“Did I mention it also travels in time?”

First off, I’d just like to say I LOVE the Daleks! When Sydney Newman first proposed the idea for Doctor Who back in the hazy black-and-white 60s, he made it quite clear that he didn’t want any “bug-eyed monsters.” Then came along the Daleks and arguably secured the show’s future.

But that was never meant to be the whole story. There was a time way before its 2005 return when fans of Doctor Who used to thrill to adventures dubbed “pure historicals.” For those of you who started watching when Christopher Eccleston first told Rose to “Run” then I’ll explain. These were episodes that found the TARDIS crew adventuring around history, but with one distinct difference – no monsters!

The question I want to ask is does monster-based fun always have to be the pivotal device in making Doctor Who dramatic? In fact is the programme perhaps in danger of becoming a little predictable if the answer to every story is “Monsters did it!”?

With a popular period of history then we already know the outcome; the drama then comes from the companions wrestling with the inevitable. Isn’t it a pity that this isn’t explored more?

The original concept of the programme was that the TARDIS could go anywhere in time and space. The Doctor would arrive either in the past, the future, on a different world or in a different state. Interestingly we’ve seen a return of the latter for the 2014 season, with the TARDIS shrinking in Flatline, and the Doctor trying to fly Clara to heaven in Dark Water. Another notable example of the altered states adventures of the early days can be seen in 1965’s The Space Museum. Here the TARDIS crew materialise only as a shadow in space/time. They then discover that they have in fact already arrived, been captured and turned into exhibits in a museum (so much for spoilers being a modern invention). However it’s been a good 33 years since the Doctor last made a good old fashioned, purely historical house-call. Now it might seem strange to us to think that there was a time when genuine history teachers used to recommend certain episodes of Doctor Who to their students for revision (it seems almost as unlikely as a science teacher recommending the programme now – but that’s another article altogether).

If you don’t count the odd minisode, the last pure-historical Doctor Who story was 1982’s Black Orchid. Here the Fifth Doctor travels back to 1925 in order to gate-crash a cricket match, only then to become embroiled in an Agatha Christie style Who-didn’t-do-it. However, Black Orchid was an anomaly even in its day, and previous to its broadcast there hadn’t been a pure-historical since The Highlanders in 1967. This meant that the pure historicals had more or less become a thing of the past by the time First Doctor, William Hartnell, had hung up his wig and cravat on his last season.

The Unicorn and the Wasp 3

Of course, the Doctor has been back in time on many occasions since his 2005 return. We’ve been treated to some excellent time-location-shoots, such as ancient Pompeii, Victorian London, Hooverville1930, Victorian London, Venice 1580, Roman Britain, 1938 Berlin and Victorian London again. All these were excellent excursions into the past, but never without the Doctor running into other – what you might call – out-of-towners such as himself.

There is something special about travelling back in time. The past always promises evocative settings and intrigue. We’ve seen Stonehenge overrun by Auton Romans in ancient Britain (The Pandorica Opens – 2010), and witnessed Egypt beset with Daleks during the building of the pyramids (The Daleks’ Master Plan – 1965). The reason being is that these times and places invite a mystery and speculation all of their own.

Of course, Doctor Who is all about the adventuring, but there is no reason to assume that a pure-historical would skimp on thrills. History is littered with real adventures – and monsters come to that. Dinosaurs have been thrilling children as a recurring monster in Doctor Who since 1970’s The Silurians. I imagine the average young viewer wouldn’t necessarily feel short-changed by the occasional dinosaur appearing instead of –say– a giant moon-laying space dragon. Nor might they consider much difference between a Sycorax sword fight and the Vikings going at it hammer and tongs. To sell any kind of drama, be it alien incursion or Aztec sacrifice, it all comes down to the same thing: The strength of the writing.

When it comes to it, do we always need a Monster-of-the-Week? Something that the Pertwee years managed to do extremely well was to point out that not all aliens are monsters. Not all creatures – no matter how aesthetically upsetting they may seem to our sensibilities – turn out to be evil. Take The Mutants from their 1972 serial. A benign lifeform altered by the seasons of their planet, the ruthless humans then branded them as evil mutations. Then of course there are the Silurians. In their titular serial of 1970, they revealed themselves to be capable of actions just as good or as misguided as any of their human counterparts in the story. The writing here skilfully manages to take species out of the picture. Instead it leaves us simply with a fight between the separatists on the one side, and those who fought for a more inclusive way of life on the other. Now there’s a theme that real history certainly doesn’t skimp on.

Pure historicals offer us astounding plots, unsolved mysteries, tyrants and traitors, but wait: there’s also “universe of time” through which to travel.

So pure historicals offer us astounding plots, unsolved mysteries, tyrants and traitors, but wait: There’s not only the past to explore. As the Second Doctor told Victoria on her inaugural trip, the TARDIS also travel through “the universe of time.” Time travel as a theme has captivated scientists and philosophers for centuries; and for just as long writers have been working to exploit its dramatic opportunities. Doctor Who in its time has explored the various themes, from getting stuck in the past to the disastrous ramifications that come from meddling with history. However, perhaps more dangerous is when history starts to meddle back. This is explored beautifully in 1964’s Reign of Terror. When the First Doctor accidently lands the crew in the middle of the French Revolution, so polarised is the atmosphere that it soon causes friction between the companions. Amidst the political tensions Ian is forced to point out to Barbara how “we’ve taken sides just by being here.”

