Top 10 Historicals (New Who)
Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull counts down the top 10 historical stories of the revival.
“… you can’t rewrite history – not one line!”
The original envision for Doctor Who was for it to be an educational programme for young children. Its lead protagonist, a genial old gentleman would travel through time and space with friends visiting landmark locations in Earth’s history. Nowadays shows like this are rife on CBBC and its sister channel, CBeebies, but back in 1963 youngsters only had talking head documentaries. Events spiralled and soon after a season or so, Doctor Who asserted itself as a science-fiction programme. However the one thing it’s always had in its blood is the historical episode. In the William Hartnell years, historic stories were uniform and they consisted of solely factual characters and situations. In Robert Holmes’ The Time Warrior, the genre pseudo-historical was introduced and it opened the show to a brand new venture.
Whilst my colleague, David has already covered some of the classic era’s historic gems, I will take the slightly easier route and list my top ten favourite historical episodes all in time for Mark Gatiss’ upcoming episode, The Crimson Horror.
Note: I will cover pseudo-historical stories. They will be judged on accuracy, broad picture of the era it’s set in and use of famous/historic people.
10. The Idiot’s Lantern (1950s London)
Although The Idiot’s Lantern successfully captures the feel of the patriotic, royalist and cheerful England at the dawn of a new monarch, it fails in physically showing us this merriment. Aside from the street party seen at the end and the Union Jacks adorning the Connolly household, we only get the ambience from dialogue and frankly, for a historical story, this isn’t enough. Granted, it was a low budget piece but I’m sure they could have pulled a few more tricks in showing us the jaunty London of the post-Elizabeth II reign.
9. The Curse of the Black Spot (17th Century High Seas + Henry Avery)
After multiple rewatches and attempts at producing a valid ‘The Case for…’ article, I never quite managed to like the Series Six yarn, The Curse of the Black Spot. It was amiable enough and quite a fun romp but it didn’t contain any charm, in my view. As amusing as it was to see Amy yielding a cutlass and take on brawny soldiers, I found it a mediocre episode that faded from my mind moments after watching it. Stephen Thompson has done far better than The Curse of the Black Spot – namely last week’s fantastic episode, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Nevertheless, the pirate setting did appeal visually to me. Some panning CGI shots of the ship itself and good FX (wind and rain machines) smartly established that the characters were alone on the high seas. Whilst the real-life galleon used by the production team added another layer of believability. Captain Henry Avery, played by Hugh Bonneville was in fact a freebooter in reality. He isn’t quite as much a well-known figure as say, Agatha Christie so it made no difference if Thompson included a fictional pirate or a real one.
8. The Unquiet Dead (1860s Cardiff + Charles Dickens)
There is probably a strong case of partisanship in the placing of The Unquiet Dead because I absolutely love it. Mark Gatiss’ genius in, including the wonderful Charles Dickens really made the episode so fantastic and Simon Callow portrayed the novelist with elegance and poise. For the first real person to appear in the revived series of Doctor Who, Dickens was a good character to start with as he’s heard of across the globe.
The episode fails in not actually showing us very much of Victorian Cardiff as the Doctor and Rose cover little ground. It isn’t anyone’s fault; Gatiss just chose to include a lot of dialogue and not too much action. This in fact compliments the story more than what we do see, and funnily enough it’s a bit like the setting of a Dickens novel (A Christmas Carol anyone?).
7. Tooth and Claw (1870s Scotland + Queen Victoria)
Tooth and Claw to me is one of David Tennant’s strongest and finest performances. I believe it is the Tenth Doctor’s defining story (‘hint hint’) and it really established the charismatic and cheeky Time Lord we would be getting for the next few years. The opening scene in the TARDIS when Rose and the Doctor spin through the time vortex listening to Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick by Ian Dury and the Blockheads solidified their relationship and you could really see Rose settling with the new face of her Doctor. It also happens to be one of my favourite scenes between a Doctor and a companion.
