All this week we’ve been looking at the Key to Time season, so it seems like a good time to take a look at the wider issue of running themes or stories across whole seasons of Doctor Who. The Key to Time is generally considered to be the first example of a season arc, but that doesn’t quite tell the full story. If anything, Season 8 has a stronger linked theme, with the same villain in every single story. There is also a strong beginning, middle and end, with the Master arriving on Earth and the Doctor being alerted to this in Terror of the Autons, and then being finally captured by UNIT at the end of The Daemons. This is every bit as coherent an arc as the Guardians provide us with for Season 16.
We can also go right back to the start and look at the first series, which has a strong thread running through it of the Doctor learning how to be the Doctor from his kidnap victims. Looking at the original production run, there is also the story of Susan, which comes to an end along with the first production block, even if the transmission schedule didn’t follow that pattern. In fact, seasons can often give us a complete or almost complete story arc for a particular companion, such as Season 3 (Steven), Season 4 (Ben and Polly), Season 5 (Victoria), Season 6 (Zoe), Season 7 (Liz), Season 16 (Romana I), Series 3 (Martha), Series 4 (Donna) and Series 10 (Bill).
But The Key to Time season is something different because of the one connecting story, and it is also followed through reasonably thematically. Most of the pieces are stolen, and their theft combined with the arrival of the Doctor throws worlds into chaos. Finding them is about the Doctor restoring balance, a task for which he is an awkward fit, but we will discuss this in more detail when we look at The Armageddon Factor on Monday.
After a half-hearted attempt to make Season 20 the series where every story brings back something from the history of Doctor Who, we get our next big story arc with The Trial of a Time Lord, but this is something different again, because it is framed as one complete story that lasts a whole series. In that respect it is not so very different from The Daleks’ Master Plan: just a really big Doctor Who story that links together some relatively separate adventures. The only difference is Season 3 has more stories, but for Season 23 we get Trial and nothing else.
That’s about it for the Classic series, at least in terms of complete seasons. Of course, there are plenty of smaller runs of linked stories, such as the trilogy set in Espace followed by the Master trilogy, the stories that connect with Ace’s childhood and how she ends up on Iceworld, Ian, Barbara and Tegan’s quests to get back home, the First and Sixth Doctors mellowing over time, the Third Doctor’s exile on Earth, and so on.
When Doctor Who returned in 2005 we started to move towards season arcs each year. Basically what happened was that while Doctor Who was mostly off air between 1989 and 2005, the approach to genre television shifted dramatically. As always, Buffy is the shining example here, with individual stories, but a Big Bad each year. Doctor Who started small-scale, doing little other than dropping in words here and there which linked to the finale, Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Vote Saxon, You are Not Alone. Then Series 4, with its celebratory finale, started throwing in endless clues for loyal viewers to pick up on, some of which had been dropped in during previous seasons: bees disappearing, planets disappearing, the Medusa Cascade, the Shadow Proclamation, “there is something on your back”, the Doctor/Donna. Russell T Davies’s last task was to subvert our expectations of the arc words trend, with “he will knock four times” turning out to be something other than what everyone expected. Series 4 seemed to start a trend for arc words playing across multiple seasons, and not always tied up when you would think they have been tied up. This trend continued with “silence will fall”, the oldest question in the universe, “run you clever boy”, etc, and then more recently the story arcs became more season focussed, with the mysterious promised land in Series 8, plus the question of whether 12 is a “good man”, who or what the “hybrid” is in Series 9, and then 10 is tightly focussed around Bill’s complete story, the redemption or otherwise of Missy, and the Doctor’s impending death (which also links the Tennant specials).
There is clearly a balance to be struck with this kind of thing, between rewarding loyal viewers and avoiding excluding casual ones. It is a balance Doctor Who has struck with great skill since 2005. As for the Classic Series, only The Trial of a Time Lord perhaps went too far in trying to create an arc and then collapsing into convolution. Like The Key to Time, the problem stems from starting a story before the ending is firmly fixed in place. The difference is that The Key to Time is a loose enough linking theme that it just about works, whereas investing 12 weeks in Trial only to find that it’s a winding road to nowhere might leave viewers feeling… well, Lost. RP