Historicals: A Thing of the Past?

As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, we’re looking back at some of the pivotal tales of all of time and space, taking on one Doctor each month, running up to November – and An Unearthly Child

Concluding this month’s examination of 2008’s The Unicorn and the Wasp, we look at a rarely-mined treasure trove of stories. (Get in the mood and read Introducing: The Unicorn and the Wasp.)

Will we ever see the purely historical serial again? The Unicorn and the Wasp surely presented a good opportunity to revive purely historical stories, a trope not seen since 1982’s Black Orchid and before that, The Highlanders (1966-67).

The Unicorn and the Wasp 3

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, 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 leant 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.

Marco Polo 2

More realistic – and brutal – were The Reign of Terror (1964), Marco Polo (1964) and The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve (1966). 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

The Highlanders – which debuted the popular companion, Jamie McCrimmon – 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. Audio company, 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 2005-2013 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.

The Massacre

Perhaps the closest we’ve got so far are: The Unicorn and the Wasp and Vincent and the Doctor (2010). The latter focussed 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.

Vincent and Amy

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. 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 the 50th anniversary year.

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  1. TimeChaser says:

    I think the thing about doing a purely historical story is that you have to be sure that you have something exciting that can hold the audience’s attention and present a lot of drama and peril for the characters.

    I think one of the most successful pure historical BF audios is “The Fires of Vulcan”. Its a constant countdown to the doom we know is coming with the eruption of Vesuvius, with Mel struggling to get the Doctor to do something while he is wracked with uncertainty, knowing the TARDIS will be buried and dug up again thousands of years later. Its just as good as Season 4’s “The Fires of Pompeii” but without any aliens involved at all. If you can get a good grippign story like that, or a fun and interesting mystery like in “Black Orchid”, its still possible to do a pure historical and make it entertaining.

  2. Gareth Kavanagh says:

    Oh I’d love to see one. Fires of Vulcan and the Marian Conspiracy were mighty fine and not missing aliens in the slightest!

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