TV Discussion

Ranking Doctor Who’s Story Arcs

Story arcs have been prevalent in Doctor Who since its revival in 2005, but not all of them have been successful…

Though story arcs have been a massive part of Doctor Who since its return in 2005, the concept isn’t exactly new to the programme. Technically, at the start, way back in 1963, the entire series was a story arc. Each adventure led seamlessly into the next one, to varying degrees of success.

Other plot elements also stuck around for a time. From Season 7 – 10, the Doctor was stranded on Planet Earth, having been punished by the Time Lords for meddling in time in Patrick Troughton’s swan song “The War Games”. So started the UNIT years, in which the Doctor’s interaction with other planets was limited – mostly for budgetary reasons.Throughout the show, some story arcs have worked more than others. While a story arc can be both in terms of a purposeful adventure, like Classic Series’ The Key to Time and The Trial of a Timelord, in the revived series these have taken the form of little plot teases that only form a meaningful narrative once the finale comes along. It’s a nice way to keep the audience entertained and motivated to see how that plot line will resolve itself, but only some of the story arcs since the revival have been ultimately successful in regards to its build up and ultimate resolution.

#15: Silence Will Fall, Series 5 – 7, The Eleventh Doctor

If there’s one thing that can be said about Steven Moffat, it’s his sheer ambition. Prisoner Zero’s ominous warning at the end of Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith’s first episode “The Eleventh Hour” that “Silence will fall” wasn’t actually satisfactorily wrapped up until his final episode “The Time of the Doctor” almost three years later.

Moffat’s ability to string this out over that time would be commendable if it wasn’t so messy. In Series 5, the concept was muddied within the Cracks in Time storyline, which seemed pretty wrapped up by the finale. Quite who blew up the TARDIS and caused the cracks in time wasn’t revealed until Matt Smith’s final episode where it was offhandedly remarked that a rogue faction in an organisation known as the Silence tried to kill the Doctor in his time stream by destroying his TARDIS.

This group was also responsible for trying to kill the Doctor in Series 6 using River Song as an assassin, which fortunately the Doctor escaped due to using a Teselecta duplicate. Throughout Series 6 we learned that “Silence will fall when the question is asked”. The question itself? The answer to the biggest question the show ever faced, “Doctor Who?” Confused? So were we.

Well, if you were hoping for answers to that question, it took us to the Doctor’s final resting place on Trenzalore. As it transpires, the reason why everybody was so hell bent on destroying the Doctor before reaching Trenzalore was to prevent the Time Lords shifting across from a pocket universe into our own and restarting the Time War. The way they would confirm if they were in the right universe was through the Doctor speaking his name through the cracks in time.

My head hurts. While I’ve managed to describe the plot points fairly succinctly, also bear in mind that during that time, we also had Series 5’s Cracks in Time storyline, Series 6’s Death of the Doctor story arc and Series 7’s Impossible Girl story, while also cracking the mysteries surrounding River Song’s character. Talk about alienating to the casual watcher! Watching a new episode was a bit like a memory game, and that’s a sure fire way of sucking the fun out of a programme.

#14: The Lone Cyberman, Series 12, The Thirteenth Doctor

Chris Chibnall, who took over the position of showrunner after Moffat, and introduced Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, elected not to have a story arc for his inaugural series. However, the concept was back in force for Series 12. One of the story arcs in question was the “Lone Cyberman”. Halfway through the series, in a shock appearance, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) warned the Doctor’s companions Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) of the Lone Cybermen.

Specifically, he tells them not to let the Doctor give it what it wants. Only two episodes later saw the Lone Cyberman actually introduced, who is desperately seeking the Cyberium, a sort of database of Cyberman knowledge. The Doctor ultimately gives in to the Cyberman’s threats and gives him the Cyberium, leading to the ultimate decimation of the human race in the far future. Ultimately, however, the Cyberman is unceremoniously killed by the Master, who takes on the role as leader of the Cybermen.

