Are you a fan of Doctor Who‘s new format? Podcast commentator Swithun Dobson (a.k.a. “The Great Intelligence”, a.k.a. “The Beast”) certainly isn’t and turns his critical eye on the past to suggest how the show might evolve in future.
Deafening Silence, River Melodies and “shenanigans”. Are story-arcs the future of Doctor Who? Since Steven Moffat acceded to the showrunner’s throne, the series has tended toward more heavily-arced narratives. Last year it was the Crack, this year it’s the not-so-silent Silence.
For the purpose of this article a story-arc will be defined as a continuing narrative which is directly related to each individual episode over a significant period of time, normally a single series. This definition should be treated as the gold standard against which other series can be compared, to determine their arcedness. (Bad Wolf, for instance, wasn’t an arc – it was an afterthought).
As such, the present series is clearly more arc-reliant than the last. But is it better? I would tend to say it is. The creation of the central mysteries in the opening two-parter was far more involving than those in ‘The Eleventh Hour’ and the general thrust of the narrative is more engaging, probably due to the greater coherence. That said, none of the individual narratives has worked as well as ‘Amy’s Choice’.
Last series’ format was essentially that founded by Russell T Davies in 2005: seven standalone stories and three two-parters, but with a single enemy or force appearing with relative frequency: the Crack most notably appeared in the ‘Eleventh Hour’, the Weeping Angels two-parter, the Silurian two-parter and, obviously, the finale.
I was never and never will be a fan of this format. For all the occasional gems (in particular ‘Midnight‘), the focus on standalone episodes meant that the stories lacked much interest or profundity. RTD essentially aped a modern American TV format but forgot the reasons why that format worked: a large main cast, in the same time and place every week. All the elements of which Doctor Who is bereft.
All Doctor Who stories require an initial set up to introduce main characters and the boundaries of the narrative, which takes a decent chunk of time. So in a standalone 45 minute episode a large quantity of the story will be squandered on the aperitif, thereby restricting the scope and depth of the narrative as well as diminishing the complexity of guest stars’ characters.
To ameliorate this, RTD focused upon character rather than story-arcs – in particular the Time-War-scarred 9th Doctor and council estate-scarred Rose. These provided continuing threads throughout Season 27 (though Rose’s family and the introduction of Captain Jack can be seen as an attempt to widen the main cast, thereby avoiding the necessity of creating too many new characters each week). These character-arcs paid off quite well, in particular the Doctor’s: no subsequent regeneration has had as much of a preparatory arc, with the possible exception of the rather dull deification of number 10 and the poor recent attempt at undermining 11’s God complex. Yet by far the best story of Season 27 was ‘The Empty Child’/‘The Doctor Dances’ whose length allowed for fully developed characters and narrative.
So, is the present arc the salvation of the RTD format? Well, no. Season 32 has already fallen into several of the regular pitfalls of story arcs. One is plotting for the arc rather than the story. The pretentious moralism-fest that was ‘The Rebel Flesh’/‘The Almost People’, was written solely to introduce the idea that doppelgangers could literally exist. The story is a bridge between the Schrödinger Pregnancy and the revealing of ganger Amy (it’s only redeeming feature). Its vacuous foundations struggle under the weight of Moffat’s arc plot for 90 minutes before collapsing.
Another example of the arc-over-story principle can be seen at the end of ‘A Good Man Goes To War’. Instead of immediately jumping into the TARDIS to find the missing baby, the Doctor mopes around just long enough for River Song to deliver something that’s not so much a twist as a wobble.
The other crevasse waiting to swallow unwary story arcs is filler. Now I know ‘The Curse of the
Pirates of the Caribbean Black Spot’ was originally scheduled for Season 32b, but delivering a campy romp straight after the astronaut child regeneration scene is like serving Angel Delight as a main course after an entrée of foie gras. ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is also filler, albeit rather tasty. And while it’s true that the present series hasn’t packed in as many tasteless additives as Carnivale or Battlestar Galactica, we’d still be wise to cut them out of our diets altogether.
