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Bring Back… the Pure Historicals

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

capaldi-Musketeers-2014

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.

Step back in time...

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132 comments
LookingOneWay
LookingOneWay

I was thinking they could do a sort of espionage-based episode with no aliens set in the distant past, like the 60s or something. 

Oodkind
Oodkind

I just got the greatest idea ever: They could do a historical with only Peter Capaldi. It could start where he travels to the aftermath of Pompeii and picks up Caeciliu. Then he could go get a musketeer and all the other historical parts he has played. You could have a TARDIS full of ten Peter Capaldis! Then there could be a 5-series long arc about why they all looked so similar.

Wimsey
Wimsey

I think that the bigger problem with pure historicals is that the plots are dictated by history rather than constructed to further character development.  That wasn't an issue with old Who, as there was no character development and "historical fiction" as a plot-driven story was fine.  However, the modern show is completely character driven, and the plots serve entirely to put the companion or the Doctor in some place where they have to make some choice about him/herself.  Interesting history does not obligingly create such situations.  





Andrew_Swallow
Andrew_Swallow

If there is no alien then what is The Doctor doing interfering?  Humans Vs. humans is a human matter.


The Doctor did not stop the black death, slavery or kill Hitler.  So interfering in anything less is just favouritism.

DW_girl
DW_girl

I see what you mean- We should get to see the adventures the Doctor has when he isn't battling alien monsters. But, I honestly think that if it came to an episode like that, all I'd be thinking all the way through is: 'Where's the alien?'. It's Doctor Who! It has to be about aliens! 

It's like the episode 'The Sign of Three' of Sherlock. I remember sitting through it getting really agitated because it was all wedding and no crime. It's Sherlock for goodness sake, he should be solving crimes, not being all 'normal' at a wedding (for the life of me, I still can't figure the reasoning behind why that episode was broadcast). But moving on....

I've never seen any of the First Doctor historicals you mentioned, so I won't judge you on that, I'm sure they're great. And hopefully, if someone was going to write a pure historical, they would make it so The Doctor was battling some kind of evil, and yep, It doesn't have to be sci-fi aliens. So yeah, i'm kind of building a contradiction here, aren't I? Honestly though, I'd say if they can do it and make an all-round entertaining episode with an under-lying threat, which still feels like Doctor Who, then I have no complaints. But if not, then I really don't think it should happen.

Finally, I liked the Vespiform idea in 'The Unicorn and The Wasp'. I thought it was really tense and scary when The Doctor and co were trying to deduce who the alien wasp was (I actually found the wasp quite frightening, being scared of wasps an' all), so it was like a good old fashioned crime drama but with that quirkiness that only Doctor Who can deliver.

MaraBackman
MaraBackman

I think it would be a nice change of pace to re-introduce the pure historicals. The current formula for semi-historicals are making them rather predictable, because the villain is almost always an alien, a time-traveler, or influenced by one or the other. That is why I'd hope for pure historicals, to show that ordinary humans can be a credible threat to the Doctor. Even if there would be anachronistic technology involved, it would still be interesting to see people use period-appropriate resources and theories to make it happen. A historical story could also work even without any actual threat, but have a completely different type of plot from what we've come to expect. For instance, there could be an entire episode about the Doctor and a companion discussing the ethical responsibility of time-travel, with them using many real situations as examples for why the Doctor should not interfere. Perhaps why the Black Death should be allowed to happen even though it killed off 2/3 of Europe's population at the time, because of the later stuff that would not necessarily happen if it was averted. Or perhaps why trans-Atlantic slavery was necessary for many good things to become a reality in our time.

MrThorfan64
MrThorfan64

Maybe they could have some sort of long-lived villain, like Sebastian Grayle or Vandal Savage, as the Big Bad of a series. He doesn't time travel, just lives a long time. The Doctor meets him in a historical and the future, though out of order.

Joe Sipocz
Joe Sipocz

Yes! Every trip back to the past doesn't need aliens/monsters/etc. So much of the past has 'monsters' enough in real life. I loved The Aztecs, The Crusaders (even if it's only available as a book), and Black Orchid. In general they need to scale back the 'every episode is the singular key turning point in history' syndrome. Works for me.

lukashcartoon
lukashcartoon

One of my favorite Pure Historicals was THE AZTECS.  A great story involving great questions, such as meddling with the time, Doctor first Romance and a lot of historical facts (As understood for the time) I agree that Doctor Who could use a few of these types of stories, minus any alien influence. Or even better- Other Time Travelers mucking with time.








TardisConverse
TardisConverse

DEFINITELY! Today's era of Television can really pull off good Historical stories. Capaldi's the perfect Doctor to help bring it all to life for Clara.

