The slow-burning storylines of Doctor Who

Some people seem to be complaining about the long game that Steven Moffat is playing with Doctor Who storylines. Mark thinks differently...

This article inevitably contains spoilers to the episodes and arcs covered, as well as the start of Series 6 of new Doctor Who, if you haven’t seen that yet.

Has anybody noticed that Amy Pond’s house has three storeys? And yet, whenever we’ve seen it from the outside, it’s only had two storeys? That’s just one of the going concerns that Steven Moffat hasn’t even begun to address in the new series of Doctor Who.

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Instead, he brought along a whole barrel of new things to be explained over the course of the next eleven episodes in the series. Why had Amy and Rory parted ways with the Doctor at the beginning of the two-parter? Who killed the Doctor by the lake? Is Amy pregnant or not? And who on Earth (or Gallifrey) was the little girl?

The slow burning storylines are nothing new in Doctor Who. To complain that Moffat has made the series too confusing or complex is to forget that the series originally aired in serial format, spreading a single situation across several episodes, broadcast weekly.

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That’s Doctor Who 101, really, but for something comparable to the huge scale plots you see nowadays, you can look back as far as the 1960s.

Here are some of Doctor Who history’s slow burners:

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The Daleks’ Master Plan

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This twelve episode epic spanned from the tail end of 1965 through to January the following year, and depending on your point of view, it’s the longest Doctor Who serial to date. The Daleks’ Master Plan followed everyone’s favourite metal bastards trying to conquer the solar system, as the First Doctor and his companions tried to stop them. This thing was so huge that it even required a thirteenth instalment, a prequel called Mission To The Unknown,aired a few weeks prior.

The First Doctor lost a companion in that story, only to gain and lose another within the span of eight more episodes. It was epic sci-fi storytelling on a BBC budget, and naturally, it’s one of the saddest losses in the missing episodes farrago. Only the second, fifth and tenth instalments are still known to exist.

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The War Games

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Patrick Troughton’s swan song as the Doctor was another long story, as The War Games closed out the series’ sixth season back in 1969, over the course of ten episodes. The serial saw off the three leads, Zoe Heriot, Jamie McCrimmon and the Second Doctor, in time for Jon Pertwee’s arrival in glorious Technicolor the next year.

It also introduced the Time Lords in its final movement, when circumstances had spiralled so far out of control that they had to step in and put everything right, dooming the Doctor to a forced regeneration in the process.

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It’s miraculous, then, that such a historic serial is available in its complete form for everyone to enjoy. Over a period of time, of course.

The Key To Time

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If you really want to break out the big guns, you can argue that Season 16, during Tom Baker’s tenure, was the longest story in the show’s history, running for twenty-six episodes.

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The Doctor is enlisted by the White Guardian to find the six separate segments of the object through time and space, and assigned a Time Lady companion, Romana, to help.

The story really doesn’t work as a unified whole, and like the titular McGuffin itself, it’s very much comprised of six bits. Six distinct serials of varying length (and quality) fit into the ongoing arc, and it all leads to a whimper, rather than a bang, at the conclusion of Part Six, The Armageddon Factor.

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The Black Guardian Trilogy

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As a direct result of his actions in the Key To Time saga, the Fifth Doctor finds himself haunted by the spectre of the Black Guardian over the course of three stories from Season 20.

In his quest for vengeance, the Guardian installs ginger boarding school prig/alien on the run, Turlough, amongst the TARDIS crew, with the intent of using the boy to murder the Doctor.

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Although the Black Guardian’s connection to these serials was often as tenuous as to have Turlough wander off from the main story of the week to have a psychic powwow with the baddy, it concluded much better than the previous arc. The Doctor’s trust in Turlough to pick good over evil marks one of Peter Davison’s finest moments in the role.

The Trial Of A Time Lord

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There’s a much stronger case to unify the fourteen disparate episodes of Season 23, which enacted a court case brought against the Sixth Doctor by the Time Lords. Just as the White Guardian, who enlisted the Fourth Doctor, transpired to be the Black Guardian in disguise, the big twist here was that the Doctor’s vindictive prosecutor, the Valeyard, was, in fact, a future version of the Doctor.

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Some still claim it to be one of the best twists in the series’ history, and it’s hard to argue. So, seeing as how I’ve written about the Valeyard before (linked below), I’ll move along.

With its repetitive cliffhangers (if your Mastermind topic is ‘Colin Baker’s face in 1986’, then it’s because of all those close-ups) and dangling loose ends, it’s not one of the most fondly remembered stories in Doctor Who’s history, but it was certainly an epic change in approach for the Sixth Doctor.

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Rose Tyler

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Let’s use that as shorthand for some of the show’s ongoing arcs under Russell T. Davies’ revival. With the series returning in 2005, the story was modernised but not rebooted, and so we get a lot more of the story arcs that had typified sci-fi telly in the Doctor’s absence. Most notably, of course, universally visible omens of “Bad Wolf” foretold a self-fulfilling prophecy that made Rose Tyler a time goddess of sorts.

But Rose was also involved in another of the show’s arcs, even after being consigned to a parallel universe and separated from the Doctor forever. She popped up all over the fourth series, on television screens and in person as she side-stepped back into her own reality to fight off the Daleks. There was less of an enigma to that one.I don’t know about you, but I knew all the way through series 4 that we were getting Rose and the Daleks at the end.

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The Grand Moff

On the other hand, knowing where we stand might be preferable to some, looking at the web of ongoing storylines created by Steven Moffat. He was seeding them even before he actually took over Davies’ role on the programme, when he created River Song in 2008’s Silence In The Library. River, played by Alex Kingston, is the Doctor’s- snuh?

She could be his wife, or his murderer, or his good mate, or his dinner lady. Although the flirty stuff in Day Of The Moon was nice, and very well acted by Kingston and Matt Smith, that’s one enigma that we’re no closer to puzzling out ourselves after eight episodes featuring the character. Just as well that the answers are coming in the mid-series finale, A Good Man Goes To War.

But what of the Silence? We know what they are, but for thirteen episodes before that, we assumed they were an ‘it’. We can’t have seen the last of them, can we? I suspect they’ll be back before we have a chance to forget them, but this series seems busy enough already.

There are some things I haven’t even seen people talking about yet, like the woman with the eyepatch whom Amy sees at the orphanage. Amy asked who she was, and she just turned away and said, “No, I think she’s just dreaming.” What was that all about? This series is turning into Lost.

I don’t mean it as a negative, because I was personally satisfied with the finale of that show, but with all of these concerns mounting, we have to hope that Steven Moffat has answers to all of them, and not just some of them. Starting with just who the bloody hell that little regenerating girl really is.

Feel free to share your theories in the comments, unless you’re still saying River Song is going to turn out to be Paul McGann.

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