It should be a simple question, but like so much in the Doctor’s life “How many Doctor Who episodes are there?” is more complex to answer than you’d think…
Fans are well used to some ambiguity around the question of how many Doctor Who episodes there have been over the years. Partly this is due to the various production teams themselves finessing the number a little for convenience.
In 1988, for a little extra publicity bump, producer John Nathan-Turner declared it not only the show’s 25th anniversary, but also the year of its 150th story. In part he got to that number by counting the four segments of the epic ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ as individual stories.
Yet, a couple of decades later, Russell T Davies’ team were promoting the 2008 Christmas Special ‘Planet of the Dead’ as the 200th story – a reckoning which depended on counting ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ as one story.
21st century Doctor Who episodes have added their own complications. With a few exceptions, convenient part numbers are no longer used. And with an increased used of recurring elements and subplots threaded throughout a series’ narrative more commonplace, it’s become harder to tell when one story ends and another begins. Even Davies himself later mused that he wasn’t entirely convinced about the status of ‘Planet of the Dead’ depending on counting ‘Utopia,’ ‘The Sound of Drums,’ and ‘Last of the Time Lords’ as all one story.
Things arguably got completely out of control during Steven Moffat’s tenure, with the showrunner noting that he didn’t really think in terms of stories or serials at all. So whether, for example, Series Ten’s “Monk Trilogy” is supposed to be three episodes linked by a villain, or a three part serial, is anyone’s guess. Then there is the final run of episodes in Series Nine, which deal with Clara‘s fate… Is it three one part stories, a one part story followed by a two-parter, or a three-parter?
The number of Doctor Who episodes broadcast doesn’t match the number of Doctor Who episodes produced, and you can blame the Olympics
But, surprisingly, even the number of Doctor Who episodes isn’t entirely clear. The standard answer is 870, with the show likely to hit the 900 episodes landmark sometime during the Fourteenth Doctor’s era. And you might think that number indicates the number of times a new episode of Doctor Who has appeared on television, the number of times the opening titles have played, and the number of times the credits have listed the cast and crew.
Almost, but not quite…
The oddity arises from the Season 21 story ‘Resurrection of the Daleks.’ Most sources will tell you this story (which set the Fifth Doctor against a reborn Davros, and which featured the departure of long serving companion Tegan) has four episodes. And it was certainly commissioned, scripted, produced and filmed as a four-parter. If you place the DVD in your player, you’ll see four sets of titles, four sets of credits, listed ‘Part One’ to ‘Part Four.’ Yet, back in 1984 it wasn’t broadcast that way.
Because Doctor Who‘s run that year was due to overlap with the Winter Olympics being held in Sarajevo, it was going to be pre-empted for two weeks by that old enemy of science fiction fans’ viewing habits: the sport. To better fit around the Olympics coverage, the decision was not only made to temporarily move Doctor Who to Wednesdays, but also to re-edit the 23 minute episodes into a 45 minute format instead, showing Part One (formerly Parts One and Two) on the 8th of February, with Part Two (formerly Parts Three and Four) following on the 15th.
Yet, today, this isn’t generally seen as background information on why ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ is two 45 minute Doctor Who episodes, but as an explanation of why it’s really a four-parter.
The six part ‘Shada’ was never completed in 1979, but was finally transmitted in 2017 in movie format, so does it count? And as how many episodes?
The reasons why the 1979 serial ‘Shada’ isn’t usually counted are a little more obvious. Commissioned and written as six parts by Douglas Adams to form the final story of Season 17, the location filming for ‘Shada’ was completed, as was one of the blocks of studio recording. However, industrial action at the BBC forced filming to be abandoned, leaving the story incomplete. Despite a couple of attempts to remount and complete it, the story of the Fourth Doctor and Romana trying to stop the villainous Skagra from overwriting the minds of every being in the universe with a copy of his own was never finished or broadcast in its original form.
However, in 2017 ‘Shada’ was completed, thanks to animation matched to new vocal performances by the original cast. Released initially on DVD and Blu-ray, it was then broadcast on BBC America. It still doesn’t appear in many counts of how many Doctor Who episodes there are, but is that because it’s partly animated, or because it was on BBC America (not BBC One) or because it wasn’t entirely new in 2017? To add to the confusion, this version of ‘Shada’ was presented as a movie, so even if it was counted, would it be only one episode? Not only that, but in this year’s Doctor Who: The Collection Season 17 boxset, it was re-edited as six parts.
