Doctor Who Series 9: Are Historical Adventures Important again?

Doctor Who Season Nine The Girl Who Died
“Yeah, needles doesn’t it old man?”

The third of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine.

The Girl Who Died had an ominous name, but did its closing moments suggest that the age of the Doctor’s disposable historical romps is over?

ANYWHERE IN SPACE AND TIME, EVERY ONE THAT EVER LIVED. THE PAST IS EVERY BIT AS POTENT AS THE FUTURE WHEN YOU’RE WATCHING A MAD MAN IN A BOX HURTLE THROUGH SPACE-TIME. But while the future offers optimism (or pessimism) infinite for a writer and audience’s imagination to run wild with no constraint, the past brings a different kind of curiosity and challenge. The discovered country, where everything from mysteries to myth, fact to historical figures, form steps to where we are now. If you’re intrigued about visiting the far future or the distant past, it’s a different kind of fascination that draws you to either. Or if it isn’t when you set off, it will be once you arrive.

Historical adventures have been wired into the TARDIS console since Doctor Who’s first serial. Even in their prestigious and epic prime during those early years, some were less enthralling than others. It didn’t take long for the story length to shorten and the educational slant of those slightly loose historical ganders like The Aztecs and The Romans to give way to a science fiction influence. In fact, the last Who historical story of any weight that featured not a toot of a sci-fi conceit was 1966’s The Highlanders – notable for introducing one of the all-time great and, therefore surprisingly, male companions in Frazer Hines’ Jamie McCrimmon, primed to last the entirety of the Second Doctor’s run. The actual last was the slight Black Orchid in 1982, but as that also avoided any historical point of interest it’s easy to overlook.

Historical Intervention

The slice of sci-fi became the de facto way to judge historical adventures…

During the show’s 26 year classic run, historical stories managed to hit a higher bar and avoid derision more often than their futuristic cousins, even though the majority carried at least an edge of science fiction. And that slice of sci-fi became a de facto way to judge them. Even when the classic series got things slightly wrong, many of them proved their staying power. There was the impressive medieval introduction for the Sontarans in Robert Holmes fantastic The Time Warrior, an adventure that pitted the Third Doctor against grumpy barons and castle sieges. Famously a serial where script editor Terrance Dicks recommended that the sceptical Holmes research the period in the children’s section of a library. Not fond of historical adventures was Mr Holmes. When later script editor himself, Holmes would get suitable revenge by commissioning Dicks to craft his own historical story The Horror of Fang Rock around a lighthouse. When Dicks protested that he knew little about lighthouses, it was with a wry acceptance that he was directed to the children’s section of a library.

That was the fourth historical adventure attended by the Fourth Doctor, an incarnation who’d previously had a slam-dunk triple of trips to the past. Those stories had taken him from alien prison escape in the 1910s of Pyramids of Mars to Renaissance Italy and a confrontation with the Masque of Mandragora and then on to battle time fugitives in the Victorian classic penned by Holmes once again, The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Later, the Fifth Doctor would ignite the Great Fire of London and lose his sonic screwdriver in the attempt during The Visitation, the Sixth Doctor would see the industrial revolution backdrop the notable team-up of Academy foes the Master and the Rani in The Mark of the Rani, and the Seventh Doctor would mess around with his companion’s mind in the creepy Victorian mansion of Gabriel Chase in Ghostlight and an equally mesmerising World War II base in The Curse of Fenric. None of those ‘80s tales were the worst of their respective Doctors, in fact some are bona fide classics.

And it’s no surprise that the torch was always held high. Doctor Who after all, is produced by the BBC, and the BBC does period drama like nothing else.

New times

Recently things haven’t been so set in stone

Come the show’s return in 2005, Russell T Davies set a simple template whereby the first three episodes of each of his series would take in the present day, slingshot to the future and then venture to the past. In his four seasons, this took us to the Victorian London of Charles Dickens, the Gothic Victorian Highlands of Queen Victoria, the magickal Globe Theatre of William Shakespeare and then the doomed market bustle of Pompeii.

But recently things haven’t been so set in stone. That saves on predictability in these times of higher concept series openers, but it’s also led to some peculiar off-shoots. A few years ago you may expect the lightweight stories to fall in the present day, while now viewers are steeled for disposable romps in days of yore.

Bringing robotic moves

Robot of Sherwood was a nadir in many ways.

