Doctor Who: is the pure historical a thing of the past?

Alex treks through Doctor Who's long past of pure historical episodes and asks whether they have a future in the current era?

“Not Victorian London again?” This has become almost a mantra on geek forums across the internet. The Paternoster Gang are one thing but Doctor Who has seemingly defaulted to this era too often for some. But anyone who has followed the good Doctor’s adventures is aware he can go to any time, any place, anywhere – much like a good glass of wine. So why the (over) reliance on Victorian London? In short: cost. The BBC is particularly adept at creating past vistas, none more so than the Victorian period. All the costumes and set dressing already exist. What’s more is the BBC has the era down to a T in terms of accuracy. The main bugbear for anyone with a particularly well-developed scent for anachronisms, is how accurate an historical setting should be expected to be. In the current series, the Doctor visited medieval England of 1190 and met Robin Hood – could this be a riposte from the production team to the Victorian London haters? Then again, this setting isn’t much of a stretch for the BBC, either, having produced Robin Hood as an autumnal stablemate to Doctor Who for several years.

For my money, Doctor Who is often at its best when lost in history. Having always been keen on the subject it was partly what got me into the series, although that may also have been because The Time Warrior was my first sighting of the show. The inevitable reliance on the Daleks – it’s said that the production team must use them in some way every series or lose the rights to them – has made non-science fiction stories all the more appealing. It must be said Into The Dalek was perhaps the freshest idea on the Dalek front for years and unquestionably they, more than any other adversary, have earned their place on the show. I just wonder how refreshing a pure historical adventure might be dropped into the mix just now and again?

The lost Hartnell adventure Marco Polo was the first (and arguably the most impressive) pure historical in Doctor Who back in 1964. The TARDIS crew going onto meet the Aztecs; experience The Reign Of Terror; see Rome burn in The Romans; encounter Richard the Lionheart in The Crusade; suggest a Trojan horse in The Myth Makers; visit the dentist in Wyatt Earp’s wild west in The Gunfighters and come face to face with ruthless cut throats in eighteenth century Cornwall in The Smugglers.

Three years later, the lost early Troughton adventure The Highlanders which put the TARDIS crew in the midst of the battle of Culloden in 1743 and saw the debut of companion Jamie McCrimmon was the last pure historical until Black Orchid briefly revived the form in 1982. To clarify by “pure historical” I mean a story set ostensibly in the past – certainly before the era of its broadcast, which features no other technology or alien threat except for the Doctor and his companion(s). But you knew that. Whereas a UNIT-based Pertwee tale could be described as “contemporary” to its original broadcast, a modern day treatment of the 1970s would be now be classed as a historical, the best recent example being the 1974-set Hide.

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Another branch of Who storytelling which has overtaken the pure historical is the psuedo historical – essentially introducing an alien into a seemingly historical setting. The Time Meddler which introduced the Meddling Monk in 1965 was the first adventure to be acknowledged as a psuedo historical and one in which it is implied the Doctor meets another of his own race, though not acknowledged as such as the Time Lords didn’t appear on screen until 1969’s The War Games. The form was further explored in the classic Troughton tale The Evil Of The Daleks, set initially in a remarkable Antique shop in1966 but with a portal to Victorian times via time-travelling Daleks. My first Who, The Time Warrior, is another landmark in this vein – being (aside from a brief sojourn to 1926 in Carnival Of Monsters) the first time the Pertwee Doctor had really visited the past. It was also, incidentally, the first mention of Gallifrey in the series.

Meetings with famous historical figures has become a major feature of the current style of psuedo historicals. However, the idea is far from new. Hartnell regularly met historical figures. Of particular note is the lost serial The Massacre Of St Bartholomew’s Eve, a sumptuous, well mounted drama, in which the Doctor meets no fewer than five genuine historical figures: Catherine de Medici and King Charles IX of France amongst them – all in just over ninety minutes. It says much about the “dumbing down” of society that the average person in the street in 2014 would be lucky to have heard of even one of them! Understandably, we don’t teach our children French history, however, back in 1965 this kind of knowledge could be gleaned from the pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the worthy educational magazine Look And Learn, a lavishly illustrated weekly which ran for twenty years from 1962 and was aimed at older children both are likely to have been read by the kind of kids at which Doctor Who in the mid 1960s was also aimed. Surely it’s no accident both Hitler and Churchill have both recently appeared in the BBC Wales series? Perhaps in part to reinforce the fact they, along with Romans, are “safe bets” in terms of the History taught in schools in the 21st Century. How long before the Doctor will encounter King Henry VIII I wonder?

