Is the Current Format a Serial Killer?

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Guest contributor Graeme Atkinson wonders if it’s time to go back to the classic format.


After recently delving back into my archive of Classic Doctor Who DVD’s it occurred to me – would the old format of one single story played out over a serial or season work today in the 45-minute episodic nature of modern programming? I for one am certain that it would. If audiences are able to sustain their interest in a series such as Game of Thrones, 24 or even more family orientated shows such as The Musketeers, Merlin etc, why shouldn’t it work on our beloved show, Doctor Who?

I am sure one of the arguments against it being successful would be that casual viewers would tune off over time, losing momentum with the show if they lost track of important narrative threads should they ever miss a week. However if we are honest, the casual viewer probably only tunes in for the big series arc heavy episodes in any event, the beginning, the finale and one or two in the middle of the run. If every week was important to the series arc and every Saturday the story continued where the viewer left off the week before, it may just pull in more viewers than ever, keeping them hooked and maintaining audience figures at a consistent level throughout the series.

Another benefit would be scope for greater character development. How often have we heard criticism from fans complaining that because of the break neck speed episodes play out at it doesn’t allow some of the minor characters time to really come to the fore and help embellish the story. It seems to me that “We could have done with another 10-15 mins” is the usual cry. I am convinced A Nightmare in Silver would have been better, for example, if Hedgewick’s World of Wonders could have been explored more fully so that the viewer really got a sense of the environment the Doctor was in. Neil Gaiman can do wonders when allowed the time to help ingratiate the viewer into his worlds. Perhaps more scenes with Porridge and other characters where we get to sympathise with their situation could have heightened the drama and tension we felt when the Cyber men begin their attack.

Clarence and the Whispermen: Series 7 Finale PrequelIn The Name of the Doctor, another example, we only get to see hints of Clarence’s encounter with the Whisper Men in a prequel mini episode. Would the episode which was broadcast have benefited from understanding more about this character and indeed some of his backstory? Whilst it wouldn’t necessarily add anything in terms of moving the story along it would surely make the scene where Clarence discloses the line ‘it is a secret he will take to the grave, and it is discovered.’ all the more chilling.

A problem with the current format in my view is that each 45-min episode, for the most part, needs to be resolved by the end making it difficult to provide an equal balance to character and plot development even for skilled screen writers. It certainly isn’t an impossible task though and there are numerous examples of where this has worked effectively. However at a time when head honcho Steven Moffat endorses change to keep the show fresh, stating We haven’t made much of change to Doctor Who since it came back in 2005. I just felt it needs to be a bit more different now. It needs to be surprising again!” at the recent Hay Festival, could a modern twist on this old format help shake things up?

One downside could be the potential lack of continuity in writing style. I imagine with Moffat’s busy schedule it would prove an almost impossible task for him to write 12 episodes plus a Christmas special on his own meaning he would need to draft in a number of other writers to help. Getting a story across in a coherent fashion with multiple people involved in telling the tale could prove difficult. However, with the right blend of writers on board there is no reason why it couldn’t work, just take a look at our friends across the pond. The major shows in the US have teams of writers and this, on its own, doesn’t seem to negatively affect the overall quality of a programme.

If one story played out over a full season was too long for some, how about over four episodes instead with a series arc sprinkled in three separate stories? Perhaps this would be more akin to the earlier classic serial format but rather than the 20-odd-mins or so we get to keep the existing 45. How would this arrangement impact on those that hold the purse strings? Would the budget be reduced given the story may be set in locations limited to the three stories rather than many multiple locations set across twelve? It seem plausible to suggest so.

The minisodes have almost become the arena where Moffat tends to flesh out the narrative gaps left unexplained within an episode. Indeed one of the accusations Moffat seems to constantly get levied at him is the old plot hole argument. However I am not certain that they are strictly speaking, plot holes. In my opinion plot holes are points within a story which can not be explained away. A Moffat script tends to have elements in them which require the viewer to fill in certain gaps by assuming specific events have occurred off screen. The Doctor Who Magazine has a regular reoccurring feature where readers can ask Moffat questions. Those that choose to pose a query tend to ask his view on these off screen incidents, amongst other similar matters. All of this surely means that there is a genuine interest in further exploring elements of a story that can be quickly glossed over during broadcast. Perhaps if we are in a situation where the head writer feels the need to regularly explain points of detail within a magazine or pen separate minisodes to cover off aspects of a tale that are not fully embellished during broadcast we are effectively admitting the current format is not quite fit for purpose.

The split 7a and 7b experiment does not appear to have paid off, but it does show that those in charge appear willing to experiment. It is also great to hear the recent news that the first episode of series 8, Deep Breath will be ‘feature length’. Perhaps it is too late for series 8 but for series 9, wouldn’t it be at least interesting to see whether one or perhaps three stories across a season would bring a new dynamic to Doctor Who?