Friday, December 06, 2013

Doctor Who: 2008

Episode 750: The Stolen Earth
First broadcast 7.10 pm on Saturday 28 June 2008
<< back to 2007

"I'm regenerating..."
Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth (2008)
These days, most episodes of Doctor Who tell a new story, in a new setting and with new supporting characters. But until 1989, stories took weeks to unfold - a season was made up of a handful of stories, each one made up of episodes.

Some stories went on for many months: The Daleks' Master Plan (1965-6) was a single story that ran for 12 weeks; The War Games (1969) ran for 10 and The Trial of a Time Lord (1986) for 14 - longer than any run of episodes since the series came back in 2005.

Of course, most stories were a lot shorter. The number of episodes varied but for the first 11 years of the series, six episodes was the most common, and then four-episode stories predominated. I think that's important: even back then, stories were getting shorter.

That's partly down to developments in production and some clever organisation: in the 1980s, producer John Nathan-Turner would split a six-episode production block into two stories - a four and a two, or two threes. But why would he want to?

First, ratings tended to dip in the midst of a story. Viewers were more likely to tune in to the first or final episodes. But also, I think we've got more literate as an audience. We're quicker to absorb and process information from the screen.

Watching old TV now, it's surprising how slow and careful it can seem. Even action-packed dramas hold our hand through the plot, spelling out all the details. There are fewer scenes and more exposition. That's not just true of old Doctor Who: other dramas, soaps and even documentaries from the past are all much more sedate.

As a result, modern telly can pack much more into a shorter time. I don't think there's any less plot in a modern, 42-minute episode of Doctor Who than there was in 6x 25-minute episodes in the past. In fact, five of those episodes would have to remind the viewer of the plot and supporting characters. There's a lot of repetition.

But one big element of old Doctor Who that's been lost is the cliffhanger. In a story that unfolded over several weeks, each episode would end on our heroes in deadly peril or some incredible, shocking reveal. The idea of a cliffhanger was to ensure we'd tune in again the following week but, as I argued in my 2002 piece, it also made us active participants in the story. We'd guess what would happen next.

More than that, because a cliffhanger was meant to be thrilling and strange, leaving us with an indelible image for the next seven days as a hook to return for the next installment, some of Doctor Who's most effective and memorable moments are cliffhangers. A helpful fellow on YouTube has even selected his favourites:

Note that, as the video shows, there are cliffhangers in modern Doctor Who - and very good ones. It's just there are fewer of them now.

The new show does offer some compensations for the loss of cliffhangers. Each episode starts with a pre-titles sequences, usually something strange and scary to get us hooked. There are also ongoing 'arc' plots and mysteries to keep us watching the series and get us involved in guessing what might happen next.

But I miss cliffhangers. And the moment I've chosen from 2008 is one of the finest ever done. It's not just down to the emotional rollercoaster set up in the episode, the Doctor finally reunited with Rose only to be shot by a Dalek. It's not just all the things the story itself is doing to enthrall us. It's also how perfectly the secret was kept by the production team.

I had friends working on the series who'd previously dropped hints or accidentally spoilt things. All was silent from them. There was no one on Twitter or Facebook crowing about what they knew. And I spent the week being phoned or emailed by people I'd not spoken to in years - people I'd never even known were into Doctor Who - all desperate to know if I knew anything.

Surely, they all asked, there couldn't be a regeneration we didn't already know about.

(A few weeks before the episode was broadcast, there'd been sneaky pictures from the filming of the Doctor Who Christmas special, showing David Tennant and David Morrissey. Morrissey was dressed in Doctorish clothes. I wondered if in fact the production team had tricked us - and here was Tennant visiting or playing a ghost in his successor's next episode.)

Something similar happened in the last few weeks with The Day of the Doctor, but without there being a cliffhanger. Again, the secrets were kept and the story was much more effective. Paul McGann (in the mini-episode), Tom Baker and Peter Capaldi, and that line-up of the Doctors at the end... Each worked because we didn't expect it. And I love the idea of the episode being shown at the same time in 94 countries, too: a shared experience, where we reach the surprises together.

So it's not the pre-title sequences and arc plots that most compensate for the lost cliffhanger of old. Rather, in a world where filming is followed closely by fan paparazzi and the papers delight in ruining what's to come, there's a delicious thrill in not knowing what's coming next.

"No press previews or Bafta screenings!"
A manifesto from Gary Gillatt, 24 Nov 13

Next episode: 2009

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