Yet, in principle, the arc has significant strengths. As alluded to above, it brings a coherence to a series which would otherwise be more disjointed. This provides incentives for the viewer to come back week after week to see how the ongoing conflicts are resolved, which in turn allows greater complexity of plot and character and yields a higher return on the dedicated viewer’s investment.
But to work properly the series needs to be taut and focus exclusively upon the arc. Thus a mini-series format of around six episodes would be optimal; the best example of this format would be Dennis Potter’s sublime musical fantasy The Singing Detective. Given a single writer with sufficient vision, a Doctor Who mini-series could be epic; it truly would be that writer’s tale. Further, this would allow a single director to shoot the series which would aid the consistency of tone and hopefully improve the actors’ performances.
The seven remaining episodes could be made into another mini-series, essentially amounting to two seasons per year. Or you could split the series in half; the first half, in the spring, could be a collection of two or three-part stories and possibly one Doctor-lite single-parter, which would work similarly to a shortened “Classic Series” format – a collection of episodic films – leaving the latter half for the mini-series in the autumn. The extra two-part stories allow more time for the narratives to breathe and mature. To give the “movie season” more coherence, it would be appropriate to return to explicit character arcs (otherwise known as decent characterisation, which ought to be omnipresent, irrespective of the format), in most likelihood focused on the Doctor or companion(s).
An alternative arc format would be that of The Prisoner (the original and best of course), which has clearly defined boundaries and mysteries. Who is No.1? Why did No.6 resign? What is the Village? These questions are mostly raised and answered (or not) in single episode stories throughout the series. The advantage of this is that missing an episode foes not necessarily make the following story incomprehensible and provides the grounds for a full 13 episode arced series.
A workable solution for the Doctor Who universe would be to thrust the Doctor into an ongoing war. Real wars, unlike those containing the Cyberdummies and ‘Doomsday’s’ magical Dalek Hoover, have a great variety of aspects: fighting, diplomacy, securing provisions, weapon development, subduing occupied populations plus personal feuds and friendships. I like the idea of the TARDIS crash lands on a planet, seriously injuring the Doctor. We then follow his fight for survival and his quest to repair the TARDIS. He befriends others and protects them from attack before realising this conflict is more complicated than he at first supposed. Furthermore, if one side of the conflict developed rudimentary time travel technology, a real time war could ensue which could be used to explore different points in the characters’ lives. (I’ve always liked this idea since it can provide a huge world without lumbering the story with too many characters).
One could argue that this would remove Doctor Who’s inherent advantage: the Doctor’s ability to travel anywhere in any time. Yet Season 7, Jon Pertwee’s first, is entirely Earth-bound and was recently voted the greatest season ever by users on the Gallifrey Base forum. That notwithstanding, an imaginative realisation of a multifaceted alien world would provide a more visceral variety than the pot pourri of styles seen in the last few seasons.
“But, but, but, but…” I hear you cry, “what about the casual viewer? You’ll confuse their tiny minds. Their attention spans would expire after eight seconds and they’d watch the X-Factor instead. The show will die and never regenerate.”
Surely the aim of the production team and the BBC suits is to turn casual viewers into dedicated viewers? Such a change in format would allow the production team more creative freedom and the suits could squeeze more tradable flesh from the humans. Hooking the audience on an initial concept or distinctive world is far more likely to achieve this than a hodge-podge of standalone single-part stories. Furthermore, with the advent of iPlayer, broadcast dates are really release dates: we can watch episodes any time, any place, so there’s no excuse to miss an episode. And we could still have an entirely “Classic Series” style season with five two-parters and one three-parter, to which I wouldn’t be adverse.
So there are three potential formats for the future:
1. A double mini-series
2. A mini-series plus a “movies season”
3. A Prisoner-style one world, one arc season
My bail money though, goes on No.3.
Be seeing you.
So what do YOU make of Moffat’s story arcs? Will they stand the test of time? And how will next year’s reduced output impact the show? Leave a comment and let us know.