Doctor Who@50: A Historical Perspective

An on-going series of thematic essays exploring the icons of Doctor Who during its 50th year

History vs Science Fiction

Marco PoloThe TARDIS is a time machine that can take its occupants anywhere in Time and Space – past, present or future – and when Doctor Who was devised, the intention was clear that these adventures would be divided between the past and the future. (There was discussion of sidesteps as well – which led to Planet of Giants, and elements of The Space Museum – but there have been surprisingly few parallel universes throughout the show’s entire fifty-year run.) Part of the show’s remit was educational, with the first two companions teachers of the sort that the target audience of school-age children would recognise: the history teacher, Barbara Wright, would be their guide to the mysteries and thrills of the past; the science teacher, Ian Chesterton, could suggest how the future technology they encountered was based on contemporary knowledge.

In the first season, the Ship allowed the travellers to meet Marco Polo, the Aztecs, and key people in the French Revolution – as well as taking them back to the dawn of mankind in 100,000 B.C. – with a trip to Ancient Rome coming early in the second year. However after Barbara and Ian returned home, the TARDIS crew’s adventures in history were no longer the straight historical adventures they once had been. The Time Meddler was set in the 11th Century, but focused on a fellow time-traveller; the stops in history that the TARDIS crew made while battling the Daleks’ Masterplan were in an effort to evade their metallic foes. The Gunfighters presented a stereotypical view of the Wild West, based on the movies more than the historical record; The Smugglers owed far more to romantic fiction than the reality of the time. Only the trip to the time of the Huguenot Massacre, and, arguably, the encounter with The Highlanders maintained some degree of historical accuracy (and even then, the former was based more around the astonishing resemblance between the fictional Abbot of Amboise and the Doctor, and the latter doesn’t bear too close scrutiny).

And that was pretty much it: the show’s premise became more about ‘bases under siege’ for the rest of the Troughton era, and the curtailment of the TARDIS’ power to travel in time during the early Pertwee seasons prevented any meaningful journeys into history. When that side of the Ship’s abilities were remembered – with The Time Warrior in 1973/4 – the stories that developed began to follow a new template: someone or something was meddling with the past, and the Doctor had to intervene. Some of the great historically-based stories of the show’s history – Pyramids of Mars, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Visitation, The Curse of Fenric, even The Mark of the Rani (some people do enjoy that!) – sprung from that premise, and they’ve been the templates for the show in its 21st century incarnation. Doctor Who isn’t an educational show as was first proposed; now it is clearly a science fiction series – and has been for some considerable time.

Reign of TerrorHowever, was that because the science fiction stories were somehow better than the historical ones? There can’t be many people nowadays who would seriously take The Sensorites over The Aztecs, or The Reign of Terror (even with the … interesting animation of the missing episodes), are there? Verity Lambert was counselled not to have “bug-eyed monsters” in the show, but the first season had the Daleks, and… the Voord. And the Sensorites. The next season gave us that masterpiece of science fiction, Koquillion – and the adventures on The Web Planet, which are interesting but arguably not the show at its best. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that the contemporary younger audience were keen to get away from the educational historical stories and eager to find out which monster was going to threaten the Ship’s crew next. Maybe it was because the last thing that children wanted on a Saturday evening was yet more education?

The hunt for a successor to the Daleks in terms of popularity with the audience meant that numerous new alien creatures were devised – some, like the Mechonoids and the Chumblies, never to return since they didn’t spark the imagination of the children in the way that the Daleks had. Only when Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis devised the Cybermen did the production teams have a new “go-to” monster. Michael Seeley, Pedler’s biographer, has recently made it clear that Pedler’s role wasn’t “scientific adviser” to the production team, but more someone who could introduce them to “plausible science fiction ideas” which they might not have considered before – a necessity for a show which was abandoning the “history” part of its remit and sticking firmly to science fiction.

The final historical story not to feature any science fiction elements (the “pure” historical), Patrick Troughton’s second story The Highlanders, was broadcast in 1967 between the first two Cybermen tales. (Black Orchid, which appeared fifteen years later, is often called a “pure” historical but in fact was something of an aberration. Because it used the TARDIS as a plot point, rather than simply as a method of the Doctor and his friends arriving and departing from the story, it still had science fiction elements in it.)

abominable-snowmenIronically, just as the history stories were being phased out, the TARDIS was then crewed for much of the next year by two “historical” characters – the 18th century Jamie McCrimmon, and the 19th century Victoria Waterfield (introduced in a story partly set in Victorian England). They were normally thrown into situations where a monster was attacking – The Enemy of the World being a notable exception – no matter what the time period: from the recent past (1935’s The Abominable Snowmen) to the far future (The Ice Warriors). A historical setting simply became a backdrop – and in Troughton’s final story The War Games (by which point Victoria had been replaced by the 21st century teen genius Zoe), this idea was taken to its logical conclusion, with people from different parts of Earth history living out their lives (and continuing their battles) in adjacent zones on an alien planet. Interestingly, one of the first “historical” stories of Jon Pertwee’s tenure, Carnival of Monsters, adapted the same idea.