Arkleseizure
Arkleseizure

I would love to see some pure historicals again. I think they should be set in relatively little-known periods, so the viewers are less likely to know what's going to happen. That's why I love The Massacre. So few would have known that a French Royal wedding and the failed assassination of an Admiral were the precursors of an atrocity the Doctor and Steven managed to escape by a matter of minutes. Thrilling stuff. More please!

Verumex
Verumex

Pure historical is a format that I've found that Big Finish excels in, with stories like The Marian Conspiracy and Angel of Scutari being huge successes. I'd like to see the TV show try another, but if they don't, Big Finish is definitely the place to go for some great examples of the format.


NewWho2012
NewWho2012

Well we had Madame De Pompadour, William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie in RTD era and Moffat had Van Gogh so it's time we had another one I think.

TheDreamer
TheDreamer

Never saw the Highlanders... but I watched Black Orchid just the other day and found it mostly boring... It reminded me of the Unicorn and the Wasp, without the funny parts, and the acting didn't save it for me. I liked the Aztecs well enough, though.

I guess as long as it's well executed, it's fine. But I wouldn't want a purely historical episode too often. They're not my favourites.

To be honest, as I watched Black Orchid I kept telling myself that if it wasn't for the Tardis, it could have been any historical show... nothing special to distinguish it. Well... I suppose the Doctor and Adric being aliens should count lol but, seeing as they look human, you couldn't tell unless you knew who they were.

The Unicorn and the Wasp felt more like Doctor Who to me... it had the historical hits but also had enough sci fi bits to make it DW in my mind.

Lrd Masters
Lrd Masters

 i want gunpoweder, treason and the plot



troughton who?
troughton who?

I'm not sure how much a real historical episode would sit with most people, because it has the potential . But one I'd be curious to see is one like "The Time Meddler" - not a pure historical because it has the Monk in it, but besides that there's not much on a sci-fi level. It basically has the Monk trying to change time and the Doctor/Steven/Vicki trying to stop it. 

Christopher Brown
Christopher Brown

Actually, the ratings for historicals were NOT that low - that's kind of a fan myth that's been perpetuated due to ratings for one historical story towards the end of Hartnell's reign not being as high as the preceding sci-fi story. Ironically, the historical in question ("The Gunfighters") has in recent years come to be regarded as an overlooked gem while the preceding story, "The Celestial Toymaker", is now considered by many fans to be one of the worst.

VictorWong1
VictorWong1

I agree that a "purely historical" story would be nice, but odds are they'd fall into one of two types:

-- Doctor and / or companion changes or fixes history. Example: our team shows James Watt how a condenser works, enabling him to build a steam engine.

-- Doctor and / or companion escape the consequences of history. Example: our team find themselves in Nagasaki, August 1945, 24 hours before the atom bomb is dropped on it -- and the TARDIS disappears.

Either one has the potential to be boring -- unless they tap into the inspirations of the writers of Horrible Histories or History Bites, in which case history is treated comically. For those who want a darker Doctor, comedy is not necessarily a good thing.

AztecsDaleksAndCavemen
AztecsDaleksAndCavemen

I want this in Doctor Who more than anything else. Please please please let me get what I want.


The Romans is one of my favourite stories. I love The Aztecs, Marco Polo, The Reign of Terror and The Crusade.

Muxerman
Muxerman

I think it would be really cool if the Doctor and Clara had an adventure on the Hindenburg. It could play with the historical aspect of it's fateful flight in May of 1937 as well as the Doctor's dilemma to re-write fixed points in time. This way, we could have some insight into the lives of those aboard the zeppelin up until it's last moments and be given a Water of Mars-esque scenario that will test Capaldi's Doctor.

lp229
lp229

An excellent article, Nick.  I think purely historically themed episodes can be done in the new series. The stories, though, would have to manifest themselves as character pieces, much as RTD did wonderfully in 'The End of the World'. This story was an emotionally powerful one that allowed the audience to empathise with Rose to feel her distraughtness of travelling in the distant future. One idea of how to go about writing a historical episode is to bring a modern day companion to a time that is very different from their own. Clara and the Doctor; for example, could be caught up in the events of the French revolution. What was planned as casual trip to Paris turns out to be a nightmare where the Doctor and companion are separated amidst the anarchy of revolutionary France. One of them gets in danger when mistaken for a member of the French ruling elite and it is up to the other to save them before things get to late. The situation can be made more complicated when Doctor loses one of his assets that he is usually able to rely on to save the day, such as a sonic screwdriver, or the TARDIS key. 