Karen - Fires of Pompeii

Another excellent example comes in 2008’s The Fires of Pompeii, which sees companion Donna struggle with the knowledge of the imminent eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In arguably the most dramatic and memorable moment of the entire episode, she has to plead with the Doctor to save at least one of the benighted citizens. Sometimes it is character-driven moments like these that say with us the longest. If you watch 1982’s The Visitation, you might be tempted to cite the character of Mace (the wandering actor and philosopher) as one of its main attractions. Then in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977), the characters of Jago and Litefoot proved so popular that they spawned their own successful audio series for Big Finish. These are people in and of their time, and more delightful and memorable for it.

Now, about that minisode I mentioned. Far more recent than 1982, a prequel to The Bells of St. John (2013) proved that Doctor Who can still do pure historicals. Here the Doctor finds himself back in time where he befriends a young girl who tries to cheer him up. It then transpires that the little girl is in fact a future companion of his. No robots, no monsters here. Just two chums on a swing – and extremely good writing.

If you watch 1982’s The Visitation, you might be tempted to cite the wandering actor and philosopher Richard Mace as one of its main attractions.

This I think is a perfect example of what pure historicals are good at: Character development. All drama is based on the rule of objective verses obstacles. In a pure historical, the Doctor’s companions may have their own objectives (to escape the past, to rewrite history etc.) but it is history itself (sometimes aided and abetted the Doctor) that provide the obstacles. Also if it is a popular period of history then we already know the outcome. This is what will and must happen. The drama then comes from the companions wrestling with the inevitable. No other programme on television offers this opportunity to so turn the rule of drama on its head. Isn’t it a pity that this isn’t explored more?

Good production values, solid storytelling, concept and design. These are all part and parcel of what you need to make Doctor Who, and with the current team at the helm I’m sure there are no stories that they couldn’t tell extremely well – even without the occasional monster.

Of course it’s always fun to see an alien landscape, a returning foe or even a whole new monster menace on Doctor Who. However, I think we should occasionally remember that there are also adventures closer to home. So to shamelessly misuse a quote from real history: “The past is an alien land. They do things differently there.”

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  1. TimeChaser says:

    I would argue that it “Black Orchid” was not actually the last pure historical story, unless you want to be very limited and only talk about the TV series. There were some pure historical adventures in the novels, and Big Finish has done their fair share in this format. A good point of comparison, especially for anyone who enjoyed “The Fires of Pompeii” is to listen to the audio play “The Fires of Vulcan”, in which the Doctor is up against nothing but time and accidental foreknowledge that his TARDIS would be trapped by the eruption to be excavated centuries later. Both are excellent stories, but I would have to say “Vulcan” just edges out “Pompeii” on the sheer weight of the drama, which does prove adventures can be exciting without anachronistic alien intervention. We get to see the Doctor in a very fatalistic and melancholic mood, while Mel (in a brilliant return by Bonnie Langford sans screaming) has to do most of the work, trying to convince him there has to be some way out for them.

    • Jason Z says:

      I was going to mention Big Finish too – quite right. And the novels too. But also, a historical does not *have* to be about the Doctor and team versus history, which I think is what Simon is saying in this article. “Black Orchid” does not fit that description. Another I recently heard was Big Finish’s “No Man’s Land”, which I would say is a pure historical where known history does not really play a part. There’s also “The Kingmaker” (okay that one has a robot in it, but it never leaves the TARDIS), but that’s an entirely different kettle of fish (and indeed it’s a kettle of fish that I can’t recommend highly enough).

      • bar says:

        and have I forgotten something, but isn’t The Maryan Conspiracy historical, messed up ONLY bu the Doctor and Evelyn’s presence, no monsters or meddling visitors with advanced tech (except the Doctor’s gismo for preventing Evelyn from disappearing up her own paradox)?

        • TimeChaser says:

          Yep, you are correct. BF have done quite a few purely historical stories: The Marian Conspiracy, The Fires of Vulcan,The Church and the Crown, The Council of Nicaea, Son of the Dragon, Catch-1782, just to name a few.

  2. Dr Moo says:

    I liked some of the Pure Historicals (e.g. The Romans) but hated others (e.g. Black Orchid). Give us a good story, who cares whether it’s historical or sci-fi as long as it’s good?

    • TimeChaser says:

      I think some people care because except for non-TV media, Doctor Who hasn’t touched a historical story in decades, and they can be just as well done and exciting as anything with aliens. It does get a bit monotonous to have every historical jaunt involve aliens/monsters/robots/etc.

      • Dr Moo says:

        True, but many of the historicals with aliens/monsters/robots have been excellent. For example The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances, The Curse of Fenric, The Fires of Pompeii, The Time Meddler, The Time Warrior, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Human Nature/ The Family of Blood, Vincent and the Doctor, Remembrance of the Daleks, Ghost Light… I could go on.