Once the Doctor was able to travel in time once more, at the start of the tenth season, he and his companion Jo Grant still ended up in her future. The Time Warrior began the new template that gave the production team a chance to capitalise on the BBC’s well-deserved reputation for historical and costume drama, while still providing the audience with science fiction thrills. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes were responsible for classic pseudo-historicals, such as Pyramids of Mars, The Masque of Mandragora, and Weng ChiangThe Talons of Weng-Chiang. Under Graham Williams’ guidance, the show steered clear of the genre – bar some quick nips back in time to the period of Leonardo da Vinci in City of Death – and it didn’t really feature heavily in John Nathan-Turner’s early stories. That’s not to say that the show failed to use the trappings of the past – The Ribos Operation is set in a medieval-style city, for example, just not a Terran one – but the TARDIS invariably took its occupants to the present-day or later when visiting Earth.

The arrival of Peter Davison’s Doctor coincided with a resurgence in interest in the pseudo-historical story. His first season featured characters taken from Earth’s past (Four to Doomsday), as well as two adventures set there in quick succession: The Visitation, set around the time of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, and Black Orchid, which took place in 1925. More recent history was controversially used the following year in Mawdryn Undead (forever mucking up the show’s internal continuity with a story partly set in 1977), and a very pageanty version of the 13th century could be found in the melodramatic tale The King’s Demons that concluded the season. Colin Baker’s first season popped into the mid-nineteenth century for The Mark of the Rani, for once making the setting an important part of the plot; two stories later came what one could argue was the first “celebrity historical” with Timelash, as the Doctor was assisted by H.G. Wells in the battle with the Borad.

Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor had one historically-set story per year – the lightweight Delta and the Bannermen in the 1950s, the more serious Remembrance of the Daleks in 1963, and finally The Curse of Fenric, based in the Second World War. Under editor Andrew Cartmel, the scripts tried to reflect the attitudes of the times, rather than simply concentrating on the science fiction elements.

When the series was revived in 2005 by Russell T Davies, the TARDIS’ ability to travel back into Earth history became a central part of the show. The Ship’s journeys through the Time Vortex (as seen in the title sequence and in various episodes) were even differently coloured, depending whether it was going forwards or backwards.

Unquiet DeadFor fans who came to the series in the 21st century, meeting figures from the past became key: Rose Tyler’s first trip to the past with the ninth Doctor saw her meet Charles Dickens; her first with the tenth led to an encounter with Queen Victoria, and soon after that, the Doctor fell in love with Reinette de Poisson, Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of the French king. Martha Jones spent time being wooed by William Shakespeare, while Donna Noble encountered Agatha Christie. Amy Pond couldn’t quite believe that the eleventh Doctor was on first-name terms with wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and was touched by the inscription put on a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. The Time Lord and his friends even assisted President Richard Nixon, the last such figure to appear on the show (barring Adolf Hitler – briefly – in the bizarre Let’s Kill Hitler!).

However, those weren’t the only historical stories: there have been just as many set in the past without the presence of someone who’s going to be known beyond the fans of Horrible Histories. The Doctor took Rose back to the date of her father’s death in 1987, and the pair met Captain Jack during the Second World War, as well as battling the Wire in 1953 London. Martha faced the Daleks in Depression-era New York with no sign of FDR or other luminaries making an appearance, and helped the Doctor evade the Family of Blood in just pre-NExt DoctorFirst World War England. After Donna’s departure, the Doctor met Jackson Lake and the Cybermen in Victorian London, and his next incarnation, Amy and Rory dealt with the Saturnynes in sixteenth century Venice. The Doctor has even acquired a “gang” in recent times from the late nineteenth century, with the Silurian Madame Vastra, her wife Jenny, and the Sontaran Strax, with a couple of adventures set there, as well as visits to 1974 and 1983 last season.

The new forty-five minute format of the show doesn’t allow for too much background development, but, as with Cartmel’s stories in the late 1980s, the current production teams have tried to make the settings and the characters’ attitudes as authentic as possible – or as much as you can when a giant Cyber-King or belligerent Sontaran is stalking the streets.

The days of the “pure historical” story are long gone – at least from the TV series. Both books and audio adventures have experimented with the format, and retrospectively placed the Doctors and their companions into Earth’s past, with varying degrees of success (the Companion Chronicle The Flames of Cadiz is a very successful example). Doctor Who is thought of primarily as a science fiction fantasy drama show (when it’s not being dismissed as just a kids’ programme, that is), but its in-built time travel element will no doubt continue to lead to new adventures in Earth’s history. Just as long as there’s also a monster or two to defeat…

This essay now forms part of Who Beyond 50: Celebrating Five Decades of Doctor Who. Click here to order it from


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