Just what was it about the Lone Cyberman that was threatening enough to warrant a surprise appearance from Jack Harkness? Either it’s a plot point still in need of tying up, or a glaring plot hole.

#13: The Hybrid, Series 9, The Twelfth Doctor

Throughout Series 9, we were teased by a creature known as the Hybrid, foretold from Gallifreyan legend as a hybrid of two warrior races, which would stand over the ruins of Gallifrey and unravel the Web of Time, breaking a billion hearts in order to heal its own. We were given many teases as to who this creature might be throughout, from Davros in the season premiere, to Zygon imitations, to the Woman Who Lived Ashildr (Maisie Williams). Ultimately, the reveal was somewhat anticlimactic and not particularly well explained. Turns out, the Hybrid was the pairing of Clara and the Doctor. They were bad for each other, and the Doctor’s desperation to bring her back was the so-called unravelling of the Web of Time just to bring her back.

This story arc was a bit of a dud because, frankly, nobody really cared about the Hybrid in the first place, and the confused and muddy conclusion prompted little but a shrug from weary audiences.

#12: River Song’s Identity, Series 4 – 6, The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors

Ever heard the phrase “Never too much of a good thing”? River Song (Alex Kingston) is definitely the exception to this rule. River Song was captivating in her first appearance. Introduced in “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead” in Series 4, River was intriguing as her final encounter with the Doctor was the first time he had ever met her.

In a way, not knowing what their history was, just like the Doctor didn’t, was more interesting than what actually happened. It allowed all sorts of fan hubbub about whether she was the Doctor’s wife, or daughter, or a Time Lady. Rumours abounded. I’m certain that some sectors of the fandom probably thought her to be the Rani. They generally do.

The more that River Song appeared, however, the less interesting she become. While her Series 5 appearances were brilliant, and helped add to her sense of mystery, Series 6 pulled back the curtain a little too much. We had learned in Series 5 that River was in prison for killing “the best man I’ve ever known”, and Series 6 revealed that, not only was River in Stormcage for killing the Doctor himself, but that she was also the daughter of Rory and Amy, who had been kidnapped by Madame Kavarian due to her regenerative capabilities in order to fashion her into a weapon against the Doctor. Not only this, but before the series was out, we also discovered that River was the Doctor’s wife, and that she had never really killed the Doctor in the first place and had instead killed a Teselecta duplicate.

Exhausted? So am I. Sometimes, a mystery is better than a resolution, and, as time wound on, River became more of a caricature of a person than realistic. Her original flirting was replaced with a brazen sexuality that was used for laughs as a result of other’s discomfort to it, and her catchphrases “Hello, Sweetie” and “Spoilers” were used ad nauseum.

#11: Trial of a Timelord, Season 23, The Sixth Doctor

Season 23 of the BBC show employed different tactics compared to the seasons preceding and following it. With 18 months since the previous outing, Who had come under serious threat of cancellation. With its return, so too came the unwelcome news that the episode lengths had been shortened from 13 45-minute episodes to 14 25-minute episodes – this was a far cry from the early days of Doctor Who where show runners had almost double this number to play with.

John Nathan-Turner’s solution to this creative difficulty was to produce a certain symmetry between the Doctor’s life on screen compared to the show’s existence off screen, framing the entire season as a trial for the Doctor’s life.

The idea was, perhaps, a bit too on-the-nose. While the individual stories of the season hang together remarkably well and are entertaining in their own right, the split tension between what is watched during the trial and the actual trial proceedings can be quite jarring – not to mention the continual close-ups up Colin Baker’s nose for the final shot of each episode.

Court scenes are never particularly entertaining, especially not in a show that is known for its alien planets and visible conflicts. To be trapped in a stuffy court room for an entire season feels a bit like torture at points. Not to mention, having Baker’s Doctor continuing to complain about having to watch the episodes doesn’t exactly set the tone for the audience’s interest. A fumbling ending made the story arc a bit of a disaster, even though the individual stories hold up pretty well.

