Doctor Who’s seasons and series have waxed and waned for over five decades. Face the Raven set a new bar, with a companion departure seemingly setting up a maybe-two part finale. Choosing statistics over grief, this essay looks at the show’s changing approach to confounding expectation and compounding the drama.
Taking 45 minutes out, inspired by Face the Raven.
THE CLOSING SCENES OF FACE THE RAVEN WEREN’T EXACTLY UNEXPECTED, BUT FEW WOULD DOUBT THAT CLARA’S INFLUENCE WILL STRETCH TO THE END OF SERIES NINE AND PROBABLY BEYOND. EVEN ADRIC MADE AN APPEARANCE AT HIS FINAL DOCTOR’S REGENERATION. AND HE WASN’T AN IMPOSSIBLE GIRL. That precocious mathematician wasn’t even the first of the Doctor’s companions to perish, it’s safe to assume that honour went to Sara Kingdom, adventuring for all too brief a time alongside the First Doctor during The Dalek’s Masterplan. But Adric’s was the most laboured and ill thought out demise. Sleep No More may have bodged the opening title replacement the week before, but it’s impossible to imagine the sapping horror if Face the Raven had rolled silent closing credits. But if the intervening 33 years between Adric and Clara’s departure have taught us anything about loss and companionship in Doctor Who, it’s that there are many fates worse than death.
Always a show of commendable contrariness, Doctor Who often celebrates what other shows consider a misfortune. The loss of a lead or many lead actors may sink other dramas, but for Doctor Who it’s very much the life juice of its longevity. Not just the most imaginative programme on the box, but one with an unquenchable thirst for change. We’ve seen huge events in the fabric of the show tie in with major occasions many times before, but somehow Face the Raven decided to fly in the face of convention and rob the New Series of its longest serving companion two episodes from the series’ end, during what might in most series form the two-part finale. That doesn’t look so strange in the eclectic structures that the New Series has adopted since 2010, especially considering Clara’s three unconventional entrances. But back to that change piece, Series Nine sees things greatly changed from not just the Classic Series years, but even the format adopted when the show returned in 2005.
And within these structures, borrowed and sometimes blue like the TARDIS, sub-even trends wax and wane, like the much coveted episode 10 rule set by Blink that burned out brightly and quickly within a few years. There’s lots to consider when plotting out the structure of a series as reliant on change as it beholden to its heritage.
The rise and fall of the Classic Series
Built on quantity as much as anything else…
Doctor Who was built on quantity as much as anything else. The first three seasons covered three quarters of the year each, back in the glorious days when almost every individual episode warranted its own title. That makes naming something like The Daleks with any accuracy particularly fraught. The seasons then simplified, but still ran from autumn through to the following summer all the way to the arrival of colour. With the appearance of the Third Doctor in 1970, the show dispensed with Christmas and ran six months from January to June until the Fourth Doctor’s arrival soon saw it tilt back to December through May and then even further to autumn through spring (with the honourable exception of the disrupted Season 17). That was a broadcasting structure that stuck until the show’s hiatus in 1985. Splattered in between were repeats, particularly during the 20th anniversary year and notably the November broadcast of The Five Doctors in 1983 – 32 years ago this week.
