Are they history?

This week Whovian Leap ponders the fate of the “pure historical”

Imagine this. What if today’s Doctor Who showrunners were so horrified by the poor audience appreciation figures for Series 9’s “Sleep No More”‘ that they decided to scrap the genre. “No more stories set on space stations! They are unpopular!” It’s a ludicrous proposal. Yet something very similar happened back in the sixties.

In the early years of Doctor Who practically all historical stories had no sci-fi element, aside from the role of the Tardis. Because there had been the occasional clunker among these tales, producer Innes Lloyd wrongly decided that these “pure historicals” weren’t popular among the viewing public and were all to be axed after “The Highlanders”. 

Historical stories had been part of Doctor Who’s original remit to educate the public and were a regular feature of the show, but viewers didn’t notice or even care whether a historical story had a sci-fi aspect to it or not. Doctor Who was, after all, a series about a man who travelled around time and space in a police box.

Was it Lloyd who brought the idea of a “pure historical” into existence by identifying them and scrapping them? No-one had ever really thought about them before. The genre was an artificial one. This “pure historical” would later enter Who-lore through Doctor Who reference books which helped consolidate the myth that they were both unloved and deserved their eventual fate. 

It made apparent sense to latter day fans. After all, back in the Sixties budgets were limited, production techniques simple and stories slower paced. We concluded that this must have been why these “boring” pure historicals did not appeal to audiences. 

But we ignored the fact that Doctor Who was typical for TV programmes of its day. It was simply unfair to compare Sixties Who with the more hi-tech and faster paced show of the Seventies and Eighties. Besides the same criticism of production values could be made for the adventures set in space.

In truth, fans were not really in the position to assess the real merits of the pure historicals. Many of them had been wiped from the archives and any episodes which did exist were not widely available. Fans were just regurgitating the ideas they had read. 

No other producer questioned Lloyd’s wisdom until 1982. Producer John Nathan Turner reintroduced the “pure historical” with the Fifth Doctor adventure “Black Orchid”. But that was it. Forever. 

Even Nu-Who hasn’t given us a historical story which hasn’t had an injection of sci-fi. Perhaps today’s showrunners have been conditioned by the prejudices that they grew up with as younger fans? Are they scared to do pure historicals because they are worried that they won’t be successful. What’s more, by not doing so, are RTD and Steven Moffat furthering the myth that the genre is not popular?

Let’s consider the case for the defence. Why should the “pure historical” be brought back?

As stated above, it is an artificial genre. Why should questionable criteria from the Sixties determine which kind of stories are written fifty years later in modern day Who?

Is it reasonable to think that every time that the Doctor travels back into Earth history there has to be alien technology present or a bug-eyed monster with an evil plan afoot? It simply isn’t plausible and might even damage the credibility of the show in the casual viewer’s eyes. 

If writers are forbidden from using sci-fi or timey-wimey mcguffin, they are forced to concentrate on more traditional elements of drama – interesting characterisation, basic human relationships, realistic plots and clever dialogue. Isn’t this more accessible to the casual viewer? Wouldn’t it kill dead any accusations that Doctor Who is complicated and weird? 

History is littered with larger than life characters who are the perfect fodder for Doctor Who. Nu Who has given us Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill to name a few. But always in a science fiction context. Aren’t these great characters interesting enough on their own merits without any sci-fi? 

Back in the real world, our beloved government is constantly breathing down the BBC’s neck. If the Beeb were to demonstrate that Doctor Who was actually educating younger generations and entertaining them at the same time, like it used to, wouldn’t that win them a few brownie points?

Will Steven Moffat bring back the pure historical for his final series? There is absolutely no reason to suggest that he will. I imagine that the current showrunner would not want place any limits or restrictions on his own or any other writers’ imagination.

Yet, on the other hand, he always claims how he likes to “throw the switch in the other direction”, shake up the show and baffle audience expectations. If there is an unspoken rule that states that all historical stories must have a sci-fi element, then surely he is the first who would want to break it. 


2 thoughts on “Are they history?

  1. I want to see at least one pure historical for the Thirteenth Doctor. I have a hunch there’ll be one anyway and it’ll be great just to see the format work, even if it only happens once. Hartnell’s historicals are amongst his best and Big Finish has done an outstanding job with them so let’s hope Chibnall asks a strong pure historical regular like Steve Lyons or Jacqueline Rayner to write one.


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