In the build up to this ninth series, 2014’s Robot of Sherwood found a new lease of life, having set a new template for historical adventures that was exponentially more powerful than the quality of its story. Unfortunately, Robot was a nadir in many ways.

That sounds terrible considering the beautiful colour and direction of its opening and general good nature, but the only reason it escaped the scathing split of Kill The Moon was because it could be dismissed as just ‘historical romp’. It was light, regurgitated a lot of well-known jokes around a well-known legend. And then there was that unfortunate edit, necessitated by current British news, but which managed to make the poorly conceived resolution fail even more. Unfortunately it featured robots in the middle of a run of stories about homicidal robots, but it was the villain who suffered the most. A villain possessing a premise and a demise that didn’t make sense, but that we all needed to pretend did so that the story could exist. And when that villain happens to be the Sheriff of Nottingham, one of the greatest screen villains of the past 30 years, that miss is particularly acute. No matter how likeable Tom Riley’s Robin of Sherwood was, it was the killer stroke.

While Series Eight needed some light distraction, the gathering gloom either side of Robot just served to highlight its weak plotting. The Caretaker would later fail in the same endeavour, but this time the robot battling plot wasn’t the issue as much as the story just didn’t feel like Doctor Who.

Missing the ghost ship

The Curse of the Black Pearl had everything going for it

Robot was unfortunate to become the short-hand. After all, there have been romp elements in many historical stories over the past few years, including The Unquiet Dead and Tooth and Claw in the first two series. But at least those carried the threat and hanging emotion of the supernatural, or so it appeared. Robot failed in that, but the damage had already been done under the Eleventh Doctor’s watch, during his irritating service on the good ship Black Pearl.

2011’s The Curse of the Black Pearl had everything going for it, including a fantastic set that could capture the derring-do of a pirate yarn. Just as Robin Hood could bring swashbuckling staircase sword scraps to Who, pirates could set all cannons blazing on a mainbrace splicing slice of buccaneering and cutlass waving adventure. Sadly though, Davy Jones was no match for the whim of the showrunner. Not only did the late relocation of Black Pearl from its berth in the second half of the season leave a string of very similar episodes set in industrial, tower block or hotel settings in its wake, diminishing the flow of the series as a whole. But its new slot disrupted what may be the show’s finest run since it returned. It was odd placement, not only by mocking the finesse of the Davies structure by taking the third episode spot, but also directly following Day of the Moon which had mostly been set in the late 1960s. More damningly, it’s rapidly accelerated production surely led to some terrible errors – most noticeable was the missing pirate, an unforgivable slip in a siege story. But unrelated to its relocation, even with a welcome ghostly foe on board, Black Pearl’s resolution was strangely derivative of the one of the New Series’ greatest historical stories, Series One’s The Doctor Dances. An adventure, unfortunately penned by show-runner Steven Moffat.

So, for all the lightness that accompanied some of the Davies produced trips to the past, it’s fair to say that historical adventure have been slightly underserved in recent years. Partly that’s down to a series more confident in mashing its genre and general timey-wimeyness, an approach that oddly makes categorisation more acute. The well-produced but considerably out of time Day of the Moon is no romp but a fine adventure in spite of its dreadful cliff-hanger jump. Later in Series Six, the World War II set Let’s Kill Hitler is a real romp in the grand Indiana Jones tradition, but one that ties up sharp plotting, huge revelations and twists, misdirection and some heavy science fiction concepts.

In Robot and Black Pearl’s case, they expose the danger of associating romps with history that would never have stuck to the present day opening adventures of the last decade. It’s a slippery slope, where anachronisms could form the plot for one adventure, then be merrily and inconsequentially dismissed in a ‘romp’. In The Girl Who Died, the False Odin’s plan plays a similar trick. Under the Eleventh Doctor, the association of comedy and history was unfortunately exacerbated by Matt Smith’s tremendous gift for clowning around. The historical sketches that kicked off Series Six set the tone– literally pratfalling with Laurel and Hardy or playing out bedroom farces in the Age of Enlightenment. The opening sketches of Series Nine showed how much easier it is to escape the association if those sketches are set in the ‘future’.

Missing the big picture

Where everything went a little off.

