How many seconds in eternity? And how many episodes in a Doctor Who story? Ahead of Series 13, we look at the age old question: when does one story end and the next begin?
In many ways the mark of fandom is a love for lists and classifications. Ask a group of fans to list all of the Companions in Doctor Who and you’d get almost as many different lists as fans. Because the patterns we see (anyone who’s travelled in the TARDIS… anyone who’s been in more than two stories…) aren’t really there. As evidenced by a list of exceptions immediately following every justification for a rule (plus Liz Shaw of course… except Corporal Bell and Professor Travers, naturally…)
Who is a companion and who isn’t… we don’t truly divine it from rational patterns; it something we feel. In recent decades we can say the same for something as simple as what is, and what isn’t a single story. Chris Chibnall has promised Series 13 will be one of the most ambitious single stories Doctor Who has ever attempted. But what does that even mean?
At six episodes long the new story, Flux, would be the longest since 1986’s fourteen part The Trial of a Time Lord. But the shorter episodes of most of the 20th century mean that its total runtime is just under six hours. Probably still longer than Series 13, which 50-60 minute episodes will probably leave it closer to five hours than six. But Flux will likely still be longer, runtime wise, than ever other Doctor Who epic going – even the twelve part, five hour long, The Daleks’ Master Plan from 1965/6. At least, it will in the minds of people who really do see it as one sweeping story. There’s very likely to be some discussion on the subject and, as we shall see, not for the first time…
At least the Classics made it clear. Didn’t they?
Back in the old days, it was at least a little easier. Each serial came with its own unique production code. Serial A was An Unearthly Child, conveniently enough; Power of the Daleks was Serial EE; and so it went right up to Serial 7Q, Ghost Light. Since the show came back each individual episode has had its own production code, such as 1.1 (Rose), 4.17 (The End of Time, Part One), or 4.18 (The End of Time, Part Two). Moreover, from The Savages Episode 1 to Survival Part Three, there was even a caption on screen to tell you. While since 2005, The End of Time aside, every episode of a larger arc has had its own name. So the definition of ‘a story’ has become much more subjective.
But back up a moment… Trial of a Time Lord has onscreen titles telling us its all one story, but it also has three different production codes (7A to 7C). And within the framework of the trial, it has four different writing teams telling four distinct subplots. You can’t even rely on an official word on the matter – the BBC promoted Silver Nemesis as the 150th story by counting Trial as four stories, and Planet of the Dead as the 200th by counting it as one. So, is that what makes the difference – one consistent author, setting and plot?
That would make Daleks’ Master Plan the longest so far. Except, wait… it changes writer half way through (throwing entire subplots out an air lock at the same time), and the Daleks fail to appear for a couple of episodes as the Doctor wanders off to almost entirely unrelated shenanigans with the Meddling Monk and Bing Crosby. Meanwhile some consider Mission to the Unknown effectively a thirteenth episode of Master Plan. That’s despite the prelude and the main story having an entire four part story between them…
To Be Continued…
But there’s no doubt it’s even messier now. Some cases are pretty clear cut. Nobody would claim The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances are different stories, for instance. But there are still people who tut and shake their heads every time they hear Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords described as 21st century Who’s first three parter. After all, it completely changes setting, monster and tone in the latter two episodes. Yet narratively, each leads directly into the other and thematically, the nature of the Toclafane brings us straight back to Utopia’s events again. Against this, only a few maintain that Turn Left was the first episode of a three parter.
Most complex of all, different people interpret the final run of episodes in Series 9 are as, variously, a three part story about Clara’s death and the lengths the Doctor will go to save her, a one part story about her death followed by a two part sequel about the Doctor going off the rails in response, or even three one part stories about the Trap Street, the Confession Dial, and Gallifrey.
Most recently, while most might interpret Series 12’s Haunting of Villa Diodati/Ascension of the Cybermen/Timeless Children as a one parter followed by a two parter, it’s not unanimous. They again run from one to the other, and have a villain who appears in all three episodes. But then the real villain of the piece, the Master, doesn’t turn up until the final shots of Ascension of the Cybermen, and Ashad the Cyberman is jettisoned from the plot midway though the finale..
And don’t think ‘To Be Continued’ captions will help you decide. Particularly in the Moffat era these began to be thrown about with wild abandon to the point of meaninglessness. Who, really, would think of Let’s Kill Hitler as part two of the story that began months earlier in A Good Man Goes to War, To Be Continued caption or not?
Soon we can judge Series 13’s epic quality for ourselves
Ultimately, there’s one thing we can be sure of tonight when Flux arrives, and in the weeks to come. Debate. The six episodes will almost certainly move around in time and space. More than one will probably start with the TARDIS arriving somewhere and end with it leaving. Whatever Big Bad overarching villain it has is unlikely to be front and centre in every episode, though it’s also almost certain to be a stronger presence than a ‘Bad Wolf’ style whisper in the margins. But other adversaries are sure to come and go after an episode or two as well.
Chris Chibnall is playing what should be the ultimate trump card of returning to an overarching title. The new series is being billed in all promotion as Doctor Who: Flux after all. Each episode is billed as a chapter, kicking off with tonight’s Chapter One: The Halloween Apocalypse. Yet this is the world of Doctor Who fans, so have no doubt the debate will still rage on…
Doctor Who returns on the 31st of October with Series 13, Flux