Top 10 Historicals (New Who)
4. The Shakespeare Code (Elizabethan England + William Shakespeare)
Some of you may recollect that I am a big fan of Martha’s first adventure, The Shakespeare Code. I find it clinically underrated and that Gareth Roberts manages to produce a wonderful script, sizzling with wit and humour. I recently read his debut book; Only Human (for the Ninth Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack, respectively) and I instantly could see the relations in term of dialogue – Roberts is a fan of including modern references (e.g. the Harry Potter series, twenty-first century television shows) – and comical aspect (nearly all of Gareth Roberts’ work on the series, particularly his Smith era contributions: The Lodger and Closing Time bubble with humour). The Shakespeare Code is no exception and for his first script, it’s really good.
For a historical episode depicting the Elizabethan era, we get an eyeful with the Doctor and Martha racing from Bedlam Asylum to the Elephant Inn to the legendary Globe Theatre. They meet Peter Streete, the architect for the amphitheatre and the playwright himself, so in retrospect, The Shakespeare Code packs a lot into the forty-five minutes it held. We get an idea of the foulness (residents throwing excrement from their homes in the opening scene) and squalor that people lived in. Maybe not enough but I repeat, we got a lot in forty-five minutes.
Dean Lennox-Kelly does an impeccable job as the Bard of Avon, although a lot of the ‘hey nonny nonny’ references/gags do feel forced at times. Notwithstanding this, Lennox-Kelly does Shakespeare justice and I couldn’t have asked for better casting. The many mentions of Shakespeare’s works are nicely interwoven into the script but occasionally you sense that Roberts is trying too hard in cramming in jokes.
In spite of this I find myself enjoying The Shakespeare Code: a neat historical romp for Martha’s first outing, it incorporates a lot of Elizabethan settings and blends them together to form one of the most visually gorgeous historic stories.
3. The Unicorn and the Wasp (1920s England)
Gareth Roberts crops up in my list once more, this time in the much higher second place. His last Tennant story (if you exclude Planet of the Dead, a story he co-wrote with former showrunner Russell T Davies) was The Unicorn and the Wasp, a wonderful historic adventure that fits in nicely into Series Four, between the rather serious The Doctor’s Daughter and the first half of River Song’s dark debut, Silence in the Library. It was a wanted bout of adventure and although it tried to be dark (it succeeded at times. Some of the deaths shown onscreen were rather grisly) it never quite reached this down to the comic elements included.
Using 1920s England as a starting point, the Doctor and Donna arrive at the home of Lady Clemency Eddison just before a delightfully upper-class garden party. Looking back on it, it reminds me of Black Orchid, a severely underrated Fifth Doctor two-parter that is purely historical. It too had the Doctor and his companions appear at a social function uninvited, only to encounter murder and deceit amongst the partygoers. Within minutes someone is killed off and the Doctor and Donna set about discovering the culprit whilst on the quest, losing others at the hands of a murderer with a serious agenda.
The multiple demises (especially in such comic fashion, e.g. Professor Peach’s death in the library with the lead piping) are allowed in this case as the story takes so much off the works of literary goddess, Agatha Christie. Rather than having the novelist’s books only referenced, Roberts went the full way and had Christie included as a character.
The story is so wonderfully British and the exaggerated poshness of the English aristocracy adds so much to it. Fenella Woolgar is superb as the meek author, a woman who believes she is more powerful on paper than in person – as shown in the metal-summerhouse scene between Agatha and Donna. She as well as Felicity Kendall perform magnificently and its fun to see Christopher Benjamin back in Doctor Who as Colonel Hugh Curbishly (Benjamin was last seen as one half of Jago and Litefoot, Henry Gordon Jago in The Talons of Weng-Chiang).
It may be my adoration of this episode clouding my judgement but I really think The Unicorn and the Wasp is a wonderful historical story and the upper crust English characters that star in it make it evermore splendid.
2. Human Nature/The Family of Blood (1913 Pre-World War One England)
There comes a time in every Doctor Who fan’s life when they watch an episode they have previously overlooked and find themselves enraptured by it. That happened late last year to me and the story was Paul Cornell’s second televisual excursion, Human Nature/The Family of Blood.
What really captured my attention was how deeply it went into the Doctor and Martha’s relationship. Because the plot decreed the Time Lord to convert into a perfectly ordinary if oblivious human being, Martha could express her affections towards him. These were mainly jealousy, as the human Doctor – John Smith, a normal schoolmaster – flirted with Joan Redfern, the boarding school matron right in front of Martha’s eyes. Up until this point in Series Three, the Doctor showed no real romantic inclinations to anyone other than Martha (and even then the feelings were so subtle they were nearly nonexistent) so it really hit home to her. The hardship she endured is one many people can relate to today: seeing someone you love dearly involved with someone else.