Budgets… Less easily defeated than Daleks
Struggling to put the most inherently imaginative television show ever conceived on screen
Times change off course, if there a few similarities between the BBC One scheduling of 1963 and 2015, Doctor Who’s Saturday berth can lay claim to being one of them. Albeit in a slightly later slot this year. But if there’s one consistency among periods of Doctor Who, it’s a production team struggling to put the most inherently imaginative television show ever conceived on screen with a tight budget. Of course, no budget could ever be enough, this century or last. That’s led producers to implement all sorts of format changes as tastes, technology and viewing habits changed around them. A helpful move to address the plateauing ratings of the late 1960s, the Doctor’s exile to Earth at the advent of colour, saw producer Barry make the most of fixed sets and cast, not that Unit HQ and the Doctor’s lab didn’t keep inexplicably changing. When 1974 saw Jon Pertwee hand over the TARDIS keys to Tom Baker, propelled by new producer Philip Hinchliffe and legendary script editor Robert Holmes, they found a neat way around that year’s 20 week split (when the rather wonderful UNIT coda Terror of the Zygons was bumped back to kick off the following season). Making the most of an arc story where two stories could use the same Nerva Beacon set near the beginning and end of the season, Holmes also commissioned two-parter The Sontaran Experiment, leaving that year’s only six parter as the classic if padded Genesis of the Daleks. Six-parters were almost as sparse as Cybermen come the mid-1970s, but they were generally of high quality. The next couple of years would make the world a culturally richer place thanks to The Seeds of Doom and The Talons of Weng Chiang.
Borne in the 80s
The inevitable rise to the three parter
Come John Nathan-Turner’s rise to show producer, things had tightened even more, with the show now running just the first quarter of the year as episodes aired twice a week in the opening years of the 1980s. During his tenure, the only six parter served up was 1985’s Robert Holmes scripted The Two Doctors, although script editor Eric Saward had pulled off Holme’s old trick during the previous two seasons with two-parters Black Orchid and The King’s Demons. And sadly, that glorious return of the six-parter, fittingly welcoming back the Second Doctor and companion Jamie McCrimmon, was rather obscured by the fact that it was broadcast in three instalments of 45 minutes each. Season 22 had pruned the broadcast format down to just 13 episodes of that duration. Come the latter years of the Classic Series, JNT was put to the test despite the show’s seasons being pruned further to just 14 episodes a year. That gave inevitable rise to the three parter. But JNT found a nifty solution, splitting the two three-parters that spattered each of Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy’s seasons into one exclusively filmed in studio and one exclusively on location. It was a fine way to wring the finances for all he could, and fairly it did give rise to some classics such as Season 26’s stagey Ghostlight. Infamously, when the great asbestos closures of 1988 limited BBC studio space, the ever improvising JNT pushed the interior of the circus tent into… A real circus tent in the BBC car park with all the associated sound issues. Even near the end, the show strived to be The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.
The fresh start of 2005
Not great news for fans of companion incarceration and unconscious Doctors
There’s no doubt that Doctor Who lessened during its original 26 years, from a flagship children’s show commanding huge ratings almost year round to a beleaguered, mid-week oddity. When it returned in 2005 after overcoming the singular challenges of 1993’s Dimensions in Time 3D spectacular, 1999’s Comic Relief sketch The Curse of Fatal Death (penned of course by Steven Moffat) and, oh the side note of 1996’s 90 minute TV Movie, there was no aim to conquer television all year round. Just reclaiming Saturday nights for drama would do just fine.
The New Series brought many changes, some survivalist, some very (well thought out and) Russell T Davies and some necessitated by the changed television environment. A huge revision came with the loss of the serial approach. Two-part episodes were the best hope for cliff-hanger fans – and as those jaw dropping moments were built into the fabric of the show, there were a lot around. Those pining for them had to be sated by the increase in stories presented every year and the knock-on drop in padding (again, a shame for fans of companion incarceration and unconscious Doctors). With an initial commission of 13 episodes in its first year, that meant 10 new Doctor Who stories a year. A far cry from the four that fans enjoyed in 1989 or the zero in the intervening years.
Russell T Davies looked across the Atlantic
The other big change came with the shape of the episodes. After broadly 26 years of the definitive 25 minute episodes, they would now adopt a 45 minute run-time, making a handy hour for broadcast on commercial stations. No, not sly reverence to season 22, but a sign of the times. Head writer and executive producer Russell T Davies looked across the Atlantic. Not only did the New Series pick its structure and length from equivalent American genre shows, but also the structure of its season.
