Doctor Who: how does series structure affect story?

With another series break rumoured for Doctor Who in 2016, Andrew mulls over how the show's storytelling is affected by series structure...

For the four series that Russell T. Davies was show running Doctor Who, there was a mix of single episodes and two-part stories (arguably three, depending on how you interpret Utopia/The Sound Of Drums/The Last Of The Time Lords), and a settled pattern to the stories, so by the time the second two-parter of the series came around, you knew it was time for the tone to get increasingly dark. Predictable? Perhaps, but even when watching Series 4 with the expectation of great episodes in the second half, the combination of Silence In The Library, Midnight and Turn Left still delivered (and preceded by The Unicorn And The Wasp – hecl, that was a great run of episodes).

Knowing that the audience had become familiar with the pattern of the series and the series arcs that became expected after Bad Wolf, Steven Moffat’s first series used this to play with expectations in Series 5, and then used different series structures throughout his time as showrunner. Whether these were due to budget or storytelling (or both), it’s been a time of experimentation with the format, and the show has shifted from its Spring time slot to an Autumn one. Each approach has positives and negatives, but how – if at all – does it affect the stories?

The series arc is an integral part of the structure and it moved from being a repeated phrase with consequences revealed in the finale, to a more involved epic scheme, and then back to a ‘What does this meme mean?’ for Series 8. The more complex arcs took place during Series 6 and 7, where the stories were broken up into smaller runs spread across the year (so information had to be retained for longer and shorter storylines sustained within the long term arc). Series 6 had two finales, both of which ended on a cliffhanger. So, more cliffhangers, more excitement? Sort of. A great cliffhanger needs a great resolution, and some threads of the Silence arc ended better than others.

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The following series was again split, but this time into two distinct arcs and with no two-parters. It was also broadcast in September and March, after Series 6’s April and August slots, meaning a longer wait than usual for the show’s return. Then Series 7 was full of very compressed storytelling, such as the Ponds’ divorce and reconciliation, with the focus on high-concept episodes melded with setting up the companions’ departure.

In the following series, Clara’s character didn’t fully emerge from under ‘The Impossible Girl’ arc. There was a feeling of treading water, maintaining a holding pattern until the fireworks of the anniversary episodes. However, the circumstances made this necessary. Karen Gillan and Steven Moffat mutually agreed that it was time for the Ponds to go, lending itself to a mid-season departure to give the new companion time to bed in before the 50th Anniversary. Then Matt Smith confirmed he was leaving, perhaps lending his era something of a rushed climax with attempting to fit in the new companion, the anniversary specials, tying up the loose ends, and telling a regeneration story/Christmas special. Perhaps it wasn’t the structure so much as the circumstances of production that led to a solid but flawed 2012/2013 series?

Series 5, which heaves closest to Russell T. Davies’ series structure and broadcast time (and plays with it in very satisfying ways at times, such as bringing the Crack in the Wall front and centre unexpectedly early), is generally regarded as the most popular of Steven Moffat’s series. Would it have been as popular if it was split in two? Would it even work?

With some tweaking, perhaps (Vampires In Venice is intended as a stepping-on point, but that skews the number of episodes unevenly. The Lodger could even things out without many changes). Theoretically, this approach spreads out the series throughout the year meaning less waiting, and a fairly constant stream of production news, images and rumours to keep us occupied. Even if Series 5 trades on the audience’s familiarity with the series structure, it’s not clear whether that is actually key to its popularity. With The Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone as the finale to a hypothetical Series 5a, it’s impossible to say objectively whether this would have created different expectations in the audience. The structure would definitely have influenced the writing so we wouldn’t necessarily get the same stories, but again we don’t know how different the series would have been. It’s theoretically possible to have a series as good as Series 5 with the structure of Series 6 and 7, but it’s proved a trickier nut to crack.

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That’s not to say Series 6 and 7 were bad. Personally, I feel that Series 6 especially has some great individual episodes, especially in the second half. A risk of splitting a series in two is that it more clearly delineates sections of it, so a weaker half drags the series down more than if it was part of a longer run. This is especially true after a long wait. With rumours of another long wait between Series 9 and 10, it’s worth addressing not just the structure but the scheduling of Doctor Who.

Due to the current Autumn/Winter scheduling, the Christmas Special now follows on a few weeks after the end of the series, rather than being a welcome return in the middle of a long absence. There’s an argument that Doctor Who belongs in this slot traditionally, with the long winter evenings aiding its child-friendly horrors, but surely there’s an element of budgetary pragmatism to it as well? We know the BBC’s situation. We’re back to the longer run once a year, but one episode shorter.

If Doctor Who was regularly spread throughout the year in short bursts, it would be a lot more bearable than the way we witnessed it with a large gap in the middle. As it was, Season 7A/Season Pond felt like a starter rather than a main course. If we’re going to have long waits between series, a longer series prevents the show feeling over before it really got going. So if this rumoured break after Series 10 does materialise, the news that Series 11 was going to be a year and broken into two sections wouldn’t be greeted with obvious displays of tolerance.

David Tennant’s outgoing run of specials was announced in advance and few grumbles were had. Certainly it felt like something of a breather and few people begrudge the show that if it’s announced in advance. It’s an intensive process, making a TV show, especially one so thoroughly scrutinised.

In many ways we’ve been spoiled by the show’s early flurry upon its return, able to produce something as ambitious as Series 3 and follow it up with Kylie in space. Now budgets are tighter, and audiences are harder to surprise. Whatever the reasons for its changes over the years, it’s a risk worth taking if a new approach excels, and so far chopping and changing hasn’t significantly hindered the show. Certainly this year we’re seeing more two-parters than before, but the programme-makers know that the thirteen/fourteen episode structure works, and is there to fall back on.

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