Okay, let’s talk about the historicals.
There have only been 12 purely historical stories in all of classic Doctor Who and just about half of them are missing. That’s a really unfortunate percentage.
The official line on the historicals is that they were eventually seen to be unpopular and it was decided that moving forward, any story set in the past would have an extra sci-fi or extraterrestrial element added in.
But why were they unpopular? The powers-that-be referred to lower ratings and lack of audience appreciation. One wonders if that was just the kids saying “Historical stories are boring!” or was it more like the current crop of writers and producers were not up to the task of giving us good ones? Innes Lloyd, I’m looking at you.
So let’s just take a look at the stories in question. I’m going to skip over An Unearthly Child, as it being the very first story, it was really more of an introduction to our leads than a committed historical. And all I’ll say about Black Orchid is that of the smaller two part stories featured during the Davison era, I think Orchid was the best of them, for what it’s worth. Guess you could still do pure historicals. Hmm…
I’ll mostly just talk about the other 10 in between.
First up, Marco Polo. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan arrive in Cathay and become guests/prisoners of Marco Polo, and we come along as they travel the world for months. All the while, our heroes scheme to try and escape. As fantastic as the ratings were for the seven part Dalek introduction (9-10 million), Marco Polo, a purely historical adventure, maintained those ratings perfectly over the long course of seven further weeks. A unique and bold story, superbly written, acted, designed, and directed: I see no problems here.
The Aztecs – another brilliant story on every level. Arriving inside an Aztec temple, Barbara is mistaken for a god and she plays along, much to the Doctor’s chagrin. As always, the interest lay in how the time travelers can extricate themselves from their situation and get safely back to the TARDIS, this time having to deal with the odd human sacrifice along the way! You may notice there was a ratings drop (down to 6-7 million) but the drop actually occurred during the middle of the preceding story, The Keys of Marinus. It seems the numbers dropped going into summer, but note: they dropped during the outer space/sci fi story, down to 6.9 million. The Aztecs actually raised the numbers to average 7.5 for its four parts. Interesting.
And even though The Sensorites, another alien planet, story lost some viewers, the final historical of the season, The Reign of Terror, maintained the numbers, with another solid, if grim tale set in our past during a bloody time.
But through this first season, it certainly seemed as if there were no issues regarding quality in the purely historical adventures. They carried their weight and more, sometimes better than the sci-fi stories. I think this speaks to what Verity Lambert and her team brought to the table. Quality will out.
During the second season, interestingly, Planet of Giants (a present day story) started off well with around 8 million viewers, which then zoomed up to around 12-13 million when the Daleks returned in The Dalek Invasion of Earth.
The first purely historical adventure of the season, The Romans, followed and maintained these phenomenal numbers! This humorous romp was all Dennis Spooner and one would think at this point that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing historical stories whatsoever. Heck, they’re keeping up with the Daleks!
The next historical, The Crusade, had a wonderful story by David Whitaker and plenty of interesting star power with a young Julian Glover and Jean Marsh along with Bernard Kay yet dipped down around 9 million. The dip actually started during the second half of The Web Planet. As ambitious and as beautiful as it was, The Web Planet was a bit of a slog as the weeks rolled on. But the ratings The Crusade started with, they maintained. The Crusade is missing two of its four episodes and it’s a crime the two haven’t been animated yet.
But after two seasons, it seems clear that historicals were not really under-performers, especially not compared to the sci-fi stories.
After Season 3 began with Galaxy 4 and Mission to the Unknown, Verity Lambert departed, leaving John Wiles at the helm as producer, with Donald Tosh as script editor.
The first pure historical of the season was The Myth Makers, by Donald Cotton. Centering on the fall of Troy and the events around the famed Trojan horse, this was every bit as enjoyable a romp as Spooner’s The Romans, complete with plenty of sword fighting action. Sadly, unlike the four part Romans, all of which exist, the four part Myth Makers is only available via the soundtrack. But it is a delight, and I seriously wonder if seeing the video would improve the story that much. The Myth Makers soundtrack gives us a radio play that works so well in the theater of the mind, that I wonder if getting the video version back with whatever budgetary restrictions lay within might not actually hurt it! Brilliant, fast paced, clever dialogue by Cotton and the performances were fantastic, especially Barrie Ingram as Paris.
