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Historicals: A Thing of the Past?

Since Doctor Who returned in 2005, we’ve taken numerous voyages into the past, met iconic figures, and, of course, fought many monsters. For now, let’s take a trip back to 2008: The Unicorn and the Wasp surely presented a good opportunity to revive a trope not seen since 1982’s Black Orchid and before that, The Highlanders (1966-67), the missing serial which introduced Jamie McCrimmon. Sadly, the trope was well and truly scuppered by a giant Vespiform. So will we ever see the purely historical serial again?
The Time Meddler (1965) is brilliant – but it did two monumental things. Firstly, it gave us the pseudohistorical; that is, a historical story with added aliens and technology from a different time period from its setting. The Monk was a Time Lord and he brought with him a range of ‘futuristic’ doo-hickeys. Including a gramophone. This would’ve been an easily-recognisable object to a 1960s audience… but certainly not to the people of 1066.
And secondly, The Time Meddler signed the death warrant of the purely historical. Or at the very least, co-signed it.
The Doctor’s first onscreen adventure was even a historical. 1963’s An Unearthly Child, or 100,000 BC if you prefer (which I don’t), took place in the Stone Age, where the only alien things were the Doctor, his granddaughter, Susan, and the TARDIS. It was in the show’s original remit to explore the past and educate people about it. This should’ve lent itself to authenticity, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, one of my favourite serials, The Romans (1965), was heavily criticised for its various inaccuracies; the BBC test audience certainly didn’t enjoy it, especially for how fantastical and ridiculous it is.

More realistic – and brutal – were The Reign of Terror (1964), Marco Polo (1964), and The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve (1966), all of which suffer either partly or wholly from having episodes missing. But tales where history wasn’t portrayed as ‘textbook’ persisted, including The Myth Makers (1965) and The Gunfighters (1966).
The latter also co-signed the agreement to end the era of the pure historical. I actually really enjoy The Gunfighters; however, it attracted between 5.7 million and 6.6 million viewers, considered low at the time, and didn’t get a good audience appreciation index, and these factors strengthened producer, Innes Lloyd’s argument against the historical. (Lloyds beckoned in a brave new wave of serials sometimes referred to as the ‘Monster Era,’ and introduced the Cybermen, the Ice Warriors, and the Great Intelligence.)
The Highlanders was the last serial to take place during an actual historical event and stuck purely with it. Black Orchid, whilst technically a pure historical, was an entirely fictitious affair – though still a welcome step into the road less taken.
So could the pure historical still work? After all, it seems they were phased out because they simply weren’t as popular as ‘the ones with monsters in.’ Well, just look at The Aztecs (1964) and Marco Polo, arguably two of the most popular serials in Doctor Who history, despite the latter being missing from the archives. Big Finish succeed in bringing the pure historical back to life superbly in tales like Son of the Dragon, No Man’s Land, and The Wrath of the Iceni. Even the novel ranges have voyaged into the past. Byzantium! is one of the best books I’ve read.

Doctor Who 2005-2015 has presented excellent opportunities to produce another pure historical, but always include an alien element. The Shakespeare Code (2007); The Unquiet Dead (2005); The Curse of the Black Spot (2011): all featured famous people from Earth’s past, and all could’ve dwelled solely on their life and times. Interestingly, Robot of Sherwood (2014) turned things on their head, revolving around a supposedly-fictitious character – that of Robin Hood – who turns out to be real. If the robots were absent, and the story was just about the outlaw and his merry men, would we consider that a purely historical adventure…?
Perhaps the closest we’ve got so far are with The Unicorn and the Wasp and Vincent and the Doctor (2010). The latter focused on van Gogh very heavily (and people absolutely love it), while the former could’ve easily been an intriguing murder-mystery with Agatha Christie, sans Vespiform.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy them. I love the pseudohistoricals, the aforementioned ones included. I love that there’s a giant wasp murdering people, that Charles Dickens comes up against ghosts at Christmas, and that there’s a massive werewolf chasing down Queen Victoria in 2006’s Tooth and Claw. Vincent and the Doctor might not have worked so well if the artist’s life weren’t echoed so wonderfully by the blind, tortured, and scared Krafayis. Mind you, many fans didn’t like the alien, so who knows?
But surely Doctor Who is so loved and so popular now that it can tackle the pure historical again. The production crew are certainly capable, as are the exceptional writers. Even showrunner, Steven Moffat admitted that he’d thought of a suitable story, but hadn’t had the guts to include it yet. Will Series 10 amend this? If you get a good narrative, a tale with no monsters can definitely be a success.
It can be educational and entertaining – and a worthy reflection on the show’s original remit in Peter Capaldi’s last year in the TARDIS.
(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in March 2013.)

Philip Bates

Editor and co-founder of the Doctor Who Companion. When he’s not watching television, reading books ‘n’ Marvel comics, listening to The Killers, and obsessing over script ideas, Philip Bates pretends to be a freelance writer. He enjoys collecting everything. Writer of The Black Archive: The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang, The Silver Archive: The Stone Tape, and 100 Objects of Doctor Who.

Historicals: A Thing of the Past?

by Philip Bates time to read: 4 min
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