To Arc or Not to Arc (Is it A Question?)

Classic Doctor Who as they now call it is what got me into all this mess.

I used to devour episodes from the likes of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison for quite a while before BBC video had even released Revenge of the Cybermen on video cassette and Colin Baker’s coat was still in the twisted nightmares of his costume designer. I would happily watch them regardless of length, plot or the occasional monsters that looked like they had been created from a boot sale’s rubbish.

However, I found that I liked the stories best that seemed to be linked to each other in some way or fashion, like the cozy home like atmosphere of the first William Hartnell stories to the Davison era in-TARDIS dramatics. But when the series was revived in 2005, I found myself faced with not only the comfortable connections between episodes that I was used to, but also the dreaded story arc which had become intrenched in speculative fiction on television after being borrowed from the soaps which have always thrived in an arc heavy environment by their very nature.

Story arcs, especially long ones have always had a bad place with me unless it was in novel or short story form, where the long overall story can be savored and devoured like a fine wine or quality cigar. But in general they have never sat well with me and let me tell you why…

Comic books used to be a great hobby of mine back when you could get a complete Spider-Man or Batman adventure for a small amount of pocket change. But then came the long arcs that spanned issue after issue (sometimes in more than one series of comic!) and left a lot of people who might have been whim comic buyers in the dark. I once got a free subscription to a year of X-Men from a candy company. That would have been great if any of the comics I got in the post were readable without buying a million other books to get what was going on. I never was much of an X-Men fan and that experience of twelve issues could have changed all that. Could have but it did not.

This is the way I imagine most of the arc driven Doctor Who plots might have left some feeling this year. Imagine watching Let’s Kill Hitler with no knowledge of what had happened or better yet, The Wedding of River Song. How could a casual, channel changing person understand a bit of that?

For the first new series of Doctor Who the arc worked well. It was the ‘Bad Wolf’ arc and it was unobtrusive and in the background for the most part so that it did not intrude on the stand alone adventures. The same can be said for the Torchwood link through the second series and the ‘Saxon’ references through the third. By the fourth series where the arc concerned disappearing planets and bees, the whole thing started to get a bit tiresome.

By this time I would have happily done without killing the brilliant conclusion to Doomsday by seeing glimpses of Billie Piper throughout the series and all the hype began to become tedious, mind numbing and not really serving the stories themselves anymore. Instead they had become a ‘look at me now’ type thing with the press lapping it up every time.

But the time when the season long arc really got rolling (arcing?) was after the Tenth Doctor’s departure on New Year’s Day 2010 and Steven Moffat took over the series from Russell T Davies.

Steven Moffat is a brilliant writer and if you don’t think so you must live under or a rock or spend your days banging them together. He is responsible for episodes which not only to me but to many are already considered modern Doctor Who classics such as The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Girl in The Fireplace, Blink, Time Crash and many others. He created one of the greatest cliffhangers ever in Doctor Who history when we saw the Doctor trapped in the Pandorica at the end of The Pandorica Opens. The man is the best Who writer since a guy named Robert Holmes… end of story.


As time has moved forward like it does in that wibbly-wobbly, timey-whimey way (another Moffat credit!), the series arcs have become a bit too much for me. Series 6’s ‘the Doctor is going to die’ theme has proven this point for some fans and might even have lost some potential new fans along the way as well.

For me, they have detracted from what is the heart of the show: a different place and time and a different threat every week or every story. Instead of being in the background like the arc of the first four series, we are now expected to keep up, casual viewers be damned.

Not to say that there are not some excellent moments in there, quite the opposite. The Doctor calling himself in to solve the mystery of his own death was perfect as it gets as was the concept of the Teselecta. The issue is that this year so much was dependent on the arc that almost every story had some bearing in the moving forward of the ‘death of the Doctor’ concept in some way or another. This was especially disappointing as I missed out on those new single serving Moffat classics such as The Beast Below or The Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone.

Hopefully the end of this series is an attempt to simplify and adopt a back-to-basics approach where the Doctor is not a god-like figure, the adventures are random again and the focus goes back to amazing the casual Saturday viewers every week with the show’s variety and the strength of a story that is watchable for a week or possibly two.

As far as Madame Kovarian and the Silence are concerned, the Doctor is most certainly dead… hopefully along with the overbearing story arc!

Time will tell, it always does.

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  1. A Fan says:

    With the advent of David Tennant, I am overjoyed to say that my wife enjoys watching the new series as much as I do. But we are a house divided when it comes to arcs. She is very fond of the arcs, whereas I do enjoy them, but I don’t want series after series of them. I really want some seasons where the Doctor pops onto a planet and gets caught up in a mystery, like Robots of Death, Androzani, or The Curse Of Fenric. I think Moffat has set the stage for a season more like a classic season full of one-off stories that aren’t dependent on an element introduced two episodes back. I hope so, too, as this breath of fresh air could make for a nice lure to new audience members. Oh, and oddly enough, probably my wife’s favorite episode is a stand-alone episode: The Girl In The Fireplace.