DavidBlyth
DavidBlyth

Oh yes, a pure historical, perhaps tying in with a "theme week" on BBC Television regarding a historical event (usually something to do with a war or royalty) and Capaldi's experiance as the Cardinal in the Musketeers gives us a brilliant taster of the kind of authority he could convey to important figures

jmzlink
jmzlink

I've recently watch all the Hartnell and Troughton stories in order and it's such a shame that they stopped doing the historical stories after the Highlanders. Having not seen many of them before, if you'd asked me which ones I was most looking forward to, it would have been the Sci-fi ones that I'd named. What really surprised me was just how good the the historical stories were and how well they'd stood the test of time. Marco Polo, (event in reconstructed form) The Aztecs, Reign of Terror and The Romans in particular are all superb.


I completely agree that it has become a bit of a cliche that it's always an alien threat in historical stories. That doesn't mean that they aren't great stories, but for the sake of variety it would be great if that wasn't always the case. Some people say the show is all about the monsters but you could find plently of monstrous characters from history without the need to look further than our own world.


There are plenty of interesting and mysterious historical tales that could be explored and part of the thrill with some of the early stories comes through the Doctor and his companions hurtling towards something that we know is inevitable, using cunning and guile to avoid getting too caught up in events. It makes a nice change from the Doctor being the centre of attention and that too can be a good thing, just look at Blink.


Romanadvoratrelundar
Romanadvoratrelundar

I agree with this, the current historicals feel less about the actual history and more about the sci-fi enemy. And while there's nothing wrong with that, one thing I enjoyed about the old pure historials was that I actually learned a lot about history from them.

Lrd Masters
Lrd Masters

doctor should return to original idea

Temporal Tomato
Temporal Tomato

The Doctor helping out Poirot? sounds like "Sad Cypress," which had Paul McGann playing a doctor, (with very similar mannerisms as his respective incarnation :P) a title which Poirot would nearly exclusively refer to him with, which made me wonder if it was really 8 undercover, with Poirot knowing his true identity from a  previous unseen adventure. XD                                                                                 One can only dream...



WiblyWoblyTimyWimyMOFFAT
WiblyWoblyTimyWimyMOFFAT

Oh one thing there should be four types of episodes: pure historical events, sci fi on earth, both mixed up, and sci fi on EXOTIC alien worlds! 

gunslinger19
gunslinger19

honestly, I could only imagine this if there was a big time travel element of the episode. for example, someone goes back in time and rescues their great grandfather from a concentration camp, the doctor has to stop him because he is changing the past. otherwise, I worry that the episode might just be the doctor running around some historical setting being chased by guards or centurions or policemen or something similar. an alien villain is generally beneficial for the plot as it gives the doctor a decent mystery to solve or battle to fight. historical humans would really struggle to be a threat to the time lord imo. I suppose crimson horror could have worked without mr sweet, though the story would have to be significantly tweaked. I just worry that narratives would feel forced if the doctor just goes back in time and becomes randomly embroiled in histrorical events. and remember that the doctor change established events so he cant really depose the sherrif of Nottingham or emperor nero

Joe Sipocz
Joe Sipocz

@Andrew_Swallow The thought is that if the doctor isn't interfering/fighting he might be experiencing, observing, teaching or learning. If memory serves, in the historicals the doctor would want his companions to see a specific time and they would get caught up in events/plots/etc. That could still be fun - but the stories would need to be strong to stand up that way, but then they should be strong stories anyway. As they were back in the day.

Joe Sipocz
Joe Sipocz

@MaraBackman Right - although not necessarily good things - but important historically. If it happened, it still happens. If the doctor was there, he doesn't change history, he was always there. I like that your thought that not every story needs to be evil, evil averted. What can be done with some of these: (Can't post URLs - Google The Seven Basic Plots to see what I mean)

Deus_Ex_Machina
Deus_Ex_Machina

You missed Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria for RTD and Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon and Queen Nefertiti for Moffat.

Lrd Masters
Lrd Masters

doctor needs episode as gunpoweder, treason and the plot or something from the interwar period, whichwont be the main enemies alieni



DW_girl
DW_girl

@Lrd Masters Same, but I don't think they'd do it since there is already an Adventure Games based on it.

Heyney
Heyney

The Celestial Toymaker one of the worst? Really?

AztecsDaleksAndCavemen
AztecsDaleksAndCavemen

@Muxerman I think they could do a story set in Canada/US during the twilight years of native American society dealing with colonialism and the question of belonging as European settlers take over.

Deus_Ex_Machina
Deus_Ex_Machina

There' already a book and an Adventure Game about the gunpowder plot.

The Finn
The Finn

@Lrd Masters @TheDreamer  There was the mystery of how Agatha went missing for a week and then reappeared with amnesia – something that really happened in 1926.

Lrd Masters
Lrd Masters

@HopeAbigailMacLeod @Lrd Masters   it's not 'cause there was nothing historic what really happened  that there was  Agatha mean nothing,  doctor needs episode as gunpoweder, treason and the plot or something from the interwar period, which will be the main enemies alieni