Doctor Who and the Series Arc

The original run of Doctor Who – 1963 to 1989 – consisted of serialised stories running usually four to six episodes long. Since returning to our screens in 2005, the show has generally been limited to one or two part stories, but with a series arc binding the whole thing together. But the series arc has gone back and forth between a big deal, and a not-so-big deal.

In the middle of the 11th Doctor’s era, Steven Moffat moved away from a series arc and tried to focus on the weekly stories. But was this a good move? Have people’s viewing habits changed over the years, and is it time to bring back the bread-crumb trail and build up?

Let’s have a look back through the series at how it has been dealt with.

2005-2010

When Russell T Davies brought the show back, there was a fairly consistent series arc every year. Some big bad was coming, some dastardly plot was going on behind the scenes, and by the finale, it would all be paid off and we’d see who was behind it all. And it would usually be a villain from the old days, just as an extra bonus point. It may have been a predictable pattern, but it worked.

Television had changed since the 80s, when Doctor Who had last been on regularly. The multi-part serials would be more of a risk, so the writers had to lure people in with weekly bursts of adventure. The first two-part story (Aliens of London and World War 3), was considered a risk. All through that first series, we saw ‘Bad Wolf’ repeated here and there, until the characters themselves notice. It becomes the series focus, and by the finale, has taken on a life of its own.

As the Tenth Doctor’s tenure rolled around, we had other arcs. Torchwood, Mr Saxon, the Darkness, and He Will Knock Four Times. Each had breadcrumbs scattered through the episodes, and once people knew to look for them, people were watching more intently. No longer just a fun romp through time and space, there was a mystery to be solved! Not that you couldn’t just sit back and watch if you wanted to. The mystery was rarely something we couldn’t work out, or make pretty good guesses at. And, again, the pay off of seeing an old school villain come back in a big way, had a tendency to satisfy.

2010-2012

When Steven Moffat took over the show, his first series tred a lot of the same paths. Series 5, in retrospect, is very much a bridge between the Davies and Moffat eras, having many elements of both. The cracks in time were the breadcrumbs leading to the final reveal, this time, and the 13-episode run with the occasional two-parter was now feeling familiar. A familiar feel to reassure the audience was probably what was needed, to help people through the transition to a new Doctor, a new companion, and a new showrunner.

But then things started to take a turn for the strange.

Series 6 was split into two halves and there wasn’t a single series arc binding them, there were two. Firstly, the Doctor was going to die. Secondly, Amy was maybe pregnant? Oh, and also something about River Song.

The idea of the Doctor solving the mystery of his own death is quite an interesting concept and it was deffinately the more interesting of the arcs. Doctor Who, a show about a time traveller, so rarely has stories that so heavily involved time travel in it. But the story wasn’t that coherent, especially for the casual viewer, and much of what was on screen required a lot of post hoc explanation from the creators.

2013 and the 50th Anniversary

Series 7 was split, like series 6, but this time over two years. This made having a single story arc a lot more difficult, and as a result, the focus is a lot more on the individual episodes. There were ‘movie posters’ to tie in to the stories, each designed to make the episodes a more cinematic event.

Then came the 50th anniversary. While it was the culmination of a story begun in 2015 – the Time War and how it ended at the Doctor’s hand – it sometimes didn’t feel like it. While there had been mentions of the Doctor’s name being important, the episode The Name of the Doctor, didn’t actually address it. (And with good reason, don’t get me wrong).

The Day of the Doctor was a huge hit, watched by record numbers, and brought us a new Doctor we hadn’t seen before. If only he hadn’t been introduced just a single episode earlier, I think it might have had more impact. If this War Doctor had been hinted at, perhaps even appeared in the shadows, a mystery man lurking in the Doctor’s mind, the big reveal and the special episode might have felt more like the end of an arc.

2013-14

With Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, there has been more of a move back to the series arc. Missy in 2013 was a good one, harkening back to the Davies’ era in many respects. There were escapades, there was a mystery, and there was character development!

Doctor Who’s audience has been slipping for many years now. But I do think people will look back on Capaldi’s era with fondness. Especially series 8, which does flow very nicely together, having a theme, having consistency, and a nice mystery to solve. It lends itself very well to the binge watching culture of today.

Variety

Ultimately, Doctor Who is a show of great variety. There are times when it is a show you can dip into and out of, and there are times when it is a show you can watch endlessly into the night because you need to know what happens next. The question for future writers will be what kind of show do you want to make, and what kind of show does the public demand.

Many of the decisions made by Russell T Davies in the 2005-2010 series’ were based on what TV viewing habits were at the time. Steven Moffat has flirted with this, but has also tried to make a show that he would like to watch, and he has said as much on several occasions. But Doctor Who will always be bigger than one person.

Chris Chibnall, who takes over next year, will have to take some serious time thinking over the format. Will he want to make a show that will be a Netflix marathon favourite? Or a weekly zip into the unknown? Some combination thereof? Or something new entirely?

Only time will tell. It usually does.

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Joel Cornah
Joel Cornah is an author, journalist, and blogger. He is the author of a number of novels and novellas including; The Sea-Stone Sword, The Spire of Frozen Fire and The Silent Helm, with the upcoming novel The Sky Slayer, expected some time in 2016. He is an editor for The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, head of the Doctor Who department, and member of the Tolkien Society. He is a frequent blogger for the Pack of Aces blog, focussing on issues of Asexuality in media, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy.