The Basic Plots

"'A plot!' a voice shrieked triumphantly."
—Gareth Roberts, The Plotters
Alien Invasions:

Most alien civilizations devote their time and energy to invading other planets. It is not clear why this activity is so popular. Perhaps it's just their way of being friendly.

In particular, these aliens like to invade Earth. We seem to be prime real estate. Even species who are manifestly unsuited to the local environment want it. The reasons are, again, unclear; it's difficult to imagine what we might have that can't be had more easily elsewhere. Ownership of Earth would be a big resource sink, as well, since you'd have to defend it from all the other aliens who want it.

Base Under Siege:

The Doctor arrives at a base. Bases are always located in isolated areas such as alien planets, space stations, or Antarctica. As soon as the TARDIS lands, the base comes under siege from implacable enemies. The Doctor must use his special talents to help the personnel, who are useless in a crisis, defend themselves.

If this is a television episode, the base will feature a large room in which most of the action will take place.

Factions in Space:

A society, usually a human colony in the future, is divided into two factions. Relations between the factions vary from mild unrest to outright war, but in any case the Doctor is caught between them. The situation usually worsens just as he arrives.

Often an external threat just happens to show up at the same time as the Doctor. Evil Aliens work well for this. If so, either the factions will learn to work together to fight the new menace, or escalating tensions will hinder the Doctor's efforts to defeat it.

Fiction Becomes Reality:

Fiction—sometimes a specific work, sometimes a genre—becomes real, through dimensional weirdness, advanced technology, or some other device. The Doctor is thrown into the resulting environment.

This idea hasn't quite become a cliché yet, as writers are still coming up with new takes on the plot every time they use it. However, it's popular enough that cliché status is inevitable.

Plot Points

"In his little box of stage properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go."
—Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper, from "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences"
Bodily transformation:

Aliens physically transform humans into beings like themselves. This is usually part of an invasion attempt.

Capture and Escape:

The crew are captured by enemies. As soon as they escape they are captured again, by the same people or by someone else. The beautiful thing about this cliché is that it appears to advance the plot even though nothing important is happening. A clever writer can pad out the story by several chapters or episodes with no one the wiser. Without this helpful technique, "Frontier in Space" would have been two episodes long.

Cinematic Endings:

Climactic scenes so spectacular that one suspects the writer envisioned a big-budget summer action movie, instead of a book or low budget TV episode. On television, this usually resulted in a special effects sequence that looked laughable because it was too ambitious for the budget; see "Terror of the Zygons" or "Robot." In a novel, it usually results in a lot of dull sound and fury and leaves the reader wondering why no one ever noticed, for example, giant skarasen roaming nineteenth century London (The Bodysnatchers).


At the end of the story, something—a building, a spaceship, a giant demonic alien, whatever—blows up. Often the explosion occurs for no sensible reason, except that it looks cool. Thankfully, we have so far been spared scenes of the Doctor running away from the fireball and being thrown forward by the shockwave. See also Cinematic Endings.

False Accusations:

The Doctor, or some other member of the crew, is accused of a crime. He must find the real culprit to prove his innocence. No one ever thinks to examine forensic evidence, or, in high tech settings, check for DNA samples.

Locked Out:

The crew are separated from or locked out of the TARDIS. Sometimes the story wouldn't work if the TARDIS was accessible. Other times, the writers seem to think the Doctor needs an excuse to stick around and investigate the latest mystery, although this hasn't been true since the Hartnell era.


A crew member is posessed or hypnotized by the villain. For some reason, this rarely results in mental trauma.

Not Quite the End:

The Doctor appears to have wiped out the latest menace, but the last scene reveals that some remnant is still alive.


At some point, the Doctor is captured and surrounded by people with guns. He responds with a dopey grin and an inane remark about how he's always being captured and surrounded by people with guns, like "I'm starting to feel at home here," or "I suppose this is the part where I raise my hands?"

Things Fall Apart:

Many societies are built around one special gimmick, usually a technology—robot labor, a power source, etc.—or social system. As soon as the Doctor arrives in one of these places, the central gimmick breaks down. He is usually falsely accused of causing the problem.


Mysterious alien buildings are often protected by a series of traps which the intruder must disarm or avoid in order to proceed. Though created by very advanced cultures to protect their darkest secrets, these traps usually take the form of simple puzzles or logic problems solvable by an ordinary human eight year old.

Virtual Reality:

The crew find themselves in a virtual reality dreamscape. Sometimes the author uses the environment to explore the characters' inner psyches. Sometimes it's just an easy excuse for surrealism. This idea was popular for a while early in the Virgin NA period, and has rarely been seen since.

Tactical Errors

"'When I say run... you run! Got that?'
'What? That's your plan?'"
—Jeff Smith, Bone
"Whoa! We have a TARDIS?":

Sometimes the crew forget about the TARDIS as soon as they're outside. At some point, they find themselves searching for some resource that should be readily available in their time machine, such as emergency shelter or laboratory facilities. See, for example, The Janus Conjunction: the Doctor and Sam rescue someone just outside the TARDIS, but instead of taking her into their indestructable safe haven, they immediately run off and become separated.

"Why don't they believe me about the Space Noodles?":

When brought into custody by the local authorities, or in an attempt to gain their assistance, the Doctor tells them exactly what's going on. Unfortunately the truth sounds ridiculous, and he has no proof. It never occurs to the Doctor that the authorities might just think he's a lunatic, or lying; neither does it occur to him to invent something believable.

The Characters

"The heroes are the dullest quartet in fiction, and so remarkably incompetent that it would take their combined intellectual resources to toast a slice of bread."
—From a newspaper review of "The Web Planet", as quoted in Doctor Who Magazine #186

Note, again, that the traits listed for the individual characters here aren't necessarily all bad or invalid. They're just obvious handles that are often substituted for actual characterization.

Generic companions:

The Doctor's companions often seem interchangable. In fact, most of the time one could insert a completely different set of characters with no major changes to the story. Regardless of their backgrounds or occupations, they seem to have no particular skills. Although they may come from the past, the distant future, or an alien planet, they think and behave not much differently from contemporary middle-class suburbanites.

The Doctor:

The Doctor is very British. He dresses in Victorian or Edwardian clothing, including a frock coat, and always wears the same outfit, or a variation on it. From 1996 to 2004 all new incarnations were for some reason required to have long hair. He carries a Sonic Screwdriver and hands Jelly Babies out to everyone.

Just being in the Doctor's presence is a wonderful, life-affirming experience. He frequently exhibits erratic behavior which would be frightening, annoying, or a sign of insanity in others, but when he does it it's charming. He looks eccentric, but somehow, people just know that they can trust him. Sometimes observers have trouble deciding what color his eyes are.


Ace speaks in a strange vernacular dialect unknown to any real human civilization. She calls the Doctor "Professor." She likes to blow stuff up.

After her return in the New Adventures, she is assumed to be violent and mentally unstable. See also Violence and The Military.

Peri Brown:

Wherever she goes, Peri is certain to be sexually harassed by at least one character, often the villain.


After becoming a TARDIS, Compassion spends most of each book malfunctioning and inert. It could be because she's a prototype and still has a lot of bugs. Then again, maybe the writers were just too dull and unimaginative to know what to do with her.

Anji Kapoor:

Anji is a stockbroker. She has a dead boyfriend who she remembers at least once per book.

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart:

While working for U.N.I.T., the Brigadier is a humorous dunce who never quite understands what he's dealing with. He argues with the Doctor a lot.

Post-U.N.I.T., the Brigadier is the Doctor's best friend in the universe. His appearances are cloying and sentimental. The writers go out of their way to remind us what a wonderful old guy he is. He is usually referred to by his title rather than his name, as though he were some sort of archetype rather than a person.

Fitz Kreiner:

Fitz has many romantic encounters. They tend to distract him from whatever he's supposed to be doing, and he usually ends up in a separate subplot. He cares deeply about his girlfriends, but forgets them completely by the next book.

The Master:

The Master wears disguises, whether he needs them or not. He uses stupid aliases which are always some variation on the word "master." The Master usually hates and wants to kill the Doctor, but will sometimes inexplicably show fondness and respect for him, and help him out of trouble.

Jamie McCrimmon:

Jamie is Scottish and wears a kilt. He speaks with an unconvincing accent, and uses words like "wee," "yon," "aye," and "sassenach" at least once per sentence.


Not sure what to do with Turlough? Make sure he's locked up or captured early on, and don't let him out until the end of the story.

Geography Lessons

"There's no place like London!"
—Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd

London is the center of the universe. The further away from it you are, the less likely it is that anything strange, important, or interesting will happen to you. Alien visitors instinctively make it the center of their invasion attempts; once they control London, it can be assumed that the rest of the world is under their control as well. The vast majority of Fortean events on Earth occur in the south of England.

