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.
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.
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. Continue reading “Doctor Who Series 9: Are Historical Adventures Important again?”