You’d think that Human Nature/The Family of Blood isn’t a particularly good historical episode and you’re probably right if you think I’m placing it too high up the list. But I believe that whilst not being too visually grand it substitutes images with a superlative script. Cornell manages to express the era superbly in his screenplay – examples: the racial hesitations at Martha’s skin colour, the rude and condescending youths, and the cheeriness of a world [unknowingly] verging on war. Each character is well drawn out and Joan is a personal favourite of mine (I was hoping for more in her sort-of The End of Time cameo but then again we only had fleeting sights of the other friends the Time Lord visited).
Going back to the landscape the drama occurs in: the 1910s English countryside is shown in its full glory – quaint cottages, charming village dances and more prominently, crude scarecrows. The Family’s spaceship is also one that I really adore; the pulsating green lights and protruding oval levers are everything I want in a Doctor Who villain’s ship.
Although Human Nature and The Family of Blood perhaps lacks in terms of backdrop, it compensates with a consummate script that perfectly encompasses pre-WWI England.
1. The Fires of Pompeii (AD 79, Vesuvius Eruption)
When I set out to do this article I comprised a list of historical episodes (the list has since drastically changed). I cast my eye down it and discovered The Fires of Pompeii was in the position of number nine. I asked myself why and the answer was because I don’t particularly like it. I consulted my judgement and concluded that this list is about the best historical stories not the best historical stories by order of preference (I’m probably being hypocritical there). However, after re-watching The Fires of Pompeii, I discovered it’s a fantastic historic gem.
The events of Pompeii in AD 79 are ones that I am surprised Doctor Who didn’t touch on sooner. What happened was a tragedy and the idea of the Doctor travelling back to the day Mount Vesuvius erupted and either attempting or not to save everybody seems almost obvious. When James Moran wrote it, he turned what could have been a simple idea into a multifaceted story about the boundaries the Doctor has in his travels and how he always needs a companion with him (something Amy noted in A Town Called Mercy). It also began the steady maturation of Donna Noble who began the series, in The Runaway Bride as a loud-mouthed Londoner that thinks, “a new flavour of Pringles is the height of excitement”. By The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End she has become a well-rounded individual that has learned from the Doctor (not just through the Doctor/Donna metacrisis but from tutorage by the Time Lord). Her desperate pleas at the end of the story fell on deaf ears but she eventually convinced the Doctor to save someone.
Filming in Italy really helped with the ambience of the whole story and if the episode had been mocked up in a Cardiff studio, it would have completely obliterated the historical aura. It shows some much of that epoch: the market streets and peasantry, the contrasting wealthier district and the inside of the volcano itself.
What some people don’t know is that The Fires of Pompeii includes historical figures as well as a bygone setting. The characters, Caecillius, Metella and Quintus were all real people and thus James Moran uses a historical setting, historical characters and a true-to-life event. That is the justification for putting The Fires of Pompeii at number one. It’s just so wonderfully historic.
Honourable Mention: The Runners-Up.
There are some other corking historicals that didn’t make it into the main list, and I feel its only right to give them a mention.
Vincent and the Doctor – poignant, piteous, and absolutely perfect. Richard Curtis’ encompassment of Vincent van Gogh (played phenomenally by Tony Curran) plus some great performances from Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, and a superb use of the Provence means Vincent and the Doctor is one of my favourite historicals (and episodes) of Doctor Who ever.
A Town Called Mercy – an honest morality tale, a great turn-in from Adrian Scarborough and the incredibly exotic Wild-Western location; A Town Called Mercy is visually stunning.
Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks – the use of the Empire State Building was good, but the cringe-worthy American accents (excluding the lovely Andrew Garfield – nowadays we can’t complain) and the fact the BBC didn’t actually shoot much in the US let DiM and EotD down.
The Girl in the Fireplace – some rather gorgeous sets (Reinette’s boudoir), and a couple of nicely done outdoor shots. To summarize, a great depiction of 18th century France.
The ‘historical’ story has been one that has run through Doctor Who’s blood since its inception, and personally, I feel it should never stop because all of them have proved that the genre is very, very good indeed.
Historicals are often overlooked, and I hope Mark Gatiss makes The Crimson Horror an enjoyable pseudo-historical adventure that showcases some nice sets, period outfits, etcetera and a nicely interwoven sci-fi plot strand.