Confession #36: I'd Love to See More Pure Historicals

I've talked before about why I love the black & white era of the show, but one thing that I would really like to see make a comeback is the "historical."

To clarify, a historical (as opposed to a "pseudohistorical," of which we've seen a great many in the post-Hiatus era) is a story in which the Doctor and his Companions arrive at some point in Earth history, and are swept up in events of the day without there being any science fiction element to the plot. (Once the s.f. element creeps in, that's when the pseudo- gets tacked onto the classification.) If you've never seen one, that probably just means you're not very familiar with One's stories. All but two of the pure historicals were during his tenure (Two's second story The Highlanders and the very short Five story Black Orchid being the other two).

Admittedly, sometimes the stories got a little didactic (it was, after all, the original intent of the program to educate), but there's something in the pure simplicity (if a Doctor Who plot can ever be described as "simple") of a historical that really appeals to me. They form the basis of what we'd recognize today as the claim that there are "fixed points in time"; that "time can be rewritten," except when it can't. Multiple times, the First Doctor and his friends ended up smack in the middle of some big event - the French Revolution, the Crusades, the shootout at the OK Corral - and just had to find a way to get through it without losing their lives.

Audiences today tend to expect something different from their Doctor Who, and there are probably plenty of folks out there who would argue that the time of the pure historical is long gone. I, however, believe that it could still be done effectively, if handled carefully. While I don't really care for the message that humans are the worst monsters of them all, it has been done (e.g., in Torchwood's Series 1 story Countrycide (an episode I hate with a fiery passion)) in a way that keeps the audience engaged because we expect there to be an alien explanation for the horror. The surprise comes when there isn't.

What if, instead of horror, it was just a puzzle? There's some sort of intrigue that ensnares the TARDIS crew, and they're all sure someone (Daleks? Silence? A purple-bellied snortlewhacker?) is behind it. Every little twist and turn brings them into ever more danger, but the alien menace never emerges. The tension comes in because they know how the events played out historically on the larger scale, but in the lives of these bit players ("regular people" - the ones who prove the Doctor's still "never met anyone who's not important"), they have no idea how events might lead to the known historical destination.

I, for one, would love to watch an episode like that. Again, I'm not advocating another humans-as-monsters story (I get enough of that in the daily news, thankyouverymuch), but more of a behind-the-scenes intrigue - a sort of "all for the want of a horseshoe nail" cascade of events that explains the historical event in a new light. I really believe there's potential for a fabulous story there.

Of course, that's going to be a hard sell to the production team, which is a shame. I suppose I'll just have to accept the fact that historicals really are history.

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Comments

I sure wish they would bring back the historical! It has been drilled into the heads of every student and adult that history is boring. I taught at the college/university level, and I would have the students introduce themselves. Almost always, they stated that they hated history and found it boring. Such a pity.

I wish they would return to these early types of historicals. What I wouldn't do to see "Marco Polo," or "The Crusades," especially!

By TREE (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I pine for Marco Polo, in particular - the costumes and sets were apparently over-the-top lush. ~sigh~

It really only takes a spark of connection to make history interesting. You have to have lived a bit of it yourself, I think. :) But getting involved in a story within an important period of history is a great way both to teach some of that history and pique the initiate's interest. When it's relatable, you want to know more.

I still think it could be done well, if only they'd try.

By mrfranklin

I absolutely love the Family of Blood two parter!!! Maybe because I think that Harry Lloyd (Jeremy Baines on the episode and also the name of a wonderful silent comedian) was an excellent villian, but I LOVE that time period - right before and during the Great War!!!

I feel 1913 was portrayed very well, set in a boy's school in the country. Jessica Hynes (formerly Stevenson - ever see "Spaced?" - so brilliant, she and Simon Pegg) was so good in it, too, and the entire concept of the Time Lord being human, setting us up for the Master, I don't know, liked it in general. Maybe because it is one of my favorite time periods. It's the calm before the storm, the coming War, and they demonstrated that as well. I know it had that sci-fi element, but it really had a historical feel to it as well - at least as much as any during the post-hiatus period. Tennant was so stern as the schoolmaster, allowing beatings to take place, and Hynes as the school matron, it just felt like the early 20th century. Like I said, could have done without the sci-fi, then we would have had a TRUE historical, but... it was 2007, so I expected it, and the evil Baines made up for it. :-)

I know I can't expect "The Aztecs" or "The Reign of Terror" these days!

By Tree (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

There was enough there to spark some interest in the period, certainly.

Personally, I like that one because it allowed us to see Tennant play a different role. It really drove home for me how much acting was going into his portrayal of the Doctor. That's easy to forget. :)

By mrfranklin

Right, Tennant is a truly amazing actor! You are right, it allowed us to see how good he was. It wasn't just him being campy week after week, he was actually acting. I don't know if it came through it my gushing post, but it is one of the reasons I loved the episodes. David Tennant was John Smith. An honorable man, but not always likeable in terms of modern values.

By Tree (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I like the incomplete serial The Enemy of the World (with Troughton) for similar reasons - two very different characters!

By mrfranklin

Wouldn't it be fantastic if the programme went back to it's remit. Some time ago we brought a DVD called "Horrible Histories", a BBC programme where history is taught in a very engaging manner. It is so engaging that the DVD has been borrowed by the history teacher at my childrens' school and used in lessons there. Now if there was a programme made for kids that adults enjoy, then there it is. The point I am making, is that history can be taught in a way that engages the student. Horrible Histories has managed it and there is no reason why Doctor Who can't do the same. Just get the facts right, I nearly spat my tea out in King's Demons when for the first time in my life I was told that King John was not forced to sign Magna Carta. It was news to me to say the least

By Wholahoop (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Preaching to the choir! :)

By mrfranklin

I echo these sentiments. I used to be able to trick students, at the community college level, into thinking we were playing games, when I was really teaching a lesson. But then, for weeks afterward, I heard, "Can't we play that game again?" Sigh..... But I am approaching a larger issue that is a digression here, for the website: does everything have to be "entertaining" for people to want to learn?

By Tree (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

No, I don't think "everything [has] to be 'entertaining' for people to want to learn," but if it's something they're not - YET! - interested in, entertainment is a good way to show them how fun the subject matter can be. Sometimes it takes, and sometimes it doesn't (e.g., history). If a student is already passionate about a subject, they'll find more on their own. But sometimes it takes a nudge to create that spark. :)

By mrfranklin
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