  2. Starman says:

    This echoes a lot of my thoughts about the current series using long story arcs. Episode stories over one or two weeks at the moment have seemed, to me anyway, to sometimes be playing second fiddle to the main arcs. Sometimes I would like just to watch an episode for what it is and not have to keep looking for the hidden meanings in the background or some throw away phrase which takes on a vital meaning 3 weeks down the line. Let’s hope that the next series brings us a few more episodes like Blink and Girl in the Fireplace to enjoy.

  3. Rick Lundeen says:

    I’ve been going on about this for a while. Each or the first five series had a them but it was more or less subtle. even the crack in time was subtle compared to the Madame Kovarian/sliding panel/Amy pregnancy/death of the Doctor reminders littered all over and throughout the first have of the season ad infinitum, but then big Doctor death day reminder throughout the second half of the season. I’m really hoping for absolutely NO theme next series. Just good, stand alone adventures for the Doctor. Please.

  4. Solonor says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. I love the long arcs, and while I think there were a couple of episodes that would be difficult to understand everything that’s going on in them without watching the entire series (“Let’s Kill Hitler” being the prime example), I don’t think that many of them are unable to be enjoyed by someone who doesn’t know anything beyond Neil Gaiman’s explanation of what Doctor Who is: “There is a blue box. It’s bigger on the inside than on the outside. It can go anywhere in time and space…sometimes where it’s meant to go. And when it turns up, there’s a bloke in it called The Doctor, and there will probably be stuff wrong, and he will do his best to sort it out (‘cuz he’s awesome). And that’s all you need to know.”

    To someone who cares to keep up with all the details, like me, they are an endless source of fun. To everyone else, they are stuff that happens that someone told them was important but whatever…look! a Dalek!

    Prime example: One of the high points in “The Wedding of River Song” to a long-time Who fan was the phone call to the Brigadier. I was the only one in a room of five people who had the slightest clue what that meant. He’s not been seen since the return (only briefly mentioned once or twice). To me, it was a gut punch. To everyone else, it was something that Matt Smith let them know was important even if they didn’t know why. It didn’t stop them from enjoying the episode any more than not remembering all the other details that were alluded to from earlier in this series.

  5. Tig Lang says:

    I’m fed up of story arcs (a la Moffat) and ever-more-spectacular and silly finales (a la RTD), and very much hope that we are going to get back to ‘some seasons where the Doctor pops on to a planet and gets caught up in a mystery’ as A Fan says. I have been a regular watcher from 1968 and saw the odd one before then. Something else I would really like is for the Doctor not to be the love interest for anybody (in spite of which I did like The Girl in the Fireplace). And, by the way, just to alter the tendency to assume that female fans only joined in during David Tennant’s time – sorry, chaps, but I prove otherwise.

  6. Florian says:

    @Solonor you’re confusing two things, small, unbothering references such as seing a Dalek or hearing about an unknown character has nothing to do with story arcs. It’s just a wink aimed at regular viewers, rewarding their fidelity.

    Arcs are moving forward in time, you learn things at each episode, progressing into a climax, references are the complete opposite, it brings some ancient details, that had their moment of glory before, back into the show for a few seconds. They have no other purpose than entertaining you.

    I love references, and I used to love doctor who arc’s because their where subtly spreaded accross the season. This series is just too much. You don’t have one single minute without a reference to the finale, yet you don’t learn anything whenever it’s brought up. That’s just childish from the writer, uselesss, and franckly it seriously attacked my who addiction.

  7. david h says:

    There are few things that I find sadder than science fictions fans asking for producers and writers to dumb down a show. 8 of the thirteen episodes this season were effectively stand-alone (well, 2 were a two-parter), although there were sometimes linked to the larger story. Yes, those other 5 episodes required you to at least pay attention, and preferably actually have watched the rest of the show, but that just means greater payoffs when the plans come to a head.

    And I just don’t see how encouraging people to actually watch the show every week is a bad thing for any show. Especially in this era, where you can always catch up with any episode you’ve missed with the internet, on-demand and DVR’s.

    People somehow managed to keep up with Lost for 6 seasons, each of which more than 50% longer than a season of Doctor Who, in an arc that was considerably more complicated than Who. I’m sure they can handle Who, too.

  8. wayne says:

    I loved the arc this year. The arc episodes are my favourite of the year. This has been a unique and incredible season, and I hope it will continue like this.

  9. Andrew says:

    My niece and nephew are 9 and 5 respectively and they thoroughly enjoyed this series and are of the opinion Doctor Who is better than ever. From what I can gather the majority of those complaining about Moffat are old fans who’s perception of what they see as “their” Doctor Who isn’t what they are getting.
    The professional reviews in the papers are all positive and the ratings, appreciation figures and the repeat viewings on iPlayer etc, are all very healthy. If you didn’t get it, watch the whole series again (or last two even), be open minded and you might be pleasantly surprised.

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