New TARDIS, New Sonic, New Doctor Who

Chibnall’s New Who promises longer episodes

News came out recently that Chris Chibnall is making some big changes to Doctor Who as he takes over. A new TARDIS set and a new Sonic Screwdriver will be joining new episode formats.

10 hour long episodes plus a Christmas special will introduce us to Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor when the show returns next year. The new TARDIS and sonic are pretty much a given, so there are no surprises there, but what of the new episode length?

Time and Space

Doctor Who has changed its episode lengths a number of times over the years. From short, 25 minute installments, to the full 45, it has all depended on a lot of factors. Budget, for one, moved the BBC to change up how stories were divided in the 80s, and actor availability may also be a concern.

More fundamentally, television audiences change. What worked well in the 60s and 70s may not have worked in the 80s. Similarly, what worked then may not have worked in the 2000s. When Russell T Davies brought back the show in 2005 and announced there wouldn’t be the usual 4-part stories, but mostly one-part 45 minute episodes, plenty of people were concerned.

It wouldn’t be the same, it was taking away something key about Doctor Who – the cliffhanger endings – and upsetting the balance. But, over time, it became clear that this new way of doing the show was incredibly successful.

Audiences

Colin Baker (Sixth Doctor)

Doctor Who is a family show, and so there are a lot of dynamics that any showrunner has to take into consideration. The youngest and the oldest must be catered to along with everyone in between. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to draw and impossible to please all parties all the time.

Generally speaking, the 45 minute format has worked. Just long enough for a decent story if well written, but not too long that the youngsters get antsy and bored. Moving to an hour might upset this balance and alienate some of the younger viewers, and the older ones, too, depending on the pacing.

And that will be the key, the pacing. With 60 minutes, the writers will have more time to flesh out their ideas, but may end up putting in more action and excitement just to keep things moving and keep people watching. It will take some keen editing and scripting to make sure things stay balanced.

The Internet Age

Another consideration has to be how audiences consume media now. Fewer and fewer people sit down to watch television live compared to in 2005. With the rise of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services, more and more people are getting used to marathon viewing.

Fewer but longer episodes may well fit into the marathon format much better. But, again, this may depend entirely on the writing. If there is an interesting enough series arc to keep people coming back week after week, and keep people glued to the screen watching them back-to-back.

Curiously, back in 2005, when DVD box set binge-watching was just beginning to take hold, Russell T Davies seemed to tap into this. I find the 2005-2010 series much easier to marathon watch than the 2011-2017 series, which seems very counter intuitive. Perhaps it’s personal taste, but I did feel Davies did series arcs much better and kept audiences wanting more.

So what do you think?

Will this change in format be good for the show? Does Chibnall’s addictive Broadchurch give you hope he can deliver a similar viewing experience for Doctor Who?

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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.