Outside London:

Outside of London, England consists of sleepy little villages. These villages frequently have dark secrets. There is usually a research lab, military base, mental asylum, or other potentially sinister establishment nearby.

Roads in England are usually completely deserted apart from the Doctor and anyone else important to the plot. This is just as well, since, judging from the TV show, they are barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic.

The Northern U.K.:

Once you get away from the London area, into Scotland, Wales, and other areas of the United Kingdom, you find strongly ethnic people, with quaint customs and superstitions, and heavy accents.

The Universe:

In some stories, the universe seems oddly small. Many villains talk seriously about conquering and ruling the entire universe, as though this were logistically possible. Occasionally references are made to intergalactic travel as though it is a casual thing rather than a major undertaking. Even within the same galaxy, solar systems are sometimes packed awfully close—in "Frontier in Space," the Doctor appears to travel between the homeworlds of two vast interplanetary empires in a matter of hours.

Living in the Future

"We're all driving rocket ships, and talking with our minds..."
—John Prine, "Living in the Future"

Culturally, the future is just like contemporary England. You see new technology here and there, but there have been no major social upheavals. People's everyday lives are not much different from those of the middle-class citizens of present day first world cultures. All other cultures and lifestyles have apparently vanished, though you occasionally meet someone with a foreign-sounding name.

Nothing normal ever happens in the future—at least not when the Doctor is around. Everyone lives from one crisis to another. Not everyday crises, but world-shattering (and usually external) threats. If it's not an Alien Invasion, or a Factions in Space situation coming to a head, it's a mysterious new technology gone wrong, or a megalomaniac out to destroy a civilization for his own benefit. Nothing less than an entire planet and/or millions of lives may be at stake.

Career choices:

In most future societies, almost everyone the Doctor encounters will be either a government employee or a rebel. Their most important industries appear to be civil service and rebellion. If accountants, manual laborers, restaraunt owners and such appear, then they will not be major characters and may only exist to be killed off by a monster.

On planets where no organized rebellion is currently active, colorful outsiders may be substituted for rebels. If they are present, the Doctor will need their help to accomplish his goals.


Most planets have one big city where everything important is located. This is true even if the planet is a race's homeworld rather than a colony—either other settlements never existed, or they are dominated by the uber-city the way Earth is dominated by London. Rebels or alien invaders need only take over this one city in order to control the entire planet.


Technology has improved only haphazardly since the present day. New technology is limited to those devices necessary for the plot, plus a few cosmetic gadgets like ray guns, spaceships, and teleporters, which can be cribbed from Star Trek. No new technology transforms the societies of the future the way computers or automobiles affected ours, and everyday life continues much as always.

Xenobiology for Dummies

"Perhaps on your way home, someone will pass you in the dark... And you will never know it, for they will be from outer space!"
— Criswell, in Plan Nine from Outer Space
Aliens are evil:

Most aliens are evil. This is especially likely to be the case if they are not humanoid. The human standard of beauty holds throughout the universe, and the uglier an alien species looks to humans, the more likely they are to be evil. If the ugly aliens are not evil, then the writer is usually trying to make a point about not judging by appearances.

For the most part, the aliens aren't evil because the Doctor has happened to run into some criminals—their entire species is that way, with no exeptions. This is because each species is alloted exactly one single culture.


A surprising number of alien species look and act exactly like humans. Sometimes this is because the story wouldn't work if the crew were obviously different, though that doesn't explain the cultural similarities. Frequently it is just to indicate to the reader or viewer that the aliens are not necessarily evil.

Humans are special:

Humans are a special and unique species. If an alien race is lacking in some quality that humans posess—usually an emotion—then it will be brought out as evidence of human superiority. However, when humans lack some quality that an alien species posesses, and the aliens bring it up as evidence of their own superiority, it is in that case a sign of arrogance.

Monolithic cultures:

Most aliens do not have the wide diversity of cultures and viewpoints that we posess on Earth. Instead, they have a single monolithic culture spread across their entire world. Most of these cultures are evil, and devote themselves to conquest. In other words, they are even less well thought out than the alien cultures on Star Trek, which is saying something.

One big climate:

Just as most aliens have one monolithic culture, many planets have one monolithic climate. This is a general media science fiction cliché rather than a specifically Whovian cliché, but it deserves a place on the list. Other questionable ecosystems include Hyspero, which errs in the opposite direction with a desert, jungle, and arctic ocean all within easy driving distance; and Marinus, whose acid seas somehow have not prevented the development of humanoid life.


