Historically Speaking…

History is full of monsters but why does Doctor Who always fly in more from far away galaxies whenever it takes a step back into the past?

Today marks the official launch of The Gunpowder Plot, the latest in the Doctor Who: Adventure Games series that sees the Doctor, Amy and Rory not only find themselves embroiled in the treasonous plotting of Guy Fawkes (Ralf Little) but also coming face to face with the Doctor’s old enemy the Sontarans, as they seek to destroy their old enemies the Rutan’s.

Not since The Highlanders and Black Orchid has there been a historical story without either a major event or a well-known historical figure. What’s more both those stories featured no other Alien technology or involvement other than the Doctor and the TARDIS.

So why has Doctor Who shied away from producing a purely historical episode for such a long time?

If you look back to the genesis of Doctor Who one of the key quotes used by a 1962 BBC Survey into the potential of a new Sci-Fi show and just what contemporary science fiction was composed of was author Kingsley Amis’ phrase the: ‘idea as hero’.

Sci-fi literature at the time was to Amis (whose 1960 New Maps of Hell study on the genre had done much to legitimise SF and helped make it a viable product for the Beeb) the elevation of the concept and the adjustments made under duress by his archetypical protagonists.

However the BBC Survey found the term too difficult for an audience to grasp hold of especially for a serial based drama where fantastical voyages would have to be anchored to both recognisable situations and reasonable budgets.

Historical tales could placate both science fiction with the recognisable. All it would ask audiences to do was to take one leap of imagination and then follow more realistic thoughts after that.

It’s this cautious approach to Sci-Fi that make the idea of doing a purely historical Doctor Who adventure seem so quaint and traditional – it seems likely that it was the traditional feel of historical serial that attracted John Nathan-Turner (who wasn’t adverse to bolting on random pieces light entertainment trivia) to attempt something not seen since 1967.

Historical episodes now are more about the cult of personality. If anything Amis’ ideal has been inverted; the hero is now the idea.

The Shakespeare Code, The Unquiet Dead and The Unicorn and the Wasp use gifted individuals from history as the conduits for everything associated with a non-historical episode – it’s as if their minds are at such odds with their own contemporary surroundings that taking the leap into a much wider universe is just as foreign and magnificent as mastering iambic pentameter or plotting a murder on the Orient Express.

Alien technology is used as an excuse to show us what we broadly associate with those historical figures – witches for Shakespeare, ghosts for Dickens and an interstellar Murder Mystery for Christie – and the magnificence of their gifts (its one of the delights in Vincent and the Doctor that this is reversed.)

We have to think of the old historical serials as just an adjacent possibility on the way to cementing the escapist action adventure stories as being what the show is now about.

While it may be sad to never see the Doctor once again tread amongst the unsung heroes of history, or become embroiled in the whispers and secrets of past lives without the presence of an interstellar threat, historical serials were part of an educational remit which never stood a chance in the face of the wonders of the imagination.

It’s no wonder that when the show does go back to the past, it looks towards those of similar imaginations for guidance.

You can download the latest installment of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, The Gunpowder Plot, from the BBC Doctor Who website.

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