Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: The best story arcs
Mark Harrison | On 10, Oct 2021
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox is bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor will return on 31st October for her final full season, which has been designed as a single story across six episodes. It remains to be seen how connected each of the individual episodes will be but Flux looks to be Doctor Who’s most serialised televised story since the classic series ended in 1989.
In the 21st-century incarnation of the programme, seasons have been linked by arcs such as the mysteries behind Bad Wolf, the TARDIS exploding, and, most recently, the Timeless Child. Given how showrunner Chris Chibnall is hyping up the new season as an experiment, we expect this to be more interconnected than, say, Russell T Davies’ season-finale flourishes or Steven Moffat’s puzzle-box setups.
But the model for Doctor Who serials exists pre-2005, even beyond a story running to 4 or 6 parts instead of 2 or 3. Back in the programme’s earliest days, serials would frequently end on a cliffhanger for the start of the next story, a style brilliantly essayed in Whittaker’s first episode, The Woman Who Fell to Earth, but seldom repeated since. If nothing else, an arc across six episodes should give us more cliffhangers than we’ve had of late.
Doctor Who history holds many examples of season arcs that give us some pointers to what Chibnall might have in store. If you’re looking for a big classic Who binge on BritBox, here are some multi-serial epics that might point the way for Season 13 of New Who…
The epic quest
”Doctor, you have been chosen for a vitally important task.”
Season 16 gives us Doctor Who’s original season arc, with the Fourth Doctor on a quest for the Key to Time. Long before Thanos started faffing about with Infinity Gems in the pages of Marvel Comics, Doctor Who had the White and Black Guardians – the living manifestations of order and chaos, respectively – battling to obtain six pieces of an object that would give its owner control over all of time and space.
With the help of K9 and Time Lady companion Romana, (Mary Tamm) the Doctor travels from the ice planet of Ribos to the warring neighbours Atrios and Zeos, identifying and recovering disguised segments along the way. Comprising serials written by Robert Holmes and Douglas Adams among others, this quest arc might point to the sort of thing that connects the Thirteenth Doctor’s next run of adventures.
What to watch
All 26 episodes of Season 16 (1978 – 79), including The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet, The Stones Of Blood, The Androids Of Tara, The Power Of Kroll, and The Armageddon Factor.
The growing threat
”I’ve just dipped into the future. We must be prepared for the worst.”
After seven years of the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker’s final season was a low-key, sombre affair compared to what went before. Overseen by script editor Christopher H Bidmead, the theme of entropy features in several Season 18 stories, which closes out Baker’s run with a trilogy and a couple of sequel stories. It would be more in keeping with the RTD new series arcs, but this sort of thing might similarly point the way for Whittaker’s final adventures.
Encompassing the serials Full Circle, State of Decay, and Warrior’s Gate, the E-Space trilogy finds the Doctor and Romana II slipping through a time-space event into a mirror universe and traversing strange new worlds as they try to return to normal space. After picking up new companion Adric, the Doctor discovers that entropy in his own universe could hasten the end of all things and enters into an unthinkable alliance to avert it.
What to watch
For the full Bidmead effect, watch all of Season 18, (1980 – 81) as well as the Fifth Doctor’s introduction in Season 19’s Castrovalva, (32 episodes altogether) but for Baker’s final arc, watch from Full Circle to Logopolis.
The Big Bad
”Winner takes all…”
Remember the Black Guardian? This chaotic baddie (Valentine Dyall) makes a comeback for a trilogy of stories in the 20th-anniversary season, in which each story featured a returning character or race from adventures past. This time, he’s recruited Turlough (Mark Strickson), an alien stranded on Earth in the 1980s, to do his dirty work and help him destroy the Fifth Doctor.
This arc spans three stories, including a tale of two Brigadiers working at a private school, a thriller set aboard a ship that has mysteriously arrived at the exact centre of the known universe, and an age-old race between immortal beings. Maybe the new series will also see a Big Bad looming over the various adventures.
What to watch
Mawdryn Undead, Terminus, and Enlightenment (Season 20, 1983)
One long story
”Doctor, you’ve heard the charges. Do you wish to say anything before the enquiry proceeds?”
Perhaps the most infamous of the classic season arcs, The Trial of a Time Lord is billed as a 14-episode story. Captured by the Time Lords, the Sixth Doctor is put on trial for interfering in the affairs of other civilisations. Evidence takes the form of several different adventures, including a visit to the planet Ravalox, another encounter with Season 22 villain Sil, and a look into the Doctor’s future that introduces new companion Mel (Bonnie Langford). Along the way, a lot of the cliffhangers involve crash-zooms on Colin Baker’s face.
The 23rd season of Doctor Who came after an 18-month hiatus, during which the series had narrowly avoided cancellation. And so there’s a meta quality to this extended arc, whether it’s Robert Holmes bedding old criticisms of the show into the prosecution of the Doctor, or the larger premise serving as a (not especially effective) defence of continuing adventures in the TARDIS. For better or worse, it’s the ultimate single-season storyline.
With the show in much ruder health than it was in 1986, Chibnall might not go this far with the new series, but it would be one way of compromising between appointment viewing and catch-up binging if the storyline was truly serialised.
What to watch
All of Season 23 (1986) – The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, Terror Of The Vervoids, and The Ultimate Foe
Other bingeable arcs
– The Holy Grail of missing Doctor Who serials from the earliest days of the programme is the Daleks’ Master Plan, (Season 3) in which the First Doctor and his companions face a massive Dalek-led alliance that threatens to conquer the solar system. Of its 12 episodes, only three still exist in the BBC archives, but fans have long wanted to see this blockbuster get an animated reconstruction.
– Meanwhile, the longest single serial available on BritBox is The War Games, the product of the Second Doctor’s 4-part penultimate story and 6-part finale being folded into each other in production. It’s technically a single serial but, if you’re up for a truly epic 10-parter, this is a must-see story.
– The Third Doctor’s era has some far looser arcs as his exile to Earth localises the show a bit. Season 8 (1971) introduces the Master and has him turn up as the main antagonist of every serial, but in the background of many stories the Doctor is attempting to repair his disabled TARDIS, with a turning point coming in the tenth-anniversary special The Three Doctors (1973).
– Narrowly missing out on the main list is the tale of one of the Doctor’s lesser known companions, Kamelion. This shape-shifting robot is introduced in The King’s Demons (Season 20, 1983) and taken on-board the TARDIS. He doesn’t pop up again until the Fifth Doctor’s penultimate story, Planet Of Fire (Season 21, 1984), but the two serials make a decent two-parter of sorts.
– The Trial of a Time Lord didn’t do much to reverse Doctor Who’s fortunes but, as we’ve previously covered, the arrival of the Seventh Doctor and script editor Andrew Cartmel gave us Ace (Sophie Aldred), whose past and personal connection to the Time Lord are teased out over several serials in the seasons that followed. Annoyingly, the show was actually quite good by the time it was put on permanent hiatus in 1989.