“History sometimes gives us a terrible shock”: Uses of the Past in Doctor Who, 1963-1989

History, and its related but distinct concept, “the past,” are constant presences during the original 26 season run of Doctor Who. In the series’ early years, it carried an educational mandate and the historical stories of the black and white era served this mandate well. Throughout the series, however, historical settings as well as the series’ own narrative past served to convey information or knowledge to the Doctor Who viewer.  This information encompassed storytelling, characterization, and the desire of the show’s producers, at various times, to set out the parameters of the Doctor Who universe.  The past—the show’s own past in particular, was also used as a tool for—lacking a better term—fan pandering.
One can divide these uses of history and the past into two very broad categories— the historical past and the self-referential past.  For the next few minutes we’ll explore a few examples—by no means meant to be exclusive or exhaustive—of these types of stories which will, I hope, demonstrate that the presence of the past existed throughout the original run of Doctor Who from 1963 to 1989 and provide a lens through which one can examine the narrative development of the show as well as the changing relationship between the show and its fans.

The historical past in Doctor Who, by which I mean the use of historical settings or characters, has been part of the series from the very beginning.  One example is the fourth story, Marco Polo, in 1964.  Often, these types of stories (known to most fans as “historicals”) use history as a setting: the Doctor and his companions arrive in Asia, meet figures such as Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, have an adventure and leave.  During these stories, young viewers at home learn some schoolbook history about the connections between east and west in the medieval era.  Similarly, stories such as The Reign of Terror (about the French Revolution), The Crusades, or the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve presented historical narrative blended with adventure to inform as well as entertain.

Beyond narrative, however, producers used the past as a means to convey metanarrative.  One example of this was the serial The Aztecs.  The Aztecs, first broadcast in the early summer of 1964, was not merely a story about the historical past but also a statement by writer John Lucarotti and script editor David Whitaker on their perceptions of time travel within the confines of the Doctor Who narrative.  In this story, the Doctor’s companion, Barbara attempts to change the path of Aztec civilization to prevent their conquest by the Spanish.  The Doctor informs Barbara that she “cannot rewrite history!  Not one line!”  This not only set up conflict between two of the leads but also sent a message to the viewing audience at home.  The declaration that neither the Doctor nor his companions can interfere with established history does a number of things that support both the educational and narrative missions of early Doctor Who.

This declaration created a split between the “historical” stories and the “science fiction” stories.  If you, as the viewer, find yourself in Earth’s past with historical figures that you may have learned about in school, don’t worry‚the history you learned, or the history you will learn through Doctor Who, is stable and unchanging.  On the other hand, if you find yourself on a planet other than Earth, or on Earth in the future, or (in handful of cases in 60s Doctor Who) on Earth in the present, all bets are off; anything could happen in such a situation.

Of course, setting up these expectations allowed later production teams to subvert them down the road.  One example of this subversion is Dennis Spooner’s 1965 serial The Time Meddler.  Most Doctor Who fans, when asked to name one significant thing about this story would reply that it was significant in Doctor Who history because it was the first appearance of the Meddling Monk, another member of the Doctor’s society, the not-yet-called-so Time Lords.  I would argue that the more significant feature of this story was the notion that Earth’s history could be changed.  Indeed, the Meddling Monk’s plan (and, thus, the plot of the story) depended on this very fact.  Here, as in the Aztecs, the show’s producers used a historical setting and narrative to illustrate how the Doctor Who universe operated.  In the case of The Time Meddler, the message was that the nature of time was to some degree mutable—that the history with which the viewer was familiar, in this case the Norman Conquest, could be changed.  While—within the context of the Doctor Who universe—these lessons could be imparted anywhere in time or space, the connection between the notion of “history” and the Earth’s past makes imprinting that lesson on the viewer more effective.  King Harald was real; William the Conqueror was real.  These weren’t the Xerons or Sensorites—the stakes were much higher.

Although the genre of the “pure” historical story would virtually vanish after 1966—surfacing only for 1982’s Black Orchid—the show’s use of historical concepts and settings continued.  The historical setting carries with it both narrative and production-related advantages over straight science fiction stories.  Doctor Who stories set in Earth’s past carried with them certain expectations that can be fulfilled or subverted depending on the desires of the creators.  1965’s The Crusade, set during the Crusades (obviously), for example, uses the setting to convey a history lesson, as well as some swashbuckling sword fights and political intrigue.  There’s a lot packed into the four 25 minute installments of this David Whitaker penned story—something made possible through the use of a familiar historical setting.  Viewers knew who Richard the Lionheart was and they had heard of the Saracens.  The writer could limit infodump-style expository and jump right into the action.  Thus, the historical story, characters, and setting serve the writer; providing a shorthand for getting the average viewer up to speed on who’s who.  Another production related advantage of the historical setting (whether the story has science fiction aspects or not) is the degree to which the story could be made to look televisually realistic.  The BBC’s long track record of well-produced historical fiction meant that the expertise and resources for creating, say, a Victorian mansion were more available than those required to create a realistic starship.  Hence, one sometimes sees historical settings used in science fiction stories such as Ghostlight, The King’s Demons, or the Masque of Mandragora.