In America, television networks measure the success of their shows during prescribed times of the year. During November, February, May and July, Nielsen process a couple of million American households to deliver data that bodes well or ill for every show. It’s a foolish or very confident show that doesn’t attempt to maximise its audience during those “sweeps periods”. Plucking random examples from the air, it could lead Star Trek: the Next Generation to pull in Leonard Nimoy for a two-part episode mid-season, or even compel The CW to draw The Flash and Arrow into team-ups every year. It’s the brave and the bold of television, and of course Davies had it built in. Not for the Nielsen count of course, but to reward and attract viewers. 2005’s Series One had the requisite two-parters spread strategically throughout the episode count as well as a mid-point return of the show’s most famous monsters as a warm-up for that year’s blistering two-part finale.
Shapes within shapes
A coherent, stable structure
Davies stuck with a clear structure all the way. Single and double episodes that highlighted the sweeps episodes, but when purposefully subverted, as with Series Three’s Utopia, created a startling impression. It was a coherent, stable structure that worked in league with a set rationing of adventures spread throughout the past, present and future. Intent on building up seasons, frothy and light season opening romps were quickly followed by a trip to the future or past before the series settled down to building its devastating finale. The rewards were clear – rather than predictability, Series Four found a show that had reached its zenith in terms of characterisation, adventure and budget on screen. Then came the year of hour long specials, the first time in four years that spring to summer hadn’t been owned by the Doctor… And then a reboot that consigned the established structure to a TARDIS disposal chute.
All change for 2010
Moffat let loose…
Showrunner Steven Moffat has played with the show’s structure during almost every series since taking over from Davies in 2010. While the Eleventh Doctor’s inaugural year followed the Davies template of sweeps, the following year found the show split into two half series across 2011 and even the last two-parter we’d see for three years. The steady build-up was gone, as Moffat let loose with strong openers alongside peak episodes that closed and opened the new half series. For the first time, Series Six saw most complicated arc in the show’s history propel 13 episodes to a single part series closer in The Wedding of River Song. Series Seven was similarly split, but this time into even more distinct half series that fell across 2012 and 2013 while featuring different companions. That was the rather flawed year of the blockbuster where every 45 minute story designed to grab the attention. It took until 2014 and the first series of the Twelfth Doctor, following the three headers of The Name of the Doctor, anniversary special Day of the Doctor and Christmas Special Time of the Doctor, to find the show returning to a full run of episodes once again.
An unwritten law of the New Series has been formed by the nagging suspicion that while Doctors are fresh and young they are spoilt with full seasons; when they near their end and are at their best, their series are split, chopped or starved into specials. In the last two cases, that’s been inverse to the actor’s career. But come Series Eight, the sacrifice for sticking to a firm run was the loss of an episode as the show re-consolidated as 12-part with a Christmas special. Understandably, when that series concluded with a two-parter it was a shock. The specials and arcs had maintained a steady flow of unconventional cliff-hangers, but that first two-part story since 2011 proved that something had been sorely missed. Series Nine has seen multi-part episodes return with abandon, although not in their traditional place or format. While some were conventionally linked, others formed semi-sequels that have potentially left only Sleep No More and Face the Raven as standalone episodes. That might even be called a u-turn, but while it has the unfortunate side-effect of making series plough past with inordinate speed, it’s been a great success. Far more wholesome and fulfilling than the rather dour previous two series of single episode stories.
The joke is always how little the Doctor appears…
Bringing us up-to-date Face the Raven attempted to build on and subvert the recent history of the show. First, it saw the return of something missing for some time; rules within rules. After the hectic first year of the show’s return, it became clear that 13 building on 14 episodes a year was a steep challenge. In the first year, Boomtown had solved a budgetary issue as an effects-lite episode centred around the production’s Cardiff home. A bottle episode in American television terms, another knock on from the sweeps approach.
