Doctor Who and the cult of historical celebrity

What do Marco Polo, Robespierre, Nero, Richard the Lionheart, Catherine de Medici, Wyatt Earp, George Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Charles Dickens, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Churchill, Van Gogh, Nixon, Captain Avery, Nefertiti and Hitler have in common?

The answer is, they’ve all met a mad man in a box. They’re soon to be joined in series 8, it seems, by Jack the Ripper, by Robin Hood, and Mark Gatiss has even teased the possibility of Jane Austen….

Doctor Who does love its meetings with historical figures, especially since 2005, when the “celebrity historical” became the vogue. It’s a headline-grabbing approach, probably done best in Vincent and the Doctor, which used Van Gogh’s synesthesia as a major plot point, and his presence as a USP. It does make sense to have a historical with a recognisable figure, as opposed to having unknown characters against the backdrop of historic events, but only really when it drives the story. For example, Hitler didn’t have a great deal to do with Let’s Kill Hitler, but you couldn’t have The Unicorn and the Wasp without Agatha Christie.

The thing is though….they’re running out of historical figures to use. Explorers, crusaders, Emperors, playwrights, inventors, gunslingers…..the list of famous figures from history has been ticked off, and many of those left might prove too controversial or divisive. I can’t see them doing Richard III somehow.

Hitler’s arguably the most famous or infamous person to have ever appeared in Doctor Who, but really he’s used as an eye-catching title and strapline for an episode about River Song. This is another of Steven Moffat’s wrongfooting titles, and a plot element that’s swept out of the way quickly, he’s quite literally thrown in a cupboard. On the other hand, it would be much harder to sell something like The Visitation these days, where you have rats and the great fire of London as the backdrop, but a made up character like Richard Mace at the forefront. This is why, despite lavish location work, stories like The Fires of Pompeii and A Town Called Mercy have to work a bit harder….the public do like their celebrities, and there’s no-one ‘famous’ in them, and they take place in locations that are either long lost to a volcanic eruption or in the case of Mercy, made up. In the case of Pompeii, the Doctor and Donna at loggerheads over whether to save the doomed inhabitants is the effective crux of the story. Mercy also deals with a moral dilemma, but if, say, Russell T. Davies had written it, I dare say he’d probably have made it more relatable and set it in Tombstone.

The thought of a Robin Hood episode strikes me as a good bit of fun. That Ripper-in-Fog thing has been done as far back as Talons of Weng-Chiang, and I’m pretty sure Vastra had just eaten the Ripper when introduced in A Good Man Goes to War, so we’d just have to see where Moffat goes with that notion.

The notion of Jane Austen…..just…why, really? It’s mostly been literary figures and royals or world leaders these last few years. The use of Agatha Christie in a Whodunnit, or Dickens in a ghost story is a good use of theme and character. I’m not so sure about Churchill. The use of Nixon in Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon works because of the setting and all the secret agent-y stuff with Canton and the White House. Jane Austen is a famous author of 18th century romantic fiction. I may not be a fan of Austen, but I can’t see it working. There’s no reason, dramatically or Who-ishly to do Austen, apart from a lack of other ideas for famous authors to do.

Perhaps the answer is in recent history. The 20th century is the dawn of real global celebrity, it’s full of untapped potential famous figures. It’s notable that the series has mostly swerved the 60s and 70s since the revival, especially the 70s. Hide could really have been set at any time in history, barring the oscilloscopes and tank tops. Victorian times have dominated, and the period from 1938 to the blitz. It’s perhaps time to do what Moffat and Gatiss must surely have already discussed at some point, and go meet Conan-Doyle. Maybe head to the 60s and meet the Beatles, or Martin Luther King. Do something underwater and creepy with Jacques Cousteau. Go daring and dark in the 13th century and expose Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General as a sinister alien. Just don’t do Sense-Sphere and Sensibility please.

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3 thoughts on “Doctor Who and the cult of historical celebrity”

    1. Point taken, but Caecilius wasn’t a celebrity, he was a known inhabitant of a decimated roman settlement. Doctor Who generally does the big names, not the ones you have to research.

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