This isn’t a rant. If anything, it’s a criticism based on an observation. Mostly though, it’s just an observation. A cynical observation.
During his time as head writer for the new revamped Doctor Who, Russell T Davies developed something of a formula for episode progression. Though not immediately apparent, after a couple of series he got stuck in a rut - like a scratched record playing the same groove over and over again. This 'formula' eventually became so prominent that it was possible to predict with some degree of accuracy, exactly what kind of story would be airing each week.
Personally, I found that this predictability detracted from the series – either it suggests a lack of originality and imagination, or perhaps worse still, it serves to remind us what a money-driven, lowest common denominator affair the show has turned into. Alright, so this is already turning into a rant. Please bear with me.
NB. For the sake of the ongoing narrative, the Christmas Special preceding each series has been listed here as episode ‘1’ – which means that Series Two, Three and Four each feature fourteen episodes.
Here’s how it works:
- 1: the Earth is threatened by an outside agent, and events are seen from a very human perspective. Hints are made towards the overall plot arc for the series.
- 2: Earth is different – we either see Earth in the future, Earth society moved, or the Earth infiltrated.
- 3: this is Earth in a past age, and we meet a famous historical character.
- 4: a nod to the fans… either an old friend, or an old enemy is revived.
- 5&6: time for a double parter, and the return of an old enemy!
- 7: a light-hearted, stand-alone episode with comedy elements.
- 8: a slightly more intelligent episode, with a cleverly written dramatic hook.
- 9&10: another double parter - and with a darker tone.
- 11: a stand-alone episode with horror themes.
- 12: reflections on character development so far, and hints towards the finale.
- 13&14: a massive, nauseating pantomime of a double parter, featuring at least one classic enemy… a showcase for bad writing, and deus ex machina.
This may sound like an unlikely oversimplification, but let's take a look at it in context.
At this stage, everything is new and original. However, certain episodes do lay down the foundations for the formula to come – namely:
- 1. Rose: in the opening story the Earth is threatened by an alien force – in this case, the Autons. The story is seen from an entirely ‘human’ perspective, and we hear the first mention of ‘Bad Wolf’.
- 2. The End of the World: it’s Earth in the future – but they still listen to Britney Spears.
- 3. The Unquiet Dead: in third place it’s the token history episode, with a guest appearance from Charles Dickens.
After that we still get the same templates of double parter / clever / comedy / scary, but it’s not until the last three stories that we settle into the pattern to follow:
- 11. Boom Town: a reflective character study, that paves the way for the series finale.
- 12&13. Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways: double parter. Lots of Daleks, and a questionable plot featuring tow ropes, miraculous resurrections, and cross-species kissing.
This is where the repetition of a pattern is just becoming apparent, though the midsection of the series is yet to take its final structural form.
- 1: The Christmas Invasion: this opening story is a Christmas Special, in which the Earth is threatened by an alien force – in this case, the Sycorax. Very human perspective, the Doctor hardly features, and we also hear our first mention of ‘Torchwood’.
- 2. New Earth: set on a futuristic Earth colony.
- 3. Tooth and Claw: in third place it’s the token history episode, with a guest appearance from Queen Victoria.
- 4. School Reunion: fans of the classic series will be delighted to see the return of K9 and Sarah Jane Smith.
Now, rather than the double parter featuring an old enemy, as would appear at this point in every other series, we get a clever episode – The Girl in the Fireplace. That’s followed by a double parter with an old enemy, a light hearted story, a darker double parter, an appalling comedy effort (noteworthy for the Doctor’s relative absence), and then back to the formula:
- 12. Fear Her: bit of reflection, and lots of build up for the finale.
- 13&14. Army of Ghosts / Doomsday: how can you possibly beat last year’s Dalek finale? By featuring both Daleks and Cybermen, of course. This kind of unimaginative one-upmanship becomes characteristic of the series finales as time goes on... oh, and the Cybermen now have a catchphrase.
Here, we have a perfect match. It is clear that RTD is either running out of ideas, or trying to develop a foolproof pension plan.
- 1. The Runaway Bride: this opening story is a Christmas Special, in which the Earth is threatened by an alien force – in this case, the Raknos. Human perspective, focusing on weddings and suchlike. We also hear our first mention of 'Mister Saxon', later revealed to be none other than The Master.*
- 2. Smith and Jones: an Earth hospital is moved to the moon, and typical Earth types are confronted by an alien army.
- 3. The Shakespeare Code: in third place it’s the token history episode, with a guest appearance from William Shakespeare.
- 4. Gridlock: fans of the classic series will be delighted to see the return of the giant space crabs known as the Macra, previously featured in the Second Doctor story, The Macra Terror.
- 5&6. Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks: double parter, old enemy. Simple.
- 7. The Lazarus Experiment: slightly tongue-in-cheek episode, with Spinal Tap references and a guest appearance by comedy writer/actor Mark Gatiss.
- 8. 42: observing the Greek tradition, this story takes place within exactly 42 minutes, the total length of the episode. It turns out that the title is simply '24' backwards – a nod to the similarly conceived US drama, and not in fact any relation whatsoever to the mythology of Douglas Adams.
- 9&10. Human Nature / The Family of Blood: double parter with dark themes.
