On Doctor Who’s Forthcoming Season

The sixth season of the new Doctor Who will be split in two; seven episodes airing from Easter, with the final six episodes airing later in the fall.

According to the BBC’s press release:

The split transmission is the result of a request from Steven Moffat to write a new Doctor Who story arc which involves a big plot twist in the middle of the series. By splitting the series Moffat plans to give viewers one of the most exciting Doctor Who cliffhangers and plot twists ever, leaving them waiting, on the edge of their seats, until the autumn to find out what happens.

The Guardian elaborates on this, quoting showrunner Steven Moffat as saying that the “seven episodes at Easter [are] building to an earth-shattering climax, a cliffhanger we could never normally do because it would be too long before it came back. An enormous game-changing cliffhanger that will change everything.”

Some, like novelist David A. McIntee here, speculate that the split season is down to budgetary concerns. Others on Gallifrey Base are suggesting that the BBC wants to sell two DVD sets, reaping twice the revenue if the 7-episode sets are priced the same as the thirteen-episode season sets.

While there may be truth to both — Moffat is quoted by the Guardian as saying that this isn’t really a split season but two shorter seasons instead which may mean two season commissions, and American shows that have done split seasons (like Battlestar Galactica) have done separate half-season DVD sets — I think there’s a more practical reason for a split season.

Production time.

Contrary to Moffat’s rosy spin about storytelling, splitting the season in two is likely due entirely to the filming schedule. The sixth season hasn’t begun filming yet; the first table read of the new season is next week, and filming on the first production block would begin thereafter. It takes nine months to film the season, which would put the final filming block in May. If Doctor Who begins airing at Easter, that wouldn’t give the production team much time to deal with problems on-set, and we could have a situation not unlike the Russell T. Davies-era where episodes (like “The Impossible Planet”) were finished days before broadcast. Cleaving the season in two gives the production team more time — and more breathing room — to deal with the production of the back half of the season, the part to air in the autumn, and it gives the BBC want they want — Doctor Who in the spring.

There are some interesting knock-on effects from this, with the most prominent being less need for a Doctor-lite episode since there won’t be a need to double-bank due to time constraints. The financial need to double-bank, however, may remain. But they won’t be forced to double-bank episodes because of production time constraints.

But there’s another knock-on effect that effects the program’s future. Actor contracts.

According to reports, Matt Smith was signed to a three season contract, with an option for two more. If the episodes in 2011 are considered a single season, albeit one split in two, then Smith would still be under control for 2012. However, if the 2011 episodes are considered two seasons — Moffat says this himself in the Guardian: “The wrong expression would be to say we are splitting it in two. We are making it two separate series.” — then Smith would have fulfilled his three season contract with the BBC and the option for the fourth season would kick in, which means he could either stay or go.

Now, despite rampant rumors, I’m not expecting Smith to leave. I read Doctor Who Magazine #424 this week (we’re behind on this side of the pond), and I have the distinct impression from the interviews with Smith and Arthur Darvill that the current TARDIS team — the eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory — insofar as the actors involved are concerned, could stay together forever. So if my read of what’s known about the contracts is correct, then I think that Smith would want the option for the fourth season picked up to take us into 2012. Yet this remains a possibility, that the 2011 episodes were split so that Smith could fulfill the terms of his contract faster.

Still, I can’t complain about the decision to split the season. Steven Moffat has the right of it, as quoted in the BBC press release: “For the kids it will never be more than a few months to the next Doctor Who! Easter, Autumn, Christmas!” More frequent Doctor Who? How could anyone argue with that? :party:

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