The action of Tooth and Claw takes place wholly within the grounds of the Torchwood Estate and thus its rather easy for the FX team to mock up the era. If they had just done that then I would have a felt cheated but casting Pauline Collins, as Queen Victoria was a stroke of genius. She perfectly epitomized the opulent empress and I couldn’t have asked for a better actress to portray her. Tooth and Claw may be relatively confined but it still manages to capture the era nicely and provide a scary yet entertaining adventure.
6. Father’s Day (Thatcher Ruled Britain)
Whilst not being as graphically appealing as other historical stories, Father’s Day managed to give us an in-depth look at a family in an England governed by the Conservatives. Rose’s father, Pete, a fantastic performance by Shaun Dingwall, is a man desperate to settle his family’s debt through any scheme possible (“[he’s] a bit of a Del-Boy”). He and his newly wedded wife, Jackie are a working-class couple raising a baby in relative poverty, attempting to make a living. When Pete is killed in a car accident, Jackie is left alone without consolidation. Father’s Day also lay the building blocks for Rose and Jackie’s relationship – and why Jackie is so incredibly loud-mouthed. The situation depicted here isn’t a pleasant one but in the 1980s, it was the truth for some.
Utilizing pro-Thatcher poster propaganda and relatively period costumes, we managed to get a realistic insight into Thatcher ruled Britain.
5. Victory of the Daleks (1940s World War Two + Winston Churchill)
Unfortunately the broad consensus for Victory of the Daleks leans towards the abhorrence. Fans malign it for its unnecessary reintroduction to the Daleks, now multicoloured; another change enthusiasts hate. I am uncertain as to whether I like the story or not and my thoughts change upon every watch. When I do view it, I always marvel how good the BBC have mocked up the bunkers of World War Two. Tiny nuances like rocking the camera and trickling dust from gaps in the ceiling gave the audience a real feel of the British war rooms. The props such as old-style telephones and war cartograms built up a satisfying picture of the era. Sadly, we don’t actually get to see anything outside of the bunkers (other than a great CGI shot of the London skyline) so the visuals only ends there but the hole left is substituted by a certain prime minister.
The youth of today are commonly taught World War Two as a topic in both upper and lower schools. It would be rare for them to not learn of Great Britain’s leader at that time – Winston Churchill. His quotes are good-humoured and often amusing whilst tales of his actions during the war are heroic. Ian McNeice was wonderful casting for the rotund prime minister. He embodied the lionheart’s courage, determination and his stubbornness; when the Doctor tries to explain that Bracewell’s ‘Ironsides’ are really the Daleks, its understandable. Churchill wants to do what he thinks is good for the country and if the Daleks are helping shooting down enemy fighters and the like, then he will keep them there contrary to whatever the Doctor says. If it weren’t for the World War Two setting and incorporation of Winston Churchill, then Victory of the Dalek would have less fans (not that it has many, anyway). It’s the stalwart and his offices that bring charm to an otherwise loathed story.
Honourable Mention: The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Doctor Who’s counterpart, The Sarah Jane Adventures was one that stuck to modern-day settings for the majority of its airtime. Stories such as Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?, The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith and Lost in Time were all unique for placing the Bannerman Road gang in other eras. Lost in Time had our heroes displaced intentionally by the enigmatic Shopkeeper, and the result was an entertaining romp through time. Clyde was left in a picturesque Norfolk seaside village, whilst Rani and Sarah Jane found themselves in 1553 and 1889, respectively. The settings were diverse to say the least and I particularly found Clyde’s World War Two adventures to be the most visually rich and enjoyable.
The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith in my humble opinion, is one of the saddest episodes of the show. It had the malicious Trickster use Sarah Jane’s parent’s death against her, leaving the investigator in a state of sorrowfulness. The backdrop: Foxgrove was your run-of-the-mill and quintessentially English town but although it wasn’t anything special, the change of scenery was refreshing in Series Two.
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