Nothing gets a Doctor Who fan hyped from episode to episode like a sexy, mysterious series-long arc. Like Hansel and Gretel we devour each and every little breadcrumb until the (hopefully) big, mind-blowing reveal. Now we have had series-long arcs in Classic Who – the Third Doctor battled the Master for the entirety of Season 8 and the Fourth Doctor searched for the pieces of the Key to Time for all of Season 16 – but they have become (almost) mandatory for Modern Who.
For this post we will be ranking all 11 modern series-long arcs based on the concept, how they were threaded throughout the episodes and how they were resolved. With a galaxy-sized SPOILER ALERT Allons-y, Geronimo and here we go!
#11 The Hybrid, Series 9, Twelfth Doctor
Who the heck was the hybrid? Was it Me/Ashildr? Was it the Doctor? By the end of the Series 9 I still did not know and, worse yet, I stopped caring. And it had little to do with the plot of the finale which is kind of the point of a series-long arc. A wasted opportunity here.
#10 The Vault/Missy’s Redemption, Series 10, Twelfth Doctor
Now this arc started off promising enough with the mystery of that creepy-looking vault. What was in it? Who was in it? Many fans guessed that it was Missy and, guess what, it was Missy. This led to the true arc which was having Missy be turned from her evil ways.
And then we had the shocking reveal of the John Saxon version of The Master in World Enough and Time. Then the two Masters have an unprecedented team-up before they both kill each other in Missy’s final act of redemption. But despite how surprising the Saxon Master reveal was, and how much fun we had seeing the two Masters together, this is a list ranking arcs and this one was just all over the place.
#9 The Timeless Child, Series 12, Thirteenth Doctor
Now some of you observant readers may be wondering why this list is ranking 11 arcs and we have had 12 series of Modern Doctor Who (for the purposes of this list The Tenth’s Doctor pseudo year of five specials from December 2008 to January 2010 doesn’t count). Well with series 11 new showrunner Chris Chibnall ditched the series-long arc, and no, teeth festishist Tzim-Shaw showing up in the first and last episodes does not count as an arc needs to be seeded throughout the series. One commenter on a Doctor Who Facebook group mentioned Graham losing Grace and then defeating Tzim-Shaw as an arc, but that was a character arc and not a series arc as there was no grand mystery nor seeding of plot points.
It was in Series 12 that Chibnall brought back the arc with a bang and with the new Master telling The Doctor he destroyed Gallifrey (the planet just can’t catch a break) then hinting at the mystery of the Timeless Child. And then in Fugitive of the Judoon we had two more mysteries added on top: Captain Jack’s warning about “The Lone Cyberman” and the introduction of a previously unknown incarnation of The Doctor, “the Ruth Doctor”. But we never get an origin for The Lone Cybermen and the Ruth Doctor origin is still unclear so I have to take some points off.
And then Chibnall split the fan base in twain with the reveal that The Doctor is not originally from Gallifrey, is the source of Time Lord regeneration and has had multiple previous incarnations. Ballsy move Chibnall. I share more of my thoughts on the reveal here, but despite the highly controversial retcon I will say I am happy to see the showrunner taking a chance and doing something rather than playing it safe.
#8 Death of the Doctor, Series 6, Eleventh Doctor
Series 6 started off with a bang – literally. The Doctor gets blasted and killed by a mysterious astronaut who comes walking out of a beach. Quite the tantalising mystery. But then it got all convoluted with the River stuff and the Teselecta reveal could have been seen from a mile away. At least we got the sweet mini-arc with Amy’s baby – where is my wife! – and a touching wedding.
#7 Who is Harold Saxon? Series 3, Tenth Doctor
This was one of the more subtle arcs on this list and if you were not paying attention you would have missed all the references to “Harold Saxon”, who turned out to be the Doctor’s regenerated nemesis The Master. Also the Face of Boe’s message “you are not alone” relating to the amnesiac Master as Professor YANA (You Are Not Alone? Get it?) was too much on the nose. Maybe if we had actually seen and met Saxon before his big reveal then it would have had more of an impact. Sadly the execution falls flat.