It’s worth noting the exceptions to the rule that came in Series Seven, where everything went a little off in the misguided year of blockbuster single-parters. Toby Whithouses’ functional western A Town called Mercy was a superhero blockbuster, just as the 1970s set Hide was a horror story and Victorian The Crimson Horror a sharply directed pastiche of everything from Carry on Screaming to Frankenstein. The dreadful and even more pastiche-laden Cold War was a disservice to its fantastic cast and returning monster as much as it was a token nod to the 1980s.

But for all the experiments and need to break the mould set in the show’s early years, the real reason for the demarcation of historical romps under the Moffat era has been the arrival of the Victorian soap.

Enter Victoriana, linger Victoriana

Horror and Victoriana – the perfect pairing

It’s no coincidence that the Victorian age was the first period that the reborn show returned to. Thanks to the legacy of Robert Holmes and the sheer irresistibility of Victoriana that, Who has dwelt there more than any other time in the past. So successful was the first Series’ The Unquiet Dead that the following year Tooth and Claw would again prove that horror and Victoriana is the perfect pairing, albeit this time removed from the capital city of Wales and plonked in the Highlands of Scotland. However, at this point Doctor Who was laying very real and unprecedented roots in the modern day. The Tyler clan, Sarah Jane’s posse, the Torchwood team were all warming to a superb boiling over point at the finale of Series Four. The past was demarcated, with even Jack Harkness, that fugitive of the only other time that can rival the ‘popularity’ Victorian age, World War II, and his misadventures in the past resigned to asides in the main show.

Those familial connections were wiped out with the prolonged demise of the Tenth Doctor, leaving a gap that the Eleventh wouldn’t start to be fill until the sixth Series. In the middle of that series, A Good Man Goes to War introduced Madam Vastra, Jenny and obliquely Strax, who would form a new family, this time in the height of Victorian London. They’ve returned frequently, their importance proved by their close appearances during the Impossible Girl riddle, the revelations of The Name of the Doctor and then helping to ease the Twelfth Doctor into existence (when he was so preoccupied with the meaning behind his new (old) face…).

In creating this anchor point in the past, other historical romps naturally fell further along the spectrum. This was even more acute during the return to a present day storyline that came with Series Seven’s Clara and Danny travails. That story may have ended the Series run, just as Vastra’s Paternoster Gang started it (with a deep breath), but there seemed little opportunity left for the endlessly cheerful Robin of Sherwood than fall on his comedy sword with a chuckle.

Fires of the Tenth

The sub-genre that the Tenth Doctor was determined to make his own

That brings things round full circle to the Davies era when the soap of the present day had opened up the sub-genre that the Tenth Doctor was determined to make his own. While the Ninth Doctor had met Charles Dickens, his successor became synonymous with the sub-class of celebrity historicals. Particularly taking a shine to royalty, as Jokerside explored at length last year, this ‘marriage’ was so acute that when it came to the 50th anniversary special Day of the Doctor, the only natural place to find the Tenth Doctor was in the midst of a celebrity historical – just as the Eleventh Doctor found himself in a present day time-shuddering pot-boiler. For both types of story, also read definitive Davies and Moffat.

The lesser of these ‘celebrities’, but not banishing it to the status of a non-celebrity historical, of which there were a number, came in Series Four when the Doctor and his companion Donna Noble took an ill-fated trip to Pompeii.

It was Caecilius, Lucius Caecilius Lucundus the real-life banker of Pompeii, who presented a less famous celebrity profile for this historical trip. Although he was key to the episode’s main hook: a message of fate and fixed time. And that’s the legacy that collided full on with Series Nine’s The Girl Who Died. As the Doctor remembered that Caecilius’ main profile, was his own.

In 2014 Jokerside took a close look at James Morans’ The Fires of Pompeii, finding it immensely easy to overlook the time ramifications in favour of the emotional tugs of Doctor and companion in opposition. However, the power of the closing scene wasn’t in doubt:

“It’s strange finish, it almost feels like the closing of a chapter in the second episode of the series. The “Come with me” scene, the Doctor back-lit against the open TARDIS door is monumental – but it oddly bridges the family watching their town burn. For the Doctor it’s another reminder that “Sometimes I need someone” he says and in turn he, Donna and the TARDIS become household gods.” – Doctor Who: Celebrity Histories – “I’m Going to be King. Run!” (Whovember #10 Omega)

When these scenes were replayed in The Girl Who Died, they couldn’t have served a more opposite intention than “Sometimes I need someone”.

