Why Doctor Who needs season arcs

Arcing storylines enrich Doctor Who and reward its audience, Mark suggests...

Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who series 10.

Unlikely as it might seem to long-time readers of this site, there might be some people who have only just started watching Doctor Who this year. After a year off air, Steven Moffat’s brief going into this year’s excellent tenth series seems to have been to give the show a soft reboot, picking up with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor some time after the last series and ushering in the arrival of Pearl Mackie’s new companion, Bill Potts.

To that end, the series started out with an enjoyable run of standalone episodes, boiling the show down to its essence of a madman in a box taking a young woman on adventures in time and space. So, if you’ve really never seen an episode of Doctor Who before this year, the recent three parter involving the Monks, spanning from Extremis, through The Pyramid At The End Of The World, to The Lie Of The Land, might have been somewhat jarring.

For those of us who have been watching longer, arcing storylines have always been a part of Doctor Who, and arguably, the show needs them in order to work as loosely as it ostensibly does. For 26 years of its original run, it was a serialised format with 25 minute episodes, changing locations and guest casts between stories, but staying in the same place for weeks at a time and minting its tradition of cliffhangers.

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Back in the 1960s, The Dalek Master Plan took the serialised format to its logical extreme, running with the Daleks’ immense popularity over 12 linked episodes, spanning different planets and introducing and killing off a new companion. In terms of single serials in the classic series, it’s rivalled only by The War Games, the 10-part swansong for the Second Doctor.

Years later, the whole of Season 16 would focus on the Doctor’s search for six different segments of the Key to Time over six linked serials, giving the show its first honest-to-goodness season-long arc. Through the 1980s, the show continued to experiment with linked serials that proved boxset friendly later on, like The E-Space Trilogy, The Black Guardian Trilogy and the meta-arc of the post-hiatus Season 23, The Trial Of A Time Lord.

But Doctor Who has only realised the true potential of its functional hopping around all over the universe with the 2005 revamp. Inspired by Buffy The Vampire Slayer and other American genre shows in the era of quality TV, Russell T. Davies gave us self-contained 45 minute episodes (which had briefly been experimented with back in Colin Baker’s first season) that moved on to the next locale the following week, with the occasional two parter to preserve the famous cliffhangers and a ‘Big Bad’ connecting the stories at the end.

It’s a format that Moffat, Davies’ successor in the nominal position of showrunner, has become more experimental with in each passing series – outside of his first series and the current run, he has tried all singles, all two-parters and two seasons that had mid-season finales to accommodate a more staggered broadcast schedule.

He also immediately set up Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor to be constantly dealing with the identity of River Song and the aftermath of a battle that would take place at the very end of this incarnation’s life. Later, Clara Oswald would be the object of three massive, universe-spanning arcs during her time in the TARDIS.

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For a character whose agency was a major part of her personality, she was introduced as a mystery, then revealed to have been planted by the Doctor’s frenemy Missy, then written out because she was part of a prophecy. Clara’s character was more led by the arc than vice versa, so it’s understandable why Bill has felt like such a breath of fresh air.

Doctor Who gives the impression of having a huge amount of lore, but when you write it down, you can’t fill a page,” Moffat told the press while promoting last year’s Christmas special, The Return Of Doctor Mysterio, and further compared the show to “an anthology series”.

He also added: “Within the run of the series, we always have something going on… But if you actually count the number of minutes devoted to it before it goes off in the finale, it’s not very large. Somehow, just magnetically, the story of the week always takes hold on Doctor Who – it’s always about the individual story.”

This, coming from a writer whose previous season finale explored the reasons why the Doctor ran away from his home planet at the very beginning of the show, may sound surprising. But the current iteration of the proven 21st century format also shows how the showrunner has come to use the kind of arcing storyline which has been intrinsic to Doctor Who since its inception.

Continuing in the notion that Moffat introduced with Clara, that companions needn’t travel in the TARDIS full time, the Doctor has a new home base at St. Luke’s University in Bristol, where he meets Bill while posing as a lecturer in order to guard Missy in an underground vault and then goes off on adventures. While the first four episodes seemed fairly standalone, they all centred around that base, and most of the episodes in this run have either been topped or tailed with a visit to the vault.

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The relatively early reveal of Missy being inside suggests that there may not even be a traditional story arc this season, but rather a character arc when John Simm’s Master returns in a few weeks’ time, perhaps running counter to his future incarnation’s quest to “turn good”. The Monks trilogy, which fits comfortably alongside the linked trilogies of the 1980s, albeit at the more accelerated pace of 21st century drama, is separate, but involved.

There’s also renewed emphasis on character in Series 10 with the Doctor’s recent temporary blindness and, less prominently, the orphaned Bill’s relationship with her late mother. The Pilot and The Lie Of The Land are two cheekily titled episodes that link despite apparently being separated by setting, tone and six episodes in between them. There’s a lovely, apparently throwaway scene in which Bill gets photographs of the mother she barely knows, as a timey-wimey Christmas present from the Doctor.

The memory she has built up in her head since then has been more subtle than in Saturday’s episode, talking to her picture in Knock Knock or calling her name in fear in Oxygen, but the emotional pay-off of an imaginary memory beating an outright fake memory becomes important without making Bill herself into a plot device. It’s easily dismissed as a power of love ending, but at least it’s a denouement that Moffat seeded from the beginning of the series, rather than the altogether less successful regeneration fake-out in the same episode.

Looking to the future, rumours abound that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall is using a writers’ room to put Series 11 together, which should at least benefit consistency – we may get fewer oners by the likes of Mike Bartlett or Neil Gaiman, but even the ‘lows’ of the season wouldn’t be as steep. The Monks trilogy felt a little like a mixed bag for having different writers on each instalment, but even if a writers’ room doesn’t make next year’s episodes more interconnected, there should be more unity of tone and vision.

Doctor Who has undeniably improved since it became a more episodic show, but for the sake of story or character, you wouldn’t want every episode to be entirely standalone. Arcing storylines ultimately enrich individual series and reward the audience for watching, because Doctor Who should never, ever be a procedural, especially given the established structure for changing the lead actors. If there were nothing grounding or connecting these adventures, you might as well have a different Doctor every week, like hosts on Have I Got News For You.

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It’s not merely about being competitive in a boxset culture, it’s about investing in the show. The TARDIS never stays in one place for long, so we could drop in any time, but the show’s varying degrees of intertextuality are the reason why we should keep watching.