second major consequence of this line of thought about identification, on the other hand, applies to role-playing games, which are one of the few media in which identification does, or at least can happen. This is because roleplaying games (and in this regard I would even separate them from video games) are in part derived from acting, and the fact of the matter is that the Method exists. The deliberate blurring of the line between self and character is something that happens in acting, and it’s not surprising that in some cases it ports over to role-playing games. Indeed, I’d argue that much of what’s interesting in role-playing game design since about 1991 has relied on this phenomenon.
But there’s a problem here, and it’s a problem that goes beyond what we talked about back with The Adventure Game in terms of “puzzle-solving” as a storytelling technique. Because when you take these factors in concert there’s an obvious gaping problem with a Doctor Who roleplaying game, which is that everyone is going to want to be the Doctor.
The FASA game takes a relatively clever, if hilariously convoluted route to solving this by expanding the role of the CIA (the Time Lord one, obviously) to be a loosely knit organization of Time Lords in rackety TARDISes “liberated” from the scrapyards to go fix bits of space and time. Silly as this is with relation to the television show, it at least expands the milieu to where players can come up with interesting variations on “renegade Time Lord” and make the game something more complex than just communal fanfic writing. Of course, even here the game can’t quite control itself. It wants to open the door to the idea that there are tons of quasi-Doctors running around working for the CIA, but the rulebook keeps pulling back from this and continuing to concede that the Doctor has some ontological role in the universe.
But even aside from this, there’s a larger problem, which is that any troupe is going to be configured to be one “leader” Time Lord character and a bunch of companions, despite the fact that the structure of the underlying show pushes everybody to invest primarily with the Time Lord and to view the companion not just as a “less cool” character but as a character who is by definition not who the story is about. Doctor Who isn’t a narrative that lends itself to an ensemble cast. There’s one very clearly defined lead, a very important supporting role(s), and that’s it.
This leads one to ask the relatively straightforward question – why the heck does this game exist? I mean, on a fundamental level a Doctor Who roleplaying game does not make a heck of a lot of sense. The show doesn’t lend itself to this sort of storytelling at all.
The answer is prosaic. Roleplaying games are the sorts of things that cult sci-fi properties have made of them. Star Wars got its role-playing game from FASA in 1982, and Star Wars got one from West End Games in 1987 (though FASA’s earlier Traveller snuck in stats for Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in one of its supplements). Marvel superheroes, Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, and Ringworld also had games in the same general time period.
In the US – and to be clear, FASA is an American company – this made some sense. Doctor Who’s popularity in the US was at least substantively overlapping with fans of other science fiction shows. But this was more because science fiction had a relatively narrow range of things it could be in the US. The problem is that in this period by all appearances “cult sci-fi property” is what Doctor Who is aspiring for in the UK as well. Part of this is the over-arching tendency to focus on the export market for Doctor Who – as I’ve noted, there is a problematic tendency when talking about the series in this period and its hiatus to point out that the show was exceedingly profitable due to overseas sales.
But there’s a more basic common logic behind the series in this period and the FASA game. Increasingly the series is acting as though there’s a coherent world in which it takes place and that this presumed world is in some sense inherently valuable. American fandom coined the ghastly term “Whoniverse” for this setting. In practice, this is something the series never even came close to aspiring towards until the Bidmead era, and even there the uptick of references to other stories is less about establishing a single setting in which all of the series took place than about a continual exploration of a theme over multiple stories. But of late, and obviously this is going to get miles out of hand in Friday’s entry, there’s been an increasing tendency of the show to act as though it as a single coherent setting.
In truth, though, it’s not, and this is at the heart of why the idea of a role-playing game is so intrinsically strange for Doctor Who. Because Doctor Who is not a world, it’s a type of interaction with a character. Doctor Who isn’t about the world in which the Doctor travels, it’s about the way in which the Doctor, when introduced to a world, deforms it. And that makes it very much unlike something like Star Trek, where the Enterprise may be the shiniest ship in Starfleet but where there are implicitly scads of ships each of which have an ensemble of crewmembers. Or even Star Wars, a series where there overtly is a chosen one, but where there’s also a ton of effort made painting one big war in which there are necessarily going to be other stories going on. Or, most obviously, Lord of the Rings, which is in many ways a world in search of a story. (Or, actually, a language in search of a world in search of a story. Which is even better, really.)
But Doctor Who, even if it is science fiction, doesn’t work like this. In those cases the franchise is about a particular type of world and a man character is selected who exemplifies the world. Doctor Who, on the other hand, is about a main character who completely screws up and destabilizes any world he’s introduced to. So glorifying the world just doesn’t work. This is not, I should be clear, the somewhat cliched attack in which fandom likes to complain about excessive continuity references in the series (which has always been, first of all, a bit perverse, and second of all, a reaction against a perceived reason for the failure of the Nathan-Turner era more than an actual reaction against the continuity). Rather, I mean it in the sense that a number of major ways in which most cult science fiction texts engage with their audience and create a paratext for themselves to increase profitability are only partially, if at all, open to Doctor Who. There are simply ways in which Doctor Who is very, very bad at being a cult science fiction show. The FASA game demonstrates some of these very thoroughly. More troubling, though, is the fact that the series itself is attempting many of the same things. Which brings us to…