But it did very well in the 8 million viewer range and surprisingly, the next story, the fabled Daleks’ Master Plan‘s numbers didn’t even go up much further.
It should be noted at this point that there were problems behind the scenes between Wiles and Hartnell, and the three-month marathon that was The Daleks’ Master Plan didn’t help matters.
The next historical, The Massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Eve, was co-written by Tosh and John Lucarotti, and while an interesting story, it was a bit confusing at points. The Doctor disappears in episode one, with Hartnell then appearing as the villainous Abbot of Amboise for a couple episodes. All this while Steven, as well as the viewers, aren’t sure if the Doctor is impersonating the Abbot. In the end, as the title suggests, things end on a grim note.
And here, the ratings did indeed dip from 8 million to a little under 6 million, so you can see the audience was a bit confused as well.
But at this juncture, was that the fault of the crew confusing the audience or that the story was a purely historical one? I would say the former.
By the time we get to the next historical, The Gunfighters, the show has another new producer, Innes Lloyd. Donald Cotton returns to write this over-the-top comedic entry, which centers around the gunfight at the O.K. Corral between the Earp brothers and the Clinton gang in late 1800s Tombstone, Arizona. The ratings were hovering around 6 million for this story, although it wasn’t much of a dip from the stories that came before it, like The Celestial Toymaker. The Gunfighters isn’t a horrible story but seeing as how they had no idea what they were doing presenting American characters, especially those accents, the idea seemed to be questionable as far as historical choices go. The execution was lacking, so once again, was that the fault of the historical genre, or the capabilities or lack thereof, of the production team?
By this point, things were really eroding behind the scenes and Lloyd was all in favor of getting rid of Hartnell. It would seem that there were issues with the quality of all the stories, not just the historicals. After The Gunfighters, the ratings dropped another million to around 5.5. Lloyd casually started carelessly discarding the companions he inherited, Steven and Dodo, and brought in his own, Ben and Polly.
All questionable moves, especially as we move to season 4, which started out with The Smugglers, averaging about 4.5 million. Lloyd was getting more and more impatient with Hartnell fluffing lines due to his deteriorating health, but looking back, I wouldn’t blame Hartnell for the quality of these shows under Lloyd. I’d blame Lloyd, just like I blame him for starting Season 4 with a story so forgettable, I couldn’t tell you what happens. It, too, is missing but exists in audio form, which I’ve listened to, and fallen asleep. But again, I’m not blaming that on it being an historical. I’m blaming that on having maybe the wrong guy at the helm.
And finally, we move into the Troughton era, with The Highlanders, the last purely historical for many a year, that maintained around 7 million in ratings, like the preceding story, The Power of the Daleks, and just happened to give us one of the most popular and beloved companions in the history of Doctor Who, Jamie McCrimmon, played by Frazer Hines.
Solid ratings, a great track record, but creating the company lie that historicals are just not that popular, Innes Lloyd did away with them, and somehow, it was just taken for granted at that point that it was the thing to avoid, moving forward. And no one seemingly lifted a finger to even go there again for 15 years. Amazing.
Imagine Verity issuing that proclamation after The Romans or Marco Polo.
Of course she wouldn’t have, because she knew that a good story can be presented in any setting, any time, any historical backdrop. A poor workman blames his tools.
And finally, we had another missed opportunity in Series 11, with Demons of the Punjab, by Vinay Patel.
This was quite a good story that educated you as well — I knew absolutely nothing about the Partition of India. In a perfect world, this story would have been presented as a pure historical, with the Doctor and her companions arriving and getting caught up in events, split up with a pair being with the family of Yaz’s ancestor and the other two captives of the opposing faction. It would have been a wonderful character study in a dangerous setting. Very reminiscent of a Hartnell era story.
But no, it was decided to have some superfluous aliens merely observe and muddle things up. Honestly, the parts which featured the Doctor, the companions, and the useless aliens were written horribly and they were all unnecessary. So much so, that they all felt tacked on at the end.
A real shame, and as I say, a missed opportunity for a new, purely historical adventure.
Because they’re not the problem.