Is Binge-Watching Doctor Who Ever A Good Idea?

Let me scrub the timeline backwards a few years, constant reader. It’s autumn, 2008 – one of those dark, mellow evenings where the wind is blowing through the churchyards and rattling the park gates. Having become increasingly disillusioned with David Tennant’s turn on Doctor Who – we’ve had a sterling year with Donna but my goodness Journey’s End was a disappointment – I have called on the services of an old friend and asked to borrow some Classic stories (“Nothing specific, just stuff you think we’ll enjoy”). He responds with two absolute belters, and Destiny of the Daleks.

We’re not going to talk about Destiny today, but we are going to talk about Horror of Fang Rock, which I unwisely suggest we watch in a single sitting. My wife really isn’t sure. “It’s only 100-odd minutes,” I tell her. “We could have it done in a couple of hours.” And we do: but somewhere in the midst of the glowering and the claustrophobic bickering and the lime jellies that quiver on staircases, some of the magic gets lost. By the end of Episode 4, when the Rutans are dispatched and Louise Jameson’s thrown away her contact lenses, I am positively flagging and Emily is outright bored.

This whole piece is a difficult one because it involves the unthinkable. It is built on the argument that while there is no ‘correct’ way to watch Doctor Who, there may be several wrong ways of doing it. Anyone who knows me will know this is something I actively try and avoid: after years of tempering an obsession and processing an irrational hatred I have come to the conclusion that most stories have their merits (yes, that includes Fear Her), all headcanon is basically valid (as long as you keep quiet about it), and that the fandom is at its best when people don’t take it too seriously. The notion of telling people that their methodology may be flawed is one that I find increasingly uncomfortable to endorse, unless the recipient is a fan who is plainly being a d*ckhead.

But still. I’ve noticed something about these newer fans who long to delve into Classic Who, and that’s that they get bored. I am forever seeing posts that talk about how they tried to get into the older stories and simply couldn’t. And after doing a little probing, I think I’ve figured out why. It’s nothing to do with the slower pace, the formulaic plot devices, or the occasionally wonky effects: it’s because they binge-watch.

You know the sort of thing I mean, don’t you? The notion of knocking off a whole story in an evening – four or even six episodes, which can easily be done in an hour and a half if you chapter-skip the credits. When you move on to Nu Who, the temptation is even greater: self-contained stories mean there’s an even greater tendency to want to move on, as fast as your available evenings will allow, simply to get through to the next bit of the arc. And it doesn’t just work with Doctor Who – it applies to all manner of shows, both funny and serious and happy and sad and free-standing and episodic, all processed and watched in cash-and-carry economy format, where you move on to the next one on the list while the tale you’ve just been told is still languishing in your mental digestive system, like the husks from a tin of sweetcorn.

There’s a certain logic to it. TV is big business these days, the internet transforming the scene almost beyond recognition, and in terms of available content we have never been so inundated – some would say saturated. Television no longer has to be stacked: once upon a time you’d have an evening’s worth of entertainment on each channel, a succession of worthy and less worthy programmes all jostling for space and attention in the manner of children gathering round that visiting uncle who always brings presents. To a degree – and certainly on the BBC – this principle still applies, but it’s offset by the rise in on-demand shows that sit on the apps, unshackled from the reins of scheduling, ready to be viewed at will.

If you’re someone like me, whose tastes are comparatively broad, the net result is overwhelming choice fatigue. There are too many shows and, frankly, not enough time to watch them. There’s a reason I’ve never touched Game of Thrones, and it has nothing to do with a disinterest in sword-and-sorcery – Lord of the Rings went down just fine – or a reluctance to jump on the hype train. It’s just 70-odd hours of my life that might feasibly be spent on other activities. The same applies to Jessica Jones, The Flash, Supergirl (although that one looked tempting), Prison Break, and Breaking Bad. When your lifestyle allows for a comparatively small viewing schedule, you tend to prioritise. I don’t even rewatch Doctor Who unless I’m writing about it.

But when I do, it’s never more than an episode at a time. It’s partly the blessing/curse of four children (parenting really is like being Spider-Man, largely because they have you constantly climbing the walls) and partly the gnawing realisation that the kitchen isn’t going to clean itself. We don’t even bother with films anymore. The average Marvel blockbuster clocks in at 2 hours 10 minutes (I know this: I have calculated it), which is frankly too long if you can’t get started until 9pm and have to keep stopping to settle the kids and move the cat and you need to be up in the morning. The last one we managed to find time to watch was Thor 2. It was crap anyway.

When (back in the summer) Amazon Prime released Good Omens, they dropped all six episodes at once, close to a weekend, enabling people to watch the whole thing in said weekend. Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events landed in bulk, 10 40-minute episodes available at once, over a period of three years. You can understand the rationale behind this: Good Omens is based on a book, a single story with a beginning and a middle and an end. But how does that translate? You don’t read books in a single sitting, unless you’re a Guardian critic hoping for a splash on the back cover. Whatever happened to stopping at the end of a chapter?

Even iPlayer is awash with box sets. From one point of view, it’s unerringly generous, because if it’s a non-linear show in the vein of, say, Planet Earth, you can pick and choose whether you want to hear David Attenborough waffling about polar bears or flamingoes. You can cherrypick episodes of Miranda according to what celebrity is trending on Twitter, or watch episodes of The Thick of It that tally with this week’s political fallout. There is something wonderful about having such an absolute treasure trove of material at your fingertips, available to view and re-view at a moment’s notice, and I wouldn’t be without it.

