Hello and welcome to In Too Deep Into Doctor Who, where I over-analyse my favourite TV show.
Marco Polo. The Aztecs, The Reign of Terror. The Romans. The Gunfighters. All great Doctor Who historical stories that featured no unearthly elements whatsoever. All stories where the Doctor and his companions are stuck in some period of Earth’s history and have to somehow escape before they’re killed by the locals. And honestly, The Aztecs still ranks as one of my favourite Doctor Who stories (even if I am judging it more by the novelization than the actual TV story). But the last one of these happened way back in 1966 and have just never been popular since then. Why is that? Are they just that undoable? Or could we possibly see a return of these in the future? Well lets find out.
So first off, lets define the historical. The historical, as mentioned in the introduction, is an Earth-based story that features no aliens or the like. Certainly this is true from the Third Doctor onwards, since the only story that could be said to have no aliens is The Silurians (since the Silurians aren’t aliens, but Earthlings, that being the entire point of the story). Since then, aliens have been involved in pretty much every story. But why is that? Well as oft been documented, Doctor Who was always meant to be a somewhat educational show… At least it was, until some bug-eyed monsters came rolling on screen shouting ‘exterminate’ and pretty much changed the course of history. But since the first season was already well underway, the historicals hung around. And those first few historicals were fantastic. Marco Polo will always be that lost story that is no doubt fantastic (even if it looks naff by the time we finally see it), The Aztecs is a genuinely compelling tale of white colonialism vs the rights of the natives (okay, so it’s the theme park version of South American cultural history, but there are debates to be found within the text if one wanted to look), and The Regin of Terror is pretty okay. Even the next round, featuring the likes of The Romans (a strange comedy piece), The Crusades (lost to time, but the novel was pretty good, all things considered), The Myth Makers (which I have no real comment on, since it’s lost to time and I’ve not got round to reading it), The Massacre of St. Bartholomew Eve (if the novel is anything to go by, this is a tale far darker than anything seen in the modern series), The Gunfighters (another strange comedy piece that mostly works), The Smugglers (again, one I’ve never read nor seen) and finally, featuring The Second Doctor, The Highlanders (famous for both being the last pure-historical and the first to feature fan-favourite companion Jamie). So that’s pretty much the history of the historical. They were a fad in the 60s that quickly died out when the whole ‘monster of the week’ formula became popular, especially when the Third Doctor was stuck on Earth and couldn’t go being stranded in the past any more. But, in a strange way, The Highlanders is not the last historical. One more exists: Black Orchid. Wholly forgettable if it wasn’t for its place as the ‘last historical’, it plays on the idea that there could be an alien menace, but ultimately there isn’t one (in reverse of the much better The Time Meddler, which starts off being a historical but quickly reveals to have been a ‘monster of the week’ story all along). So historical stories are done and dusted, right? The Doctor being caught up in a foreign time period and having to survive the locals is something that just doesn’t get done any more, right?
Well… no. At least, it’s not that cut and dry. When we think of historical, we think of it in pure ‘story set in the past featuring no extraterrestrial beings’. But why do historicals need to be set in the past? When one thinks about it, why couldn’t the brilliant The Waters of Mars be a historical as well? Sure, it takes place in the future, but the Doctor confirms this to be an established event of history. A ‘fixed point in time’, as he often calls them. A point where time can’t be changed. This is echoed very much by the Doctor in one of the early historicals: â€œYou can’t change Barbara. Not one line!â€. This seems at odds to who the Doctor is, given how much he interferes. But, being a Time Lord, he can no doubt see the difference between fixed and fluxed points in time the same way we simple beings can see the difference between water and ice. But lets break down the historical, and see how it matches with The Waters of Mars.
Important historical event: Check. The first Mars base is vital to the further exploration of humanity, as is the deaths of its crew.
The Doctor is trapped: Check. The Doctor is trapped not through a loss of the TARDIS (as was often used in the early stories, to justify why the Doctor didn’t just bugger off when things got dangerous), but by his own curiosity and altruism. In many ways he wants to leave, but he just can’t bring himself to do so.
Time cannot be changed: Check. As mentioned before, Barbara couldn’t change history to stop the Aztecs from committing human sacrifices. Likewise the TARDIS crew could never stop anything from happening in the past that would cause such big changes. The same goes for here. The Doctor can’t do anything to save the crew, otherwise he risks altering the future in a dangerous way. Once again, the Doctor is at the mercy of history.
There are no extraterrestrial threats: Check. The water beings lived on Mars, after all. As far as they were concerned, the humans were the invading beings. Likewise, the story exists in a period of time where aliens are not as fanciful. In some stories, the aliens are placed on the same level as humans. They’re not invading beings, they are beings that live with humans. Or, in this case, beings that fight against humans. But the alien invasion story doesn’t hold true here, since it makes perfect sense within the time period in which it’s set.
So The Waters of Mars is, for all intents and purposes, a historical. The same can go for the second episode of the New Series, The End of the World. Sure there are aliens and whatnot, but we’re set in a point of time where this doesn’t matter. They’re not aliens, they’re just beings on the same level of acceptance as humans. The story involves the Earth being destroyed with the Doctor being unable to stop it. It’s a historical event he can’t prevent. His only goal is to survive the event, since he is once again trapped from his TARDIS (due to his altruism, once again). So the concept of historicals has never really ended, but rather subtly evolved as the show went on. It combined the popular concept of the alien (since that’s what the public loved), but kept within the rules established within the historical. Even the latest series is following this, with Kill the Moon being essentially another historical story. But what about the ‘pure historical’? Will we ever see it again?
While unlikely, I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. At some point a writer might decide to have history by the enemy of the episode, and take out all the alien features. Have it be as simple as the Doctor landing in a period of the past and having him trying to get back to the TARDIS to leave. The closest we’ve come to this so far is Vincent and the Doctor, if only because the monster in it is essentially pointless. In fact, to digress, that is one story that would have benefited from not having a monster at all. But I wouldn’t say it’d never happen again. There is always the possibility that one writer brings it back and, hopefully, one eventually does. We can hope, can’t we? Until then, lets enjoy what we’ve already got.
So there you have it. A look at a genre of Doctor Who that has all been forgotten by this point. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.