Historical settings had purposes in classic Doctor Who beyond simply providing a temporal space for the action and characters.  Producers used the past to initiate and continue conversations with viewers about the nature of the show itself and the uses of the past within the show.  The historical past also provided a convenient narrative and visual shorthand to convey information to the viewer and to take full advantage of the often meager material resources allocated to the production of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who’s own past is a historical source which the show plundered consistently throughout its history.  Discounting continuity links that were, of course, necessary in serialized drama (starting off a story with a “Golly, that was a close call with the Monoids!” type of reference, for example) Doctor Who first referenced its own past in a self-conscious way in 1964 with “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.”  The list of recurring elements in Doctor Who—the Daleks, Cybermen, the Meddling Monk, the Master, UNIT, the Time Lords—-is extensive and these types of elements existed in all phases of the show’s initial run.  During no time, however, were the show’s references to its own past more self-conscious than during the 1980s, especially during the Doctor-ships of Peter Davison and Colin Baker.

Starting with some repeats of 1960s stories and a compilation of clips featuring Tom Baker’s companions saying “Doctor” as he died (“Logopolis” which also featured the return of arch-enemy the Master) the show’s 1980s obsession with its own past spread to the extent that 19 out of 27  (I’m counting Trial of a Timelord as one story) stories featured a significant element from Doctor Who’s past.  Indeed some stories, like 1982′s Earthshock, featured one past element—the Cybermen—layered over another, in this case a series of clips of past Doctors from their adventures with the Cybermen.  The origins of this backward-looking trend lie with the positive fan response to backward-looking elements during the first season of Peter Davison’s run in Doctor Who.  Producer John Nathan-Turner and Script Editor Eric Saward, relying (according to some sources—and the behind the scenes history of Doctor Who in the 80s is a paper in itself) on the advice of fan advisor Ian Levine, began to ensure that “continuity” references to previous adventures, aliens, characters, or concepts were as airtight as it was possible for them to be, given Doctor Who’s long and varied past.
During Peter Davison’s first season, these continuity references were fairly limited, but during the next season—the show’s 20th—every story featured some element of the show’s past as a key element.  While this was exciting for fans, having come out of the 1970s, a decade in which star Tom Baker and producer Graham Williams indicated that the show’s continuity was a minor concern in the production office, it had the effect of making the show more difficult for the general public to follow.  Doctor Who has, since the development of a strong, organized fandom in the 1970s, walked a fine line between satisfying two audiences—fans and the general public.  Fans in the 1970s, generally, thought the Graham Williams/Douglas Adams era went too far in playing to the audiences.  The 1980s would see the pendulum swing the other way—the past would become a tool to tightly connect fans to the show.

While it’s easy to point at an anniversary story like The Five Doctors as an example of continuity overload, one need not look at a “special” story to see this in action.  1985’s Attack of the Cybermen is a great example of how continuity references—a devotion to the series’ past—could easily get out of hand.  The story, for those who haven’t seen it involves not just the Cybermen, but also a return to their adopted home planet of Telos (featured in 1967’s Tomb of the Cybermen).  If this were not enough, another strand of the plot revolves around the Cybermen attempting to avert the destruction of their original home planet of Mondas (a reference to their first appearance in 1966’s The Tenth Planet).  And, then, just in case there are any people still watching, the TARDIS lands in the junkyard at Totter’s Lane, where the opening of An Unearthly Child took place back on November 23, 1963.


This is a story that makes little sense if one is not familiar with the source material.  Fan/critics Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles addressed this continuity-driven story telling in their About Time series of books saying

“[Doctor Who] was not a program for casual viewers.  But that didn’t matter, because there was a fandom, guaranteed to watch anything with a police box in it. . .at conventions in the 1980s it became almost a ritual that teasing announcements of returning monsters, characters, or writers were greeted with enthusiastic applause.  It seemed by 1985 that the programme was made largely to garner this approval.”

Doctor Who in the 1980s was being made for an increasingly narrow fan audience.  The increasingly intrusive continuity references and call-backs communicated to those fans that the show was, in a way, theirs as well as the BBC’s.  References to the show’s past rewarded long time fans with a more fulfilling viewing experience.  Doctor Who, thus, transitioned from a television show for the people of Britain to a “cult” show, made for a group of initiates into the higher orders of Who-lore.  The message conveyed to fan-viewers was, “This is for you!  Thanks for your support—here, have some Silurians!”

Like the historical stories of the 1960s, the continuity usages of the 1980s conveyed meaning from production to viewers.  In this case, the continuity references help create a special bond between producer and fans, bolstered by the burgeoning fan commercial culture—magazines, conventions, home video releases, and the like.  Whereas the connection created with the viewer in earlier times was based on a shared heritage of history and knowledge, this new connection was much narrower.

The notion of time travel is so embedded within the fabric of Doctor Who that the presence of “the past” often goes, if not unnoticed, then certainly under-appreciated.  The past has served a number of purposes for the producers of the show since 1963.  Earth historical settings provided an opportunity for producers to communicate narrative information to the viewer about the nature of time travel in Doctor Who.  Historical settings had the practical advantages of limiting the need for excessive exposition and creating an opportunity for BBC set and costume designers to play to their strengths and create believable settings on the show’s limited budget.  References within Doctor Who stories to the show’s own past—“continuity”—both recognized and resulted from a shift in the Doctor Who viewing demographic from a general family audience in the 1970s to a more circumscribed group of dedicated fans in the 1980s.  Conscious callbacks to continuity created a link between the producer and the viewers, providing those fans with an increasing sense of ownership.    You can’t get away from the past in a show where the characters travel in time.  Between 1963 and 1989, Doctor Who’s producers embraced the concept of the past in a variety of ways which served their own production needs, the needs of casual viewers, and the needs of a dedicated fan-base.