Tonight is Bonfire Night, an important day in British history and one which is well worth remembering. I’ve already talked about Bonfire Night before, but today I’m going to use the occasion to talk about the Doctor Who pure historical.
I’ve been thinking for a while as to why Doctor Who hasn’t done a story set around the Gunpowder Plot, and I was struggling to come up with a strong sci-fi plot to go with the setting. Then, having seen the historical stories in the First Doctor era, I stand by my point even more, with a slight amendment: Why hasn’t the show done a pure historical in ages?
The revived series has dabbled in the past loads. From Charles Dickens to Vincent van Gogh, the Blitz to Vikings, Pompeii to Agatha Christie, the show has used the show to tell great stories based in the past, however all the stories have used alien threats. There was a time in the show when the historical stories had no sci-fi elements, merely educating the audience about the area of history the TARDIS crew has landed in. Examples of these stories are Marco Polo, The Aztecs, The Reign of Terror, The Romans, The Crusades and The Gunfighters.
These stories were in the early years of the show, when the show was trying to figure out exactly what it wanted to be. One week the Doctor would be fighting giant ants, the next he would be in the court of Richard the Lionheart. The historical stories proved to not be as popular as the sci-fi stories, so they were written out in the Second Doctor’s second story The Highlanders, with the only return being the Fifth Doctor story Black Orchid. All other stories set in the past had sci-fi elements, such as The Time Warrior, The Visitation and countless new series stories. Despite their unpopularity at the time, the historicals are well regarded now by fans, with many clamoring for a return to the genre that the show had for the first few years of its life. Many historicals which have been wiped from the archives such as Marco Polo and The Crusades are very popular.
So what’s the case for? Well, as somebody who would like to see the genre of Who return, as I am a history fan and a huge fan of the historical stories which have survived (The Aztecs in particular is a favourite of mine). In fact any story set in the past pretty much has my seal of approval, pure historical or otherwise. I feel like having a pure historical would be a very daring move and very interesting to see. If done well it could go down as a classic. After all, it’s only going to be one story. If the audience don’t like it, move on. If it works however, more interesting stories could be told. It is kind of predictable in the new series for their to an alien threat. Wouldn’t it be great if the Doctor thought there was one and it turned out there wasn’t? However, the setting needs to be interesting enough to justify the lack of sci-fi. Linking back again to the Gunpowder Plot- the Doctor and co end up in the cellar of Parliament, ending up being arrested on suspicion of treason as they were found next to the gunpowder. Cue a race to prove their innocence, catch the perpetrators and get back to the TARDIS. No aliens needed. Then the week after we can have a base under siege with giant mosquito monsters. How about a story set in World War One? Or the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt, with the Doctor inspiring a teenage Richard II to stop the revolt? The BBC have so many historical TV shows, so a historical Doctor Who story would attract a wider audience than a regular one.
There are however several arguments to be made against the format returning. One is that the format is outdated and wouldn’t sit well with the faster pace and bonkers monsters of the new series. I don’t see this though- Doctor Who has been very experimental recently. We had a story with no monster (Listen) a found footage story (Sleep No More) and a story with only one main character (Heaven Sent). Audiences don’t care what the story is like, as long as it’s good. The Woman Who Lived was almost a historical until Lenny the Lion popped up, as was The Unicorn and the Wasp, although removing the wasp would basically make it Black Orchid again. The new series has come close- it just needs the courage to go that one step further.
Big Finish has done some pretty great historicals, such as Doctor Who and the Pirates and The Marian Conspiracy. There was also a Sarah Jane Adventures story called Lost in Time where Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani are sent back in time on a quest. The Doctor Who fandom is accepting of almost anything, provided it sticks with what we love about the show. The pure historical was one of the very earliest formats of the show, and enough time has passed to show that modern audiences will be accepting of it if done well. I for one would love to see this format return.