#6 Torchwood, Series 2, Tenth Doctor
Who knew that the mysterious organisation would become a spinoff series featuring good old Captain Jack Harkness? Before that it was the Torchwood Institute which was founded in 1879 when the Doctor and Rose had a run in with Queen Victoria, some deadly monks and a space werewolf.
This led us to the modern day Torchwood and their questionable experiments which then leads to a Cybermen and Dalek invasion. A decent enough series arc but the conclusion used it as a launching pad for the spin-off more than anything else.
#5 The Cracks in Time, Series 5, Eleventh Doctor
There’s, something on the wall. Some…thing! These pesky time cracks just kept popping up. They even swallowed up poor Rory. The mystery deepened when the Doctor pulled out a piece of the TARDIS from a crack. We eventually learned that the cracks were caused by an exploding TARDIS in the future.
The concept was interesting enough but the whole wishing the Doctor back and rebooting the universe was the worst kind of deus ex machina. This is not a video game where you can just hit the reset button. Better than that Moffat. Better than that.
#4 The Impossible Girl, Series 7, Eleventh Doctor
We met the first incarnation of Clara in the spectacular Asylum of the Daleks and she was a smart, witty chick who just happened to be a Dalek. Then we met a Victorian-era Clara and she was sassy and sweet but then she died too. And then the Doctor meets a modern version and things got a bit, well, boring. Moffat may have been going for mysterious with “The Impossible Girl” but did that have to mean lack of character development?
That aside the revelation that Clara had been scattered across the Doctor’s timeline was fantastic. The finale scored points by giving a nod to the previous Doctors and bonus points for showing an incarnation of Clara interacting with the First Doctor and his granddaughter Susan. As the Ninth Doctor would say, “fantastic.”
#3 Missy and the Nethersphere, Series 8, Twelfth Doctor
Where are all these dead people going? Who is this Mary Poppins-looking lady with the crazy eyes? These were the nagging mysteries throughout Series 8. We learned that the dead people were in the Nethersphere and would be turned into mindless Cybermen and the kooky lady was a regenerated and gender-swapped Master. Say what?! It was a great twist and deserving of our bronze medal.
#2 Rose and the Missing Planets, Series 4, Tenth Doctor
Like the John Saxon references you may have missed all the disappearing planets throughout this series, probably because we were having so much fun with the Tenth Doctor and the lovable Donna (who would later become the tragic DoctorDonna, a mini-arc in itself). But it was impossible to miss former companion Rose Tyler popping up all over the place and we were waiting with bated breath for her and the Doctor to reconnect. Their reunion is touching and the disappearing planets being part of a weapon by the Daleks and their creator Davros, not seen since Classic Who, was masterful.
#1 Bad Wolf, Series 1, Ninth Doctor
When it comes to season-long arcs nothing beats Bad Wolf. This mysterious phrase appeared over and over during Series 1. Who or what was it? Why was it found throughout time and space? Enquiring minds needed to know. But who could have guessed that the Bad Wolf would end up being Rose with god-level powers after she looked into the time vortex in the heart of the TARDIS. And then she destroyed an entire Dalek army. Suh-weet!
The Bad Wolf Rose would return in The Day of the Doctor fiftieth anniversary special but more importantly would become a real world meme for all Whovians. Just say “Bad Wolf” and everybody knows what you mean. Try it. Now that is a powerful season arc.
So what is your favourite Doctor Who season arc? And if you enjoyed this list how about a share? Sharing is caring. For my Top 5 Modern Doctor Intro Episodes you can click here.
Julien Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. Also loves promoting Caribbean film, creating board games and is an aspiring author. Says things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Can also be found talking about TV and movie stuff on Instagram as redmanwriter and on Facebook at Movieville.