"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."
—H. P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"
Back Story of Doom:

In a novel, an infodump containing the life story of a new or hitherto minor character will quite shortly be followed by that character's untimely death.

Evil from the Dawn of Time:

A generic term for a godlike alien intelligence. There are a great many of these, and they all seem to be evil.


Guards are found all over the universe. They are extremely stupid, and usually faceless, wearing some kind of concealing helmets. As with aliens, the rules against violence don't apply to guards.


Guns are very bad. Using guns on people is somehow more morally wrong than using swords, explosives, big rocks, or any other sort of weapon.

If the Doctor encounters a gun, he will make a disapproving comment about it. He may point out that he never carries them. He never mentions that he's not in the habit of carrying any other kind of weapon either.

Jelly Babies:

A type of candy sold in England and carried by the Doctor. When the Doctor offers these candies to strangers, their response is a clue to their character. Wicked and villainous individuals react to Jelly Babies with hostility, but the pure of heart eat them. Presumably good-hearted diabetics are allowed simply to appreciate them from afar.

For some reason, no one ever thinks it disturbing that the Doctor enjoys eating candy shaped like babies.


Leaders, whether generals, dictators, presidents, or corporate C.E.O.s, are stubborn, paranoid, unreasonable, and often borderline psychotic. Despite this, they have somehow managed to reach high positions without anyone noticing how unstable they are. They will make foolish decisions in a crisis and hinder the Doctor's efforts to solve the problem. Not long after the Doctor's arrival, they will finally go over the edge.

The Military:

Regardless of the time or place in which it operates, the military is always a dehumanizing institution. Soldiers are trained to become brutal, callous killers. The exception is U.N.I.T., a friendly organization filled with decent, good-hearted people who just happen to carry guns.

Sinister Italics:

Sections of a book printed in italics, depicting the viewpoint of an unidentified character who usually turns out to be some kind of monster or alien. They may include multiple references to pain or hunger. One of these sections is always placed at the very beginning of the book.

Sonic Screwdriver:

The Sonic Screwdriver drives screws with sound waves. But that's not all! It also opens locks, sets off mines and marsh gas, and can be converted into an electromagnet. In fact, it can do anything at all, if a writer needs an easy way to advance the plot. Now how much would you pay?

The Doctor dearly loves his sonic screwdriver. If he isn't carrying it, he will, at least once during the story, wish that he had it.

Televisual Books:

Some books secretly wish to be television stories. The most common result is that the book will be divided into sections—usually between three and six, of roughly equal size—with a cliffhanger at the end of each one, as though the sections were episodes of a television story. Some books go farther, and duplicate the limitations of the T.V. series—setting the action on a limited number of "sets," restricting the action and dialogue to what could be broadcasted on a Saturday afternoon, or the like. This practice differs from the postmodern in-joke in that it is an exercise in nostalgia rather than an attempt to be clever.


The language of fictitious science. Since Doctor Who is more science fantasy than hard science fiction, technobabble is inescapable. There are several different kinds. Most ingenious, but also rarest, is when a writer justifies a fanciful concept in a way that appears to make sense in real-world terms. Failing that, technobabble should be internally consistent, should make the concepts it describes clear to the reader, and should sound like language real scientists would use.

Problems occur when a writer, attempting to justify a vague, inconsistent, or poorly thought out concept, merely strings together some sciency-sounding buzzwords. Worst of all is when a story gets genuine, basic scientific concepts wrong, or when terms for real phenomena are hijacked for a silly concept: see the depiction of entropy as green matter-eating energy in "Logopolis," or The Janus Conjunction's glowing, flesh-melting radiation.

Sufficiently stupid technobabble is indistinguishable from magic.

Time Lords:

The Time Lords are among the most powerful races in the universe, and their technology is unimaginably advanced. However, when you actually get to know them, it turns out that they think and act just like humans. In fact, they resemble nothing so much as a bunch of ineffectual Oxford dons and members of Parliament. Despite their incredible scientific knowledge and godlike powers, they are completely incapable of handling a crisis without the help of the Doctor.

The Time Lords have many ancient artifacts, all of which are named after Rassilon or Omega.


Violence is morally unacceptable and will earn a stern lecture from the Doctor, unless he is the one using it himself, in which case no one will comment. An exception is the use of violence against aliens. As long as they don't look human, they can be thumped, shot, blown up, and otherwise harmed with no qualms.

People who have a professional familiarity with violence, such as soldiers or guards, often have been damaged by their jobs and are mentally unstable.