        I think that before we go back to Pure Historical stories we need to get away from always being on Earth. Look at the most recent run of episodes from Deep Breath to Last Christmas for example: 8/12 stories were set on Earth but even those other three (Into the Dalek, Time Heist, Kill the Moon, Mummy on the Orient Express) still had at least one scene on Earth. I think this is more of a problem than the historical issue. But I get your point. 🙂

        • TimeChaser says:

          And those are all good stories. I do enjoy the pseudo-historical adventures, but it would be nice once in a while if the TV series tackled something purely historical again after so many years. And yes, we need to get away from Earth more. I think though it’s still prohibitive to budget. It’s much easier to keep going to Earth than to create whole worlds or spaceship sets. You see more of a willingness to get further away in books and audio where a visual budget is no concern.

          • Dr Moo says:

            I’m reminded of the opening scenes of The Caretaker as Twelve and Clara keep going to all these fascinating alien worlds but we never get to see them and instead get a very Earth-set story. Any of those trips in the opening montage would have made for a great story in itself!

        • Semi-Evil Semi-Genius says:

          Why not both?
          The lack of historicals is a problem equal to the egocentricity. It is a lack of imagination regarding both time and space. We need to spread out in both directions. Let’s do some foreign world stories, some distant time stories, and how about a hybrid. I want to see an Ice Warrior historical set on primitive Mars (toss in a Flood reference, not a whole plotline) and we got a story.

          • Dr Moo says:

            Now there’s an idea!

          • TimeChaser says:

            This is another area where Big Finish has already surpassed the TV series. We’ve had a story set in the past on Mondas concerning the early development of the Cybermen (“Spare Parts”), and origins for both Sontarans and Ice Warriors in “The First Sontarans” and “Lords of the Red Planet” respectively. Not to mention the origin of the Keepers and the Source of Traken in “Primeval”.

  3. Tim Church says:

    As the original premise states ( from Wikipedia ): “The programme was originally intended to appeal to a family audience, as an educational programme using time travel as a means to explore scientific ideas and famous moments in history.”. It would be brilliant to take it back to this, yes, of course, the Daleks saved the original series from having a single run ( probably, strange that his greatest enemies saved him, LOL ), but too much fantasy and Sci-fi have taken the edge off the brilliance of the main character and led to sometimes saving the day by mumbo-jumbo or a magic wand. Let the Doctor ( and his companions ) save the day ( or their own skins ) by their wit, their foreknowledge. Capaldi ( as a more serious actor ) and the BBC would shine in these sort of stories.

    • Dr Moo says:

      “…too much fantasy and Sci-fi…” There’s no such thing as too much of these things! But I agree with pretty much everything else you say.

  4. Semi-Evil Semi-Genius says:

    This is probably my biggest gripe with the show. Historicals need to be a regular part of Doctor Who. In every time period on Earth, aliens are invading? BS!
    In my opinion, the Fires of Pompeii is mangled by its aliens. The thematic idea of the Doctor having to let Pompeii be destroyed to maintain a fixed point is thrown away completely. Because some casual viewers that do not understand the philosophy of time travel and its implications, the writers throw in “hey fire rock monsters will destroy the planet, so the Doctor has to blow them up, and explosions and stuff!”. It’s too much for peabrains to understand – they simply say the Doctor has to save everybody, or he’s evil. They’ll never understand that time could very well have fixed points that are key to maintaining time itself, or that tragedy can make people better people (not that we should create tragedy, but if it has happened, we can learn from it). And Donna did well to soften the blow to the audience; the idea to just “save someone” is a great idea. Maybe the Doctor could just rescue one family.
    Also, I want to toss another idea out there, and I want to catch on: Anti-Historicals (maybe not the best term). Historicals set in modern times, future times, and in alien worlds. The Doctor’s perception of time is completely different than ours. Our future one million years from now is history to him; he’s been to much farther points in time. Why not a conflict set in the future that depends on forces contextually relevant to that time, not influenced by time travelers. The same with modern events. We can have mundane events, and even homegrown ones (maybe a mad scientist, completely independent of alien tech and means?). What about an alien race that are still in their primitive era. A species’ timeline is completely subjective. The Doctor could arrive in a time that our calendar would say is the year 9950, but for some alien race their planet could just be evolving life, their planet formed well after ours (or even way before, and life took longer to start).
    The possibilities are endless. It seems Doctor Who is keeping things too simple, afraid to challenge an audience’s perception. That is a shame since the series’ inception was about provoking the mind. New Who is great, and has a lot of advantages over the old era, so I’m not saying one is better than another. I’m just hoping, we can build our modern show with some of the brilliant strengths of the old.

  5. nparkern says:

    The novel The Witch Hunters is one I’d highly recommend. It deals with events in a certain New England town…

    It deals with a historical travesty beautifully, really digging in to the high emotion and paranoia of the Salem witch trials. It was a springboard for my current interest in the trials.

    Doctor Who episodes set in the past, without any aliens, would be wonderful, not least because of both the deep emotions and the educational value they could represent.

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