Should Doctor Who Return to Pure Historicals?


This post contains information some may consider of a spoilery nature to an upcoming episode of Doctor Who, penned by Mark Gatiss, so if you don’t wish to be spoiled, this is your warning.

Ever since we found out two weeks ago that Ian Holland has been cast in Doctor Who as a character named Alan-a-dale, many thought it a dead certainty that his character would be one of the Merry Men (a group of outlaws formed by Robin Hood). Well several new images released over the past week from the set show us in detail that, yes, this will be a Robin Hood period-themed episode. The tentative episode title was also purportedly unveiled (the first of the season if true). It is being dubbed “Robots of Sherwood”.

That sounds pretty awesome if you ask me, but in the back of my head I feel this nags at me ever so slightly. Why? Because it’s just SO Doctor Who. Think back to any historical episode released in the past decade (The Girl in the Fireplace, Human Nature/The Family of Blood, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Snowmen, The Unicorn and the Wasp, etc.), and what accompanies each? Either monsters or robots. Actually every single episode of the series since it’s returned has incorporated monsters or robots. Has it always been that way? Well, no.

Pure Historicals are stories set in periods prior to the broadcast date and feature no alien/alien tech outside of the Doctor and his equipment. Below is a list of all Purely Historical TV Stories.

Pure Historical Story Title  Doctor  Story # 
 Marco Polo  First  4
 The Aztecs  First  6
 The Reign of Terror  First   8
 The Romans  First  12
 The Crusade  First  14
 The Myth Makers  First  20
 The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve  First  22
 The Gunfighters  First  25
 The Smugglers  First  28
 The Highlanders  Second  28
 Black Orchid  Fifth  120

As you can see there aren’t many after the First Doctor’s era. Why not bring these back? Would they really be all that less interesting? There are so many great stories in history. They don’t ALL need a monster running around in the background! For a show that prides itself for being able to adapt to any time, any setting, any genre, it’s rather unwilling to step out of its shell in this respect. I know Steven Moffat has expressed his negative opinions of the pure historical stories, claiming them “boring,” but I disagree. Especially as many of those stories are highly revered among fans.

I’d like to see a good historical story in the near future, and I hope they give one to Capaldi. Doctor Who IS my favorite television series and I want to see it shine. And I think a pure historical story in which the Doctor is an innocent bystander (well maybe not totally innocent), or the catalyst that starts a revolution would be brilliant without any foreign alien involvement. What do you guys think? Am I crazy, or do I have a point? What do you wish to see from Doctor Who?

24 thoughts on “Should Doctor Who Return to Pure Historicals?

  1. In theory, going back to pure historicals is a bad idea. In practice, when done well, they can be some of the best stories Doctor Who has ever had. You also need the right Doctor. Since Hartnell, none of the Doctors have really been ones that would bring a historical up to standards. (Can you imagine Matt Smith or David Tennant or Sylvester McCoy or Tom Baker in a historical? If you want a historical, model it after “An Unearthly Child” or “Marco Polo” or “The Time Meddler”. “The Time Meddler” is a four part serial that introduces another Time Lord, known as the Monk. What the Monk attempts to do is change history by making it so William the Conqueror loses the Battle of Hastings, and the Doctor attempts to stop him. (Spoiler warning: He succeeds). Aside from the Monk and the Doctor’s T.A.R.D.I.S.’s, it’s a pure historical. That’s a historical, I won’t mind seeing, one where the Doctor subtly integrates himself into the background, and the choice is between letting history play out the way it’s supposed to, or doing the right thing. There’s a reason “The Aztecs” is so beloved. (aside from the British accents). (Personally, I don’t care for “The Aztecs”, but still.)

    Or if you don’t want to go to a historical, you go and do something like “The Enemy Of The World.” or “The Web Of Fear”. Basically, it’s not a historical story that the Doctor Who should go back to it, it’s the covert one where the Doctor impacts the outcome but it wouldn’t make world news that the Doctor was involved. (Invasions by Daleks and Cyberman and whatever else).

    If you’re constantly putting in the monster, they lose all of their power due to overexposure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well. Actually I could see other Doctors attempting them. Vincent and the Doctor would have been just as great with out the Krafayis. The same goes for The Unicorn and the Wasp. It can be done. A pure historical mystery would be perfect.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d love the occasional pure historical in there, especially if it wasn’t announced as such. People would be expecting monsters and the like, and instead it’d just be humans being monstrous and noble. You’d want something really well written, of course.

    One of the things I love about The Crusade is the balance in it. Neither leader is shown as purely evil or good. And their warriors are the same.

    I think Marco Polo is a fabulous character piece throughout. Does the story move slowly? Yes, but the characters sing! Most have depth and history and motivations we can understand.

