Should Doctor Who Be “Cinematic”?

One of the more common epithets applied to the modern era of Doctor Who is that it’s ‘cinematic’. Much was made of the location filming for Asylum of the Daleks and A Town Called Mercy. But do fancy locations and HD film stock merit calling something ‘cinematic’? Was Arc of Infinity cinematic because it was shot in Amsterdam? Does how Closing Time was recorded make it a masterpiece?

The answer to both is definitely ‘no’. So what does make cinematic Who?

The first flourishing of ‘cinematic’ Who comes in the late Sixties, when increased location filming gave the series a little more elbow room in terms of what could be realised. Producers Innes Lloyd, Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin were keen to ape the contemporary trend for spy thrillers. With seasons full of six-part stories to produce, it helped to be able to swap episodes of exposition and walking round the same prop tree for a bit of action.

However, running around outside does not good Who make: a sense of scale is required to be truly cinematic, and that comes from the script. The most consistently ‘cinematic’ run in the series’ history is arguably Season 7. Building on the groundwork of Troughton stories like The Web of Fear and The Invasion, the Third Doctor battles global threats (virus outbreaks, counter-espionage, the end of the world), aided by a UNIT that still acts like a military outfit. The Pertwee era would never be this strong again, increasingly substituting plot for gadding about in different vehicles to mark time in overstretched scripts.

Changing tastes mean we may one day see a season-long story, a la The Wire or Breaking Bad. Done well, it could have scope and scale- think of HBO’s ethos of a small film every week- but would the result be ‘more cinematic’? We’ll see…

Controversially, that’s it for cinematic Who in the classic period. The Hinchcliffe era is cited as classic Who at its best, but stylistically it’s more akin to the gritty output of Euston Films than what was happening in the cinema. UNIT re-emerge as a proper military outfit in Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom, where Douglas Camfield’s direction complements the darker world of the early Fourth Doctor. Both stories have an edge that makes them stand out in a season stuffed with classics that play as high quality TV drama. As for Seventies’ Who’s other highpoint- 1979’s City of Death– despite its wit and Parisian élan, it’s great TV: that filmic edge just isn’t there.

City of Death

After that, Eighties Who takes a retrograde step into heavy exposition and high concept, where any sense of scale largely depended on your grasp of pure maths and/or Buddhism. The 1996 TV Movie was doomed from the get-go, coming at a time when the kind of sci-fi that was doing the rounds was the sort that Who never has been and never should be.

As the spikes in quality in the late Sixties and the early and mid-Seventies show, Who works best when it’s able to compete with what’s popular. Consider the show in the Star Wars era: its attempts to compete were awful (Underworld, The Armageddon Factor) because the results were completely unattainable on a BBC budget. In 1985, when the show went up against ITV’s US action imports, the end result got it shelved. Nowadays, Who is the standard, with story arcs designed to build to an epic conclusion. Whether they succeed is a matter of personal opinion, which impacts on the cinematic feel (or not) of the end result: if scale and concept are to play a part, is 45 minutes long enough to do it? Modern Who sometimes crams too many ideas into not enough time, leaving you feeling like you’ve just watched a brainstorm in the writers’ room instead of a cogent story. When it’s good though, it’s great- countless awards and healthy viewing figures have put the series back in the vanguard of not just the sci-fi genre but of British drama as a whole.

The Peter Capaldi era has got off to an assured start. Deep Breath was atmospheric and eventful, but did showing it at the Odeon make it cinematic? Ben Wheatley’s direction was as strong as we’ve come to expect from his film work, but, like Sightseers or A Field in England, you don’t need to see it at the cinema. The Day of the Doctor was epic in scale and deserved to be seen ‘at the pictures’: Deep Breath, for all its merits, less so.

So, is Who cinematic? No. When it was more cinematic, the format was different and the production team had different influences. At its next spike in popularity, the show reflected the harder-edged turn that popular drama had taken in the less-certain mid-1970s. Nowadays, the shorter, faster-paced format fits the way audiences prefer to watch TV- even the occasional two-parters are on the wane. But these things change: who knows? Changing tastes mean we may one day see a season-long story, a la The Wire or Breaking Bad. Done well, it could have scope and scale- think of HBO’s ethos of a small film every week- but would the result be ‘more cinematic’? We’ll see…

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  1. Lucas W says:

    I don’t quite get the train of thought that “cinematic = good”. I tend to believe that Doctor Who’s strength lies in the creepy, atmospheric, emotional tales that often make up the meat of a series. Flashy direction is all well and good, but if it tells the story effectively that is all that I personally think matters. Good characterisation and effective tales can often be hidden beneath excitement and action, when really it is just as or even more important than the action sequences. This was one of the main problems I had with series seven – action set pieces took precedence over strong storytelling and the characters. There was so much to get through in such a short amount of time. I enjoyed series seven, but lots of great ideas were wasted in the pursuit of “cinematic” experiences.
    Ultimately, I think that Doctor Who belongs on the TV, and that the story and the characters should come first. However, if it can look good and not be detrimental to the tale being told, then that’s all the better.

