Why I Love… Celebrity Historicals
Guest contributor Will Atkinson on why he loves the episodes featuring famous historical figures.
Ah, the Celebrity Historical. Since Doctor Who’s return in 2005, their appearances have become far more frequent and expected than they ever were in the Classic series. Not that there were never any before – Timelash includes someone who is vaguely similar to H.G.Wells, The Romans had a man who shared his name with Emperor Nero and Marco Polo featured Kublai Khan and some Venetian bloke who’s name escapes me. What I’m trying to say is that in the Classic Series, there were never really any stories built around a famous historical figure (apart from the previously mentioned Venetian chap). At worst, their appearances were incidental (the geniuses in Time and the Rani), inaccurate (H.G.Wells in Timelash, though Timelash is my own guilty pleasure of a favourite story) or played for laughs (Nero in The Romans, though The Romans is a wonderful story, in the way Time and the Rani isn’t).
So the idea of having an entire story based around the life, interests and experiences of a certain well known individual from the past* has only really come into its own with New Who. Now they are a staple of the show, with one cropping up pretty much every year, or if not there is normally at least a story featuring a famous person.
Off the top of my head/Google, they are (these are stories featuring the person in a major role, not a cameo): The Unquiet Dead (Charles Dickens), Tooth and Claw (Queen Victoria), The Girl in the Fireplace (Madame De Pompadour), The Shakespeare Code (…take a wild guess), The Fires of Pompeii (Caecillus and family…well they’re famous if you’ve done the Cambridge Latin Course), The Unicorn and the Wasp (Agatha Christie), Victory of the Daleks (Winston Churchill), Vincent and the Doctor (Vincent Van Gogh), The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (President Nixon and Neil Armstrong’s foot), The Curse of the Black Spot (Henry Avery), Let’s Kill Hitler (….does he count as a celebrity?), Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Queen Nefertiti), The Day of the Doctor (Elizabeth the 1ST) and this week’s Robot of Sherwood (though it can be said that Robin Hood doesn’t count, as he’s not real). Blimey, that’s more than I thought there were. It’s possible to argue that the greatest measure of something’s success is whether it can be repeated successfully, and the concept of the Celebrity Historical certainly holds up to that measure.
This leads me onto my main point: why I personally love Celebrity Historicals. There are several reasons, but to start with I have to say that I like them because of their sense of fun. They have been on occasion rather dark and grim and other words that could be used to describe how a summer holiday to Hull would make one feel (if you live in Hull, you may sue me if you want to), with The Curse of the Black Spot especially bringing out these kinds of reactions in fandom. But on the whole, Celebrity Historicals tend to be reasonably well-received, though often not in an overtly positive or negative way. But that’s why I like so many of them- they’re not trying to be flashy, or deep. They’re not trying to be regarded as classics. They present a good story that normally fills its 45 minutes well and gives an enjoyable insight into the life of its main figure.
Following on from this is my second point: information. You may have heard about how Doctor Who was originally supposed to be as educational as it was entertaining, and though that priority may have been lost from the show’s remit, Celebrity Historicals tend to be excellent introductions into the lives of persons from the past with which the audience may not be familiar. I personally wasn’t very familiar with the lives of Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie before they appeared in Doctor Who, and I’m not sure many would have known much about Madame de Pompadour or Queen Nefertiti. Yet after their appearances I feel that I have a reasonable understanding of who they were or what they were like.
Granted, I don’t think it’s possible to claim that Doctor Who gives a perfect representation of the people it features, but I certainly feel that it gives a good enough one to be of some considerable merit. I’ve even heard of The Shakespeare Code being used by teachers to explain about the Bard, or Victory of the Daleks being used to show the Cabinet War Rooms and the Blitz. Surely then, this demonstrate that there is at least some method to my madness- there’s no better way to evaluate whether my ideas about their educational properties are true than by showing that they’ve actually been used in education. I was even once shown The Fires of Pompeii in a Latin lesson, though, as I said earlier, it’s not really a Celebrity Historical.
Another factor in why I’m particularly fond of Celebrity Historicals is because of their great variety. Since they properly came into the play with the show’s return, we’ve had a veritable cornucopia of individuals, ranging from writers (Dickens, Shakespeare and Christie) to politicians (Churchill and Nixon) to monarchy (Queens Victoria, Nefertiti or Elizabeth). I love how the format can fit so many different people, and how the show has so often managed to build a story around the character and experiences of its taken figure. Also, the format of the episode itself can change. Although the word ‘historical’ suggests a story set, well, in history, we’ve had stories taking the person and putting them in a whole new environment and style of episode, such as with the aforementioned Neffie in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, or the fusion of 18th century romance and high concept science fiction that sat at the heart of The Girl in the Fireplace. This shows what I meant by variety – a Celebrity Historical can really be anything, not just simply a tale taking a long time ago.
Finally, a major factor in my affection for this format is that I personally feel they are superior to other episodes set in history, primarily due to the fact that I believe that by having a famous person in the story it gives the tale a centre point to revolve around, an anchor that provides it with a clear and precise core. Other stories set in history, especially if set in a period that the viewer is unfamiliar with, can suffer from having too much world-building and ends up overloading those watching with too much new knowledge, or they can have too little, and lack the necessary explanation that a viewer without a great knowledge of that era may need. The joy of the Celebrity Historical is that, in my view at least, it negates those problems by focusing its interests on a single person, allowing those watching to see how the Doctor and co react to them, and how the individual reacts to their surroundings, rather than by trying to throw these characters into a different time and hoping that those watching, especially if they are younger, can keep up.
In conclusion, the Celebrity Historical is my favourite format for an episode set in the past, and I hope that they continue long into the future (that’s kind of ironic, if you think about). Personally, I’d most like to see a story featuring Tutankhamen (with giant alien locusts, because I’m five years old) or ….er….well, I can’t think of one actually. If you can, feel free to tell me in the comments.
*That’s a long-winded way of saying Celebrity Historical. Humour me; I had a thesaurus for breakfast.