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Why I Love… Celebrity Historicals

Guest contributor Will Atkinson on why he loves the episodes featuring famous historical figures.

The Unquiet Dead

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.

Madame-De-Pompadour-mylesOff 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.

Doctor-Who-Vincent-and-the-Doctor-Trailer-(10)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.

unicorn-agathaFollowing 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.

The Shakespeare CodeGranted, 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.

Doctor Who Victory of the Daleks Next Time (2)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.

tom-riley-robin-hood-robot-of-sherwoodFinally, 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.

Step back in time...

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170 comments
Con in Sydney
Con in Sydney

I would really love to see a historical featuring Hypatia of Alexandria. I would think she would have made a wonderful companion of the Doctor. In fact he probably would concede that she was smarter than him.

Adric the Genius
Adric the Genius

George Stevenson in The Mark of the Rani.  Ridiculous northern accents, mind you.

TheRiseOfTheTwelfth
TheRiseOfTheTwelfth

I just love that image from Vincent and the Doctor. The beauty of that casting decision wasn't just that Curran mirrored Vincent's own self portrait uncannily, but he acted the part absolutely beautifully. One of my favourite actors to guest star in Doctor Who, truly a fantastic performance. 

Shadestryke
Shadestryke

I would love to see a Children in Need special where the Doctor has to get his band together to beat Bill and Ted in the Battle of the Bands in a winner-takes-all battle for the fate of the Future!

PaddyB
PaddyB

I think an episode featuring the Bronte sisters would be good as there are several different characters for the Doctor to bounce off and much could be made of the gothic and atmospheric setting of the Yorkshire moors.

LucianManole
LucianManole

 Edgar Allan Poe is a good option as there is some mystery surrounding his death;

Oscar Wilde is another option - something might happen to inspire him to write The Portrait of Dorian Grey;

Verne and Wells would both make very strong candidates ( that require no explanations as to why);

Stevenson - would inspire him to write Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde;

P. L. Travers. - MaryPoppins always seemed slightly alien in the books;

Others that pop to mind are Mary Shelley(Frankenstein) ,George III, Louis XIV, Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles ( anything set in Ancient Greece), Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra; and the list can continue; 


PS Gandhi got a novel with the Tenth Doctor and Donna - Ghosts of India -  thoughit would still be nice to see him in a proper episode;

MaraBackman
MaraBackman

Here are my pitches for stories featuring historical celebrities, off the top of my head:


- The Doctor meets H.P Lovecraft and they encounter monsters that inspire Lovecraft to write about eldritch abominations, as well as influence his hopeless view on life.


- A courtroom-drama set in the Icelandic Commonwealth where the Doctor stands accused and is represented by Snorri Sturlusson, who also becomes his drinking buddy as they bond over their mutual scholarly interest.


- The Doctor goes camping with Theodore Roosevelt and has an awesome wilderness adventure.


- The Doctor goes on a fishing trip with Ernest Hemingway and they have whiskey-fueled discussions about aging and the beauty of the sea.


- The Doctor teams up with Nikola Tesla in a story reminiscent of 1930's pulp-scifi.


- The Doctor meets William Wallace in all his 7 ft glory, preferably portrayed by Conan Stevens.


- The Doctor experiences the chaotic years of the Protestant Reformation, in the company of the most famous early-modern cyborg Götz von Berlichingen, the man famous for the "Swabian salute".

Ladydetemps
Ladydetemps

I have a list of historical celebrities I'd like the doctor to meet. Jane Austen, Nelson, WIlliam Wilberforce, Aethelfled (Daughter of alfred the great 'lady of the mercians'), Arsinoe (queen cleopatra's sister), Bouddica, Clara bow.

Calebxy
Calebxy

Nikola Tesla is someone I really want to see on the show! He could show off some of his amazing inventions! 

Doctor When
Doctor When

Mark Gatiss has said he wants to do an episode based around Jane Austen. He shore loves historical figures! Dickens, Churchill and now Robin Hood!