But if you put a bucket of chocolates on the table at a party and tell people to dig in at will, then someone is going to make themselves sick. The internet is awash with sordid tales of people who watched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in a single day and blogged about the experience. The same goes for Star Wars, to the extent that actual wars have been started about the optimal running order (George Lucas on one side of the battlefield, everyone else on the other). Or people organise themed events, although they occasionally backfire. A couple of decades ago, a friend of mine arranged for us to watch four horror films in the space of an evening to celebrate Halloween. It was all going well until we got to Children of the Corn.

There’s probably nothing wrong with all this, provided it’s an occasional activity, although it always struck me as fairly pointless: if you’re going to embark on some sort of marathon, it strikes me that it would be a more worthwhile venture if it was done for charity. At least that way you’re in bed for peace, metaphorically speaking. (On the other hand, sponsored events typically involve some sort of hardship, or sacrifice, or at least a bit of suffering, rather than the act of sitting on a couch with several tubs of Pringles. Perhaps you could munch them while watching all the Transformers films.)

We deal with extremes purely to prove a point: the banal reality is that for most of us, binge-watching is probably no more than two or three episodes a night, unless it’s the weekend. But let’s be honest. How much of this is about actively enjoying the process, and how much of it is ticking off a list? To what extent are we watching these programmes because we enjoy them, and savouring them? To what extent is working through a new series as fast as possible an act of genuine pleasure, and how much of it is a chore, something to get out of the way – like ploughing through that mountain of laundry, or writing out the Christmas cards, or Getting Brexit Done? Is it really about enjoyment, that impulsive need to see what comes next? Because I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t, and that it’s simply a matter of watching something as fast as you can in order to say that it has been watched. I’d wager real money that we mostly do it to avoid spoilers, and while that makes a lot of sense I can’t help feel we’re losing something in the process.

There’s a lovely scene in Ratatouille that illustrates this perfectly: Remy, the aspirational rodent who understands food on a level, is in the middle of metaphorically chewing out his brother Emile for swallowing too quickly. “Don’t just work it down,” he tells him. “Chew it slowly. Only think about the taste.” I can remember being in an Italian restaurant in the middle of Reading, shovelling mouthful after mouthful of pasta – I’d over-ordered – in an attempt to finish it before the theatre curtain. It had ceased to become food; it was calories, bland sustenance and nothing more. There was no second date.

Last year, Twitch ran a marathon – 500 Doctor Who episodes, broadcast nightly, one after the other, multiple episodes every evening, over a seven week period. The internet briefly caught fire; even the Guardian was interested. There are two ways of looking at this: the romantics would call it a wonderful communal viewing experience, a joining of souls, an enlightenment for newer fans who had yet to experience older stories and had no easy way of watching them; it was Doctor Who going open source and it had people engaged with the show’s earlier years to an extent that few of us had considered possible. But the cynic in me thought otherwise, and while the whole thing was going on I’ll confess I got a little… well, twitchy. Is this really the optimum way of experiencing Hartnell and Baker and Pertwee – over a computer screen, with one eye on the action and one on a rapidly scrolling comments box? Is it honestly what Robert Holmes deserves? Can’t we do better?

Closer to home, it won’t have escaped your notice that the DWC has spent the last several months reviewing Classic Who, with writers taking a series each. The first of my stints was back in August, when we did Season 6, and in order to meet deadline I had to (re)watch a large amount of Troughton over a comparatively short space of time, which meant lengthy binging sessions at six in the morning with a notebook in one hand and a can of Monster in the other. By the end, I was thoroughly sick of it. I enjoyed translating my thoughts to paper, I was pleased both to be a part of the project and with my contribution towards it, and it’s an exercise I’d repeat in a double heartbeat. Nonetheless, I haven’t been able to look at a Troughton since.

It doesn’t stop with the Sixties. Ambassadors of Death is marvellous, but have you tried watching more than one episode in a single sitting? You’ll fall asleep. It is one of the slowest, most leisurely stories in the entire run, and while the net result is undoubtedly a work of underrated brilliance, there are certain things you shouldn’t do while watching it, namely watch too much at once or operate heavy machinery. Frontier In Space is six episodes of the Doctor and Jo breaking out of prison; The Mind of Evil features the same cliffhanger on three seperate occasions. These are flaws that show up with an ugly clarity when you’re watching them back to back; this is no bad thing if you happen to be writing a scholarly discourse, but it does mean you’re apt to be far less forgiving than perhaps you should.

There are more serious, more pressing studies to be written about the practice of binge-watching than this irreverent little missive. Academia has its concerns; Kevin Spacey has rebuffed them, so it’s tit for tat. My own disgruntlement has little to do with the mental health aspects – issues that concern me but about which I am frankly not qualified to write – and are instead wrapped up in the simple matter of aesthetics. Essentially, I don’t think this is how we’re supposed to do TV. Episodic drama is episodic for a reason. It allows for the water cooler conversation. It allows you to appreciate the craft that went into a particular instalment. It allows for the act of contemplation, of digesting and processing the contents and themes of an episode, not by watching it again but simply by thinking about it, something that’s exponentially easier to do when it’s the only episode you’ve watched that evening.

Adopting this new line of thinking won’t be popular (already I can feel the social media critics sharpening their quills ready to tell me how wrong I am) and to ignore it completely won’t bring about the end of the world. There is no cultural apocalypse imminent because we watch a few more hours of TV than might be advisable in a single evening. But I wonder whether we ought to leave it a few days between episodes of whatever it is we’re working our way through, simply to allow a bit of thinking time. I wonder if it will enrich us. To do so would probably mean watching less television; I wonder (yes, really) whether that’s a bad thing. And to bring this once more back to our home turf, Doctor Who spent three decades languishing in a state of perpetual cliffhangers, the tension and release of seven-day crises, the Doctor strapped every week to the circular saw until the next time the credits rolled. Purely out of respect to the man and the people who wrote the stories, wouldn’t it be nice if we could leave him up there for a bit longer before we got him down?