Doctor Who: We Need Purely Historical Stories Again

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Netflix recently added Series 7 of Doctor Who onto the streaming service, so I've been re-watching some of it. In doing so I've realized two things. The first is I was a little harder on the season than was strictly necessary. The second is that it's definitely time to start doing purely historical stories once again.

What I mean by that is adventures in the past which don't feature any aspect of science fiction outside the Tardis and The Doctor. No aliens, no out-of-place technology, nothing but the dangers you'd get simply from being there.

Such stories used to be a staple of the series. The very first serial "An Unearthly Child" was nothing but The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan getting caught up in a political struggle between members of a cave man tribe. Sure, right after that the Tardis crew met the Daleks for the first time, but then it was off to gallivant with Marco Polo.

As is often stated, Doctor Who was meant to be somewhat educational. History in one adventure, science in the next. I'm not sure what anyone actually learned from "The Aztecs" except that pasty British people make poor American warriors on screen, but their hearts were in the right place.

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Historicals continued up through Patrick Troughton's era before ceasing entirely. The Fifth Doctor has a single short purely historical adventure in 1982's "Black Orchid", but the practice has otherwise ended on television. That needs to change.

The story I was re-watching was "A Town Called Mercy", which is never going to make the list of best episodes even from Series 7 alone. Matt Smith and William Hartnell's abilities to rock a cowboy hat aside, The Doctor does the old west about as well Uwe Boll does video game adaptations.

The problem with "A Town Called Mercy" is that so much of the tension is purely flash. The alien threat of the cyborg Gunslinger and all the associated laser blasts merely distract from the exploration of what is unforgivable cruelty and what is worthy of mercy. There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a bioweapon in the old west, and the Gunslinger is certainly one of the better looking monsters of the modern series, but why does he need to be a monster at all?

As my friend Marc Sharp put it, "Have Jex be a former Union doctor and the Gunslinger a former soldier or slave out for revenge." When you're exploring some dark territory about right and wrong, you're often just distracting the audience by making your characters full of funny head prosthetics. Too often these days Doctor Who neglects the human monsters for the safety of an alien threat we can dismiss as Other.

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Take one of my favorite episodes, "The Unicorn and the Wasp". It's Ten and Donna at their absolute best, but right when you are really getting into the meat of a pretty awesome classical mystery story there is suddenly a completely pointless alien bug getting in the way.

It doesn't heighten the danger or pick up the pace at all. Nothing in the episode is better than when Ten realizes he's been poisoned and the race to jumpstart his system to counteract that. It's gripping, funny, and intensely character-driven. You're not going to get that from a very bad CGI wasp-monster.

Look, there are fantastic historical stories in the modern era with aliens that work great. "The Unquiet Dead" is brilliantly done, "The Shakespeare Code" is a masterpiece, and the only thing that mars "Vincent and The Doctor" is that they missed the opportunity to have Vincent Van Gogh lose his ear in an alien fight. Even something like "The Crimson Horror" works fine as a monster story. I'm not saying that I don't want to see things like that anymore.

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But look back at something like "The Smugglers". It's a white-knuckle story of pirates as cruel as any Dalek with an eloquently devilish captain that was as good as any Davros appearance. There were still secret passages, danger, hidden intrigue, and none of it needed anything more than a few guys in period costumes.

Or take "The Highlanders", the last proper historical adventure. It actually did teach me some things I never really knew about the history of Scotland, and was fascinating in that regard. Watching Polly and the Second Doctor hilariously outwit the English slave traders was just as fun as their next adventure with fish people in "The Underwater Menace".

I sometimes worry about Doctor Who getting formulaic and honestly a bit Scooby Doo. It always turns out to be a hidden alien threat lately, or worse, a Dalek plot. Honestly, the show is sort of selling humanity short as a villain, at least in the past. More than that, it's setting up The Doctor way too much like a god. More than that, it keeps making our history on Earth really just The Doctor's history visiting Earth. Maybe the First Doctor was right about not interfering so much.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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