The Story So Far...
Ste-Mo has said story arcs are out now. Mark Campbell, for one, will be celebrating...
Let's talk story arcs. Or as I call them, stories.
Back in the day, specifically 23 November 1963, Doctor Who started out as a "mild curiosity in a junkyard," but very quickly turned into "quite a great spirit of adventure" - to quote William Hartnell from The Sensorites. That first story, so confidently told, was never considered a one-off introductory tale. The first episode, An Unearthly Child, was the prelude to the next three episodes, the story of the Tribe of Gum, which itself became the prelude to the following seven episodes of Dalek action in, um, The Daleks. (Or The Mutants if you're an idiot.)
Conceived as an enfolding adventure, Doctor Who deliberately started life with no story titles, and no way of knowing how long the stories would last. Stories generally bled into each other without a break. William Russell wore his costume from Marco Polo in The Keys of Marinus because he hadn't had time to change. Think of the smell. The Keys of Marinus is actually a microcosm of the programme itself at this time — four virtually self-contained stories under an umbrella quest theme. (The quest of the programme itself was, since you ask, to return Ian and Barbara to Earth. At least to begin with.)
Very few of those early Hartnells could be watched in isolation without a modicum of exposition. For a start, they end on cliffhangers. Which, when you think about it is a ridiculous thing to say. How can anything 'end' on a cliffhanger? Apart from deliberately downbeat final episodes (Blake's 7, Sapphire & Steel), cliffhangers are there to draw the audience back the following week. That's not an ending, that's a continuation.
The Rescue ends with the TARDIS toppling off a cliff: not so much a cliffhanger as a cliff-faller. The Space Museum ends with Daleks ranting that they will track down our heroes and exterminate them. As late as Patrick Troughton's The Dominators, we're getting a lead-in to the next story, although this was a rarer occurrence by 1968. But of course the biggest cliffhanger must have been the final moments of The Tenth Planet. A collective audience draws its breath. What the hell just happened there?
Of course I'm making a big assumption here. Namely, that the presence of cliffhangers indicates the existence of a story arc. Story arcs have cliffhangers, but do cliffhangers mean story arcs?
First, we must ascertain what a 'story arc' is. The Urban Dictionary defines it as "a part of a storyline" or "the internal change the hero goes through in a story". Dictionary.com says it's "a continuing storyline in a television series that gradually unfolds over several episodes". Good enough. So that makes Doctor Who's early adventures a textbook case of story arcing. In the same way that stories led naturally one into another, so too the characters changed according to the experiences they'd gone through. Certainly Hartnell's Doctor appeared less grumpy as the series went on. This primary arc sort of concluded with Susan's departure in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, but it never really went away — at least not in the black and white days.
With the advent of colour, Doctor Who could be watched in pretty much any order. Characters remained resolutely unchanged. Stories ended with a fixed, self-contained resolution (with the odd exception, like Frontier in Space or, to a lesser extent, The Sea Devils). Only the presence of the supporting characters might have indicated a preferred watching-order.
The arrival of Tom Baker bucked the trend briefly. Season 12 is a pleasing throwback to the Hartnell days, with a linked run of stories from The Ark in Space to Revenge of the Cybermen. Genesis of the Daleks would be pretty much the perfect standalone Doctor Who story if it wasn't for that niggling 'clutching the time ring and rolling around on the studio floor in a very dodgy CSO effect' that ends it.
Anything that requires some supplementary explanation must indicate the presence of a narrative thread — a story arc — that is larger than the individual story in question. The next story that required that is, of course, The Ribos Operation, in which the Quest for the Key to Time forms the basis for the entire season 16.
In anyone's book, this must be considered the quintessence of story arcing: a run of 26 episodes with a definite beginning and end, telling an unfolding story, but subdivided into six discreet adventures. Each tale could have worked on its own merits with the minimum of rejigging. What the story arc does here is bolster up the weaker efforts (I'm looking at you, The Armageddon Factor), while ironically weakening the stronger ones (The Androids of Tara). It be could be argued that the adventures are marginally less satisfying when watched individually, or in the wrong order, but that's a small price to pay.
Story arcing became the norm with the arrival of JNT and Full Circle's E-Space trilogy. Further story arcs followed, each less beautiful than the one before: The Master trilogy (The Keeper of Traken to Castrovalva), the Black Guardian Trilogy (Mawdryn Undead to Terminus) and, oh yes, The Trial of a Time Lord quartet (season 23). Now I do like The Trial of a Time Lord. I like its bravery; its scope and ambition. But at the same time I know it's a bit rubbish. It's a good example of the pitfall of story arcing — the stories make no sense without watching the others in the arc. (The fact that they make no sense anyway probably doesn't help.)
There's a semi-successful attempt to make Ace's run of stories into an arc, culminating in the confusing resolution to The Curse of Fenric. Andrew Cartmel was a clever guy, but the bizarre editing of these Sylvester McCoy stories does them little justice. Ironically, Fenric would have been a far stronger story if it hadn't been tasked with tying up a few loose ends from Dragonfire.
When the series came back from the dead in 2005, so did the story arc. A fleeting reference to 'Bad Wolf' in the iffy The End of the World set in motion a narrative thread that caught the public's imagination like no other. Russell T Davies knew what he was doing — this was a subtle arc that paid off if you'd been paying attention, but wouldn't have mattered if you hadn't. He had another go with Torchwood the following year — less a story arc, more a plug for a spin-off series of gay Scooby Doo adventures. Season 29's Mr Saxton arc was cleverer, but the following year's 'missing planets' story arc was best. This slick iteration of themes culminated in a spectacular season finale that drew together all the clues and actually made a bit of sense for a change.
But when a story arc becomes more than "a part of a storyline" (remember the definition) and starts becoming the whole storyline — in other words, the raison d'etre for watching — then Houston, we have a problem.
Which brings us neatly to The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon. Steven Moffat's era has embraced the story arc to such an extent that individual stories are now impossible to understand. This two-part tale makes no sense unless you watch to the end of the season. Let's Kill Hitler arguably makes little sense unless you've watched every Alex Kingston story from Silence in the Library onward.
Although Moffat is correct in thinking that Doctor Who doesn't need to explain itself anymore, I do think he's wrong in relying on such a strong audience loyalty. The fact that the show has never been more popular does not mean that viewers (the 'general public') are watching it in the same way that fans do. People do still like to dip in and out of Doctor Who. They may catch up out-of-sequence on BBC3 or iPlayer. To them, the order isn't that important. But if stories have to rely on other stories to be intelligible, I fear, as Davros might say, "consumer resistance." It may take a year or two, but it will come.
Story arcs can be fun, and satisfying, but to make individual stories slaves to an over-arcing narrative is a dangerous step. If you have to bolt on unanswered questions, portentous prophecies and contrived cliffhangers to make these stories 'work' in your grand linking arc, then the stories themselves become diminished. They also, more dangerously, become an excuse for bad storytelling. If you don't need a beginning or an end, you just have one, endless 'middle' — which, for me, sums up the Matt Smith era so far.
Good stories are paramount. Story arcs come second.
Mark Campbell is a freelance journalist and has contributed articles for Midweek, The Independent, Crime Time and The Bookseller. A lifelong Doctor Who fan, he has written four titles for the Pocket Essentials series: Doctor Who (2000), Sherlock Holmes (2001), Agatha Christie (2001) and Carry On Films (2002). The former is now in its seventh edition, retitled Doctor Who - The Complete Guide (Robinson, 2011).
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