And if that’s not enough to make your head spin, there’s also the fact that a version of ‘Shada’ (which adapted the original script but substituted Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor as the hero) was created as a six episode animated webcast in 2003. A particularly mischievous person might suggest that not only does ‘Shada’ count, but it counts twice – maybe even three times if you want to consider the 2017 movie and 2022 serial separately. So it adds zero episodes / one episode / six episodes / seven episodes / twelve episodes / or thirteen episodes to our total. Pass the paracetamol.
‘Shada’ isn’t the only set of Doctor Who episodes to get animated, either. Not counting ‘Shada,’ from 2001’s ‘Death Comes to Time’ to 2009’s ‘Dreamland’ there have been 44 episodes of original animated adventures for the Doctor. And, of course, many of Doctor Who’s 97 missing episodes have been reborn with animation which have been matched to the classic soundtrack. Indeed, to have a consistent package for partially missing stories, some Doctor Who episodes that actually exist have been animated too. Should we count these alternate versions, many of which have been transmitted on BBC America, as well as the originals?
Officially, ‘The Five Doctor’s is one feature length episode, but the BBC also broadcast it as a four episodes
‘Resurrection’ and ‘Shada’ being edited (or re-edited) with different numbers of episodes also calls to mind 20th anniversary special ‘The Five Doctors.’ This time, the story was originally commissioned, created and broadcast as a single 90 minute special. But the following year, BBC One repeated it as a four-parter. It was an exercise that proved it was much easier to create omnibus movie versions from existing serials than the other way around.
As ‘The Five Doctors’ had never been intended to have any cliffhangers, the almost random points of the story where episodes ended were often less than thrilling; the cliffhanger involving the Master walking down some stairs is particularly infamous. Meanwhile, there’s also a three part version of ‘The Five Doctors’ that was transmitted on German television, with even stranger cliffhangers (‘Gut!’ declares the First Doctor, as the Fifth suggests turning on the TARDIS scanner) but let’s not get into overseas edits here.
And at one time, even the inclusion of the 1996 TV Movie in the count of Doctor Who episodes was questioned. Some would-be pedants used to argue that, while featuring the Doctor, being set in the Doctor Who universe and being called Doctor Who, it was exactly what it was called – a TV movie, and, therefore, not an “episode.” For a while, many lists would describe Doctor Who as consisting of “695 episodes, plus a television movie.”
Other oddities abound. Famously, the first episode of Doctor Who – ‘An Unearthly Child’ – was completely reshot following Sydney Newman’s review of the original footage. But that footage was finally assembled into an episode edit in 1991 and transmitted on BBC Two. But that’s not among our 870. Nor is the repeat of ‘The Evil of the Daleks‘ which was repeated in 1968 and featured a new framing sequence of the Doctor showing the story to his new companion Zoe.
Meanwhile, an entire 1964 episode – ‘The Urge to Live’ – was junked when it was decided to re-edit the four part ‘Planet of Giants’ into a pacier three parter. The original was never shown on television, but a reconstruction of ‘The Urge to Live’ was created for the ‘Planet of Giants’ DVD. But it’s not counted on lists of Doctor Who episodes.
Despite their brief duration, some Doctor Who episodes seem as valid and important as any full length episode
Then there’s the dizzying number of mini Doctor Who episodes that have been produced over the years – 75, in fact. Some of them are exclusive to official releases, while some have been released on the Doctor Who website or official YouTube channel. Many of them are deeply silly, such as ‘Oh Mummy!’ (“I bring Sutekh’s gift of milk!”), while others are pretty obviously just cut scenes that didn’t make the final edit of the episodes themselves, as with ‘The Doctor’s Meditation.’
But there are other Doctor Who episodes that could be considered canonical – namely, the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration in ‘The Night of the Doctor,’ or the window into Amy and Rory’s domestic world in ‘Pond Life’ and, despite their brevity, they are as perfectly formed and valid stories. They may not count as part of the 870 Doctor Who episodes, but a universe without them scarcely bears thinking about.
Depending on how you count them, you could say that there are as few as 866 Doctor Who episodes or, at the opposite extreme, up to 1,007. But for now, let’s just say 870 – at least until ‘Legend of the Sea Devils’ makes it 871. And Jodie Whittaker’s regeneration episode makes it 872. And the start of the new Russell T Davies era makes it 873. And then…
How many Doctor Who episodes have there been by your count? Is ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ two parts or four? As for stories, was ‘Silver Nemesis’ really the 150th? And was ‘Planet of the Dead’ the 200th? They can’t both be right, can they…?
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