August 27, 2008

Doctoring History

Like my fellow Who fan/near-counterpart in England doppelganger, I often wish that new Who would avoid the "historical celebrity" cliche that it tends to revisit. I would like to go one better, and ask that Steven Moffatt go back to a tradition that the series started: the pure historical.

Yes, new Who fans, there once was a time - early in the classic series' history - that a focus on historical dramas, bereft of science fiction elements (or even the cliche "duck, Mr. Lincoln, duck" kind of events), was considered a good thing. One of the examples (if I recall, maybe the only existing example) is The Aztecs, a story from William Hartnell's time as the Doctor, which is a nicely written tale about cultural tolerance, as well as the drawbacks of interference. "You can't rewrite history - not one note!" is a quote that was recently recontextualized in the new series, but it seems less an admonition of morality...and more a warning about moral superiority. Granted, it does retain some of its 1960s studio nature, but thanks to vidFIRE, the video looks like it was made yesterday.

It wasn't until the end of the second season, with The Time Meddler (Verity Lambert's last story as producer) that the "pseudo-historical" story was created. One of the great things about this story is that the central anachronism drives the story - how can a wristwatch be found at the Battle of Hastings? If this story were made now, it would also have fans in an uproar - another member of the Doctor's "race"? As a monk? Playing it for laughs? But the advantage to this story is that it takes its premise seriously...and is a pretty interesting harbinger of things to come.

Although there have been numerous pseudo-historicals throughout the series' history, my personal favorite (and second favorite story ever) is The Talons of Weng-Chiang in which Robert Holmes does for Doctor Who what Alan Moore did for superhero comics in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This is pretty much as close as viewers will come to a Doctor Who/Sherlock Holmes mash-up. (And as an aside to Chris Sims - there's a murderous midget cyborg with a knife. Pretty much throughout the story. Send me your address, and I'll buy you a copy as a belated birthday present). But it's the clever mix of sources one would find on Librivox with nice, solid plotting, and Henry Gordon [expletive] Jago. It doesn't get better than this, folks.

And finally, the "last" purely-historical story was Black Orchid, televised during the Peter Davison era. Sandwiched between two Eric Saward stories, it's a good looking, lavishly shot two-parter...but really, it's a placeholder. You might as well have an arrow pointing to Adric saying, "Avoid large cargo ships...and Beryl Reid." It's a nice diversion...but think of it as a morose version of "The Unicorn and the Wasp".

But hey, three out of four ain't bad, right?

The Aztecs: Highly Recommended
The Time Meddler: Recommended
The Talons of Weng-Chiang: Highly Recommended
Black Orchid: Not Recommended

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Camera Obscura said...

You don't consider The Mark of the Rani a pseudo-historical? Luddites, George Stephenson? Or The King's Demons? King John? Magna Carta?

Gordon D said...

Actually, that should have been "purely historical" for BLACK ORCHID, since there were no science-fiction elements.

Completely my bad...and a good argument that one should never drink and proofread.