When the series was reinvigorated in the early eighties, it revisited the staples: Space Opera of the far future (Four To Doomsday, Earthshock); the contemporary with weird goings-on (Time-Flight); the past with an alien threat (The Visitation) and the pure historical of a cricket match and masked ball (albeit with the threat of a maniac dressed as a Harlequin) in 1925. Many serials seemed fresh in the Davison era simply because they were essentially Hartnell-style adventures except this time in colour with a more frenetic pace. Black Orchid, whilst a genuine departure for the show in 1982, was very much in keeping with the mood of the early eighties in televisual terms. 1981 had seen the popular adaptation of Brideshead Revisited and soon The Jewel In The Crown would sweep all before it, whilst at the cinema there was Chariots Of Fire. History was definitely in! The nearest thing to a pure historical in the years before this had been a trip to an Edwardian lighthouse but even that saw the Doctor menaced by a Rutan. History it seemed, especially during the Graham Williams era, belonged on other planets. Witness the pomp and ceremony displayed in The Ribos Operation and The Androids Of Tara, both good examples of non-terrestial psuedo historicals.

Mark Gatiss scripted the first “past adventure” of the revived series: 2005’s The Unquiet Dead. Set in Victorian Cardiff of 1869, the setting was dressed almost like a Dickensian Christmas card. Television of the noughties, awash with cinematic period drama, virtually demanded the Doctor meet Charles Dickens. Once again the staples were revisited, only this time from a point of view of feeding a internet-savvy public. Keen to promote the new look show, the media knew Dickens’ name would catch the public’s eye – everyone had heard of Dickens. Back in 1966 it would be seen as really obvious but by then Who had gone back in time on several occasions and already met the likes of Robespierre and Nero. Gareth Roberts, Gatiss’ nearest rival in the historical adventures, seems equally determined to mine the great writers – William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie providing cameos in the (equally literary obsessed) Russell T. Davies era. In the Moffat era other professions were considered with politics, art and piracy coming to the fore and now this series we have mediaeval philanthropy. Whether Robin Hood actually counts as a genuine historical figure is neither here nor there, the historical romp (albeit one with alien technology) is alive and in rude health in the current series.

So, if you’ll forgive the paradox, what is the future of the historical? Is a pure historical actually feasible in this day and age? Would it hold its own in the ratings? The recent overnight ratings (for what they are worth) suggested Doctor Who can expect a steady 5 million viewers, whether it’s showing us Daleks or mediaeval outlaws. If Moffat were to give us the odd pure historical, where in history might the venerable Time Lord end up? Whom might he meet? Vincent Van Gogh in Vincent And The Doctor – without a doubt an episode which would have been so much better served as a pure historical character study, carrying as it did the theme of mental health, is a great example of what can be done. The alien threat felt so tacked to appease Who fans demanding the Doctor encounter a monster each week. There is real potential in the form, if the historical figure and setting are sufficiently interesting.

If ever there was ever a time ripe for a pure historical, surely now is the time. How about a story set in Ancient Egypt? A plague village during The Black Death? Perhaps a meeting with William Caxton and exploring the potential of his printing press? Maybe, for fans of arrows hitting the TARDIS a sudden arrival during the Battle of Agincourt? Perhaps a trip to France and an attempt by Clara to rescue Joan of Arc only for the Doctor to veto the idea? A trip on a galleon with Drake in The Spanish Armada? Perhaps encountering some real Roundheads and Cavaliers instead of the re-enactments of The Awakening? A Restoration comedy? Dick Turpin and highwaymen in Regency times? How about encounters with notable scientists: Marie Curie, Ernest Rutherford or Alexander Fleming? So many rich possibilities, so much time! Over to you Mr Moffat, just don’t set it in Victorian London!

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