- 11. Blink: outright horror. Commonly ranked as one of the most popular stories of the new series, and also the one to feature the Doctor least. (Note comparisons with Series Two’s ‘Doctor-lite’ Episode 11.)
- 12. Utopia: a bit of reflection, and lots of build up for the finale.
- 13&14. The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords: absolute guff, in which everything we know and love about the Master is disregarded. The plot hinges upon a tenuous 'telepathic network', as well as a 'paradox machine' - a device which can magically undo everything that has happened in the last year, at just one touch of a big red button. Both plot devices are introduced in the last 10 minutes of air time.
By this point, you could be forgiven for developing a severe sense of déjà vu – in fact, the story progression is completely identical to that of the last series.
- 1. Voyage of the Damned: this opening story is a Christmas Special, in which the Earth is threatened by an alien force – in this case, an interstellar replica of the Titanic. The arch villain is a deranged cyborg confined to a wheelchair… note obvious parallels with Davros, setting up speculation for the end of series finale.
- 2. Partners in Crime: Earth has been infiltrated by the Adipose… horrifically animated blobs of fat that should have been left on the cutting room floor at Pixar Studios.
- 3. The Fires of Pompeii: yup. In third place, it’s the token history episode.
- 4. Planet of the Ood: an old enemy is revived. Except they’re not that old, and they are no longer enemies – just misunderstood this time around.
- 5&6. The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky: double parter, old enemy. Simple.
- 7. The Doctor’s Daughter: light hearted episode featuring the most irritating character to have ever featured in the series. Why in God’s name did they feel the need to revive her from death just prior to the credits? LET HER DIE.
- 8. The Unicorn and the Wasp: the characters find themselves entwined in an Agatha Christie style adventure. Clever. ish.
- 9&10. Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead: double parter with dark themes.
- 11. Midnight: outright horror… and this time, a ‘companion-lite’ episode.
- 12. Turn Left: reflective episode featuring lots of ‘what if…’ style questions, and building tension for the finale.
- 13&14. The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End: complete and utter nonsense, with a full pantomime cast. The plot hinges upon a tenuous ‘subwave network’ (an intelligent wireless server which appears to be able to autonomously find and connect together friends of the Doctor for a live video chat, using any monitor screen they happen to be stood near) as well as the fact that Sarah Jane just happens to have a compressed black hole concealed about her person. Handy.
This series doesn’t start with a Christmas Special – instead, last Christmas was a stand-alone story serving as a finale for the Tenth Doctor. As a result this one requires a slight shuffle to fit the pattern, and we’ll have to call it a thirteen-episode series. However, new head writer Stephen Moffat still falls into the same dirty rut within three episodes.
- 1. The Eleventh Hour: this opening story is NOT a Christmas Special, and yet the Earth is still threatened by an alien force – in this case, a shoddy CGI snake and a gang of giant eyeballs. Human perspective, focusing in this case on the character of Amy. We get hints at the overall plot arc for the series, too – there are cracks in stuff.
- 2. The Beast Below: Earth civilisation in a bizarre, Orwellian future age.
- 3/4. Victory of the Daleks: to fit this shorter series to the template, we need to class this episode as two – but luckily, it fits the well-established criteria for both the third and fourth episodes of a series. We go back in time, meet Churchill, and fans get the treat of seeing Daleks again… until they get transformed into fucking iPods.
- 5&6. The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone: double parter, old enemy. Not quite so old this time, but the Weeping Angels, previously featured in the episode Blink, seem to have earned their place as a new favourite.
- 7. The Vampires of Venice: another light-hearted number with comedy elements.
- 8. Amy’s Choice: an episode with a clever, ‘dream within a dream’ style premise.
- 9&10. The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood: double parter with dark themes.
- 11. Vincent and the Doctor: outright horror… in which a guest appearance by Bill Nighy is completely wasted.
- 12. The Lodger: the Doctor plays football to tie in with excitement surrounding the upcoming World Cup. This rather disturbing affair does nonetheless attempt at building tension for the finale.
- 13&14. The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang: total and utter tripe. The only way this could have been cheesier, would have been the addition of a musical number, with Sontarans dancing in a chorus line. Plastic aliens go to extreme lengths to groom a young girl, and the universe is 'rebooted'.
So, by now you probably get the point. I'm sorry it turned into such a rant, but I tend to get a little emotional when talking about Doctor Who. Hopefully the structural analysis remains valid, even for those who didn't sympathise with all my criticisms.
Thankfully, Stephen Moffat decided to shake up the formula a little with Series 6 – introducing an opening double parter, and a mid-series cliffhanger.
Structurally at least, it's a much needed fresh start.
* Those with an eagle eye will notice that 'Mister Saxon' is an anagram of 'Master No. Six' - and John Simm does indeed play the six incarnation of the character to feature in the series; Roger Delgado having played the classic Master, Peter Pratt & Geoffrey Beevers both standing in to represent the skeletal incarnation in the stories The Deadly Assassin and The Keeper of Traken respectively, followed by Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts in the 1996 film adaptation, and the fantastic Derek Jacobi, who briefly reprised the role in the episode Utopia.READ MORE →