    Aztecs is brilliant. When you think about it, Tlotoxl is the hero – he’s fighting against imposter gods to save his people’s way of life. Given how he is written, I have no doubt that had Barbara been able to show undeniable proof of her divinity, that Tlotoxl would have towed the line and done what she said, even if he disagreed with it.

    The thing about historicals is they need to be really well written in ways that can be fudged with other stories.

    Hope you didn’t mind me reblogging this piece. It’s a good argument, one I wanted to share, and also one that I’ve been planning on writing about myself for a while. If you do have issues, let me know and I’ll remove it.


    • No, go ahead. Reboot away. You bring out some great points. They can totally do it and it’d be great, but the production team just doesn’t seem likely to at this point. Hopefully series 8 proves me wrong.


  3. While I do love the robots and monsters… I think it would be interesting to switch it up every now and then… just to be something new… all the time would be boring… just like anything else… but I’d like to see how the Doctor has to interact with ancient people with every day problems… it’d be kind of like that episode of Supernatural when it turns out it’s just regular psycho people who were killing folks in the town… it was a rather funny twists because Sam and Dean didn’t know what to think about it… things like that every now and then keep you guessing and keep the stories fresh…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Moffat thinks a lot of things are boring that are not, in fact, boring.🙂 I’d love some historical episodes. What I’d really love would be an occasional change of pace, and mixing up the formula a bit. With all of time and space to play with, it sure is getting a little repetitive. A historical episode sans aliens and monsters would be a good way to change that up a little, and it wouldn’t have to be stodgy to do it.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. They’ve come close so many times in the last few seasons. I suppose it depends on your definition of a “historical” story. For me it wouldn’t have to necessarily be about a major historical event, just something without robots or aliens or monsters would be neat to see. Kind of like Black Orchid, it wasn’t about anything major, just a mystery for the Doctor to solve.

    That, I think, would be interesting, and a nice twist to show us again that mankind can be scarier to each other than any monster. Have the Doctor chase Jack the Ripper, have him stop a political assassination, prevent the theft of the crown jewels, or even have him steal the crown jewels.

    The bread and butter of the show will always be the monsters, and who are we to argue with fifty years of success, but it never hurts to throw something different at us once in a while. Kind of like Community, a claymation episode, a video game episode and this year a GI Joe cartoon episode? Certainly kept it fresh.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You can see, in that list of episodes, where the production team began to concentrate more on the “entertainment” side of the Reithian “Educate & Entertain” mantra. Gatiss has written straight historicals before in the old BBC range of books; I reckon he’d be a good choice to write one for TV. Personally I think it would be difficult for the TV series to do straight historicals given the baggage it has saddled itself with and the way history is treated in general on TV (as FlyingTiger says above, though I don’t see this as a leftist thing. Here however, is not the place for a rant about how the Tories killed education). It could only do so as a sort of hyper-stylised facsimile – Think Life On Mars, perhaps.
    And on audio? Telling that some of my favourite Big Finish tales are straight historicals. Go try the Council of Nicaea, or Son of the Dragon. Well worth it.


  7. British fans discussed this decades ago and it was the public’s reaction to the bunk of “pure” historicals that decided the show against doing them. There is an oft recited chestnut that the historicals did better than the science fiction but that hasn’t been true since the show completed its first ever development of a full roster of story types. Historicals were phased out due to expense and dullness. Also the whole approach to teaching history has changed from the “great man” theory to the “hooray for human zeroes” theory beloved of marxists. But either way you’re not seeing “history” you’re just being shown a story.

    For example the ones attempting worthy historical description are bunk because of the many wrong assumptions and the tacit educational agenda involved- put simply, the history depicted is wrong. Another important point, made originally by Lawrence Miles, is that the historicals WEREN’T historicals, they were BBC costume drama versions of history, complete with cod theatrical versions of “historical personages” – the visual equivalent of a cartoon, from Aztec priests to the appallingly inaccurate Churchill of VICTORY.

    A more subtle point is that no “historical” even if it went for verisimillitude, is anything more than science fiction given that time travellers who can telepathically speak the local language are present.

    With current audiences neo-autistic thanks to constant media immersion and semi-literate thanks to marxist education, historicals would be boring to them or dangerously misleading given the more recent show’s desire to push liberal / “right-on” politics down people’s throats – how would they get their beloved gay marriage into most episodes unless the Doctor travelled back to the twilight of the Roman empire and the disastrous era of Heliogabolus?

    Lastly, historical accuracy is the least important concern in Who compared to ratings.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I understand your sentiments and appreciate your comment to bits. Very well spoken. So where do you stand on the topic? With the majority of the British audience, with the current Who agenda, or do you feel there is a place for them – the “pure” historicals? And lastly, if the Who team were to do it right, do the research necessary and get the funds needed to create a relatively accurate historical story, do you think it’d stand up to the greatness of other stories?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I really think that the modern beeb with its desire to serve its left wing agenda AND cater to (or as some old farts are putting it, “pander to”) the new lucrative American market, there is zero chance of doing an authentic historical in Who.

