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January 17, 2023

Breaking Down Doctor Who’s The Runaway Bride According to the Classic 5-Act TV Structure

Since its inception in 1963, the BBC has been airing the science fiction program Doctor Who in the United Kingdom. The show is about the adventures of an immortal extraterrestrial that has a human-like appearance. 

The eponymous Doctor travels through space and time in the TARDIS, which just looks like blue British police box (a familiar sight in Britain when the show first aired.) The Doctor engages in battle against enemies, seeks to save civilizations, and provides aid to those who are in need with the assistance of a number of different companions.

First broadcast in 1963, the show originally ended in 1989. After an unsuccessful attempt to revive the regular production of Doctor Who in 1966, the show was reintroduced in 2005. BBC Wales in Cardiff has been responsible for the show's production continuing today.

Who Is Who? Dr Who characters

When it comes to Dr Who characters, Doctor Who is the protagonist and titular character of Doctor Who, and while the character’s been played by different actors of different ages and genders, it’s always the same character.

Fourteen different actors have played the Doctor in the television series. The concept of regeneration into a new incarnation, a plot device in which a Time Lord "transforms" into a new body when the current one is too severely injured to heal normally, is used to explain the change from one actor to another during the course of the show. This allows for a seamless transition from one actor to the next.

Each actor's performance is distinct, but they all represent different eras in the life of the same individual. Taken as a whole, these eras create a single lifespan with a unified storyline. Due to the fact that the plot involves time travel, different incarnations of the Doctor will occasionally cross paths with one another.

The regenerative aspect of Doctor Who was originally a workaround for the first actor to play the character to leave the show and have someone else take over the role. But now it’s become a staple of the series, and is a huge part of its longevity.

Doctor Who - the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) 

The 10th incarnation of the Doctor is passionate and quirkier than the previous ninth generation under Christopher Eccleston who had more obvious dark side.

Donna Noble (Catherine Tate)

In this episode of Dr Who, Catherine Tate plays Donna, the Doctor’s assistant who is caught up in the Doctor’s adventures but who isn’t yet ready to commit to a life traveling through space and time. 

How old is Doctor Who? 

The original series ran from 1963 to 1989, with eight actors playing the role in those years. First portrayed by William Hartnell, then followed by Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and eventually Paul McGann as the Doctor when the show ended in 1989.

Doctor Who, from 1963, enters the TARDIS (which looks like a police box) with his companions.

In 2005, Doctor Who returned to BBC One with the episode "Rose" with Christopher Eccleston in the title role, and Russell T. Davies as showrunner. Eccleston left after one season of the new era and was succeeded by David Tennant.

After Season 4 of the new era, Davies left along with Tennant. Steven Moffat, a writer under Davies, was announced as his successor, along with Matt Smith as the next Doctor.

The show has continued with Peter Capaldi, Jodie Whitaker, and the newly announced Ncuti Gatwa as The Doctor, with Davies returning to run the show.

The Russell T. Davies era

Russell T. Davies was tasked with bringing the show back in 2005, and while there are many, many memorable episodes, one that truly captures Davies’ sentiment and style is The Runaway Bride.

The pairing of David Tennant and the guest star of the episode Catherine Tate was so successful, that Tate’s character of Donna Noble was brought back as the Doctor’s companion a full season later. Even today, Tennant and Tate will be appearing together in the upcoming Doctor Who special, as Davies returns to the series.

The Runaway Bride was the 2006 Christmas Special and takes place between Seasons 2 and 3 of the new era. THis means it takes place between companions. This is following the departure of Rose, played by Billie Piper and before the introduction of Martha, played by Freema Agyeman.

What is thecClassic 5-act TV structure?

The five-act format is more complex than the three-act structure. It was first suggested by Gustav Freytag and has roots in literary theory. His dramatic pyramid makes it easier for us to understand the highs and lows of a story as well as how we construct one. 

The classic 5 act TV structure breakdown of Doctor Who’s The Runaway Bride

Now let’s break down The Runaway Bride using the classic 5 act structure.


A hook, to draw the viewer in

A bride disappears while walking down the aisle, and reappears inside the TARDIS, to the Doctor’s confusion.

Act 1

Introduce the main characters and the world

Donna, the bride, is introduced to the world of the Doctor, understanding he’s a traveling spaceman. In her attempt to escape and return to her wedding, she is endangered by Robot Santas that want her. The Doctor saves her.

