Doctor Who: a brief history of story pilfering

Doctor Who's Last Christmas was by no means the first adventure to pay homage to other stories in and outside the show...

In the beginning, the Doctor stole a TARDIS. A mere 48 years later, it was decreed that the TARDIS stole the Doctor. Two years after that, it was decreed that Clara told the Doctor which TARDIS to steal. No wonder the TARDIS was annoyed, what with Clara stealing her backstory and everything.

Doctor Who borrows stuff from all over, but especially the older stories. They’ve been homaged, referenced or outright stolen from, eventually including other episodes of Doctor Who.

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Never, though, has something from outside of the show been explicitly referenced as Alien was in Last Christmas, unless you count Christmas itself in The Dalek Master Plan. On top of that, Last Christmas clearly used a similar idea to Inception. Acknowledging an influence directly is new (though it’s no weirder than Kylie being referenced in the show and then being in it), but the show has been using other stories for material since its own inception. The most overt early example comes in 1968 with The Mind Robber.

Born out of Crossroads’ writer Peter Ling’s observation that fans thought their favourite characters were real, it was a story set in the land of fiction, and featured Gulliver, Rapunzel and Medusa among others. While it didn’t retell those stories, a character deployed in a different context is no different to an idea repositioned likewise.

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Then, with the Pertwee era, we have the looming presence of Quatermass and The Avengers, but Robert Holmes was actually recycling his old ideas for the 1965 film Invasion for Spearhead From Space that is the most direct use of another story. Script editor Terrance Dicks was blasé to the point of maxims about recycling other people’s work, though more as a source of inspiration than a direct attempt to do Doctor Who meets That Film/Book/TV Show. The Master is the Doctor’s Moriarty, but there are no stories based around, say, a full-on Hound Of The Baskervilles homage in the Pertwee era.

It’s not until the last story of Dicks’ regime – and the debut of Tom Baker – that we get Doctor Who doing King Kong. Even then, I don’t recall the bit in King Kong where there’s a fascist cabal of scientists trying to take over world. While the tone changed with the new production team, the borrowing increased leading to Series 13 homaging Jekyll And Hyde (Planet Of Evil), Frankenstein (Paul McGann prequel The Brain Of Morbius), and The Thing From Another World (The Seeds of Doom).

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The Deadly Assassin paraphrased The Manchurian Candidate, Pyramids Of Mars took influences from a variety of Mummy-horror films as Talons Of Weng-Chieng did from Fu Manchu (with a bit of Sherlock Holmes thrown in for good measure). This era, overseen by Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, seems like a treasure trove of obvious influences but the key to their success is that, when you’re watching, all of these stories referenced are both obvious and distinct, with further ideas bolted on to avoid it just being a hollow re-tread.

For instance, Robots Of Death might well be inspired by Ten Little Indians but there’s also some Asimov in there. Terror of the Vervoids is similarly influenced, but with a bit of Day Of The Triffids thrown in, and any story featuring shape-shifting monsters or duplicates (Terror Of The Zygons , The Android Invasion, The Faceless Ones or the Autons in general) is indebted to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, but that is never the only idea driving the story forward.

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These influences come from relatively well-known sources. The Sixties production teams were influenced by the show’s educational remit, but were also significantly influenced by horror films. Tomb Of The Cybermen is basically a Doctor Who version of a Mummy film. However, stories like The Abominable Snowmen take inspiration from Thirties books/films, and Fifties TV serials, stories we just aren’t as familiar with due to their relative obscurity or the fact that no copies of the film exist.

The show continued to borrow in the Seventies, with the Graeme Williams era looking to mythology (such as in Underworld and The Horns Of Nimon) and classic literature again, though this time with a more swashbuckling than horror bent as David Fisher reworked The Prisoner Of Zenda into The Androids Of Tara in possibly the most direct adaptation the show has ever made.

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The Eighties saw different influences creep into the show, influences whose own longevity makes them feel more familiar to contemporary audiences. State Of Decay’s working of vampire mythology into Doctor Who’s managed to distantly influence some of Russell T. Davies’ writing on the Time War, but it was a leftover script from a previous era. Eric Saward’s influences ranged from Alien to Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, but arguably his main influences were other Doctor Who writers he couldn’t quite match.

Then there’s mythology. On top of a variety of contemporary religious imagery, Doctor Who borrows from Viking mythology for Terminus, which then crops up again as an influence in The Greatest Show In The Galaxy and The Curse Of Fenric, although in those stories it’s one of a number of ideas in the mix.

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The Seventh Doctor era returns to cheerfully rifling through its authors’ bookshelves for ideas, with J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, Arthurian legend, and Dracula all providing source material. Ghostlight is stuffed with references to Victorian literature and society. The January issue of Doctor Who Magazine also dissects The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’s influences further, citing The Circus Of Dr Lao, a Thirties’ novel filmed in the Sixties.

More recently, we’ve had Christmas specials inspired by The Poseidon Adventure, A Christmas Carol and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, and in the recent series there’s been the Robin Hood legend, heist movies, Murder On The Orient Express, and Snakes On A Plane. Plus Westerns have been revisited in a markedly different way to The Gunfighters. It could be a source for criticism, but only if it leads to complacent storytelling, like the idea that merely putting the Doctor into a cowboy hat is enough.

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The retelling of certain kinds of story doesn’t get old if it still entertains. Let’s not pretend Harry Potter was remarkable for being conceptually novel, for example. The high point of Doctor Who for many people is the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era, after all. From simple and unpromising sounding ingredients you get Mummy On The Orient Express. Borrowing isn’t a sign of creative problems in Doctor Who, it’s standard practice. As you can see, this is far from an exhaustive list.

It hasn’t taken into account real-world scenarios that inspired the Cybermen, or the Peladon stories, or the show’s referencing of its own past. One thing it should have done, though, is demonstrate that cribbing for inspiration is a constant in Doctor Who, it’s one of the driving forces of the show.

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