When the DVD set of Season Six came out, one of the biggest special features was a cycle of five shorts collectively titled Night and the Doctor. They total about sixteen minutes in length, and consist of two pairs of two shorts, one called “Good Night” and “Bad Night” focusing on Amy having insomnia on the TARDIS and catching glimpses of the Doctor’s extra adventures, the other called “First Night” and “Last Night” that are an explicit two-parter about the Doctor and River’s first date, alongside a fifth short, “Up All Night,” featuring Craig and Sophie in the immediate lead-up to Closing Time, and which feels not entirely unlike an unused prequel that was grafted onto the other four episodes somewhat arbitrarily.
These shorts fit into a larger tradition within the Moffat era that began with two special features on the Season Five box set, a pair of scenes entitled “Meanwhile in the TARDIS” and paired with early episodes. Both basically involve going through a bunch of standard premises of Doctor Who (“why did you make your time machine look like a Police Box” and “have there been other companions” and the like) as comic sketches. And it continued on the Season Seven set, with a trio of mini episodes there. At which point we should probably talk about the prequels to Name of the Doctor, The Bells of St. Johns, the couple of prequels to The Snowmen, A Town Called Mercy, Asylum of the Daleks, The Wedding of River Song, Let’s Kill Hitler, A Good Man Goes to War, The Curse of the Black Spot, and The Impossible Astronaut. And, of course, the two Day of the Doctor prequels, “The Last Day” and “Night of the Doctor.” And the “Time” and “Space” shorts for Red Nose Day. And Pond Life. So all told, there are something like thirty shorts set within the Eleventh Doctor era, comparing to, I believe, three plus Attack of the Graske for the entire Davies era. And one of those was by Moffat too.
Clearly the short is a thing within the Moffat era. This is not entirely surprising. Setting aside the prequels, which tend to serve as just a different sort of trailer, the bulk of the DVD-based shorts are comedies. Within Night and the Doctor, for instance, there’s “Bad Night,” which is an extended farce built around a plot in which aliens have apparently turned the Queen of England into a goldfish, in which all we get is a brief scene between Amy and the Doctor (and Rory, very briefly) in the middle of the adventure. “Good Night” is a sweet little thing about Amy’s changing memories that ends with Amy buying her past self an ice cream cone to cheer herself up on a bad day.
This is, of course, a familiar structure for Moffat, who got his start in sitcoms. He’s good at structuring a sketch, knowing how to get in and out before a gag runs dry. (As “Time Crash” demonstrates, really.) And that’s all most of these are – well-structured and well-delivered gags. Individual shorts have various things to recommend them – from the way the prequel to Let’s Kill Hitler fills a major emotional beat absent from that story, to the way “Space” and “Time” actually do fall down kinda badly on the whole feminism thing, to the way that “Last Night” goes through three minutes of a multiple timeline farce before suddenly resolving to a not-actually-a-punchline in which the Doctor is confronted by the knowledge that it is in his Matt Smith incarnation that he’ll take River Song to the Singing Towers. But it tends to be a thing where you can say one or two sentences worth of good observations about a given short, and then you’re kind of done.
But let’s go back to that last one, because it actually is interesting. For almost its entire runtime, “Last Night” is a comedy, but it pays off with a stark and painful reminder of River Song’s mortality and of the fact that the Doctor goes into this relationship with the knowledge of its ending already written and fixed. It may be short and mostly the most Moffat-on-autopilot filler imaginable (since Moffat writing farce is basically the Moffat equivalent of white noise at this point), but it’s structured with a very strong and brutal tone-change. The easy farce is there precisely to be easy and give way to something else.
Which is where it starts to become understandable why there are so many mini episodes in the Moffat era. Because they pair well with the structural innovations that Moffat has been bringing in. Moffat has increasingly been favoring using Doctor Who’s ability to do genre switches repeatedly and quickly within episodes, so that they change tones and approaches multiple times in the course of forty-five minutes. Another way of looking at this, then, is that episodes are increasingly structured like sequences of mini-episodes. Where Doctor Who used to be one story spread out over multiple episodes, now it is serialized in the sense of being several stories concatenated into one episode.
Some of this is simply the natural consequence of Moffat’s approach to writing – a logical response to, say, The Great Game. But it’s also, I would argue, a consequence of directorial decisions that play to Moffat’s style, and have over the course of 2010 and 2011 been part of a cycle of influence that has honed and refined a new style. Things like Toby Haynes’s effective use of the Silence as figures that interrupt and break the visual storytelling of the show pushes towards doing a show that really is a pile of broken-up styles. Nick Hurran’s approach of abandoning the idea that the camera depicts real spaces instead of genres does too. The approach of inserts as in the “praise him” montages in The God Complex feed into it too, reinforcing the way in which Moffat is prone to use repeated phrases as metonyms for entire thematic constructs. (Note how the impact of “Last Night” depends on the audience recognizing the phrase “Singing Towers of Darrilium.” Or on how Moffat grabs phrases that evoke the long history of Doctor Who, as with “not one line,” or “never cruel nor cowardly,” or “fear makes companions of us all.”)
And again, that lends itself to the mini-episode. One of the things that definitely happened in the latter half of Season Six was a sudden acceleration of the pace at which narrative unfolds. And the way that manifests is in a willingness to experiment with what can be left out of a narrative without losing the basic function. Increasingly, the focus becomes how quickly you can do world-building and how few lines you need to actually set something up. At its worst, this becomes little more than fetishizing narrative velocity for its own sake, and at times in the remainder of the Smith era it will feel like stories are moving quickly for the sake of it, as opposed to because they actually have a lot to say and need to get through it. But equally, given the experimentalism of the approach, it’s only to be expected that a fair amount of effort is going to be spent learning what does and doesn’t work. But the mini-episodes are a key part of that, inasmuch as part of their point is figuring out what Doctor Who can do as a five-minute container. Or as a one-minute container.
But it’s also worth commenting on the turn towards mini-episodes as a turn away from what made up the bulk of extra content during the Russell T Davies era, namely behind-the-scenes features. The Moffat era has consciously shown less about how the show is made, and has instead opted to give the audience extra little chunks of show. The rise of the mini-episode, in other words, is part of a turn towards focusing more on Doctor Who as a text and less on Doctor Who as a production. This also goes hand-in-hand with Moffat’s aesthetic. His intensely allusive, reference-based approach to writing, and his self-conscious love of structure invite a degree of attentiveness and even obsessiveness. Moffat increasingly writes to be rewatched, especially when he’s doing narrative substitutions, in which case much of the first viewing of a story is wasted being taken in by the red herrings, and it’s not until a second viewing that it becomes possible to watch an episode on its own terms.
There’s a turn here, though, in which Doctor Who becomes a show that is about the pleasures of the text. It exists to be taken apart and read closely, so much so that there is almost no point at which the phrase “reading too much into things” applies. It is a show that is about reading extremely and perversely into things. When every single sentence can be as pregnant with meaning as this structure allows, what can “reading too much into things” even possibly mean? Moffat’s work, around this point, becomes strangely and wonderfully obsessed with testing the limits of what an episode of television can do. It is, in its own way, as fascinating and radical as Doctor Who has been since the Hartnell era.