Doctor Who, Celebrity Historicals, and Meddling

Fair warning: unless you watch Doctor Who this post will probably be of no interest to you whatsoever.

Recently news leaked about an upcoming story from the next season of Doctor Who. It’s a spoiler, I guess, although not much of one as it’s not the most original idea. The word is that Mary Shelley will meet the Cybermen, who will give her the idea for Frankenstein. In reality Frankenstein, like most great novels, was the result of a whole array of ideas and influences. Apparently in the Doctor Who universe Mary Shelley just saw a Cyberman. (This blog post assumes the description of the episode is roughly accurate. It could still turn out to be more complicated than that.)

I commented on Twitter that when SF stories explain a historical event was really caused by time travellers and/or aliens, they usually pick something that isn’t actually mysterious and come up with an “explanation” less interesting than what happened in real life. Doctor Who doesn’t often base entire stories around this concept. It’s usually a joke; an allegedly funny tag scene or name-dropping anecdote in an story about something else.[1] This is partly because the TV show rarely visits specific historical events at all. (The TV series, specifically–it’s more common in the books and audio plays.) At least, until recently. Between the Shelley rumor and season 11, the first produced by Chris Chibnall, it looks like the way Doctor Who uses history is evolving. This lets it tell different types of stories, but they’re story types with potential pitfalls.

You can divide historically-set Doctor Who stories into two categories. (Parenthetical caveat #3: Not the only possible groupings, just ones I’ve chosen for the purposes of my argument.) Type 1 stories have a historical setting, and may deal with historical themes, but aren’t about specific historical events–“The Pyramids of Mars,” “Black Orchid,” or “Thin Ice” (which uses a real event as background but isn’t about it).

Type 2 stories throw the Doctor into a specific, real historical event. This was more common in the 1960s when the show did what fans call “pure historicals”–stories with no science fiction elements aside from the TARDIS. (The only post–1960s pure historical is “Black Orchid,” an odd Peter Davison two-parter.) After the show went all SF, all the time, it’s hard to come up with examples. “City of Death” involves the Mona Lisa, but we never meet Leonardo. “Mark of the Rani” has Luddites but isn’t about them; they’re just background for bizarre Master hijinks. Before season 11 the new series had “The Fires of Pompeii” and… well, “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Day of the Moon” take place while history is being broadcast on television, but the Doctor is in the audience watching, just like us.

Most Type 2 stories are about the Doctor landing in trouble and trying to survive long enough to escape in the TARDIS. The historical event is usually wide-ranging enough to keep the Doctor away from the center of the action–the Reign of Terror, say, or the Parturition of India. You see why when you watch “The Gunfighters,” one of the few Doctor Who stories centered around a small-scale, local historical event. When we reach the big climax in episode 4, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, the Doctor is absent. There’s nothing for him to do there.

When the Doctor gets involved in real history there’s only two ways the story can go: she can observe, or she can intervene. First, Observation: the Doctor stands to the side and observes history without affecting it. This keeps historical figures at the center of their own stories, but reduces the Doctor to a supporting role in her own series. She isn’t participating in a story, she’s an audience member who has a closer seat than we do.

One variation on Observation is the story where someone travels back in time to change history, and must be stopped. It’s a popular idea but is almost never used in Doctor Who. The only time meddler stories in the original series are “The Aztecs,” “The Time Meddler” (both Hartnell stories), “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (in which the villains never manage to leave the 20th century), and “The King’s Demons” (another oddly old-fashioned Davison two-parter). “Rosa” is the only one I can think of from the new series. It rubs against the grain to have the Doctor working to keep everything the same; meddling is what Doctor Who is about. In fact, after the Hartnell era the show rarely mentions the possibility of changing history at all. In the new series “Father’s Day” and “The Fires of Pompeii” explain for the new audience what the Doctor can and can’t interfere with, but otherwise it’s assumed that changes, as the eleventh Doctor puts it in “Hide,” “mostly work themselves out.”

Another kind of Observation story sends the protagonist back in time to witness a famous disaster or injustice. Often it’s an event society is still processing–Quantum Leap used this model a lot and was specifically set up to take stock of the Baby Boomer audience’s experiences. The time traveler can’t make a big difference in what happens, though they might help a few people. The traveler learns more about history and the story follows their emotional journey as a proxy for the audience’s. “Witness to history” stories can be problematic. They’re often stories of privileged people[2] having feelings about things happening to marginalized people. That’s less of a risk the more distance there is between the audience and the history; for instance, an inoffensive literary example is Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. This is another plot Doctor Who almost never uses. The only one in the entire classic series[3] is “The Massacre,” and two things are interesting to note: first, it’s not an especially fraught tragedy for contemporary audiences, most of whom wouldn’t feel a strong personal connection to the persecution of Hugenots. Second, the witness is the companion; the Doctor disappears for most of the story. It’s as though this plot isn’t compatible with the Doctor.

