Given that Doctor Who has been off our TV screens since December 2015 (two Christmas specials notwithstanding), it was strange that I approached the first episode of the brand new series with trepidation mixed in with my excitement. I think a large proportion of the blame for that lies not with Doctor Who itself, but with the other BBC creation that Script Editor Steven Moffat is heavily involved in – Sherlock.
Moffat is, at heart, a man who cannot resist clever stories. Credit and praise where it is due, he possesses a wonderful talent for crafting stories that are multi-layered, and more often than not have a cunning and unforeseen twist in the tail. Nowhere is this better displayed than in Series 3 episode “Blink” – arguably the best Doctor Who story to feature so little of the Doctor himself! Not until the end does the story beautifully come together and make sense, and you find yourself conceding “That was incredibly clever!” rather than “That was incredibly frustrating!”
(Incidentally, you can buy Blink on the BBC Store as a digital download for £1.89 – it’s easily the best money you will spend for 45 minutes of entertainment!)
The troubling issue is that over the last number of years Moffat has had entire series to play with. Story arcs are not new to Doctor Who; in the classic series there were a number of minor story-arcs, of which the most significant was giving the entirety of Season 16 to the pursuit of a legendary artefact split into six parts. When Russell T Davies revived Doctor Who in 2005, he made story-arcs the new big thing. In series 1 it was the “Bad Wolf”, in series 2 it was “Torchwood”, in series 3 it was the mysterious “Mister Saxon” and so on.
Moffat however has rather put this concept on steroids. If you like, there has been a steady progression within Doctor Who. In the classic era, each story (made of multiple episodes) stood alone, very rarely having some sort of cohesive season long narrative. In the Russell T Davies era, a continuous narrative thread linked almost every story in the series, but each story nevertheless stood on its own merits. You could watch (for example) “Dalek” from Series 1, “The Shakespeare Code” from Series 3, or “The Unicorn and the Wasp” from Series 4, without needing to know the bigger narrative in the background.
Eagled eyed readers will be pondering “What has this got to do with Sherlock?”, first mentioned in paragraph one and seemingly forgotten! The answer is that Sherlock is incredibly useful for showing us exactly how Moffat handles a series long narrative. One episode simply is not enough to express the ideas in his head. His story is so cunning, so complex, and so intricately woven, that it needs to be spun like a tapestry across the entire series run – whether that is the three episodes of Sherlock, or the twelve episodes of Doctor Who.
Watching “The Pilot”, in which a lot of the focus was on new companion Bill Potts, I was struck by a sense of Déjà Vu. I’d experienced these kind of emotions before. It took me a while, but then I placed it: it was after watching the first episode of Sherlock Season Four, “The Six Thatchers.” I was struck by the strong similarities – the lack of a strong narrative within the confines of one episode; the heavy focus on characters and relationships rather than plot; the placing of themes that would be played across a whole series, rather than one story.
Which brings us back to “Blink” – the master class of Moffat’s storytelling genius. For most of the episode you are completely bewildered, and wondering if the author has lost his marbles. Only at the conclusion do you breathe a deep breath and realise how well the story was told. But that is bearable because it all takes place within 45 minutes. Played out across 12 weeks, and you have “The Pilot”, which I am sorry to say was a recipe for boredom. It is an enormous pity, for Peter Capaldi is at the very height of his powers as the Twelfth Doctor, is given some superb dialogue, and Pearl Mackie as Bill is a wonderfully punchy and assertive character. But at the end of 45 minutes, I did not feel like anything had been said, done, or accomplished. A lot of talking, and a very weak story relating to Bill’s love interest. There is no explanation as to what the alien menace was, or what it wanted; the height of the entertainment was derived from a chase sequence that could have been lifted directly from an episode of Scooby Doo.
This does provoke a new question for television viewers: has the way we view television moved on? We are now used to binging on Netflix boxsets; do we really have the stamina to wait 12 weeks for an entire narrative? Are TV writers and producers willing to create content that can be consumed in one sitting, in isolation of any other content?
I would venture that Steven Moffat demonstrated this is indeed possible. Matt Smith’s debut story “The Eleventh Hour” introduced a new doctor, a new companion, and a series long story arc. In the process, they also told a rather fantastic and highly enjoyable story. I do not believe that we need to sacrifice season long story-arcs for the sake of telling a compact and enjoyable story, nor that individual episodes need to be sacrificed to the needs of a season long story-arc. I only hope that when we tune in to episode two of this new season of Doctor Who, my belief is vindicated …