    • Lucas W says:

      Frankly, due to past experiences, I break out in a cold sweat when I hear “this is going to be a blockbuster, cinematic episode”. I would love the show to prove this is unfounded, but I’m still waiting.

  2. elliot says:

    This isnt directly linked to who being cinematic but I think it would work much better if a series had 10 1 hour episodes plus a 70 minute christmas special. It would mean there is more time for the plot to develop as people always complain about it being rushed. It would mean we lose 2 or 3 episodes in a season but if that meant removing the 2 or 3 duds in a series and having 10 great episodes then surely that is better.

  3. Geoff says:

    Doctor Who is so many things, this is possible because it’s audience are perfectly happy to accept the many faces (literally in the case if the Doctor) and styles of the show from week to week. One week we can have an episode like Midnight, tiny location, no monster and all character driven drama and then we can have something huge like Day of The Doctor. Equally one week we can have a stinker and the next a classic. Doctor Who has proved it can do cinematic no problem but I’d like to see the show carrying on in it’s tradition of experimenting and changing formats frequently.

  4. STLShawn says:

    Has anyone seen most of the things at the Cinema lately? I’m just saying…..

    Anyway, no. DW should be creepy, weird, different, smart, amusing, appealing, and semi-long form. I don’t want to watch a show where every shot is no longer than two seconds from a shaky hand-held camera (like Transformers), nor do I want to wait every other year for a 90 minute high budget extravaganza (like Marvel films), nor do I want to wait every maybe other year for three episodes of great writing (like Sherlock).

    Television is difficult to do with consistent quality and entertainment. It is easy to let the storylines get out of hand loose site of your main characters (like Big Bang Theory), or to start writing bigger and bigger stories until they get silly in their scale (like the ending seasons of X-Files).

    Anyway. No, DW is something special that needs to be crafted by specialists in portions able to satisfy it’s ravenous fan base.

  5. rickjlundeen says:

    *I think we should all keep in mind that “cinematic” no longer really applies to just the cinema anymore anyway. For the past 15 years or so with the coming of so many shows like the Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, The Americans– the list goes on– the true quality has shifted back to TV. Gone are the days when actors felt they had to do movies to be taken seriously and shunning TV as hack entertainment.

    Things have done a 180 and there’s far more entertainment to be found on TV and most times, the only thing going for the movie theater is a bigger screen and sound system. And with the wide range of home set ups now, even that doesn’t much anymore.

    So, is DW cinematic? It is when it needs to be.

  6. Peter says:

    I feel Doctor Who has grown more cinematic during the Moffat era. For series 7 every episode was advertised as a mini-movie, with modern posters for each episode too, available at HMV alongside film posters. For series 8 we have similar with the Radio Times posters, although evoking more mid-C20th film. Episodes like ‘A Town Called Mercy’ tried to distill a film genre (with a western location, too) into one 45 minute episode. Same with ‘Voyage of the Damned’ aping the disaster movie during RTD’s run.
    It’s not just down to the availability of modern digital technology but in the styles and genre of episode. ‘The Day of the Doctor’ with its war sequences and ‘Deep Breath’ with Ben Wheatley’s directing and the suspense sequence with Clara hiding from the Half-Face Man (as well as the feature length) made sure it did feel like a film when watching it in the cinema. It doesn’t have as great an effect when on the TV. But even with ‘The Day of the Doctor’, the Elizabethan sections with 10’s fling or the 3 Doctors arguing screamed television. Wheatley directed ‘Into the Dalek’ too but it had enough TV tropes that it just didn’t have the same cinematic feel of ‘Deep Breath’. ‘Listen’ is probably the only other episode this series which feels like a film, though. From the three-part structure Moffat uses to the extended date scenes to the introduction, with Capaldi sitting on the TARDIS, visiting Africa and so forth has a diversity of location, enough setpieces and a narrative arc over the episode of the Doctor solving a personal fear that it seemed very cinematic in its style. ‘Time Heist’ with its three-part transitions as well as some of the panning shots and overhead shots resemble that genre and so too has cinematic elements, although overall you can tell it’s television.
    But ‘Robot of Sherwood’? That episode was inescapably television; a classic TV serial of Robin Hood with sci-fi elements and nothing in the script or the villains or the setting or directing which screamed cinema in the slightest.
    Plus, remember in ‘The Bells of St. John’ which introduced the technique where the text for each location chameleons in to the surroundings to Doctor Who? Again that seems like another method of making the series more cinematic.
    With the non-linear narratives too, Doctor Who is moving away from the traditional TV style with the scenes with Clara and Danny playing like a comedy film, cutting from them talking in the present to him banging his head on the desk later on in the day, then cutting back to them talking in the present, and so on.
    But Doctor Who is always going to be television. The fact it’s made on a BBC budget with actors working on a script for a couple of weeks for prime-time TV is inescapable. It’s never going to be cinema because it isn’t. It will always have that serialised edge where one episode will link into the next, setting up future themes like The Promised Land or Clara/Danny developing as a couple. An unconnected adventure just isn’t what we’re going to see, so an adventure which can work fully indepenently and cinematically just isn’t really going to happen.

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