I’ve been resisting this.
Since its return in 2005 I’ve followed Doctor Who, on and off. Like many fans of the ‘classic’ series, I wasn’t too sure about the form the regenerated show had taken. First Christopher Eccleston’s wild pantomime and then Russell T. Davies’ increasingly sloppy series arc plotting kept me holding the show at arm’s length.
Again, like many fans of the original series, I had high hopes for this year’s sort-of reset, with highly dependable Steven Moffat in the script editor and executive producer role, and Matt Smith as the Doctor. And, I feel that we now have what we wanted. Series 5 has far more of the hallmarks of classic Doctor Who, it appears to be gradually unravelling RTD’s more questionable decisions, and I see in Matt Smith flashes of Patrick Troughton and even (he was my Doctor) Sylvester McCoy.
But it’ll never be quite right, and I think I now see what’s wrong.
At first I thought it was just the cliffhangers. Watching the recent 2-parter ‘The Time of Angels’ / ‘Flesh and Stone’ and last week’s ‘The Hungry Earth’, it’s obvious that Doctor Who revels in leaving the audience hanging. In classic serials, much of the time in each episode was spent engineering a tantalisingly open ending (often hastily resolved in the next episode, I’ll admit). It’s a huge shame that the showrunners allow themselves this luxury in just a few stories each series.
But more and more, I feel sure that the real obstacle is the 45-minute run time for each episode. Recent, much-hyped, episodes such as ‘Victory of the Daleks’ and ‘Vampires of Venice’ have felt rushed beyond belief, allowing 20 minutes to set up the scenario, 15 minutes mid-crisis, then madly racing about to wrap up the story within the final 10 minutes.
Far more successful have been the 2-parters, for good reason: approximately 25 minutes set-up, 50 minutes crisis, 25 minutes resolution. The scripts have room to breathe and there’s time for character interaction rather than just plot-furthering.
Equally successful, in my opinion, are many of the ‘minor’ episodes in recent years. While perhaps now seen as a scene-setter for the full invasion at the end of Series 1, for me the most effective recent Dalek episode has been Rob Shearman’s punchy, lone-Dalek story, ‘Dalek’. ‘Father’s Day’, ‘Blink’, ‘The Eleventh Hour’ and ‘Amy’s Choice’ are all terrific and, I‘d say, some of the best standalone episodes that the new series has to offer. But they’re very unlike most classic Doctor Who serials: they play to the strengths of the time restriction. The number of stories in the past that restricted themselves to this time limit can be counted on one hand (I think): for example, ‘Black Orchid’, ‘The Edge of Destruction’ – both similarly curbing the ambition of the stories to fit the timescale. Conversely, many New-Who stories have appeared to cram a full 90-minute tale into half the time.
Russell T. Davies and now Steven Moffat have taken the approach of introducing series arc, presumably to counter the briefness of each episode, to allow a story to take shape over several episodes. RTD’s arcs were largely spurious – lazy signposting that led to surprise, deus ex machina conclusions; Steven Moffat’s first attempt may yet prove more coherent. As well as the series arcs, both script editors have ensured that characters, especially the Doctor’s companions, have matured and adapted to circumstances. Much of the discussion on fan forums and podcasts revolves around character relationships and revelations (‘Does Amy prefer the Doctor to Rory?’, ‘Is River Song really the Doctor’s wife?’), which is all well and good. Modern Doctor Who is excellent at exploring the mythology of the programme, and, increasingly, prodding at characters’ motivations, including the Doctor’s.
But it’s a shock to realise that what Doctor Who doesn’t do at all well any more is adventure.