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.
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.”
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.”