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.


Tom has been a Doctor Who fan since the early eighties and has developed a deep love and admiration for the show and its universe in that time.

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