Room for paradox

Pyramids of Mars exposed the role of the Doctor in protecting the present we know.

After a previous essay on ontological paradox, there’s little strength to wade back into those murky waters, but fortunately, no need. Instead, the idea of changing the events in a historical adventure often veers far more towards emotion than physics. Historical stories are really where time comes into play through a very personal view point. If it’s Earth and it’s happened, celebrity or not, we can see the outcome just as we can see the remains of Pompeii right now. While Pyramids of Mars exposed the role of the Doctor in protecting the present we know, the show can’t deviate from a present too imperceptible from our own. That’s particular true in the more soap oriented new era and no doubt a challenge to the Zygons invasion coming in a couple of stories time. As the audience already lives in a timeline extending from the events of Earth past, these adventures allows us to relate to consequence, cause and effect far more effectively. But while Pompeii played on this in a very real and family-based way, now the plots been picked up the emphasis is far more individual and unpredictable.

The Girl who Died… Was saved by the Doctor’s message to himself. Written into the lines of his face, after the tragedy of the Twelfth Doctor’s life so far it’s a wonder it took staring into the eel barrel to work it out. Harking back to that fourth series story of changing the fabric of fixed points and movable time, there’s no doubt the insinuation in this case – that this was a moment where the Doctor’s hand was stayed by the rules, just as they were in Pyramids and seemed to be in Pompeii, but this time he chose to move. Such an action comes with consequence. When the Doctor last defied his heritage to become the Time Lord Victorious it was the future of Waters of Mars: an emotional wallop but one restricted to human emotion, mostly because it took place in our future.

What apparently seemed to be a historical pastiche with the Vikings suddenly gained considerable consequence. So, does that mean that historical adventures have the chance to crawl back from their association with Robot of Sherwood? In short, yes.

Minding Midgard and looking to the future

A significant chain reaction?

The Viking setting of The Girl Who Died was clue enough. The Nordic tradition had a nod to 1965’s The Time Meddler. The first time we met a fellow Time Lord, the Doctor ran into a Viking helmet. It also provided the fabric of revenge that ended in 1989’s The Curse of Fenric, one of the Seventh Doctor’s classic stories. As Series Nine has so far taken us to an Essex of 1138, just 28 years before The Time Meddler and the Norman Conquest, as well as an underwater base dripping with Norse symbolism in Under the Lake and Before the Flood, there’s surely no coincidence. Not least with the amount of Who-research currently being pumped into Nordic and Old English translations of the Girl’s name, Ashildr.

And in the best tradition of those Classic Series historicals, The Girl Who Died carried a powerful science fiction conceit, away from the disappointingly derivative plots of Sherwood and The Black Pearl.

Great science fiction conceits must resonate with human experience. In The Girl Who Died we saw that classic encounter of a primitive society with an advanced civilisation. History has recorded that this always results in the elimination of the less advanced society. As man has headed into space, It’s the kind lesson that has Stephen Hawking tutting at the human race’s reckless distribution of ‘Here we are’ maps into the immensity of the universe.

The Girl Who Died, tied straight into that, before the precocious, proud and stubborn girl of the title turned it into the Seven Samauri/Magnificent Seven (depending on which was your first film experience). Still, Doctor Who has a marvellous history of alien cultures interfering with/aiding the human race through time. While some like the Fendahl and the Silents had insidious reasons for tampering or influencing, others simply assumed the mantles of gods, albeit in a slightly less Monty Python way than thee Mire. The Daemons were confronted by the Third Doctor in the present, the Osirans by the Fourth Doctor in the past. While Girl adopted a simple set-up, these were welcome considerations in a story that could otherwise have fallen to the set-up of its final scenes.

Most importantly, next week’s episode is the most telling indication of all. Another historic adventure where the Doctor wanders into the consequences of his actions in The Girl who Died in the England of 1651. Back to back period adventures is a positive resurgence. Far from being the romp it could have been, thanks to a perhaps unnecessary attempt to explain away the show’s casting, The Girl Who Died may be the time and place to start a very significant chain reaction.

One we’ve been waiting almost a Series and half for. Skaros have been rebuilt in that time…

Jokerside’s Series Nine’s essays will continue on 26 October, after a spot of highway robbery …

Read the complete set of Doctor Who Series Nine essays.

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