Top 5 Historicals (Classic Series)
David Selby counts down the top historical episodes from the classic era.
Whatever you say about the classic series, you simply can’t fault its creativity and historical accuracy when it comes to its past-based episodes. In fact, during the Hartnell era, almost all episodes set in the past were pure historicals, meaning that they featured no kind of alien threat at all!
In this article, I’m going to count down, based on what I’ve seen so far, my five favourite classic historical serials. Let the countdown begin…
5. Ghost Light
I find McCoy’s performance of the Doctor critically underrated, and always have. Ghost Light is the epitome of his incarnation of the Doctor: witty, dark and enigmatic. Ace, meanwhile, was clearly in her early days; she was more of a rebel than in later stories, and her backstory revolved around a shameful event in her past which didn’t bear a good impression on her. But the way the pair bonded allowed for some interesting developments on both characters; the Doctor coming clean about his fears: “I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places. Full of lost luggage and lost souls.” It demonstrates how quintessentially alien the Doctor is because he’s unnerved by things which we wouldn’t even consider. He has a deeper psyche and more complex morality than anyone else, and Ghost Light shows this in a number of aspects.
The villain, Light, meanwhile, is a fascinating creation, with an air of ethereality about it. It’s perfect for what is essentially a chilling ghost story with some brilliant twists. In historical terms, it shows a good understanding (albeit one tackled lightly) of the two contrasting theories of evolution from that era. Ghost Light’s a fine story. I’d highly recommend it.
4. The Curse of Fenric
An accurate pseudohistorical-horror with a strong mythical basis, Seventh Doctor story The Curse of Fenric was set during the Second World War at a base intercepting German messages. The historical facet of the episode was exact in every detail; informative, stimulating and well-realised. The monsters, vampire/zombie like creatures called the Haemovores, were some of the scariest monsters ever in Doctor Who, with an almost paranormal air to them.
Meanwhile, Ace (who had grown in maturity since Ghost Light)’s backstory was imaginative and introduced the idea of meddling with one’s own past (already addressed in the classic series, but it was a refreshing change from the norm nonetheless). It made for a bittersweet end to the story where Ace realised that the child who she’d grown attached to and cared for was in fact her mother who she’d grown to hate. Ace being one of Fenric’s Wolves also deserves a mention. This was definitely Ace’s story. It was ace (I promise I won’t use that pun again).
3. The Aztecs
This was the first time meddling with causality was addressed, and it was done so with caution and precision. It didn’t require any surplus villain or clichéd murders; it was simply an educational and absorbing piece of drama. It was primarily a character piece, teaching of the Doctor’s principles, and Barbara’s compassion.
Meanwhile, there was action, poignancy, and even romance. The Aztecs was a classic all-round story suitable for all, which raised a number of questions to the viewer.
2. The Talons of Weng-Chiang
I’m sure most of you will agree with me that this is one of the ‘great’ classics; grand and ambitious in scope, and intricate and complex in storytelling. Every part embraces the narrative tension to pull the viewer through. To me, there’s not a dull moment. The characters are deep and very watchable (not to mention well-acted); H’sen Chang is a sinister antagonist with a fine twist to his story, Mangus Greel is a strong character with clear ambitions, whilst all the side-characters have a decent part to play in the narrative. Leela’s at her best, too; used for purposes of juxtaposition mainly. The racism accusations are ridiculous; it’s simply showing how groups in society can be influenced by a mendacious Svengali. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a masterpiece.
1. The Time Meddler
That was a surprise, wasn’t it? I’m sure Season 2 episode The Time Meddler was the last serial you expected to see in first place. In fact, I’d imagine you’d probably forgotten it completely.
I find The Time Meddler to be a preposterously underrated classic serial. It excels in many areas. For a start, it’s one of Vicki’s best outings, as she moves up in status. Ian and Barbara’s departure in the episode’s predecessor, The Chase, isn’t forgotten, and shapes how the central characters act. The narrative’s ‘problem’ arises when the Doctor and the companions are separated. It’s a fantastic move because it gives the companions independence and shows how they act under pressure.
Furthermore, it focuses on an interesting period of history. The Viking invasion and the Anglo-Saxons are portrayed perfectly. There’s nothing that feels out of place or anachronistic. The Meddling Monk, meanwhile, was a wonderful supporting character: sly, clever, and manipulative; the Doctor’s first intellectual equal (and coincidentally the first Time Lord other than the Doctor to ever star in Doctor Who – no, before you ask; Susan’s a Time Lady).
The Monk’s idealistic visions of history are proof of what sheer determination is capable of. You’ve got to question the scenario for a minute – maybe the Monk could make the world a better place – maybe it would be better to let him make the universe that little bit kinder. He’s one of the greatest adversaries in Doctor Who because you simply don’t know whether or not to like him. In the ending, though, based on the Doctor’s previously-established wisdom, we learn that the Monk is not to be trusted. The punishment is harsh, and it’s not an area of history I’d want to stay in. I wonder whether the Doctor ever came back for the Monk.
I would highly recommend giving The Time Meddler a watch or even a re-watch. Recently it’s overtaken The Chase as my favourite William Hartnell serial and it’s one of my favourite stories of all time: it’s perfection.
The War Games – Gives a brief insight into several different periods of history. Showcases the brutality of war. In short, is phenomenal, but that’s not necessarily the historical aspect. That just helps.
The Time Warrior – Fun, clever and well-paced. This was a perfect introduction to Doctor Who’s most influential companion and would definitely make sixth place.
The Horror of Fang Rock – Atmospheric, eerie and captivating; one of the better stories of the Williams era – even funny at times.
The Pyramids of Mars – A lovely mythology tale that leaves the Doctor in a position of complete hopelessness. Sadly, the menu on my DVD is messed up, so I haven’t been able to watch it properly since I first viewed the episode on TV.
Silver Nemesis – Haven’t seen it in a while, but it’s a great serial. Realistic and captivating historically, plus with some fascinating ideas, and good effort to put a dark spin on the show.
There are some others I haven’t mentioned, and indeed some I haven’t even seen. There are numerous historicals in the classic series and each worthy of acclaim. The gems don’t just come from New Who.