#10: The Key to Time, Season 16, The Fourth Doctor

For Season 16, producer Graham Williams proposed an arc, providing a connection between all six serials within the season, based upon the pursuit of the so-called Key to Time. This quest adventure provided a vital context to each of the Doctor’s adventures throughout the season, which culminated in a last-minute twist as a malevolent force tried to steal it from the Doctor’s grasp.

Hardly the high-level drama or complex story telling that we’re used to in Doctor Who nowadays, but it was an epic quest back in the day, nonetheless.

#9: The Nethersphere, Series 8, The Twelfth Doctor

What happens when we die? It’s a question that’s almost geared to produce discomfort. While we all have different conceptions of what existence means, and what comes after it, Moffat’s Series 8 arc bordered on the side of uncomfortable.

While the build up to the finale was intriguing, with killed characters from various adventures materialising in paradise where they were greeting by a Mary Poppins-esque figure who called herself Missy, the resolution was downright horrific. A record number of OFCOM complaints were actually made based upon the first episode of the finale, in which Danny Pink, recently deceased sends a message to his girlfriend Clara to beg her not to cremate him as souls in the Afterlife could still experience what happened to their mortal body.

As it transpired, Missy was a new incarnation of the Master, and had uploaded all of the souls of the departed to use for an army of Cybermen. It was a captivating twist, though not one which entirely stands up in the face of criticism. Usually there’s been no prerequisite for a Cyberman to need a human soul, just a body, but that’s alright. The fear mongering in the first part was enough to distract the audience from any illogical aspects.

#8: The Doctor’s Death, Series 6, The Eleventh Doctor

Matt Smith’s second series started with a bang, as Amy, Rory and River are summoned to Lake Silencio by the Doctor, where they see him get killed by a mysterious astronaut emerging from the sea. Not only is the Doctor killed, but he is unable to regenerate, and the group burn his dead body. Moments later, they encounter the Doctor again, holding an invite just like they received. This leads them on a mad journey back in time where they encounter the Silence and discover the location where the astronaut was kept. This leads to a whole series of Amy and Rory forced to keep the secret of his own death from the Doctor.

Along the way, we discover that the being inside the astronaut was, in fact, Amy and Rory’s daughter, Melody Pond, who was none other than River Song herself. Oh, but it also transpires that it wasn’t the Doctor at all, but a Teselecta duplicate. Considering the heavy press attention of Steven Moffat asserting “the Doctor did die”, it was more than just a little bit of a cop out resolution.

A compelling start to a mystery, but ultimately, the Series 6 journey became muddy and confused and entirely botched the landing.

#7: Harold Saxon, Series 3, The Tenth Doctor

This is the first Russell T Davies story arc on the list. In contrast to some of the blatant mysteries that propelled lots of the other series, Davies favoured a much more subtle approach. Just like his story arcs in Series 1, 2 and 4, you could easily be forgiven for missing some of the references littered throughout the episode’s run.

For Series 3 it was the name ”Harold Saxon”. His name would be heard on the radio, seen on posters, referenced by characters, you name it. Everybody had the conception that Harold Saxon was important in some way, but it was uncertain what exactly it was.

Eventually, Harold Saxon was revealed to be another incarnation of the Doctor’s evil nemesis the Master. While it was a satisfying reveal, the more exciting moment was discovering that the benevolent Professor Yana in Utopia was, actually, the Master in disguise, and the Face of Boe’s tantalising assertion that the Doctor “was not alone” finally made sense. The fact that Harold Saxon, a character we had not met, was actually the Master might have had more of an impact if we had seen Harold Saxon before, and then the regeneration would have had an even bigger impact.

#6: Torchwood, Series 2, The Tenth Doctor

The word of the series for Series 2 was “Torchwood”. It was established early in the series that Torchwood was created by Queen Victoria in order to protect Earth from extra terrestrial threats. The organisation lurked on the sidelines throughout the series until they performed a major role in the finale.

The finale itself was especially epic, featuring fan favourite monsters Daleks and Cybermen fighting between themselves, while the Doctor and Rose remained desperate to stop the destruction they caused. It was a decent tantalising glimpse throughout the series, but ultimately it’s the finale that makes this arc worthwhile.

#5: The Impossible Girl, Series 7, The Eleventh Doctor

The mystery surrounding companion Clara actually preceded her first appearance in the series. Before Amy Pond had even left the TARDIS, the collective fandom hive mind imploded at the surprise appearance of Jenna Coleman as Oswin Oswald in Series 7 premiere “Asylum of the Daleks”. In this story, Oswin is actually a Dalek, having been converted while breaching the Asylum, and she died, but not before telling the Doctor, “Run, you clever boy, and remember.”

Come Christmas, the Doctor met her again – not that he knew it – in the guise of a Victorian bar maid / governess named Clara Oswin Oswald. While helping the Doctor fight off the Great Intelligence, brave and plucky Clara fell from the TARDIS to the earth below, and also perished, telling the Doctor, once more, “Run, you clever boy, and remember.”

Now the Doctor knew that something was amiss, linking the identities of the two women, and tracking her down in the present day. Unfortunately, this is where the storyline hit a bit of a snag. As interesting as the mystery surrounding Clara’s multiple deaths were, this mystery seemed to result in an entire lack of personality and depth in the companion.

The reasoning for Clara’s multiple appearances being because she scattered herself throughout the Doctor’s timeline to save him from the Great Intelligence was a meaningful payoff, and it didn’t last so long that it became unintelligible and muddied like many Moffat plots. Having said that, the continuing presence of Clara on board the TARDIS with no knowledge or reference ever made to her massive sacrifice was a horrendously missed opportunity, as was having Victorian Clara travel on board the TARDIS instead.

#4: The Cracks in Time, Series 5, The Eleventh Doctor

This tell tale crack in time was mysterious from the first moment the Doctor saw it in Series 5 premiere “The Eleventh Hour”. Situated on Amelia Pond’s bedroom wall, it seemed as if the Doctor successfully closed the breach that Prisoner Zero had managed to escape through.

However, glimpses of the crack in the next two adventures, “The Beast Below” and “Victory of the Daleks” made it clear that this crack was a serious problem, made only worse when the Doctor himself comes face to face with another crack in “Flesh and Stone”. His investigations lead him to conclude that the crack was caused by a massive explosion in time, occurring on the same date as Amy’s wedding. Further investigations into the crack revealed a shard of the TARDIS contained inside.

Ultimately the reveal was satisfying. It was the TARDIS exploding was responsible for the cracks appearing all over the universe, but a team of the Doctor’s enemies, including the Silurians, Daleks and Cybermen banded together to imprison the Doctor in the Pandorica to prevent this from happening. Unfortunately, this meant that the Doctor was unable to prevent the TARDIS’s destruction and it still exploded, with River contained inside, causing the ultimate destruction of the universe, except for the Earth, moon and some sort of sun-like object.

From here, the resolution played somewhat fast and loose with logic, managing to reboot the Universe using the Doctor’s prison and then bringing the Doctor back into existence using a memory implanted in Amy’s brain. Yeah, it got complicated and very convenient, not to mention the fact that we wouldn’t learn who was responsible for the TARDIS’s destruction, nor why it was destroyed, until two seasons later. Still, these mysterious cracks held together Series 5 quite well, and it remains the greatest collection of episodes that Moffat produced for the show.

#3: The Timeless Child, Series 12, The Thirteenth Doctor

Another story arc for Series 12? Oh yes. Chibnall treated us with this series. From the series premiere, the Doctor was teased by the Master about a grand secret that lay at the heart of Gallifreyan existence, leading to him destroying the planet in revenge. His mentions of a Timeless Child became part of a larger mystery when the Doctor came face to face with a previously unknown incarnation of herself who was masquerading as a woman called Ruth in 21st-century England.

The later reveal that the Doctor themselves were the Timeless Child, hailing from an entirely different universe, and responsible for giving the Time Lords their powers of regeneration was satisfying, and game changing. Sure, it also decimated the fandom, but the idea that there is a secret at the heart of everything that we know about Doctor Who is simultaneously exciting, mystifying and unsettling.

While such a massive change to the lore of the show is always bound to be polarising, it brings with it a ton of potential to explore the Doctor’s past and the mysterious character at the heart of the show. Since this one still hasn’t been fully explored, it still gives ample storyline opportunities for the future. Hopefully, Chibnall manages to stay on the side of revealing little bits at a time, before the Doctor becomes as mysterious as River Song did.

#2: Bad Wolf, Series 1, The Ninth Doctor

Back when Doctor Who was revived, nobody really expected there to be a thread that united the episodes, apart from the Doctor and Rose’s travels. Back in the old days of Doctor Who, little tied together the stories apart from the Doctor and his companion, and series finales or premieres were no more notable than any of the stories that came in between.

This all changed with the revived series. Series premieres and finales were big, blockbuster events, and part of that was seeing a culmination of the journey throughout the series. For the first series, this all hinged around the mysterious phrase “Bad Wolf”, which materialised in most of the stories in varying ways. It was uncertain what promise was contained within these words, but it was a sign that something was coming.

As it turned out, Bad Wolf was actually Rose, who had absorbed the heart of the TARDIS and had scattered the phrase throughout time in order to lead herself back to the Doctor in order to save him (as Bad Wolf was the name of the space station they were on when they were being attacked by the Daleks – just watch the first series).

Bad Wolf would also crop up after the series, and almost became synonymous with Rose herself. It signalled her return at the end of Series 4, as well as the character Bad Wolf cropping up in the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor”.

#1: Rose and the Missing Planets, Series 4, The Tenth Doctor

Series 4’s story arc was a bit more complicated than some of the others. While there were subtle references to various creatures’ home planets going missing (such as The Lost Moon of Poosh, the Adipose Breeding Planet and the Pyrovile home planet), nobody could miss the previously unannounced appearance of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) in series premiere “Partners in Crime”. She also cropped up in the background of “The Poison Sky” and “Midnight”, with viewers practically screaming at the Doctor to turn around and notice her.

Not only were there these two strands, but also strange mentions of the DoctorDonna, which was predominantly passed off as a weird affectation of Ood language, as well as the reappearance of Donna within the Doctor’s life. But why would the audience have questioned that, when Catherine Tate and David Tennant were so busy being so damn likeable?

All of these plot points fused together to make the most epic series conclusion in Doctor Who history, with so many names in the beginning credits, you literally could have blinked and missed them. The appearance of Rose was due to the walls between parallel universes breaking down, due to a reality bomb being set off by Davros. This reality bomb required multiple planets, explaining the disappearance of the planets mentioned before. As for the bees? Well, that was more of a flippant explanation: some bees are aliens from Melissa Majorca, who started to leave Earth to return to their home planet when they detected disturbances in the Tandocca Scale as a result of Davros transmitting Earth to the Medusa Cascade in order to detonate his reality bomb.

As for Donna’s importance? Well that was probably the most heartbreaking resolution of all, as it turns out that the DoctorDonna was a tantalising glimpse at the merging of the Doctor and Donna. As a result of harbouring a Time Lord brain within her mind, the Doctor was forced to wipe her memory and leave her on earth while he continued his adventures.

A story arc is not only defined by its build up, but also its resolution. The build up throughout Series 4 is subtle enough to not detract from the other episodes, or to alienate the casual viewer, but present enough to capture the attention of the more ardent sectors of the viewing community. The culmination of these tales is exactly what you would expect from Doctor Who, as everything comes speeding towards a meaningful and emotional climax.

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