Deconstructing Doc Smith

Film Crit Hulk writes about “breaking a story”. Rather than constructing a story, the goal is to take a story you’re familiar with, or want to tell, and separate it into its component pieces. So I’m going to attempt to do just that, and try to extract a formula for writing a space opera in the vein of E. E. “Doc” Smith.

We’ll consider the following sources:

  • The Lensman series, specifically Galactic Patrol, Gray Lensman, and Second Stage Lensman (LENS)
  • The Skylark series, specifically Skylark of Space and Skylark Three (SKY)
  • Triplanetary (TP)
  • Spacehounds of IPC (IPC)
  • The Galaxy Primes (GP)
  • Masters of Space (MOS) - not strictly a Doc Smith work, but close enough.

I’m choosing these because several of them have strongly similar elements, while the others either complement or contrast those elements.

So what are they?

The Protagonists

There is either a single designated protagonist, or a "first among equals" working alongside members of a common organization. This is the most common point of divergence, so we’ll dub these types the Hero and the Leader respectively.

The protagonist is male. He is highly skilled in his field, which requires he travel in outer space most of the time. He is physically fit, conventionally attractive, and highly intelligent. He is at least conversant in most fields of science, and can improvise or integrate solutions to problems using chemistry and high-energy physics. He is prone to overworking himself. He will strongly resist “taking it easy” or not being as fully active as he could be.

He will not openly acknowledge his feelings under most circumstances, if they are of a deep, sensitive, or romantic nature. He will show enthusiastic support for his fellows and cheer their successes, but will gloss over embarrassing or emotionally vulnerable moments.

When psychic powers are present in the setting, the protagonist will have the strongest potential for such powers among any of his fellow human beings. He will use them in conjunction with his closest friends or allies, eventually forming a mental fusion at times.

Supporting Cast

The Hero-type protagonist (LENS, SKY, TP, IPC) has a love interest, always female, who lacks his overwhelming competence but can contribute regardless. This is often a younger girl, and often the daughter of a notable public figure. She is attractive, conventionally or otherwise. She is notable for her spunk, spirit, or defiance in the face of danger.

She will have met the protagonist as part of his regular job. If there isn’t already a relationship in progress, the two will develop a mutual attraction after significant hardships in space or away from Earth, and their confession of these feelings will mark a turning point in the story.

The Leader-type protagonist (GP, MOS) will be surrounded by male and female associates. Inevitably most or all of his female companions will have a one-sided attraction to him. All but one will find other partners, give up on the attraction, or develop an alternate relationship with him. Sexual politics and social infighting within the group will occur early on, giving way to a stable social group later on.

The Leader’s eventual love interest will be an expert in her own field, and nearly as capable in others. She will work in partnership with the Leader character, ultimately deferring to his decisions, but contributing feedback and alternative viewpoints. She will be exceptional both physically and mentally.

The supporting cast can include any or all of the following:

  • A male foil for the protagonist, complementing his qualities and personality and acting as a brother figure.
  • An older officer of space who acts as a mentor or assistant.
  • One or more members of an older race who will address the protagonist as “youth” and council him to get more sleep, rather than overworking himself.
  • One or more servants or assistants, loyal to the protagonist but not bound to his specific service.

Aside from the protagonist and his love interest, human characters in his immediate social circle who are of the proper age will eventually have romantic partners of their own. Aliens, older mentor figures, and the like will not have their love lives discussed.


Heroic characters will use idiomatic vernacular speech. Their informality with each other will be a point of pride. When in a serious situation, they will speak properly and respectfully. However, once protocol has been observed, they will be jolly and casual.

Non-heroic characters will speak more formally, often in a stilted or erudite fashion.

Characters threatening each other will be hard, steely, and serious. They will not escalate threats, merely state stakes and offer promises. More heroic characters will not bluff, but will call others’ bluffs.

The Action

The central action of the story will involve one or more of the following:

  • One or more human characters from Earth are embarking on some voyage.
  • The launch of a spaceship or starship. This is either a prototype (LENS, SKY, GP) or a passenger ship (TP, IPC).
  • An attack on the ship from superior but initially unidentified enemies (LENS, TP, IPC).
  • A rescue effort in space, directly involving the protagonist and his love interest. In most cases (LENS, SKY, TP, IPC), he is rescuing her. Sometimes it goes the other way (LENS).
  • An engineering effort in which the protagonist builds, fixes, or creates something new to solve a problem (SKY, TP, IPC, GP, MOS).
  • A significant advance in the technology level, in preparation for a space battle against a hostile alien force who are initially superior.
  • The reverse engineering or deduction of someone else’s technology from seeing it in action.
  • A single type of activity (escape, infiltration, etc.) performed repeatedly by the protagonist at different scales or involving different antagonists.
  • The creation of an interstellar defense agency or society, with the protagonist and his supporting cast as the head figures. Often, this new institution will be done without consulting existing authorities to which the protagonist is theoretically beholden.
  • A decisive and disastrous outcome for the antagonist’s base of operations, resulting in their surrender or destruction.

The Antagonists

The antagonists exist to prevent the protagonist from eventually achieving or facilitating a super-scientific utopia. Their secondary function is to exert the pressure that drives the protagonist and love interest together, and inspires the protagonist to embark on the development of newer and better power (science, technology, psionics).

Whether human or alien, individuals or an entire species, antagonist characters come in two major flavors:

  • The highly scientific but amoral conqueror
  • The obstructive, short-sighted authority figure

Many antagonists will have access to most of the technology available to the protagonist. However, the protagonist may have exclusive access to some notable technology, often provided by a superior alien race. Antagonists that don’t have a scientific or technological edge will have other resources (wealth, social influence over the protagonist, etc.)

Writing a Story

So putting these pieces back together, what are the steps I’d take to plan a space opera in the mold of Doc Smith? I’d answer the following questions:

  1. What is the state of technology in the setting? Of psychic powers?
  2. Is the initial scope of travel interplanetary, interstellar, or intergalactic?
  3. Is space travel experimental, new, or mature?
  4. Does the enemy originate on Earth, or from space?
  5. What is the initial state of affairs between protagonist and love interest?
  6. Something will cause the protagonists to leave their ship. Is it voluntary (e.g. discovery) or involuntary (e.g. attack and destruction of the craft)? What is it?
  7. Do the protagonists end up in the enemy’s hands, or in unexplored terrain?
  8. What actions must a science hero undertake to escape this initial predicament?
  9. Once this is done, how does the social dynamic change for the characters?
  10. What would escalate the action next? Enemy action, or the protagonist being proactive?
  11. What surprise or danger seems to initially thwart the protagonist’s efforts at this stage?
  12. What is the final mechanism for ending the major antagonist’s threat?

Building on that skeleton, and fleshing it out with the details from earlier, I think it should be possible to create a reasonable space opera in the Doc Smith mold. I don’t know that I’ll necessarily try it, but it’s a good exercise regardless.