Act 2

Introduce central storyline and conflict of the episode

The Doctor attempts to understand what makes Donna special. Why is she wanted by the Robot Santas? He can’t figure it out, but he protects her, and returns her to her wedding reception, where things seem to be okay.

That is, until the Doctor discovers that his protection is ineffective, Donna’s workplace is actually a front for a shady government organization, and the Robot Santas attack.

Act 3

Low point when it seems conflict cannot be resolved

The Doctor and Donna descend to the basement of her workplace, where they discover there is an access shaft to the center of the Earth, and the Huon particles that Donna is full of (that’s why she disappeared from the wedding) act as a sort of “key” to activate what’s at the bottom of the shaft. That is, what’s at the center of the Earth.

The Empress of the Racnoss (a giant spider-like alien) appears, and reveals that Donna’s fiance Lance was in on the plan. He was the one poisoning Donna with the Huon particles.

As they prepare to kill Donna and the Doctor, the TARDIS coalesces around them and they escape.

Act 4

Characters take action in the face of conflict

The Doctor takes the TARDIS back to the beginning of the creation of the Earth, in order to discover what’s at the center.

Donna, reeling from the betrayal of Lance, finds it all meaningless, but the Doctor encourages her and helps her see what’s beautiful about humanity, and more particularly her.

Then they see a Racnoss ship become the center of the Earth as it pulls all the floating space dust towards it. A long-dormant Racnoss ship is what the Empress wants, and if she awakens what’s within the Earth will be destroyed.

Act 5

Resolution of the episode’s conflict, and for a pilot, establishes the long-term storyline.

The Doctor returns to Earth, and completely destroys the Empress, flooding the basement level. As the water pours in, and flames appear, the Doctor watches her. It’s scary, and it’s possible that the Doctor will die here amidst it all. But Donna pulls him out of it and the two of them run upstairs to safety.


A hint of conflict in next episode, or laying something for later in the season

The Doctor drops Donna off for Christmas dinner at her place, and invites her to come with him. To be his companion. She says no, explaining how terrifying his life is, and in particular how terrifying he can be. 

But also how wonderful he can be. She encourages him to find someone that can travel with him. 

He needs a companion.

Premise driven episodes

The premise of the show allows for an incredibly episodic nature. Doctor Who can travel to any time and place.

Want an episode on an alien planet where everyone speaks backwards? Done.

Want a Christmas episode in Victorian London? Done.

Want a present-day episode where the Doctor is a roommate with James Corden? Done.

But with such an open premise, how does the show maintain an identity? In short, if Doctor Who can do all of these types of episodes…What is Doctor Who really about?

Time and place

Like most sci-fi shows, Doctor Who uses varying times and places to explore and examine ideas of our current time and place. The Doctor has a very strong sense of right and wrong and armed with his immortality, knowledge, TARDIS, and sonic screwdriver, he has the ability to affect change more than most.

He’s a hero. In a way, the Doctor is similar to Peter Parker in that regard. The Doctor has great power, and so they take on the responsibility of traveling time and space and using it for good. 

Sometimes it’s about saving entire planets, other times it’s about saving one or two people from personal mistakes. But they do so with intellect and thoughtfulness rather than strength or force.

At the same time, the Doctor is an alien, and it’s the companion that keeps them grounded to what’s important, and teaches them something about humanity along the way.

It’s a show with a broad premise, but at its heart Doctor Who is about the triumph of romance and intellect over brute force and cynicism.

Mundane over myth

In one scene, The Doctor shows Donna the creation of the Earth. She’s overwhelmed, her wedding seems so insignificant by comparison. The Doctor says, “No! That’s what you do, the human race — you make sense out of chaos. Marking it out with weddings and Christmas and calendars. This whole process is beautiful, but only if it’s being observed.”

The Davies era of the show consistently values the mundane over the magical or mythical. It lifts up seemingly insignificant people and empowers them to be their best selves.

The premise of the show under Davies is that anyone is capable of changing the course of history.

For more on how to become the best screenwriter you can be check out the rest of the Arc Studio blog and download a free trial of our software today. 


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Breaking Down Doctor Who’s The Runaway Bride According to the Classic 5-Act TV Structure
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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