The other way the Doctor can interact with real history is Intervention: let the Doctor, or the aliens she meets, inspire or intervene in history. This lets the Doctor be active but diminishes the agency of real historical figures, giving fictional characters credit for their accomplishments.

Which brings us back to Mary Shelley. Assuming the description is accurate, the Shelley idea works according to an inanely reductive theory of art and invention where every idea can be traced to a specific incident from the author’s life. (There’s a lot of this among the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare crowd: Shakespeare must have been noble, because only a noble could or would have written so much about nobles.) It’s a condescending, teleological version of cultural and technological evolution. Our ancestors weren’t sophisticated enough to come up with their own ideas–they needed help from us, the smart future people!

Doctor Who has flirted with this attitude before. Seventies Who got a lot of mileage out of Chariots of the Gods?, with aliens boosting ancient cultures a la von Däniken. And it tends to agree with Star Trek that low-tech cultures—including present-day Earth, from the Doctor’s perspective—need to be protected from anachronistic technology they’re not ethically developed enough to handle. Which I find dubious inasmuch as not everyone can handle the technology we have in real life. Let’s go for the edge case and consider nuclear weapons. If you showed a nuclear missile to random medieval people and explained what it did clearly enough that they really understood it, would they really be any less likely than people today to ask “Why the hell would you even build that?” By contrast, plenty of moderns assume we could survive a nuclear war and on more than one occasion in the last century we actually almost blew ourselves up. We have more information than our ancestors. In many ways, on average, we’re more enlightened. But that doesn’t mean we’re smarter. And it’s important to remember that our descendents will consider us ignorant and morally deficient in ways we can’t predict.

The time traveller who hands a historical figure their big idea is an inane gag, but scriptwriters never tire of it. Doctor Who has “explained” H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and even Richard Nixon’s penchant for recording himself. On Quantum Leap Sam Beckett invented everything from the lyrics of “Peggy Sue” to the Heimlich maneuver. Back to the Future had Marty McFly writing the music of Chuck Berry, which was not only insulting but, inasmuch as it gave an average white kid credit for the work of a black man, also racist.

In classic Doctor Who, once you’re past the Hartnell era historical celebrities rarely appear onscreen at all. After “The Gunfighters” in 1966, the first historical figures who weren’t illusions or robot duplicates didn’t appear until 1985’s “Mark of the Rani” and “Timelash.” Modern Doctor Who invented what fans call “celebrity historicals”–stories where the Doctor visits the past and teams up with a famous historical figure. Charles Dickens or King James I wander into a standard Type 1 historical Doctor Who story and act as a one-off companion, with the Doctor and the guest sharing the role of the hero–or anti-hero, in James’s case.

But it sounds like in the Mary Shelley episode the Doctor is going to be at the Villa Diodati while the Byron-Shelley circle are writing their horror stories. This is a Type 2 historical story. What’s more, after a decades-long post-Hartnell dry spell season 11 has two of these stories: “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab.” And they’re different from previous historical stories in other ways.

First, these stories put the Doctor into segregation-era Alabama or the Parturition of India, history that’s both emotionally fraught and within living memory. Generally Doctor Who has stayed away from events that might be connected to painful family history for some of the audience. “Rosa” and “Demons” avoided trivializing their subjects, but it was a risk.

Second, these are exactly the kinds of stories Doctor Who hardly ever tells. “Demons” is a witness to tragedy story. Luckily it’s a good one–about as good as these stories can get, in fact. The writer is himself British-Indian and it’s a story about Yaz’s family that’s focused on her feelings, not the Doctor’s. And “Demons of the Punjab” is about witnessing and remembrance. The aliens of the week and the story itself are both memorializing the dead.