Mercy Reborn2
Mercy Reborn2

I would love to see Ned Kelly or Don Bradman or Marie Antoinette

MatthewSmith2
MatthewSmith2

Gorbachev, Rasputin, some obscure historical figures would be nice, or Castro and Reagan.

LeftCoastFan
LeftCoastFan

Don't forget Albert Einstein in the mini-episode "Death is the Only Answer".

Judy Nash
Judy Nash

Seeing as though there have been no less than two x Robin's of the Hood recently, I was wrapt up in the thought that at least the most recent and handsomest of them all, might have been invited back to become Robot of Sherwood in Dr Who, especially as the good Doctor's Assistant went to School with him - Jonas Armstrong - my one and only cheeky Hero. (not that one has anything to do with the other??)  I read a book, Imagining Robin Hood written by two Historical Detectives but the conclusion of same meant I dubbed them "hysterical detectives" as they established nothing whatsoever to dispel the myth that Robin ever really existed.  In fact the book was mainly about Arthur and Camelot rather than Robin Hood.  I think it took 893 pages to establish - exactly nothing to indicate Robin was anything but a figment of someone's imagination where some good yeoman opposed the evil Sheriff of Nottingham thwarting him at every clever turn in raising revenue to boost his own coffers - much the same as today's politicians, robbing the poor to keep themselves in pocket or building monuments to their own inability and mismanagement of their budgets.

MrRazza is wittily changing his name for each week
MrRazza is wittily changing his name for each week

A note with Richard Nixon, actually. Politically me and Nixon would very much occupy opposite sides of the spectrum, but for once it was really good to see him portrayed a bit more... human-ly than we usually see him. No evil pantomime villain, no excessive paranoia (indeed, the show provides its explanation for some of his apparent concerns for security and such) and no "can-do-no-right". His flaws are pointed out early on, the Doctor's relative disdain for him made clear but no exaggeration. A very balanced, respectful portrayal, and something I would like to see more of in the media (I think a more balanced portrayal of Winston Churchill, but for opposite reasons, is needed more, actually)



Alleigh
Alleigh

I think it would be interesting if they somehow messed up and changed history, something like save a person who was supposed to die. Could have an alternate reality episode or something.

Kathrin Lily Franke
Kathrin Lily Franke

Okay, how about these... 

Einstein, Haendel or Bach, Frederick the Great, Martin Luther (I know there's a short story), Goethe, Elisabeth of Austria and Prince Hamlet (not technically a historical figure, I know, but I love him and I love Shakespeare - blame David for that). 
















Aztecs, Daleks and Cavemen
Aztecs, Daleks and Cavemen

Marco Polo, Kublai Khan and Madame De Pompadour were great because of not being British historical figures and that's a bit different. I think the celebrity historicals should spread out.

MrRazza is wittily changing his name for each week
MrRazza is wittily changing his name for each week

Personally, I would love to see (in no particular order... Ooh, I feel like I'm on Strictly Come Dancing!):

Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Wilfred Owen, Tsar Nicholas II, Gandhi/Nehru/Jinnah, George Orwell, Bismarck, Alan Turing (one that hadn't occurred to me before, but the moment I saw him suggested in the comments I wanted it!), George Washington (or another prominent US Founding Father), Emmeline Pankhurst, would love a return to revolutionary France too, David Lloyd George (he strikes me as a more likely friend of the Doctor than Churchill, for some reason), Eisenhower/MacArthur/Montgomerie, etc., etc.

And, I can reveal, the historical celebrity going home this week is... Ahem, yes, I mean... Obviously, some of these would have to be addressed delicately, and would be challenging to deal with, but I don't think that's impossible. Nixon is a good example of a figure who was dealt with using remarkable impartiality, and, ultimately, it is a wishlist!




roverthedamndog
roverthedamndog

A few ideas for historical characters that the Doctor could encounter:

Oscar Wilde ( which would also serve to annoy the Daily Mail types who think that the show is part of a 'gay agenda')

Emeline Pankhurst (which will further annoy those who think that the BBC is too PC)

Aleister Crewley (Imagine if the self procliamed 'Great Beast' has to choose and ends up on the side of good)

Thomas Edison ( he could nick ideas for inventions in the same way Shakespeare took ideas for plays from comments from the Doctor)

Benjamin Franklin (one of most extraordinary men to have ever lived)

H.P. Lovecraft (just because.)

