Why Doctor Who Needs Arcs Again

First things first: Matt Smith is my favourite Doctor. There, I said it. Smith is the Doctor I always wanted him to be: energetic bordering on wild, eccentric bordering on crazy, funny and weird and dark. The finale to Series Seven proved to me how great Smith is: he has a moment where he cries and it’s just perfect. (Check it out here, it’s number eight of 11 of Matt Smith’s best moments.

But, that said, this series has been a bloody shambles and the finale fell flat because the preceding episodes hadn’t earned it.

Be warned: this post is spoiler-heavy.

You have to buy your epic moments

Series Five was an almost perfect series. With a new Doctor, showrunner and companion it could have alienated the fans. But Amy Pond was the first and best impossible girl; her and her cracks in the universe were there from episode one. And each episode expanded on both of them, teasing out the mystery. Pieces of broken TARDIS, memories of Rory and refugee aliens kept popping up. There were plenty of stand-alone episodes, but they all managed to tip their hat to the arc.

So when it culminated in the epic finale, you were invested. You were desperate to know the answer to the questions you’d been teased with. You felt the losses and the sacrifices. It deserved its big moments. It deserved its deep emotion. Because the arc had paid for them.

The lack of an arc left Series Seven weak

New companion Clara is an impossible girl too, popping up over and over throughout history. But her mystery barely got a line or two each week.

The Great Intelligence claims that the Doctor continually thwarts him and that is why he wants revenge. But he only appeared twice this series.

Trenzalore has been built up in preceding series as a sort of end game for the Doctor. He must never go there. Terrible consequences will ensue if he does and villains have wreaked enormous evils to ensure that he doesn’t. Didn’t get a mention in Series Seven.

Then Moffat writes an epic finale where Clara’s mystery is solved, the Great Intelligence wreaks his revenge and the Doctor is forced to go to Trenzalore.

You can’t build an epic finale on stand-alone episodes

So the finale fell flat. An ending built on an uncared-for mystery, a villain’s third appearance and a concept that’s gone unmentioned since Series Six. And it’s such a shame, because it was a waste of so many good ideas: the remains of the Doctor as temporal scar tissue; the enormous, dead TARDIS; the dream conference call. Plus the treat of Alex Kingston, whose very presence injects life and wit and sauce. And the revelation of John Hurt as the Doctor was the best teaser I’ve ever seen ever. Ever.

But it wasn’t an ending. It wasn’t a close to the series. It was just another episode. Because no-one had raised any stakes, built any tension or left the audience desperate for resolution to any burning questions. The finale hadn’t earnt its epic moments. So they were empty. Hollow. Just like the villain.

Arcs aren’t anathema to casual viewing

Continuity always suffers on television because it sits at odds with jumping on points. Showrunners don’t want any potential new viewers to be put off by back story. So they gravitate to stand-alones. (It’s also why comics are always being retconned.) But if each episode stands like the proverbial cheese, why tune in next week? Why not skip a few weeks? After all, you won’t miss anything, will you?

Series Five had stand-alones. But they hinted at the arc. They left you with a question at the end of the episode that meant you’d tune in next week. Not one episode of Series Seven left me desperate to watch the next. Because there was no continuation. I knew next week would be something completely different. Unconnected. That it would carry as much consequence as this week.

That won’t keep an audience. If a viewer doesn’t feel like they have to watch the next episode, it’s only a matter of time before they find something else to watch. Turning Doctor Who into a montage of disconnected stories will be the death of it.

In short, Moffat needs to up his game. Series Five was fantastic. Series Six was good. But Series Seven started weak and got weaker. And if Series Eight doesn’t have any consequential storytelling then I’ll start losing interest. I’m sure I won’t be alone. I’ll try to keep watching. But, no matter how good Matt Smith is, one day I’ll just forget to tune in.

And that will be very sad.

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