Back when Doctor Who started, it was meant to be an educational show which would teach both history from the adventures where the Doctor and his companions went back in time, and would also teach science in the science fiction element of the show. Recently though, we’ve been seeing a decline in more historically accurate stories, so I’ll be asking the question; are we seeing the end of properly historical episodes?
Let’s start off by me clarifying what I mean by a historical episode; by a historical episode I don’t mean an episode that’s set in the past, as a lot of stories are set in the days of old; by a historical episode, I mean a ‘pure historical’, where more or less everything is factually accurate and maybe only has a few sci-fi twists.
If we look back from the most recent series, Series 9, and go back looking at all the episodes that have taken place in the past, the most recent episode that I would even consider to remotely fit into the category of a historical episode was back in 2011 with Vincent and The Doctor, even then though I’m slightly cautious as classing it as a historical, as we had the addition of Krafayis and the part where the Doctor and Amy brought Vincent to the present day to show him that he would be treasured and remembered. Another story that is almost classed a historical but not quite is The Fires of Pompeii which dealt with this almost apocalyptic historical event, but added a monster in that wasn’t really necessary.
Running with The Fires of Pompeii as a case study for the closest thing New-Who has really come to a pure historical episode; we have to look at why the writers thought that they needed to add a sense of science-fiction with the Pyrovile. The main argument would be that Doctor Who is a science fiction show; but has it ever really been just a science fiction show? When I think of the classic meaning of science fiction, I think of epic space battles and plasma guns and bug eyes aliens; yes, Doctor Who has all these components on a fairly regular basis, but that’s not all it has. Doctor Who has heart, it has history, it has it’s own lore. Part of what makes Doctor Who so great is the fact it almost transcends the need for boundaries, whether it be subject matter, genre of methods of storytelling, Doctor Who can pretty much do whatever the hell it wants. So, in my opinion, The Fires of Pompeii doesn’t really need a monster in it at all; it would have been great if the episode was just the Doctor accidentally landing there and wanting to leave, but Donna begging him to save as many people as he could, because that’s what the Doctor does in her eyes. If anything it would have possibly been a more emotional and more character driven story without any real villain, instead having the Doctor take on the role of the bad guy for once, because he wants to adhere to the laws of time.
The main reason that we have monsters or science fiction elements added to stories set in the past, is because of this notion that the children watching wouldn’t want to watch a story that is obviously there to educate them; but I wholeheartedly disagree with that. The idea that the younger audience would turn off because there’s no big monster or massive explosions is frankly insulting to their intelligence. Countless times when people have been asked ‘Is Doctor Who too scary?’ often the answer is something about you should never underestimate children’s abilities to discern the real from the fantasy; the same argument could be implied about having a historical episode, it wouldn’t go over kids heads, instead they’d probably love the ability to be able to watch an episode of Doctor Who for homework and help them understand about something that they’re learning about in history.
I admit that if you plonked an eight year old kid who’s grown up watching Doctor Who since David Tennant down in front of a TV and put on a DVD of say, The Aztecs, chances are they’d get bored pretty quickly. The stories are long, comprising of multiple episodes, it’s quite slow and it frankly doesn’t date that well (at least in the mind of an eight year old) but that doesn’t mean that the same child wouldn’t love seeing Peter Capaldi watch the American Revolution take place and try and observe rather than interfere. I know that this is a rather stretched parallel, but I feel that making history more fun and accessible whilst still remaining as factually accurate as possible is something that can be achieved with even today. A perfect example of something going on right now that’s proving this point is the Grammy Award Winning musical, Hamilton; a rap/RnB/hip hop musical which tells the story of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. This musical has become so big, so popular and so explosive that a whole new generation of kids are wanting to learn about these people through the power of performance and theatre. Doctor Who can do the same thing; understandably depending on which events in history that the writers and the show chooses to tackle, some liberties may have to be taken, but it would still be educational to all watching it.
Whilst I’m aware that maybe I’m asking this question at the wrong time, with a year hiatus and the showrunner leaving next year; I think the answer’s still pretty clear. Yes, we’ve been seeing less and less historical episodes, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop wanting them, nor does it mean that writers should be put off wanting to write them. Historical episodes are some of the best of Classic Who; it’d totally be a shame for them to not be a part of New-Who too.