Oodkind
Oodkind

I'm surprised Da Vinci hasn't been done yet. I would enjoy that. How about Beethoven? Maybe Aristotle or someone like that?

WillAtkinson1
WillAtkinson1

Thanks for the wonderful comments everyone, I'm glad you enjoyed it....sorry, people from Hull.

Liana21
Liana21

Julius Caesar, Hypatia, Boudicca (look here we coincide), Isabel and Fernando of Spain, Ambroise Parè (one of the most important Doctors in history), Freud

The Finn
The Finn

@Calebxy The episode could even feature something from the War of Currents, in which Tesla had a small part.

ChrisWalton1
ChrisWalton1

@Alleigh downside to that being we've already seen that happen in Father's Day, and again in The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith 


all the same, what's the harm in doing a spin on that with saving someone famous who died... for some reason John Lennon popped into my head there...

Aaron the Whovian
Aaron the Whovian

@Kathrin Lily Franke you should look into the Doctor Who book "The Shakespeare Code", a fictional book where the doctor and companions are shown in interactions with shakespeare and his plays, going on to inspire them in a couple different ways even


HitchcockWhovian
HitchcockWhovian

@Oodkind  City of Death in 1979 kind of conerns him, though correct me if I'm wrong - we never actually see him (though we pay a visit to his house). 

nparker
nparker

@Oodkind Aristotle would be very interesting! Although, I probably have just decided that from my RS studies. A Da Vinci could have a plot about his famous invention diagrams being used for evil ends, maybe?

YaelMoise waits for the trees to take over
YaelMoise waits for the trees to take over

@WillAtkinson1 That was an absolute joy to read. You have a definite flair and an undeniable eloquence. I was having fun all the way through it. 

Admittedly, my appreciation for the article was helped along by how much I agree with every single bit of it... but I still think it was awesomely written all the same. :) 

One minor quibble: I remember reading up on Fires of Pompei and it said that the Caecillus from that episode isn't the Latin class Caecillus. Different name, different person. -_-




WillAtkinson1
WillAtkinson1

I was going to put Leeds, but I didn't think it scanned as well....sorry, people from Leeds.

Kathrin Lily Franke
Kathrin Lily Franke

@Aaron the Whovian @Kathrin Lily Franke Oh, yes! It's definitely one of the next books I'll buy. Two of my favourite things together... how can I resist? And not only because I've got a little cross over (well, maybe not that little - and I may not be the first to think of it) in mind.                                                                                                          I also think something more along the lines of Wuthering Heights would work better with this Doctor, tone-wise. Unless they want to make a point of it. What I've read of Austen so far doesn't seem to fit Twelve very well, but I'd love to see what they can make of it. Or they could use Stevenson - Scottish, it'd fit right in... Or Conan Doyle.





They're all my favorite Doctor
They're all my favorite Doctor

@nparker @Oodkind There's a very non-subtle (and plot centric) reference to the Doctor already having a friendship with Da Vinci (he isn't seen on screen, but The Doctor writes him a note) in City of Death, so it would be interesting to see that picked up onscreen.

WillAtkinson1
WillAtkinson1

Wow, thanks for the lovely comment.Yeah, I got the Caecillius thing wrong, but hey, apart from that...lol. Thanks again, and I hope you enjoy whatever I write next just as much.

LGwalchmai95
LGwalchmai95

@WillAtkinson1 You could have said Carlisle. If Doctor Who has taught us one thing, it's that the opposite of bliss is Carlisle!

WillAtkinson1
WillAtkinson1

Yeah, I thought about Carlisle, but Hull was chosen as Britain's Crapest Town a few years back...sorry, people from Hull.

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  1. […] Why I Love… Celebrity Historicals … 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 … Read more on Doctor Who TV (blog) […]