Doctor Who Season 9 has now reached the half way mark, with episode 6 hitting our screens over the weekend. However this season has left me quite annoyed on at least three separate occasions and it's not for the reasons you may think. Spoilers ahead.
In short, we've been watching the best Peter Capaldi episodes yet, and possibly some of the best 6 x 50 minutes of Doctor Who since David Tennant's incarnation of our favourite time lord. So why the regret?
'To be continued'. The cliffhanger. Over the six episodes of this season so far, we've now had three 'to be continued' cliffhangers. Apparently across this whole season there will be a total of five two-part stories.
Perhaps it's the binge-watching nature that Netflix has instilled in me, that makes me feel like having the next episode available to watch instantly is more of a right than a privilege. The question I have to ask is whether the multi-part episode story lines shown over multiple weeks are relevant any more in the instant digital delivery world? Considering Stephen Moffat has been behind the brilliant Sherlock series as well as Doctor Who, could it be time for the Doctor to fully embrace the feature length episode format?
Some could argue that thanks to its longevity, Doctor Who pioneered the television cliffhanger. As one of the original TV serials, getting your audience to come back next week was guaranteed by leaving the Doctor in a impossible situation, which could only be resolved next week. If you google "Doctor Who Cliffhangers" there are a number of lists detailing the best Doctor Who cliffhangers of the last 50 plus years of the show.
The Story of the Cliffhanger
The cliffhanger was almost unknown to American television before the 80s. Episodes were generally played out of order, and particularly in syndication. It meant that each week's plot and status quo needed to be restored after the final commercial break. And while the BBC is commercial free, viewing numbers were essential to maintain continued funding allocation and commissioning of new episodes. The cliffhanger device became a guaranteed way to bring your audience back the following week.
But the TV serial format has changed. Digital delivery almost makes the weekly cliffhanger mute. While shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead use cliffhangers at key parts of its season storyline cycle, Doctor Who's monster of the week format, in my opinion, I feel is starting to become a little tiresome.
Kill your Darlings
I was really enjoying this season's opener, The Magician's Apprentice. It brought us back to companion Clara's world after the season 8 death of boyfriend Danny Pink. Then suddenly we have Missy back from the dead (Yeh what? How exciting!), and then the Daleks (No way! Love it), and then to top it off Davros (Shut up! Best episode ever). The episode concludes with the (Spoilers) death of Missy and the death of Clara Oswald. We are left gasping for breath and shock, pondering how the Doctor is going to save everyone. And we are hit with 'to be continued..."
And then everyone had to wait a week. Episode three pulled another cliffhanger moment with the last minute reveal of the Doctor's ghost. And again we had to wait another week to find out how the Doctor cheats death.
Moffat's Other Baby
Now understandably, these stories would have gained some impact from the week long wait audiences had to endure to see how how the story concludes. But I feel the cliffhanger format doesn't serve its purpose like it used to. considering the way television stories have changed.
Current Doctor Who show-runner Stephen Moffat has been responsible for perhaps one of the most excruciating and perhaps not-praised-enough cliffhangers of all time; the season two finale of Sherlock, "The Reichenbach Fall". Audiences had to wait two years to discover how Sherlock faked his death. Even then, Sherlock never revealed his secret and we were only given a series of 'fan' theories instead.
Sherlock's season structure is essentially three movie length episodes. Each episode develops a little further on the story of Sherlock and Watson, but also leaves each mystery contained within the episode.
However the timing of its biggest cliffhanger was the series finale. The Sherlock series could have been wrapped at that point but the story was complete. And Moffat acknowledged this by not explaining how Sherlock faked his death at all in series three.
The Doctor Who cliffhangers this season instead has limited the character stakes. The threat to these characters becomes limited when we are constantly leaving them on the edge of death, only to see them miraculously saved week after week. At the same time, series regular characters are important to maintain long term interest. Danny Pink's death meant something to the audience because we had time to engage with him. Week in week out, new characters are introduced into the Doctor Who timeline, only to be collateral damage by the end of the episode.
New series structure?
It could be a proposal that sees a very different Doctor Who graces our screens, one that perhaps has not been seen since early 1970s or at least the last part of David Tennant's Series 3 battle with John Sim's The Master.
What if a new Doctor Who season was a 12 part series? Or even a 6 part, feature-length episode series? An ongoing story that introduced a main threat, supporting characters, heroes and villains and character defining series arcs? This concept is the TV norm these days. House of Cards, Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Walking Dead, Daredevil. They are have contained plot threads for each episode, but the overall series structure tells a larger bigger story, building the stakes and leaving us guessing what is in store for our characters.
Doctor Who has been around longer than most TV dramas and entertainment, but its age is starting to show. In a more cinematic TV world, audiences will demand more, particularly if other content makers are constantly looking for innovative ways to tell TV stories. As one of the BBC's most successful exports, perhaps next year's Series 10 needs to embrace a whole new paradigm of story telling structure. Of course, the ratings will determine the eventual outcome, and with a new Doctor's companion is on the horizon, the future of the show may not seem so sure.
Doctor Who series structure should be:
Daniel Sanguineti is a Australian Film Producer and Writer, who tutors film and media at the University of Canberra and the Canberra Institute of Technology. He is on twitter @DanSanguineti.