If there’s one thing you can say about Doctor Who it’s that it never stands still, regularly rebooting and resetting exactly how the show is made almost as often as the Doctor regenerates.
However, it looks like the next series of Doctor Who will be particularly unusual for the “modern” (aka post-2005) era of the show, with showrunner Chris Chibnall revealing during a virtual panel that the upcoming season 13 (starring Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill and John Bishop, above) would be a single serialised story rather than the usual collection of self-contained episodes.
“The big thing we’re going to be doing this year is that it’s all one story – so every episode is a chapter in a bigger story,” Chibnall said during Doctor Who’s Comic-Con@Home panel. “And so we’ve changed the shape of the series for this year.
“It’s very much not a business as usual time,” he added, explaining the role that coronavirus restrictions had made on the decision.
“And I think the challenges of getting the show up and running.. […] there were two ways we could go. You could go ‘we’re just going to do lots and lots of tiny episodes in one room with no monsters. Or we can throw down the gauntlet and say we’re gonna do the biggest story we’ve ever done, and we’re going to go to all kind of different places, and have all different characters and monsters, and it’s all gonna be part of a bigger whole.
“I think it’s definitely the most ambitious thing we’ve done…it’s epic and ambitious and we do go to a lot of places.”
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Notably, this serialisation ties into the casting of newly-announced series star Jacob Anderson, who is set to play a character called Vinder across a number of episodes and whose presence across the series hints at more shared elements between episodes than fans might be used to.
It’s currently not clear whether this “serialised” story will take place over the entire eight-episode run of series 13 (previously announced after a cut to the usual 11 episodes forced by coronavirus restrictions) or a shorter run, with persistent unconfirmed rumours suggesting that at least two episodes from the current filming schedule are set to be held until 2022.
With that in mind, it could be that this series will consist of a shorter five-or-six-episode run, though no details of the episode split were mentioned during the panel.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Doctor Who has played around with its format. While the modern “NuWho” usually has series made of one-off and occasionally two-part adventures, the sci-fi drama has often tried to mix up the structure. During the Matt Smith era (when the series was run by screenwriter Steven Moffat) Doctor Who experimented with two-part series staggered across a year and a half (even including a major cast change), alongside a series of self-styled “mini-movie” episodes with less of an overall arc.
Later, Moffat experimented again with the second series of Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi, which was made up entirely of two-part stories and no one-offs, and two years later delivered a “stealth” three-part serial (Extremis/ The Pyramid at the End of the World/ The Lie of the Land) originally designed to look like entirely unconnected episodes.
It’s also far from the only serialised story in the Whoniverse. In 2009, spin-off Torchwood eschewed its usual 13-episode standalone stories for a five-part serial released over the course of one week, and the resulting series (subtitled Children of Earth) was lauded as the highpoint of the show.
And of course, ‘Classic’ Doctor Who episodes were almost always released in multi-part serials (albeit with several serials making part of one series), with the more episodic format only gaining traction after the series reboot in 2005. With this in mind, it could be argued that a more serialised story is taking Doctor Who back to its roots, even if it does mean a shorter series overall.
Still, there’s no denying that this move will make a marked change from the first two series of Chibnall’s time running the show, which followed a more traditional format and sometimes eschewed major arcs altogether (especially in the 2018 series, Jodie Whittaker’s first as the Thirteenth Doctor).
Exactly how big a change isn’t clear – based on filming leaks and Chibnall’s comments, the TARDIS team do still seem to be travelling to many different time periods and facing off with unusual villains, so the extent to which episodes will still have standalone conflicts vs serving the main arc is yet to be determined – but it’s still bound to be a controversial move with fans, especially given the series’ already-reduced episode count.
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained – and unprecedented times call for unprecedented moves.