Bring Back… the Pure Historicals

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Guest contributor Nick Ferrazza ponders whether it’s time for Doctor Who to return to its historical roots.


Over 50 years ago Sydney Newman, head of drama at the BBC, had an idea for a groundbreaking new TV series that merged history with science in a way that would educate kids and entertain families for years to come, and so Doctor Who was born. 50 years down the line and the science side of his brilliant concept has flourished into something that no one could have ever dreamed it would become at the time. Robots, aliens, sonic-whatevers, Doctor Who has it all. However, I feel as though the historical side of the program has been almost completely forgotten, left to gather dust in some long forgotten cupboard deep in the BBC studios. Now I’d be an idiot not to agree that the Doctor and his friends still visit the past on a regular basis, but I’m talking about proper history free of cyborg cowboys and alien werewolves. I’m talking about pure historicals.

Pure Historicals?

the-aztecs-doctor-whoFans less familiar with the classic series, especially its black and white days might be scratching their heads at the mention of pure historicals, so let me backtrack for a moment. And before you ask, yes, I know that historicals isn’t a word, just bear with me for lack of a better one. Back when the show began, Doctor Who would roughly alternate between two types of stories. There were stories set in the future, with robots and aliens and whatever else the writers at the time could come up with, but it was a two sided coin, and on the other side were the stories set in the past. At this point in time however, these stories set in the past, these historicals, never featured aliens or monsters, or any form of science-fiction at all next to the inclusion of the Doctor and the TARDIS. They were pure historicals and told (mostly) historically accurate tales free of any sort of sci-fi plot twists.

As the series progressed however, these pure historicals became less and less frequent, and those that remained began to include more and more science fiction elements. Eventually the show became what it is today, with the final regular pure historical, The Highlanders, being broadcast in 1967, bar the one off pure historical Black Orchid broadcast in 1982.

What’s Wrong With Today’s Historicals?

myles-girl-in-the-fireplaceIn a word, nothing. They’re great. Without these science-fiction historicals we wouldn’t have such gems as The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and of course The Girl in the Fireplace. What I’m trying to say is, don’t think of this as me saying that we should purge all sci-fi elements from the show’s historical stories and go back to having pure sci-fi stories and pure historical stories with no crossover between the two. I really don’t have an issue with sci-fi historicals as a concept.

So what is the issue? Well the issue is that there’s too many sci-fi historicals. Let me explain. Are we to believe that every time the Doctor uncovers a conspiracy or battles an evil cult in a historical setting, aliens are always behind it? Surely the Doctor can arrive in the past without evil space monsters following close on his tail. What about the times when the Doctor takes a trip to the past and there’s no aliens to be seen. Surely this happens, so why do we never hear about it? I for one think it’s time we did.

Aren’t Pure Historicals a Little… Well… Boring?

doctor-who-the-crusadeI have to admit that yes, more than a few of the pure historicals broadcast back in the day could be viewed as a bit of a snore-fest. Personally, I for one find history very interesting and can find something in any pure historical story, but I can still appreciate why someone could find them boring. And it’s not a modern view-point either. Consistently low ratings of pure historicals is what led to them being phased out in the first place.

So this probably isn’t helping my case is it? Well I think it’s important that I make something clear, there were definitely some boring pure historicals, but that doesn’t mean that they were all boring. There were some great ones to. Just looks at The Aztecs, this story is consistently listed as one of, if not the, best First Doctor story. And while yes, some slight sci-fi elements creep in with the Doctor teaching Barbara about the dangers of meddling with the past, for all intensive purposes it’s a pure historical and a great one at that. Another brilliant pure historical in my opinion is The Crusade, which, despite featuring no sci-fi elements, delivers a thrilling and well rounded story that any viewer can enjoy. The only reason I can see that it’s not listen as one of the greats is that half two out of its four episodes are lost.

Corrupting the Sci-Fi?

The Unicorn and the WaspAs I’ve made clear, I can’t see the show going back to straight historical and straight sci-fi serials. What I can see however, is a ‘light sprinkling’ if you will of pure historicals. Perhaps one every year or two, maybe becoming more frequent if they’re popular enough. I say this because many of you are probably sitting there thinking “I’ve always watched Doctor Who because it’s sci-fi. I don’t want stories that are anything else,” and I can certainly appreciate that. Doctor Who is a science-fiction show and should remain as such no matter what.

However, the odd pure historical wouldn’t throw things off balance at all. Doctor Who is Doctor Who even without sci-fi. No matter where the Doctor goes, be it past or future, be it battling evil aliens or bad tempered cave men, he is still the Doctor, and as long as he’s still the Doctor, it’s still the same show through and through.

What Would Make a Good Pure Historical?

david-suchet-poirotOver the years, the UK has produced many brilliant historical series that I could see the Doctor blending into flawlessly. HBO and BBC’s Rome, one of the best historical series ever made in my opinion, would fit perfectly into the context of Doctor Who. The 12th Doctor in a duel with the sinister Cardinal from the recent Musketeers series would be quite a sight (insert Peter Capaldi joke here). Even seeing the Doctor tag along with Hercule Poirot on his most recent murder case would be brilliant. My point is that the UK has made constantly brilliant historical shows over the years. Why can’t Doctor Who become one of these shows? That’s what I would hope to see in pure historicals if they made their way into New Who.

However, the important thing about any type of episode is that it’s built up from a brilliant story, and not just made to fill some sort of criteria. If any writer sits down to write a pure historical just for the sake of writing a pure historical, it’s going to be a rubbish episode. On the other hand, if a writer has a great idea for a story and then decides that it would fit perfectly into a pure historical setting, then I say go for it.

To this end, there are many stories that have aired since 2005 that I think would have made great stories even if all sci-fi elements had been removed from them. One such story is The Unicorn and the Wasp. In all fairness, this story was a bit of a letdown. I’m not saying that it was bad, but it could have been much better. I’ve always been a fan of a good murder mystery, and it’s this genre that I could definitely see working as a pure historical. Why did the reverend have to be a giant alien wasp? With only a few small tweaks, the story could have worked just as well is he’d just been Lady Eddison’s illegitimate son and nothing more. It might have even been better. I always get irritated watching this story as it seems like such a missed opportunity for the show to return to pure historicals. Personally I feel the sci-fi elements dragged this particular story down a little. This just brings me full circle back to my first point. Why does the Doctor need to encounter aliens wherever and whenever he goes? Why can’t we just have a plain old historical story with historical figures and a historical villain? That’s why I think it’s time to bring back the pure historicals.