Continuing drama series, whether sci-fi or otherwise, can go to some intense, often dark places. If this becomes unremitting then you can lose the audience, because it sucks all the fun out of the viewing experience and becomes tiring. It can also lessen the impact of those big moments. If every week is super high-powered drama, then you start to get the law of diminishing returns. So any series with a reasonably long run will tend to put in the occasional episode that is lighter in tone, to break things up a bit. This is much more common in an episodic series rather than a series of multi-part stories, as per the Classic series of Doctor Who, and was really perfected by various American long running genre series, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the various versions of Star Trek. Doctor Who since 2005 took a huge amount of inspiration from Buffy, and so the breather episode became a thing.
That’s not to say it didn’t exist before. Within a multi-part story it is extremely rare, because you can’t really break the narrative flow like that. It only tends to happen in stories that are told over a large number of episodes. The Daleks’ Master Plan has a clear example, where the Doctor’s frightening battle with the Daleks is interrupted by a Christmas episode and a New Year episode, both of which are much lighter in tone. After the first companion death a couple of weeks before this is a welcome breather. The War Games also “breathes” in the middle, with the Doctor’s shenanigans pretending to be a student when he infiltrates the base of operations. Fast forward to the Key to Time season, and we get a four-part breather in amongst a 26 week run of universe saving, with the doppelgänger fun of The Androids of Tara. The Trial of a Time Lord does something similar: after apparently killing off the companion at the end of four weeks of grimness we get a lighter tone of a whodunit with a bubbly new companion, before the climactic two weeks of the overarching trial story.
There are plenty of other examples where a balance has been struck within a season. In particular the two-parters tend to function as breathers between big dramas: Black Orchid and The Sontaran Experiment both do this, and The King’s Demons would have done, but for strike action. It should be nestled between the Black Guardian trilogy and the hard-hitting Resurrection of the Daleks.
Once we get to the episodic seasons, we get examples nearly every year. Have a look at these sequences:
- The Doctor Dances, Boom Town, Bad Wolf
- The Satan Pit, Love & Monsters, Fear Her, Army of Ghosts (that’s a double breather)
- The Doctor’s Daughter, The Unicorn and the Wasp, Silence in the Library
- Vincent and the Doctor, The Lodger, The Pandorica Opens
- Day of the Moon, The Curse of the Black Spot, The Doctor’s Wife
- The God Complex, Closing Time, The Wedding of River Song
- Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood, Listen
- Flatline, In the Forest of the Night, Dark Water
- The Lie of the Land, Empress of Mars, The Eaters of Light, World Enough and Time (another double breather between the big multi-part dramatic stuff)
Of course, the trick to breather episodes is that they can’t just be episodes that aren’t very good. They have to be entertaining but in less dramatic ways, and that’s a tough thing to get right. Often it can be achieved by ramping up the comedy levels to give the viewers a laugh between the big moments. We can see clear examples of this in Boom Town, Love & Monsters, The Lodger and Robot of Sherwood. Sometimes they can be good opportunities to have Doctor Who crash into a different genre, such as a whodunit (The Unicorn and the Wasp) or a romantic comedy (The Lodger). But most importantly they are a chance to give us pause for thought, to perhaps bring up some interesting topics such as the nature of loneliness and friendship (Love & Monsters), the fear of parental abuse (Fear Her), or the morality of justice (Boom Town). They have room to breathe, and therefore room to make us think. And because of that they are often some of the most interesting and compelling episodes, and a whole lot of fun. Doctor Who doesn’t do “filler episodes”. It does “breathers”. RP