“Rosa”, meanwhile, is the first time meddler story since the Davison era. The script, co-written by a black writer, avoids most of the potential pitfalls of grafting a time meddler story to Rosa Parks’s most famous moment of activism. It doesn’t soft-pedal the racism or romanticize mid–20th century Alabama, which feels appropriately unpleasant. (I liked Quantum Leap but, steeped as it was in Boomer nostalgia, it presented a theme-park version of the past[4] even when it wasn’t appropriate.) “Rosa” doesn’t focus on the Doctor’s feelings and manages to avoid looking as though Parks needs the Doctor’s help. On the other hand, to offset the meddler’s work the Doctor does a lot of behind-the-scenes manipulation and stage managing, which is still not a good look. And the episode’s “Sound of Thunder”-style butterfly effect theory of time travel, in which small changes can rewrite history, has unintentionally problematic implications. The premise of the meddler’s plan is that just having a different bus, or a different driver, on the day Parks refused to give up her seat could derail the civil rights movement. This is different from how any other Doctor Who story has handled changes to history.[5] For one thing, if every episode worked on these assumptions just stepping out of the TARDIS to buy a newspaper might shred the web of time. More to the point, the idea that some asshole messing with a bus schedule could stop Rosa Parks from making her mark on history is at odds with the fact, which the episode itself acknowledges, that she was a committed activist. The butterfly effect model of time travel suggests progress is fragile. All human achievements, large or small, are the products more of random chance than of human effort. A time traveler steps on a butterfly and decades of social progress are undone.

There’s a progression in Doctor Who’s use of time travel. The classic series used it mostly as a way to move between settings and genres. Russell T. Davies introduced the celebrity historical. Steven Moffatt brought in twisting, achronological storylines in the tradition of (albeit much simpler than) Primer. And Chris Chibnall is introducing traditional time travel premises that haven’t been seen much in Doctor Who.

“Rosa” and the upcoming Mary Shelley episode are celebrity historicals mixed with the Type 2 historical story: the Doctor makes a guest appearance in the historical figures’ own stories and gets involved in the events that made them famous. This is new. I mean, sort of new, in a not-actually-new-at-all sense. The spinoff media, the books and audios, do this all the time (Big Finish, as I mentioned above, has even used more or less this exact Mary Shelley idea). But in the actual TV show it’s rarer than you’d think.

There’s a reason for that: again, there are only two ways a story centered around the event that made the celebrity famous can go. The Doctor can be involved in the celebrity’s big moment, but then it’s going to look like the show’s giving her partial credit for their achievements. Or the Doctor can stand off to the side and watch the celebrity do their thing, in which case she’s not the actor but the audience. In either case, somebody’s probably going to be Poochie.

That’s Poochie as in “Itchy and Scratchy and.” The Poochie is a character who shows up partway through a story, encroaches on the cast’s narrative roles, forces them to react instead of acting, and looks cool and super-competent mostly because when the Poochie is around everybody else is less cool and competent. When the Doctor gives H. G. Wells the idea for The Time Machine in “Timelash,” he’s the Poochie–turning up in Wells’s biography and inserting himself into Wells’s most famous books. On the flip side, in “Marco Polo” the Poochie is Marco. He steals the TARDIS and the central narrative role from Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor. For seven episodes the show becomes the Marco Polo show, guest starring Doctor Who.[6]

I have one firm opinion on how Doctor Who ought to use history: if you’re going to do a celebrity historical, the celebrity should guest star in a Doctor Who story instead of the Doctor guest starring in the celebrity’s story. An original Doctor Who story can make room for more than one hero without shortchanging any of them. But the celebrity’s biography is an existing story and it’s hard for the Doctor to insert herself into it without to some extent hijacking it. I’m not interested in watching the Doctor become Forrest Gump, wandering into the frame whenever someone else does something interesting.


  1. There are exceptions; see the paragraph on von Dänikenism.  ↩

  2. If nothing else, the time traveler is temporally privileged in that they’re going back to the future as soon as the story ends.  ↩

  3. The original 1963–1989 series. It feels like the distinction may be meaningless soon, inasmuch as the new series is pushing 15 years old, but it’s what everybody calls it.  ↩

  4. I kind of cringed at how weirdly ignorant the TARDIS crew are of the dangers of Alabama in the 1950s; despite everything, they start the episode acting like they’re wandering around Disneyland. Later Graham turns out to be so well informed about Rosa Parks that he even knows the name of the bus driver, so why is his reaction to landing in the 1950s “Can we meet Elvis” and not “Hey, maybe this isn’t the safest place for my grandson?”  ↩

  5. With the possible exception of “Turn Left,” although in that case Donna’s left turn didn’t change real-world history.  ↩

  6. “Marco Polo” is one of only two missing Doctor Who stories I would not be excited to have back; the other is “The Celestial Toymaker.”  ↩

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