The following year pushed the format changing Love & Monsters as the series’ first purposely Doctor-less story, lightly ribbing on Doctor Who fandom and relegating the Tenth Doctor and Rose to a cameo appearance from. Of course, there had been Doctor-free episodes before, notably during in the 1960s where holidays were granted during gruelling filming schedules and characters would inexplicably disappear for whole stretches of serials. The Tenth Planet may be the First Doctor’s final television story but illness prevented William Hartnell appearing in episode three. Sadly, that’s the First Doctor era’s last surviving episode following the BBC’s 1970s clear-out.
The Peter Kay starring Love & Monsters proved space marmite for the audience, unlike Series Three’s effort. Building on a previous short story, Steven Moffat crafted a New Series classic with Blink. And Blink nailed it. The joke is always how little the Doctor appears – albeit he highly memorable and quotable when he does. It wrapped up emotion and a supremely hermetic plot with a stunning monster debut and sublime casting. It was a mould-setter, coming in the middle of the show’s finest run. And suddenly, that episode 10 slot became the one that all the writer’s wanted.
Something pinning on Blink’s heritage
The following year Davies kept it to himself, widening the concept with episode 10’s companion-less mouth-stopper Midnight followed by episode 11’s what if, Doctor-lite Turn Left. Series Five would spin that itself, relegating Amy to the TARDIS while the Eleventh Doctor took centre stage in its eleventh episode The Lodger while Richard Curtis stole the episode 10 slot with the not quite format-breaking but iconic Vincent and the Doctor.
Doctor-less episodes disappeared from the show with its turn-of-the-decade reboot. A sign that either Blink was unsurpassable, the production team for too much in churn to strategise or just too darned confident. The split series approach that Series Six introduced helped of course, but Blink’s legacy was still felt. The following year some reshuffling dropped Tom MacRae’s The Girl who Waited into that coveted number 10 slot. When Toby Whithouse saw his episode bumped back to episode 11 in the final running order he joked: “That was the Blink and Midnight slot! Now it’s been bumped to 11. Tom MacRae has the 10 slot, which I’m furious about!”
Certainly the following two years didn’t see Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS or In the Forest of the Night live up to the Blink reputation. But this year, although the Blink slot’s diminished by the fractionally shorter series, Face the Raven had something to say. And while the raven wasn’t the natural successor to Sally Sparrow, and neither was Clara Oswald as the Series Nine essay on companions explored, it certainly had something pinning on Blink’s heritage. Especially in a series over-compensating with two-parters.
An unexpected moment to disappear
Since its return, the show’s timed its unique peaks well, often with a suggestion of luck as much as judgement. Those unique peaks are the show’s chance to grab ratings, while winners as opposed to every other programme’s worst nightmares. There’s no doubt that Christopher Ecclestone and Matt Smith should have carried the mantle for longer, but we were lucky to have them. Ecclestone’s rapid departure ensured the first series ended on a regeneration while the end of the second saw off (mostly) original companion Rose Tyler. Series finales became the typical exit point for companions during Martha Jones and Donna Noble’s tenure, before the Tenth Doctor prolonged his regeneration just long enough for it to fall on New Year 2010 after that ever so important year extended year of specials. While some years later, the Ponds blinked back in time during the mid-series finale structure of the sixth series, the Eleventh Doctor had an unprecedented chance to regenerate at Christmas that he just couldn’t turn down. Half a season before that the Impossible Girl had unexpectedly appeared, so it was only to be expected that she’d find an unexpected moment to disappear.
In these more straitened times for ratings, the BBC merrily trailed Clara’s exit in a way that Davros could only have dreamed of 10 weeks ago. He was mysteriously and pointlessly kept Davros under wraps at the beginning of the year, but Clara chose to bow out while the series peak is yet to come. It was an exit wilfully away from the peaks and sweeps of a series already dodging expectation. And when the Impossible Girl purposefully defies setting a new benchmark, the Blink slot was the perfect home for her farewell. Although nothing’s certain until the series is over. Even if the raven’s fond of quothing “Nevermore…”
Jokerside’s Series Nine’s essays will continue as the Doctor heads back to… Hell.