        Since the little clique that run Who read pretty much every blog post in relation to their show (true) they may now perversely do one out of spite more or less, I doubt it.

        The real question given the current show format is, would Star Trek ever do a “pure” historical? Because with the addition (welcome addition imo) of the American fans in the last few years, Who is now much like Trek. It is answering the need for sense of wonder, science fantasy and escapism, and I can’t see “pure” or authentic history in that context.

        Based on the semi-educated background of the showrunners and writers we can expect more lifts from comics, 1960s films, theatrical caricature and marxist historians- for example the globulous cartoon version of Churchill- wrong in virtually every respect- and the trendy / bourgeois leftist Shakespeare, etc.

        In theory, yes, they really could ace a historical drama or comedy. But in practice- it’s going to be comicbook / light drama caricature. It’s their strength. Not a bad thing, but contra-indicative of eg “Doctor Who and the Martyrs of Stalingrad” or “Doctor Who – The Miners’ Strike”.

        The current production team has overtly acknowledged their limitations with the “it’s a fairytale” refrain, for all the wrong reasons- so far “it’s a fairytale” has been their alibi for sloppy plotting, bad continuity (even within episodes) and kicking physics in the privates. Fairy tale is myth and myth is, as Jacque Vallee put it, “truer than truth”. In other words if they go for their dinner-time version of Cocteau or Dunsany they can’t then let their audience down with historicity. You don’t promise lemonade and serve champagne after all. Let alone vice versa.

        Hence Robots of Sherwood rather than “Herward the Wake”.

        Also with the presence of fantasy it’s just too convenient for ex- fan fiction writers as the current staff mostly are when they are themselves sensitive to continuity glitches and pedantry. Like the UNIT dating controvery and other non-events over the decade, they can now blame errors on the presence of Daleks or Unobtainium in the historical period for any cockups.

        If they had a pure historical, it would also cast into very stark relief how politicised the BBC itself has become, because there is no way on god’s green earth they’d do a “straight” story- it would have to be a “white man bad” story- in the same way Nefertiti and the great white hunter were portrayed in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.

        As someone who has written a history textbook, I’d just as soon they left reality well enough alone- the staff barely live in it and good luck to them so they should write of that with which they are most familiar- the isolated liberalistic fantasy bubble of the perennial undergraduate.

        Sorry for another long post.🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • Don’t be sorry, your opinion is perfectly sound and calculated. I appreciate your time. I think, however, you may be putting too much of the blame on the BBC and not enough on the current production team. I feel that’s where the brunt of the matter lies. But eh. What do I know.

        Liked by 1 person

      • To quote star trek, “you imply disparity where none exists”🙂

        The production team are BBC to their bootstraps. Same team. It’s most unlikely they’d let anyone other than a “luvvie” head up the operation and that luvvie in turn naturally hires inside the clique. It works really well in some ways, but where the show pushes a wheelbarrow – references to homosexual marriage for example – where it really doesn’t need to… There behold is the beeboid agenda. We all need to be enlightened by our moral betters you see…

        Anyway. Enough.🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  8. I was not going to read this. I have a fear of spoilers but the topic got me. I personally would like to see a mixture. You can’t take out all the robots but a few peppered in historical that are pure historicals I think would be nice


  9. I’m a bit lukewarm to the idea. Pseudo historical efforts in new Who like the Excellent “Girl in the Fireplace” and the Pompeii story were highlights but some others were utter rubbish. From my own era watching the historical shows of the old they never really excited me as the sci-fi ones did (Aztecs excl.) Infact one of those historical shows was perhaps one of the worst ever aired in its long history. I refer of course to cringe-worthy Gunfighters

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Not having watched “Classic Who” yet, I’m kinda indecisive about “Pure Historical” episodes. I love monsters and robots, and I loved some of the time-travelling episodes of “New Who” (especially the Vincent van Gogh themed one, that’s near the top of my list of favourite episodes ever) and I don’t thing that Doctor Who should be a “time traveller’s history documentary” of sorts… that being said, I’d really love to see some “Whovian” explanations of existing mythology and traditional monsters instead of just having Daleks and Cybermen romping through the Medieval times. I remember a Beowulf-themed Star Trek Voyager Episode that had the holodeck going crazy and Grendel becoming a real threat to the ship – I don’t know if you know it, but I loved it (even though I’m rather holo-adventure-allergic) and can definetly imagine how crossover storytelling like this would work perfectly for Doctor Who as well.


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